What do you think when you hear the word 'meditation'? Chances are it conjures up an image of a long-haired hippy sitting atop a mountain, cross-legged and singing kumbaya.

Meditation may still be regarded as esoteric and earthy, but in fact this couldn't be further from the truth. A number of recent studies have shown that, despite the misconceptions, meditation has a long list of physical and mental benefits.

Andy Puddicombe, Clinical Meditation Consultant with the UK Healthcare Commission and the co-founder of Headspace (www.getsomeheadspace.com), says meditation has been misunderstood for far too long. Andy, a former monk, says: "Meditation has been presented in a confused way, been taken out of context and been labelled with a flaky, new-age vibe. But it has well-researched, peer- reviewed benefits."

We spoke to Puddicombe about some of the ways meditation can boost your body, mind and spirit.

It can help you sleep


"If you're anxious or depressed then sleep becomes a problem. Meditation puts the mind in a place of ease, so sleep becomes easier," says Puddicombe.

A study carried out a Stanford University Medical School backs up this claim. A group of people suffering from psychological insomnia did weekly sessions for six weeks, after which only 13% of participants still had psychological insomnia by the end of the programme.

It can treat depression

Puddicombe says: "Meditation has been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, or NICE, specifically for depression and anxiety. It helps you to step back and see your thoughts in a different way."

One study, from West Chester University in Pennsylvania, looked at the effects of meditation on rumination (focusing on negative feelings) and found that those who were treated with meditation were 50% more likely to have positive thoughts than those who weren't.

It can stop you feeling anxious


"Anxiety is more about finding a a place of calm and confidence, a place where you feel good about yourself. When you are resting there, everything can seem okay," says Puddicombe.

A study carried out at the New York General Hospital of Psychiatry found that a group of patients with anxiety or panic disorders who took part in an eight-week programme had the severity of their condition reduced by a third.

It can prevent or treat skin conditions


Puddicombe says: "When the body is stressed, there is a physical response to the mind. When your body goes into a state of alertness, chemicals like cortisol are produced, and when overproduced they have a negative effect such as rashes, eczema, psoriasis and infections.

"Meditation, when combined with increased sunlight, has been shown to have amazing results on skin conditions." Researchers at the University of Massachusetts reported that the skin of patients suffering from moderate to severe psoriasis cleared up 3.8 times faster than in patients who were not meditating.

It can protect your immune system

"The greatest single benefit of meditation is to the immune system," says Puddicombe. "People who meditate regularly experience better all-round health - fact - whether they suffer from chronic illness or are perfectly well."

Another University of Massachusetts study monitored the effects of meditation on a group of 174 adults with illness and chronic pain. The results showed that after the initial eight-week programme, one third of patients noticed a decrease in symptoms.

It can improve your attention levels

If you struggle to stay focused at work or in social situations, meditation could be key to improving your attention levels.

A study carried out at Harvard Medical School, measuring specific areas of the brain of 20 long-term meditators and a group of non-meditators, found that the section of the brain linked to attention was thicker in the group of meditators than the non-meditators.

It can cure migraine and headaches

"When someone goes through the meditation process, the function of their brain increases," says Puddicombe. "It increases blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, which creates a sense of overall wellbeing and draws away from areas that effect you adversely."

Meditation is also about promoting a greater sense of relaxation and reducing stress and tension, which are the underlying causes of headaches.

It can improve heart function

We also know that stress can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure) - a major cause of heart disease. A study at McGill University analysed the effects of meditation on heart function, testing 60 people who meditated for one month.

The researchers found that meditation was more effective than other relaxation techniques such as reading and that after one month patients displayed significantly lower blood pressure.