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Study Finds Deep Meditation May Improve Your Gut Health

  • New study found Tibetan monks who meditate regularly have a better gut microbiome than people who don’t meditate.
  • This isn’t the first study to link meditation to good gut health.
  • Experts say it can’t hurt to add meditation to your life.

Meditation has been a buzzy practice for years, and research has linked it to everything from a lowered risk of depression to stress relief. Now, a new study found meditation may boost your gut health.

The study, which was published in BMJ General Psychiatry, analyzed the fecal (i.e. poop) samples of 56 Tibetan Buddhist monks and local residents, and conducted gene sequencing on their poop to examine their intestinal flora. The researchers discovered that two good forms of gut bacteria— Megamonas and Faecalibacteriumwere “significantly enriched” in the group that practiced regular meditation.

The bacteria are linked with a lower risk of anxiety, depression, and heart disease, and has also been associated with an “enhanced immune function,” the researchers noted. Blood samples taken from the study participants also found that the monks had lower cholesterol levels than the control group.

Long-term traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation may positively impact physical and mental health,” the researchers wrote in the study’s conclusion. “Overall, these results suggest that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic conditions and well-being.”

It’s important to point out that the monks practice Ayurvedic meditation at least two hours a day and have been doing so for between three and 30 years—a level of dedication that’s not really practical for most people.

But this isn’t the only study that’s linked meditation to good gut health and beyond. So, should you be meditating regularly for your health? Here’s what experts have to say.

Why might meditation impact your gut health?

It’s important to acknowledge up front that the study was small, all of the participants were men, and they all lived in Tibet, making it hard to say definitively that everyone who meditates will have better health. “The monks and the controls differ from each other in many ways, not just in terms of meditation but in numerous factors, beyond the ones that were controlled for, including diet, prior life experiences,” points out Martin J. Blaser, M.D., professor and Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “It is possible that meditation is the difference but that is not proven.” Still, he says, the study was “well-conducted.”

But there is other data to suggest meditation can boost your gut health. One meta-analysis published in 2017 determined that, while stress can disrupt the gut barrier function and microbiome, meditation helps regulate the body’s response to stress, suppressing chronic bodily inflammation and helping to keep a healthy gut barrier.

Another study published in 2021 compared the gut microbiomes of vegans who meditate with meat-eaters who don’t meditate and found the meditators had healthier gut flora. (But, in that case, it’s hard to know how much meditation vs. diet played a role.)

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that a lot of research into meditation’s impact on health is “preliminary” and “hard to measure,” but says that it may help with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, along with fostering healthy eating behavior.

But what does meditation have to do with your gut? Meditation and mindfulness practices may affect the functioning or structure of your brain, the NCCIH says, and your gut is directly linked with your brain through a pathway known as the gut-brain axis, says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “There is a clear connection there,” she says. “You get butterflies in your stomach when you’re going to give a speech, or you feel like you can’t eat when you’re grieving. When you feel really strong emotions, you can experience symptoms in your gut.”

It can also impact your gut at a cellular level. “At a very basic level, meditation helps reduce stress which helps promote a much better microbiome,” says Rudolph Bedford, M.D., gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

More specifically, Dr. Bedford says, meditation can positively impact your parasympathetic nervous system (which controls your bodily functions—including digestion—when you’re at rest) and sympathetic nervous system (which helps activate your body’s “fight or flight” response). These systems “control various functions in the gut, including whether we’re digesting food properly and the speed at which digestion occurs,” Dr. Bedford says.

“Meditation likely impacts both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, and in various respects to help reduce inflammation and maintain efficient processing in your system,” Dr. Bedford says.

While the study was done on monks, Dr. Bedford says it is likely other people can have some gut health benefits from meditation. “A little meditation here and there will definitely do your gut a solid,” he says.

How to improve your gut health

There are a lot of factors that go into having good gut health, and it takes more than meditation to keep yours in great shape, Dr. Bedford says. If you want to improve your gut health, Dr. Bedford suggests doing the following:

  • Eat more fiber (the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women get about 25 grams of fiber a day, while men strive for 38 grams).
  • Get regular sleep (seven or more hours a night is recommended for more adults).
  • Strive to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week.
  • Manage your stress levels.
  • Seek treatment for mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which can impact your gut-brain axis.

How to incorporate meditation into your life

While meditation has been linked to a slew of positive health impacts, you don’t need to do it for hours a day to reap the benefits. “Meditation is good in many respects and even short courses of meditation can be beneficial,” Dr. Bedford says.

The idea of meditating can be intimidating for people, which is why Gallagher recommends that you start small. “It starts with a mindful way of looking at life—being in the present and being fully engaged with your cup of coffee,” she says. From there, you can try mindfulness apps to guide you through meditations or considering taking a yoga class—most have “at least some level of meditation,” Gallagher says.

Another way to get meditation in your life? Do it while you’re walking. “Go for a walk and don’t take your music or look at your phone. Observe nature instead,” Gallagher advises.

“Meditation is good all the way around,” Dr. Bedford says. “There are no downsides. That’s really the takeaway.”

Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.

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