- New study found that 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 there’s no harm in adding meditation to your life.
Meditation has been a popular practice for years, and research has linked it to everything from a reduced risk of depression to stress reduction. Now, a new study has found that meditation can improve 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 performed gene sequencing on their poop to examine their gut microbiota. The researchers found that two good forms of gut bacteria— Megamonas and Faecalibacterium—were “significantly enriched” in the group that regularly practiced meditation.
The bacteria have been linked to a lower risk of anxiety, depression and heart disease, as well as being associated with “improved immune function,” the researchers noted. Blood samples from the study participants also found that the monks had lower cholesterol levels than the control group.
“Long-term traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation may have a positive impact on physical and mental health,” the researchers wrote in the study’s conclusion. “Overall, these results suggest that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic disorders and well-being.”
It is important to point out that the monks practice Ayurvedic meditation for at least two hours a day and have been doing so for three to thirty years – a level of commitment that is not really practical for most people.
But this isn’t the only study linking meditation to good gut health and more. So, should you meditate regularly for your health? Here’s what experts have to say.
Why Can Meditation Affect Your Gut Health?
It’s important to recognize upfront that the study was small, that all participants were male, and that they all lived in Tibet, making it difficult to say definitively that anyone 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, in addition to those controlled for, including diet, previous life experiences,” said Martin J. Blaser, MD, a 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 has not been proven.” Still, he says, the research was “well done.”
But there is other data that suggests meditation can improve your gut health. A meta-analysis published in 2017 found that while stress can disrupt gut barrier function and the microbiome, meditation helps regulate the body’s response to stress, suppress chronic bodily inflammation, and help maintain a healthy intestinal barrier.
Another study published in 2021 compared the gut microbiomes of vegans who meditate with meat eaters who don’t meditate and found that the meditators had healthier gut flora. (But in that case, it’s hard to know how much meditation versus diet played a part.)
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that much research on meditation’s impact on health is “preliminary” and “difficult to measure,” but says it may help with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, along with promoting healthy eating habits.
But what does meditation have to do with your gut? Meditation and mindfulness practices can affect the functioning or structure of your brain, says the NCCIH, and your gut is directly connected to 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 Ghost in sight podcast. “There’s a clear connection there,” she says. “You get butterflies in your stomach when you go to give a speech, or you feel like you can’t eat when you’re grieving. If you feel really strong emotions, you can get symptoms in your gut.”
It can also affect your gut on a cellular level. “On a very basic level, meditation helps reduce stress, which helps promote a much better microbiome,” says Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
More specifically, says Dr. Bedford, 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 several functions in the gut, including whether we digest food properly and the rate at which digestion occurs,” says Dr. Bedford.
“Meditation likely affects both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and in several ways to help reduce inflammation and maintain efficient processing in your system,” says Dr. Bedford.
While the study was conducted on monks, Dr. Bedford that it’s likely that other people could get some gut health benefits from meditation. “A little meditation here and there will definitely do your gut good,” he says.
How to improve your gut health
There are many factors that go into having good gut health, and it takes more than meditation to keep yours in great shape, says Dr. Bedford. If you want to improve your gut health, Dr. Bedford to do the following:
- Eat more fiber (The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that women get about 25 grams of fiber per day, while men aim for 38 grams).
- Get regular sleep (seven or more hours a night is recommended for more adults).
- Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
- Manage your stress levels.
- Seek treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, which can affect your gut-brain axis.
How to integrate meditation into your life
While meditation has been linked to a slew of positive health benefits, you don’t have to do it for hours a day to reap the benefits. “Meditation is good in many ways and even short meditation courses can be beneficial,” says Dr. Bedford.
The idea of meditating can be intimidating to people, so Gallagher recommends starting small. “It starts with a mindful way of looking at life — being in the present and fully engaged with your cup of coffee,” she says. From there, you can try mindfulness apps to guide you through meditations or consider taking a yoga class — most have “at least some level of meditation,” says Gallagher.
Another way to get meditation into your life? Do it while you walk. “Take a walk and don’t take your music with you and don’t look at your phone. Instead, observe nature,” advises Gallagher.
“Meditation is totally fine,” says Dr. Bedford. “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, Glamor and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives on the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.