Here’s one more reason to give meditation a chance: gut health.
A study published in the January 2023 issue of the journal General Psychiatry linked long-term, long-held meditation to a healthful gut microbiome.
The study was observational, small and included only males living in the Tibet region. Despite those limitations, researchers found the results encouraging, and concluded that certain meditation habits were “associated with a reduced risk of anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease and could enhance immune function” because of the microbiota that were enriched.
Researchers also said that results “suggest that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic conditions” and, no surprise, “well-being.”
But what is gut health, and why should we care about it?
Gut health explained
“Gut health generally refers to optimal functioning of the digestive system, from the food pipe all the way down to the rectum, encompassing the stomach and intestines,” says Savitha Elam-Kootil, MD, an internist with Kaiser Permanente, in Atlanta, and advisor to MyYogaTeacher, an online yoga and meditation platform that provides live instruction. “Lately, a lot of interest has focused on the integrity of the microbiome — bacteria, viruses and fungi — which is made up of more cells than our own. When there are a lot more healthy microbes than unhealthy ones, it benefits not just the obvious, which is digestion, but also our immunity, maintaining ideal weight, good mood and more.”
That’s where the study comes in. Here’s how it worked:
Researchers analyzed blood and stool samples of 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks and a control group of 19 nearby residents. Everyone was about the same age and had similar blood pressure, heart rate and diet. For at least three months before researchers took the samples, none of the participants had used anything that could affect the volume or diversity of their gut microbes. No antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics or antifungal drugs. The monks had been meditating in the Samatha or Vipassana styles for at least two hours a day over the course of three to 30 years.
Researchers noted in their findings that several types of bacteria associated with “alleviation of mental illness” were “significantly enriched” in the monks’ samples, though not in the control group. They also noted that plasma levels of clinical risk factors associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, including total cholesterol and apolipoprotein B, were significantly lower in the monks than in the control group. Researchers’ analysis predicted that meditators’ microbes influenced several protective anti-inflammatory pathways.
What the study’s results can mean for you
You probably aren’t a monk, and even if you meditate, Samatha or Vipassana meditation might not be your practice of choice. Plus, most of us don’t have time to meditate for two hours a day.
Meditating, in general, is likely to help your gut, mind and mood, says Elam-Kootil. “Constant stress causes a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system, while meditation is known to cause increased activity in the vagus nerve, which supplies the gut and causes it to rest and digest,” she notes. In other words, meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system. That shift also means a decrease in irritable bowel syndrome, “a very common cause of doctor’s office visits,” she says, adding that “mindful meditation leads to mindful eating, which is in itself beneficial.”
We probably don’t hear enough about the gut-brain connection, whose link is the vagus nerve. “There is dialogue both ways from the brain to the gut and vice versa,” Elam-Kootil says. “We have always known that there is a gut-related nervous system hence the term ‘gut feeling.’ ”
One good habit and one simple meditation practice for gut health
Avoid eating when you are anxious or tense.
“Proper digestion will demand total awareness and that both mind and body are relaxed,” says Anupama Udawant, a yoga therapist and performance nutritionist, based in Mumbai, India. “If the mind remains tense or preoccupied, the necessary digestive energies cannot be awakened. This will result in indigestion.”
Udawant suggests a meditation practice of lying on your back for 10 minutes, while focusing on “abdominal breaths:” inhales generated by expansion through the abdomen, followed by complete exhales. The pattern will “relax the mind and create a welcoming environment to receive food,” Udawant says.
Improving gut health without meditation
If meditation isn’t your jam, don’t worry. There’s still plenty you can do for gut health, starting with an ax to (or at least a chisel to) stress. We each have our own way of relaxing, so do what works for you.
“Besides managing stress, it’s important to feed the gut bacteria with the right fuel,” says Elam-Kootil. “By this, l mean good natural fiber through a whole-food, plant-based diet that is low in dairy, avoiding sugar and red meat.” So fruits, veggies, beans, grains. Nuts and seeds too. Sounds pretty severe, but there are accessible options: If you’re going to have dairy, go for kefir, which has gut-friendly bacteria. If you like sweet candy-like stuff, try dates or dried fruit. It’s hard to find good subs for red meat, but maybe you can eat a little less of it.
“Also, avoiding indiscriminate antibiotics, acid blockers and antacids will help healthy gut flora and, in turn, improve the overall health of the gut as well as that of the whole body,” she says. “Additionally, being active and hydrating well helps avoid constipation. Yoga exercises and yogic breathing that target the pelvic floor and stimulate abdominal muscles will help with elimination.”
Mitra Malek is a former Yoga Journal editor who learned about the gut-brain connection while editing the magazine’s Anatomy section years ago. She believes meditation can improve almost anything, but still doesn’t do it enough.