Preventive Health: An Inside–Outside Job

Dr. Mark Bertin examines the evidence that meditation may pack a punch against illness and imbalanced lifestyles.

Illustration by Elizabeth Dejure Wood

Most meditation teachers recommend that you set aside any immediate expectation of gaining or solving something through the practice of mindfulness. Yet it’s not uncommon that we do find ourselves benefiting from it. In terms of both physical and mental health, regular mindfulness meditation can nudge us in the right direction. Medical researchers have associated meditation with many potential health benefits. But how does all that work?

The mechanism through which practicing mindfulness affects us is not fully understood. From a medical perspective, it may relate to the impact of chronic stress. Some stress is inevitable, no matter what we do. And this is a good thing: Healthy stress can motivate and energize us to meet whatever daily challenges life throws our way. But a constant, uncomfortable level of stress increases our vulnerability to short-term and long-term health issues, from the flu to chronic high blood pressure.

This is particularly dire because our culture glorifies chronically high stress levels. We often forget or ignore that, once in a while, our nervous system—which carries that stress load—needs to relax. Research has grown since the 1970s around the “relaxation response,” a term coined by Harvard physician Herbert Benson. Through studying meditators, as well as others doing contemplative practices, Benson found that these kinds of practices can elicit a physiological state that is the opposite of stress, easing us out of fight-or-flight mode. More recently, doctors have seen that mindfulness-based interventions may reduce stress hormones and inflammation, lower blood pressure, and decrease the overall need for acute health care. In a 2013 study, positive changes were even noted in the expression of genes related to immune function and energy metabolism.

Preliminary studies have suggested the ability of mindfulness to defend us from sickness in other ways. One study randomly sorted participants at a business into either a “treatment” group, who completed a mindfulness program, or a wait-list control. At the end of the study, the researchers administered a flu vaccine. The group that practiced mindfulness for only eight weeks showed a more vigorous antibody response to the vaccine. Other studies, too, have shown a heightened immune response and decreased general measures of inflammation through mindfulness practice.

Why would settling our mind directly affect our immune system? Unless we remain aware, feeling stressed can trigger stressful thoughts, which perpetuate feeling stressed, and so on—a cycle we’re all too familiar with. Theoretically, when we practice paying attention to this cycle, we can stop the escalation (or stress-calation!). And then, through lesser-known mechanisms, our body can more effectively fight off infections.

But to take the next logical step in staying healthy, we cannot focus on focus alone. If we manage stress through regular meditation, for instance, we will probably sleep better. But if we also make fast food our go-to dinner, or if exercise is always something that’ll happen “tomorrow,” we probably won’t experience the same benefit. By using meditation as a complement to sleep, exercise, eating well, and caring for our mental health—and not as a replacement for healthy habits—we take charge of our lives. If you already meditate regularly, try gradually incorporating other healthful activities and routines, and then notice how they affect you, for better or worse. We can powerfully protect and strengthen the body through methods that are gentle and sustainable.

Meditating is a useful step toward better health—it’s just not the only one. Let things settle and, without judgment, observe whatever you discover. What would be a next skillful step to take toward a healthier life?

Make Health a Habit

You can boost your immune function, nourish your body, and feel naturally energized with surprisingly simple actions. Wherever you are in your health journey, here are a few practical, adaptable ideas you can try.

Jazz up your meals by sampling one new fruit or vegetable each week. This can mean just eating it on its own or adding it to a recipe. Or, mix things up with a new recipe featuring produce that you already like.
Did you do 10 minutes of exercise today? Five minutes? Any exercise boosts well-being, so no matter how long your session, give yourself credit for it.

 Catch up with a friend you haven’t seen lately. Close relationships are powerful predictors of health.

To build a hydration habit, connect drinking water with another activity. For example, after every bathroom break, fill a glass or top off your water bottle.

If you sit for most of the day, incorporate some standing. Options include using a standing desk, taking a stroll at lunch, or adding a few 2-minute breaks to stretch your limbs and clear your head.

Whether sitting or standing, set a timer to check your posture every hour. Take note of what your “weak spots” might be—do your shoulders cave in? Do you lean more on one leg? Be aware of tiny shifts you can make to realign your spine.