Dear Mark: Meditation for Neuroplasticity, Astragalus, and Red Light Therapy

Peaceful woman finding body and mind balance

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First, did I mess up by not mentioning meditation in the neuroplasticity post? Yes, and you’ll find out more below. Next, what are my thoughts on taking astragalus for fighting off colds and flus? Does it work? And finally, does red light therapy have the potential to reduce chronic pain? Does it do anything else?

Let’s go:

I’m sorry that meditation is not mentioned, but magic mushrooms are. Meditation increases white matter in the brain (which influences efficiency of electrical signals in brain), and lessens shrinkage due to age. Meditation also has a positive influence on the preservation of telomere length and telomerase activity (when these shorten, we experience adverse aging effects). I would much rather do it the natural way (via meditation) than taking a chance with hallucinogens.

Susan Grace

Thanks for your comment, Susan. This is why I love my readers. They call me out.

Everything you say is true. Meditation is a powerful trigger for neuroplasticity.

Mindfulness meditation can undo stress-induced changes to connectivity in the amygdala (the “fear” center).

Experienced meditators show enhanced neural plasticity and even structural changes to the brain (both gray and white matter).

Like seemingly everything else out there, the relationship between meditation history and neuroplasticity follows a U-shaped curve. Beginners show less neuroplasticity activation than more experienced meditators, who show more activation than advanced meditators. How can this be?

Beginners aren’t doing much. They’re just trying to learn how to make those connections, so the activity is minimal.

Experienced meditators (average of 19,000 practice hours) are in the active learning phase. To reach the desired state, they really have to work hard. The connections are lighting up.

The expert meditators (average of 44,000 practice hours) already have those changes established in their brains, and it takes less effort to maintain and activate them.

And one thing people should keep in mind: Trying to meditate but “failing” isn’t actually failing. It’s the attempt that’s the entire point. Learning to juggle, walk a slack line, or anything else that feels impossible at the start activates neuroplasticity. Failure is a necessary component of learning and brain remodeling.

As for the psychedelics, I absolutely agree that they can be more risky. Being one of the more powerful inputs a person an introduce to their brain, the psychedelics require more respect, caution, and planning than other plasticity inducers. That’s why I recommend that people wait for legalization (or decriminalization), or at least ensure they’re with someone experienced whom they trust. Note that the majority of psychedelics, including psilocybin, have sky high LD50s; it’s almost impossible to consume enough that you reach toxic levels.

Hi Mark! Last year my family and I were hit hard by cold and flu season, and this year I want to be prepared! A naturopath friend suggested astragalus. Can you tell me more, like whether it’s worth it and the best way to take it?

Astragalus, one of the foundational herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, certainly affects the immune system.

It can modulate the Th1/Th2 cytokine balance in asthma (mouse model), reducing lung inflammation.

Including astragalus polysaccharides to a bird flu vaccine enhances the immune response to the shot (in chickens).

It’s moderately effective against nasal congestion in people with hay fever.

In humans, astragalus tincture activates T-cells, a type of immune cell that helps fight infections.

But we don’t have any hard data showing that it can fight flu or cold infections. I do think it’s very plausible and probably possible.

I’d say it’s worth a try, as long as you’re not spending more than $20-30.

But don’t forget about good old crushed raw (or almost raw) garlic—in my opinion the best anti-cold “supplement” around. Garlic can improve immune function and reduce the occurrence of common colds. Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I’ll crush and dice up an entire head of garlic and lightly simmer it in a big mug of bone brothYou can also try aged garlic, which may be even more potent.

I’ve had chronic pain for years, which has definitely lessened since I went Primal last year! But I still have lingering issues. I keep hearing about red light therapy for chronic pain, and I know some gyms and other facilities market it as a selling point. Have you tried this? Is there anything to the idea?

There’s definitely something to it. It’s not some fringe therapy lacking support in the literature:

In patients with knee osteoarthritis, red light therapy reduced pain scores and increased microcirculation in the knee (which could portend healing).

A 2012 review concluded that red light therapy does reduce joint pain. An earlier review found that it reduces pain specifically in chronic joint disorders, which is good news for you.

It’s even been shown to improve neuropathic pain.

There are other effects, too.

Red light exposure increases blood flow to the skin and improves fracture healing. There’s even evidence that pretreatment with red light prepares your skin for a healthier response to UVB. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Think about those beautiful quiet mornings. You step out the door, gaze toward the sunrise, and everything looks otherworldly. The light has a different quality—it’s actually slightly red from coming in at a different angle and passing through “extra” atmosphere.

Then midday rolls around and the sun is blasting down the bluer, hotter stuff. But because you were there for the sunrise (weren’t you?), your skin is ready.

Go for the red light therapy, and let me know how it goes.

That’s it for today, everyone. I’d love to hear from you. Any experience with meditation, astragalus, and/or red light therapy?

Thanks for reading and take care.


TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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22 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Meditation for Neuroplasticity, Astragalus, and Red Light Therapy”

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  1. Meditation provides the same benefits of praying. That’s why on average those who are religious or spiritual often tend to live happier lives then those who do not meditate or pray. Also, I’ve never tried astragalus before, so I can’t really give an opinion one way or the other on it. However I’ve had many positive experiences with holy basil before. Definitely worth a try if you’re sick.

  2. Regarding red light therapy… Will any old red light bulb work, or does it have to be a special kind? Are they available for purchase, or does one have to go to a gym or spa for treatment? I’ve used low level laser (cold laser) for localized pain, and it does work, but they are prohibitively expensive to buy. Possibly red light therapy can be done at home for much less money, assuming it’s effective. Does anyone know more about this?

    1. The DPL FlexPad is available on Amazon. I found a used one on eBay.

  3. What do you mean by 19,000 and 44,000 hours of meditation? Is that a misprint? I mean….just to get past “beginner” status according to your numbers would mean 19,000 hours of mediation would be 2 hours per day for 19 years. I don’t think that’s a realistic number for anyone to achieve in regular life. Can you clarify what you mean by those numbers?

    1. Excuse my math – that would be 2 hours a day for 26 years…..seems like the numbers must be off….

  4. Mark when you chop up the whole head of garlic into bone broth and simmer it do you drink all the bits of the garlic up as well or do you strain it? How long do you simmer it for?


    1. When I felt a cold coming on two months ago, I crushed 3-4 cloves of raw garlic, let it sit for 5-10 minutes then added to a mug of decaf tea, drank tea and ate garlic remnants. I consumed 5-6 mugs of this over a 24-48 hour period. I did not get a cold. It worked for me.

  5. Like Brian, I was confused by the meditation hours. Seemed like an impossible amount for anyone to actually reach. Have never tried astragalus. I haven’t had a cold in years. In the rare event that I feel a little bit of a sore throat, my go-to is raw ACV. I put a splash in a glass of water and sip throughout the day. My grandmother taught me this years ago. I’ve convinced many people to try it, and even those who were skeptical at first were impressed. And I’d love to learn more about red light therapy. I don’t have any type of pain but it sounds like it could be helpful for many people.

  6. I use the red light bed at my local tanning salon, my skin heals faster, acne breakouts pretty much don’t happen, my skin is softer and younger looking and seems more elastic, my lower back pain and knee pain lessens after a couple of weeks of treatment as long as I keep it up and go regularly.

  7. Don’t be discouraged about how much meditation time is mentioned here–I think it must be a misprint. I’ve seen references to studies in which brain structural changes happen within 20 hours–one experiment was about 20 minutes a day on average for 8 weeks. And I can say from experience that it’s true! I feel “experienced” at about 150 hours, but have been enjoying noticeable benefits from, if not Day 1, then pretty close to it. I’m no monk–it’s just a 20 minute a day, but it has made a huge, if subtle, difference in my life.

    1. That is a much more encouraging statistic! I just started meditating and it’s difficult to work it into a daily practice. I’ve enjoyed Headspace in the past, and now am trying MBSR.

  8. Lately, I’ve become aware of an extract of Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) that’s marketed as Sambucol, in Aus and UK at least, to be taken within 48 hours of cold or flu onset. Have a box in the medicine drawer.

    1. We use black elderberry extract (Gaia brand, double concentrated) as a preventative when others are falling around us. Start it two to three days before a flight and never get sick. Contains neuraminidase inhibitors…same principle as Tamiflu, at a gazillionth of the cost.

  9. Meditation is something I’ve shied away from because I’m way too easily distracted. As far as Red Light Therapy, I’ve done research on it as well and it has definitely been shown to improve certain chronic conditions. I would absolutely give it a try if you have an opportunity.

  10. For me meditation falls under the category of “ain’t nobody got time for that!” (hilarious youtube if you haven’t heard it). Still leaning towards the psilocybin LOL.

  11. “Beginners show less neuroplasticity activation than more experienced meditators, who show more activation than advanced meditators. How can this be?”
    My guess the benefit is from mastering a new skill, not from the meditation itself.

  12. Question for a future column: are there potential downsides to long-term daily probiotic use? My skin looks so much better when I take one daily or at least a few times per week, but I wonder if there is potential for one strain to become parasitic if taken long-term.


  13. Astragalus (Huang Qi in Chinese Medicine) is indeed a powerful herb. But (as with Chinese herbs generally) optimal use involves artful combination of various herbs in formulas. You can’t get the same effects from taking a single herb or an isolated component.

    What’s more, our medicine is based on treating the pattern presenting in the particular individual (rather than saying: “Here – everyone take this.”). What is healing for one person can be unhelpful for another (even if they have the exact same allopathic disease diagnosis). For anyone wanting to try astragalus, I recommend seeing a Chinese Medicine doctor and getting a proper diagnosis and herbal prescription.