Meditation, which has been a part of spiritual practice in Eastern religions for millennia, has been proven over and over for its mental and physical health benefits. However, in all scientific papers that examined the effect of mind-relaxation techniques on everyday stress, participants were asked to independently assess changes in their well-being. The objectivity of such results is very conditional, since often volunteers take wishful thinking.
To get more accurate data, scientists from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and the Brain. Max Planck decided to investigate the level of cortisol in the hair of people who meditate regularly. Usually, the level of “stress hormone” is measured in blood samples, but this method of assessment can give conflicting results, as the concentration of cortisol can change during the day. Hair at the time of growth retains the “trace” of a person’s lifestyle, including the molecules of many hormones. On average, human hair grows one centimeter every month, which makes it possible to fairly accurately estimate the level of cortisol at different periods of time.
The study involved three groups of 80 people who practiced meditation under the guidance of specialists for nine months six times a week for 30 minutes. During the course, volunteers were taught techniques to improve concentration, practice mindfulness, and the ability to “withdraw” from their thoughts. To compare the effectiveness of different techniques, different training programs were drawn up for all three groups.
Six months later, scientists assessed the level of cortisol in the hair of all participants. On average, the level of the hormone decreased by 25%, while in the first month there was only a slight improvement, the effect increased over time. It is noteworthy that these indicators were comparable in all three groups of participants, that is, they did not depend on specific meditation techniques.
After another month, the researchers again collected hair samples from the volunteers. It turned out that the concentration of cortisol in all participants remained at a stable low level. According to scientists, this suggests that long-term meditation is necessary to obtain a long-term effect in the fight against everyday stress.
“Our results show that daily mental exercise for 3-6 months can alleviate long-term stress in adults,” the study authors said.