The incredible implications of a meditation habit have been widely documented, but sometimes it brings the point home to look at the actual brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are affected when we sit in quiet contemplation and raise our consciousness.
There are seven important neurotransmitters that change when we meditate. Along with other positive effects on our physiology like providing natural pain relief, raising our stress threshold, lengthening our telomeres (the caps on the end of our DNA), improving sleep, reducing inflammation, boosting immunity and more, when these seven chemical messages are released, we start to experience life from a completely different baseline. [i]
The All-Important Seven
There is a plethora of change in our biochemistry when we meditate, so we’d be remiss if we told you that these seven neurotransmitters are the only thing that mattered, but the repercussions of just these primary chemicals is profound, we’ll focus on them for now. [ii]
Serotonin is produced by our brains, but also in our guts. In fact, 90% of our body’s serotonin is created in our gastrointestinal tract. Meditation “bathes” the neurons in both our guts and brains with a range of feel-good chemicals, effectively melting away the stress that leads to low serotonin levels and depression.
Serotonin is also incredibly important, as it signals our brains to feel that all is right with the world, and keeps us from ruminating on things that might cause us to feel anxious or insecure. [iii]
Serotonin is actually a byproduct of cellular health. Cells use tryptophan hydroxylase to form 5-hydorxytryptamine, otherwise known as serotonin. This neurotransmitter is very important for signaling. At least 40 million brain cells use serotonin for communication in order to regulate mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep patterns, your memory, how well you learn, and even your social interactions and mood.
In the case of the neurotransmitter, cortisol, less is always better. We need cortisol in small amounts in order to function, but too much of it fries our adrenal glands, keeps us in state of constant fight-or-flight, causes chronic inflammation and depletes our immune system.
Chronic inflammation is also caused by stress, which cortisol tends to perpetuate, leading to increased heart disease, depression, arthritis, asthma, and other health conditions.
Too much cortisol also impairs our cognitive functioning and judgment.
One study conducted by Rutger’s and the University of California found that meditation can lessen cortisol levels by a whopping 50%! [iv]
Another important neurotransmitter that is altered when we meditate is GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid). It helps us to feel calm and at peace. It is effective for soothing the nervous system and helping us deal with every-day stressors. It is also imperative for calming restlessness, racing thoughts and sleeplessness.
Just one hour of meditation starts to alter GABA levels, helping to instill a sense of calm and restfulness. [v]
Speaking of getting good sleep, almost all of us can relate to how our mood and cognitive functioning takes a nose dive after just one night of poor or insufficient sleep. It turns out that meditation helps to regulate our melatonin levels (this also happens to be the precursor chemical to endogenous DMT, called the spirit molecule). [vi]
One study found that people who have meditated for a long time have higher blood levels of melatonin (and serotonin) than non-meditators and [vii] another study proved that meditation has a regulatory effect on sleep cycles, making it easier to sleep soundly. [viii]
Fascinatingly, DHEA is known as the longevity hormone. It regulates how our cells age. Specifically, it affects the telomeres which are like protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. Telomere length seems to indicate longevity. The longer the telomere, the longer you can expect to live.
Meditation has been proven to lengthen telomeres and increase the production of DHEA. DHEA also lowers our stress levels and slows aging in general. [ix]
GH (Growth Hormone)
Another important neurochemical is human growth hormone, also known simply as GH. It is also a “fountain of youth.” We produce lots of this when we are young, but around the age of 20 our pituitary gland stops producing as much of it, so we start to “age” rather quickly. Without ample GH we can also feel lethargic, moody, depressed, and tend to become frail and weak.
You can increase GH by either working out or meditating. Studies have shown that reaching the Delta state in meditation tends to cause the most GH production.
If you’ve ever gotten nice and sweaty you’ve likely felt an endorphin rush. Endorphins are whole category of molecules that help to naturally reduce pain. We probably make them when we exercise to help counteract soreness in muscles that can be expected thereafter, but exercise isn’t the only thing that creates endorphins. It turns out that a “runner’s high” can be exceeded just with meditation.
Endorphins are released when we meditate that bind to opiate receptors in our brain, making us feel “high.” [x]
[i] 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation#section1
[ii] 7 Key Meditation Chemicals: Melatonin, Serotonin, GABA, DHEA, Endorphins – EOC Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/dhea_gaba_cortisol_hgh_melatonin_serotonin_endorphins/
[iii] Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin
[iv] Cortisol: How Meditation Extinguishes Inflammation, Anxiety, Stress – EOC Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/cortisol-how-meditation-extinguishes-inflammation-anxiety-stress/
[v] Young, S. (2011). Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 36(2), 75-77. doi:10.1503/jpn.110010
[vi] Barker, S. A. (2018). N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an Endogenous Hallucinogen: Past, Present, and Future Research to Determine Its Role and Function. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00536
[vii] Chuang, H., Hwang, J., & Fang, C. (2016). Psycho-Oncologic Effects of Serotonin and Melatonin. Serotonin and Melatonin, 467-498. doi:10.1201/9781315369334-32
[viii] Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B. M. (2012). Meditation and Its Regulatory Role on Sleep. Frontiers in Neurology, 3. doi:10.3389/fneur.2012.00054
[ix] Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S., & Blackburn, E. (2009). Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172(1), 34-53. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x
[x] Veening, J. G., & Barendregt, H. P. (2015). The effects of Beta-Endorphin: state change modification. Fluids and Barriers of the CNS, 12(1), 3. doi:10.1186/2045-8118-12-3