In order to understand how meditation strengthens your immunity, first it’s necessary to understand the opposite: what is it that weakens the body’s natural ability to stay well?
A healthy body is balanced and self-regulating. Digestion, elimination, healing, repair, growth, and disintegration are all happening in concert.
When a demand is made on the physiology, the balance shifts to meet that demand. As Dr Gabor Maté says in his book The Body Says No, “Stress occurs when the demands made on an organism exceed that organism’s reasonable capacities to fulfill them.”
Often stress is linked to isolated peak moments of demand, such as loss of a loved one or the breakdown of a close relationship. Whilst these intense demands are strong sources of stress, in our modern age it’s more often the relentless, fast-paced demands of everyday life that build up and have long term consequences for one’s health and emotional balance.
Whether the fight-or-flight response has been activated by a real threat, or simply a perceived one, the functions of the physiology shift to protect against that threat. Then the natural harmony of body and mind is disturbed. This has a particular impact on the balancing capabilities of the immune system.
At any time, the immune system is performing dozens, even hundreds of functions. For example, it’s constantly scanning for bacteria, viruses, parasites, and overproduction of cells. However, when the mind/body is under stress, the immune system changes its priorities to address what is now the most immediate threat. Not cancer, not tapeworm, not a cold. Instead the immune system has to prepare for things like a potential bacterial incursion. If you’re being attacked by a predator, an injury could result in infection. So, the whole system re-orients itself to fight that potential.
But if the threat is simply an unwelcome phone call, or bad traffic, the incursion never arrives. An army of antibodies produced by the immune system now has nothing to engage with. Those antibodies begin to turn on the body itself. This can lead to a whole host of disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, hormone imbalance, digestive problems and various auto-immune diseases.
In this way, stress is an immunosuppressant. Stress undermines the body’s natural ability to self-repair and perform the biological functions to stay well and balanced.
So how to rebalance? This is where our practice of meditation comes in.
Vedic Meditation is a technique that involves automatic self-transcendence — the ability to spontaneously de-excite the mind and body and step beyond (transcend) thought. We then experience a state of consciousness that is deeply restful and at the same time highly orderly. This state is very different to what is experienced in normal sleep, dreaming, and wakefulness. It is many times more restful and produces a state of functioning that is the opposite of the stress response. This deep rest facilitates a return to homeostasis and triggers the body’s natural healing mechanisms.
Many meditators report feeling healthier and less likely to fall ill and the scientific evidence backs this up. Research indicates that meditators have a stronger, inbuilt defense system against external invaders due to higher levels of circulating lymphocytes. For example, increases in both the T cells that destroy virally infected cells and tumor cells and the B lymphocytes that take on bacteria and viruses.
Large studies carried out on meditators show significant improvement in overall health, as judged by medical utilisation. In a five-year study of practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (another auto-transcendence technique), subjects of the study were hospitalised for viral infections 73% less than the non-meditating control group. Overall, the meditators showed a 30% lower hospitalisation rate for infectious diseases.
A recent article in The New York Times discussed ways to boost your immune system and lowering your stress levels was cited as key. “The bottom line: Your body does a better job fighting off illness and healing wounds when it’s not under stress.”
The unique level of deep rest experienced in Vedic Meditation is an antidote to stress. It’s crucial in creating the conditions for the body’s self-healing mechanisms to work in the most effective way.