Mindfulness: Helping The Body Heal From Chronic Stress

African American woman sitting on a mountaintop meditating with the sunset and ocean behind her, showing that a mindfulness practice is a powerful modulator of structural and functional brain plasticity.
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For thousands of years, various cultures have utilized the practices of mindfulness and meditation to cultivate well-being, and their potential health benefits continue to gather attention due to recent scientific research. Over the last several years, studies suggest that mindfulness-based interventions are powerful modulators of structural and functional brain plasticity1-3 and play a beneficial role in psychological4,5 and physiological health.6,7

Two common types of meditation include focused attention (FA), such as Himalayan yoga, mantra, and metta, and open-monitoring (OM) meditation, like zen, Isha yoga, shoonya yoga, and vipassana. According to a 2018 systematic review, both types have been shown to enhance attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness, as well as improve cognitive control of conflict.1 There is some evidence that FA, OM, and transcendental meditation (TM) may result in both long-term and short-term changes in the brain, including increases in the cortical thickness of regions like the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and insula.1 A 2022 review also suggests that different styles of meditation can alter the functional activity and connectivity of the PFC region of the brain, which is associated with attentional function, working memory, cognitive control, executive control, emotion regulation, countering negative effects, self-awareness, and compassion.8

Physiological Effects of Meditation

Beyond the brain, meditation has been found to influence physiological measures like heart rate, respiratory rate, systolic blood pressure, and diastolic blood pressure.9 In one study, the effect of short- and long-term Brahma Kumaris Raja yoga meditation was shown to improve basic cardiorespiratory functions. Raja yoga shifted the autonomic balance in favor of the parasympathetic system in those who practiced it long-term (more than five years).9

Three years later, Raja yoga was studied again, and it was suggested that in long-term meditators, the shifting of the autonomic balance to the parasympathetic side may combat the ill effects of stress.10 Several studies have looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for clinicians and have identified a range of beneficial physiological and psychological outcomes as well.4,11 For healthcare professionals, some researchers have suggested that mindfulness meditation reduces stress, anxiety, and burnout and enhances resilience.4,11-13

Mindfulness and Stress

Poor stress coping may contribute to the development of chronic diseases. For instance, chronic work-related stress is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and mortality.14 Managing stress with mind-body practices that emphasize mindfulness continue to be studied for benefits. For example, a study examining the effects of a meditative tai chi program in chronic heart failure participants showed that regular practice had a beneficial effect not only on health-related quality of life and resilience but also on body mass index and blood pressure levels.6

Other studies have also suggested that yoga can affect cardiac autonomic regulation.7 Although the mechanism by which yoga influences autonomic activity is not well understood, a 2016 study found that some yoga practices appear to directly stimulate the vagus nerve and enhance parasympathetic output, leading to parasympathetic dominance and enhanced cardiac function, mood, and energy states, as well as enhanced neuroendocrine, metabolic, cognitive, and immune responses.7

 In 2020, a pilot randomized controlled trial with 34 young adults provided tentative evidence that TM may impact biological stress system functioning.15 Study participants were randomly assigned to TM training followed by eight weeks of meditation practice or a wait-list control condition. Individuals in the TM group had lower awakening salivary cortisol levels and a greater drop in cortisol awakening response from baseline to week four than the control group.15

A 2023 systematic review and meta-analysis of 11 articles suggests that, among Chinese college students aged 18-22, mindfulness-based interventions ranging from 10 days to 8 weeks significantly decreased anxiety scale scores.5 Four types of mindfulness were used in the studies: mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), MBSR combined with MBCT, and mindfulness with meditation therapy in general.5


With a wide range of stress-related chronic diseases on the rise, lifestyle-based therapies such as meditation and mindfulness may offer benefit to some individuals. Many diseases stemming from chronic stress have early warning signs, meaning some cases may be prevented or improved with lifestyle changes that help manage stress. The functional medicine model focuses in on identifying stress as a cause of dysfunction and utilizing specific interventions like exercise, meditation, and yoga that work for the individual patient. To find a functional medicine practitioner near you and learn more about stress management and how lifestyle-based interventions may help improve your health, click below.

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  2. Behan C. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Ir J Psychol Med. 2020;37(4):256-258. doi:1017/ipm.2020.38
  3. Zhang Y, Chen S, Zhang Z, et al. Effect of meditation on brain activity during an attention task: a comparison study of ASL and BOLD Task fMRI. Brain Sci. 2023;13(12):1653. doi:3390/brainsci13121653
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  11.  Jiménez-Picón N, Romero-Martín M, Ponce-Blandón JA, Ramirez-Baena L, Palomo-Lara JC, Gómez-Salgado J. The relationship between mindfulness and emotional intelligence as a protective factor for healthcare professionals: systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(10):5491. doi:3390/ijerph18105491
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