Using Meditation as a Medicine?

by meditative - September 16th, 2015

In brief, our involuntary nervous system or our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is made up of two subsystems… the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.  Our ANS mainly is a control system functioning below the level of consciousness affecting heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, etc. Breathing is an exception to being completely involuntary as it works in tandem with the conscious mind. In the context of our meditation practice, both of these two subsystems are relevant.

Most are familiar with the sympathetic nervous system, which promotes a “fight or flight” response, and corresponds with increased arousal levels in the body. In our modern day lives, many of us are overwhelmed with constant stimuli and stressors that foster a continual state of readiness– for emergencies or external threats that aren’t really there, but don’t seem to go away. As a result, the sympathetic nervous system becomes out of balance and never fully relaxes. It could be argued that many of the “ills” that plague our modern society represent over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system. For e.g. high blood pressure, irregular heart beats, disturbances of digestion, etc.- functional problems due to physiological imbalances resulting from what Dr. Andrew Weil calls “increased sympathetic tone.”

A routine practice of meditation helps us to engage its balancing partner- the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a “rest and digest” or “relaxation response” (Herbert Benson), and induces calming of the nerves, a return to regular function, as well as enhances digestion. The breath work in our practice is a very effective medium for stimulating or activating this relaxation response and balancing the over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system.

The scientific community has proven that for those who meditate on a routine (i.e. daily) basis, you will see a slowing of heart & respiratory rates, calming of digestive movement, and decreases in blood pressure, etc. From a medical perspective, what’s very useful here is the relationship of the relaxation response in decreasing the chronic, nervous, driving of the cardiovascular and digestive systems (Andrew Weil, M.D.). This can be enormously beneficial in all diseases that have a stress component- or all diseases where there is an autonomic nervous system imbalance. In the least, a regular practice of daily meditation and breathing exercises will assist you through the activation of the relaxation response in changing the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Both the deep meanings of medicine and meditation are derived from the Indo-European root of “med” or  “to measure”. In the context of both disciplines, they reflect the view that physical health is to be regarded as the outcome of a state of “right inward measure” (David Bohm) of all parts and processes of the body…

Indeed, the practice of meditation may ultimately some day be pervasively regarded in Integrative Medicine as a complementary approach to helping restore the right inward measure of mind, body, and spirit.