The Autonomic Nervous System and Meditation

If we were alert on every function our body goes through every second, there would be no time to waste on trivial things. Just imagine turning off your favorite show because you need to pass food from your stomach to your small intestine or suffering a cardiac arrest because you’re paying attention to this beautiful woman talking to you and neglected your heartbeat. That’s why there’s something called “autonomic nervous system,” and it is off-limits of our conscious manipulation. However, as you will see in this article, meditation is a powerful tool that’s been found to modulate our brain activity and improve the way the autonomic system works.

The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System

As the name implies, the autonomic nervous system does not require our constant attention. It keeps on functioning when we are sleeping or not alert, and maintains our vital body functions automatically. It has nervous branches to almost every organ in our anatomy, including the heart, the smooth muscle in the gut, the pupil of the eye, and our genitalia.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two subtypes. They are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system; they both reach the same organs but have opposite functions. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight stress response, and the parasympathetic nervous system activates when we are finally able to calm down and relax.

As the sympathetic nervous system speeds up our heartbeat and slows down our bowel movements, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our heartbeat and speeds up bowel movements. Thus, each one of them activates or deactivates body functions, and that’s why you may not realize you need to use the bathroom when you’re under heavy stress. It is also the reason why urinating and emptying your bowel is often accompanied by a sigh and a pleasant sensation of calm.

Even though these are autonomic functions, they are triggered by our environment as well, and we have to say that our daily life usually activates the sympathetic nervous system. Daily stress at work, paying bills and having debts, staying hungry after hours of work, debating and fussing about responsibility and day-to-day chores; they are all potential triggers of the sympathetic nervous system and the reason why many people experience symptoms like constipation, palpitations and nervous tics. Overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system contributes to medical problems as in sexual dysfunction, and it is a significant risk factor for myocardial infarction, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.

Given the stressful nature of our modern daily life, is there anything we can do to keep the sympathetic and parasympathetic system in balance?

Meditation and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system cannot be consciously controlled, but it is known that our body functions and the activation of this nervous system depend on the environment and our own mindset. Even though there is no direct way to mess with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, there are various tools to calibrate them and modulate their activity, and meditation is one of them.

Meditation is a millenary practice that’s been recently found to be very useful in a scientific background, too. Thus, it does not only trigger a suggestive and biased sense of inner peace. There are measurable and significant changes in the nervous and cardiovascular system of individuals who frequently engage in the practice of meditation. Even in novice meditators, electroencephalogram readings show major differences when we are meditating and concentrating on a mantra.

The effects of meditation are usually enhanced when combined with other practices such as yoga, but it has impressive effects on its own. People who continuously practice meditation report an improvement in their levels of stress. This effect is not limited to the meditation session, but it is felt throughout the day as well. Thus, some studies have focused on how meditation works to modulate the stress response in the body, which is basically mediated by the sympathetic nervous system.

In response to meditation, the body reduces the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and modulates the release of adrenaline by the sympathetic nervous system. These changes give more room for the parasympathetic nervous system to send various signals that regulate the cardiovascular function, improve gut health, ease the tension in the body, and quiet down the mind.

That’s why it’s been reported that blood pressure decreases shortly after a meditation session, heart rate becomes more constant, and heart rate variability measures significantly improve. All of these effects are mediated by the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. As we master the art of meditation, the physiologic impact on the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more evident, but even if you’re trying your first session, chances are you’re going to feel more relaxed and self-centered after a few minutes.

Types of Meditation and their effects

If you want to try meditation on your own, there are different types according to what you do and where you focus your attention. As you will see next, each one of them has various effects in the parasympathetic nervous system, the cardiovascular health, brain activity, and other functions in the human body.

  • Focused attention meditation: This includes meditation from the Buddhist Diamond Way, the loving-kindness-compassion meditation, and others. It is basically focusing your attention on a chosen element or object, including your own respiration, the sound of rain, and many others. This type of meditation has been found to improve gamma power in your brain (your ability to concentrate), improves the systolic blood pressure, and reduce the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
  • Open monitoring meditation: Includes Zen meditation, the concentrative QuiGong meditation, and many others. This type of meditation has been found to reduce your heart rate and improve heart rate variability. According to studies, it contributes to well-being by reducing connectivity in certain areas of the brain that trigger self-judgment and accusatory thoughts.
  • Automatic self-transcending meditation: It is a type of meditation that includes the use of a mantra to improve concentration during its first stage. This meditation enhances the alpha waves in the brain and gives more coherence to our thoughts. Similar to focused attention meditation, this type is associated with a reduction in blood pressure levels and the self-reported levels of stress.

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