Could meditation be the key to a healthy gut and brain?

A new study of Buddhist monks reveals that deep meditation helps to regulate a balanced gut microbiota, leading to improved mental and physical wellbeing. But is a healthy gut really as simple as deep breathing? 

We’ve long known that meditation benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing. Mindful meditation has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve focus and boost self-awareness, and it’s a practice beloved by celebrities from Beyoncé to Oprah Winfrey.

And with new research showing that long-term, deep meditation is associated with an enriched gut microbiome, the benefits just keep growing. From enhanced immune function to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, is it time we all adopted a more Zen-like state? 

The gut-brain axis is key

“The gut plays a pivotal part in our mental health,” explains coach and therapist Marilyn Devonish. “The large and small intestine are directly linked to the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body and is one of the main regulators of the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to control heartbeat, respiration and digestion, among other things.”

“Within the field of mental health and psychological wellbeing, the gut-brain connection is an incredible development in recent years,” agrees chartered psychologist Catherine Hallissey. 

“We now know that there is a two-way connection between the brain and the gut where the gut can be the cause or the product of mental health difficulties such as anxiety, stress or depression. For example, IBS and anxiety are known to trigger one another. Therefore, your gut plays a crucial role in your general wellbeing.”

In this case, the researchers aimed to explore whether the gut-brain axis can be influenced by the quality and range of gut bacteria. 

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What do monks have to do with it?

Researchers from the Shanghai Mental Health Centre at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University school of medicine looked at stool samples from a small group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from three different temples, alongside samples from their neighbours outside the monastery, to determine whether deep meditation can alter the composition of the gut microbiome.

The monks studied traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation, originating in the ancient Indian practice of Ayurveda. They focused on Samatha, the practice of calm abiding, which steadies and concentrates the mind by resting the individual’s attention on a single object or mantra, and Vipassana, which, according to the researchers “is an insightful meditation practice that enables one to enquire into the true nature of all phenomena”.

Monks have enriched microbiota

The results, published by the British Medical Journal, were fascinating.

“We confirmed that the gut microbiota composition differed between the monks and control subjects,” the researchers said. “The microbiota enriched in monks was associated with a reduced risk of anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease and could enhance immune function.Overall, these results suggest that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic conditions and wellbeing.”

Can meditation really benefit our gut microbiome?

So how does meditation help?

“Meditation has a beneficial effect on the body as whole and this certainly includes the gut,” advises meditation teacher and slow living advocate Chloë Webster. “The gastrointestinal tract is very sensitive to changes in emotion caused by the brain – stress, anger, frustration and overwhelm can all trigger symptoms in the gut.

“Meditation helps guts stay healthy by regulating the stress response,” Webster continues. “By bringing your awareness to your breathing, you kickstart your parasympathetic system more commonly known as ‘rest and digest’. This lessens chronic inflammation to help maintain a healthy gut.”

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“When there are good bacteria in the gut, the by-product can affect mood, behaviour, concentration and cognition,” agrees Devonish. “Just imagine trying to sit an exam, chair a meeting or deliver a keynote presentation with an upset stomach, and this gives an idea of how crucial the gut-brain connection can be.”

Good bacteria can equal less anxiety

“What the study suggests is that long-term deep meditation is associated with better gut health and, of particular interest, that several of the bacteria that were enriched in the deep meditators are associated with a reduced risk of anxiety and depression,” explains Hallissey.

“This suggests that meditation influenced the bacteria associated with mental health, and while the study was based on a small sample size, the results are promising. Further investigation to determine the potential of deep meditation to help regulate the gut microbiome and promote psychological wellbeing would be valuable.”

Got a spare couple of hours for the next 30 years?

However, even for those of us who prioritise self-care and downtime, achieving the amount of deep, long-term meditation suggested by the study is optimistic, to say the least.

“Deep meditation is unlikely to be easy to fit into most people’s busy schedules,” agrees Hallissey.

Given that the monks in the study had practised meditating for at least two hours a day for between three and 30 years, further research would be needed to establish a link between smaller daily periods of meditation – but that’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to building some meditation practices into your day. 

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It doesn’t have to be lengthy and complicated

“Start with something as simple as the breath,” recommends Devonish. “Breathe in and out more slowly, deeply and consciously. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.

“Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, has a number of benefits, including lowering blood pressure and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural relaxation response. When you relax and breathe through meditation, it can have a calming effect on the gut, and a transformational impact on the mind.”

If it’s good enough for Beyoncé, it’s worth a try, right? 

Images: Getty

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