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…

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