MIND
June 12, 2012

Say "Om": The Health Benefits of Meditation

Meditation increases the size of brain areas associated with memory and reduces our vulnerability to stress.

More major medical centers are offering non-conventional therapies to their patients. But many people may still be wondering, how effective are they?

From acupuncture to yoga, there are a wide variety of methods available and the medical conditions that drive people to seek alternative medical practices are equally varied. Research into how these practices actually work on our bodies physiologically is still in its infancy – and the findings we do have are not always conclusive.

In Part 2 of our series exploring CAM or Complementary and Alternative Medicine, we consider the health benefits of meditation.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is another Mind-Body practice that’s gained attention in recent years. It has long been touted to increase attention, calm, and well being, and researchers are beginning to explore these assertions in detail, in part to evaluate whether meditation can be used therapeutically.

Researchers have looked to sophisticated brain imaging techniques to understand more fully the effects of meditation.

One of the central aims of meditation, particularly of mindfulness meditation, is to help the practitioner learn to accept his or her physical perceptions (pain or discomfort) and thoughts in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. Meditation helps one acknowledge and, theoretically, let go of negative perceptions, rather than reacting to them or obsessing on them.

Therefore, if shown to be effective, meditation might be used to address pain, and health problems that involve cognition and behavior – like addiction and depression. Again, many researchers have looked to sophisticated brain imaging techniques to understand more fully the effects of meditation.

Meditation for Brain and Behavioral Change

One of the better-studied meditative methods is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabit-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This form of meditation teaches a person to use mindfulness techniques to acknowledge and let go of one’s feelings of anxiety and reactions to stress.

The idea that meditation could help relieve the ill effects of everyday life stresses is part of its attraction as a coping mechanism, and there does appear to be more research backing up the possibility.

Research has shown that MBSR is linked to some significant changes in the cells of the brain: the hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory, increased in size, as did regions involved in self-awareness, introspection, and compassion. Interestingly, the same study saw that other areas actually decreased in size, including the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress. The idea that meditation could help relieve the ill effects of everyday life stresses is part of its attraction as a coping mechanism, and there does appear to be more research backing up the possibility.

People who are experienced meditators have also been shown to have reduced activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) mentioned in Part 1. The DMN has been widely linked to the mind’s tendency to wander, which itself is associated with unhappiness: just think about the subjects to which your mind usually wanders – most of the time, it’s to your worries rather than joys. In one study, meditators had reduced DMN activity, along with increased attention and decreased self-awareness.

There is also a hybrid form of therapy, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has been shown to help treat the symptoms of depression, which over 15% of Americans will suffer from in their lifetimes.

Smokers who were given mindfulness training had a much better quit rate than people who enrolled in the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking program.

Cognitive-behavior therapy, or CBT, which is considered the gold standard in modern psychotherapy, teaches its patients to observe ineffective or negative thought and behavior patterns and to replace them with more productive ones; MBCT incorporates aspects of both mindfulness and CBT.

One study found that MBCT was more effective than using antidepressants to ward off the symptoms of depression in previously depressed participants over the long term: participants experienced a relapse at a rate of 47% with MBCT vs. 60% with antidepressants. Other studies have found similar results in using MBCT to prevent depressive symptom relapse, suggesting that MBCT may be at least as effective as medication alone.

Meditation to Kick Addiction, Decrease Pain

Meditation has also been shown to help people deal with addiction, which increasingly considered to be a medical condition or even a disease. In one study, smokers who were given mindfulness training had a much better quit rate than people who enrolled in the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking program. They smoked less both during the training and during the 17-week follow-up period: the abstinence rate in mediators was 31%, vs. 6% in the Freedom from Smoking group. Results like these may suggest that meditation can help configure the brain circuits involved in addictive behaviors.

The perception of pain is another area in which meditation seems to show some promise. After just four days of mindfulness meditation training, people said that the unpleasantness of their pain (tested with a hot stimulus applied to the leg) was reduced by 57%, and its intensity reduced by 40%, which is significantly higher than using morphine alone. The researchers in this study also found that activity in the somatosensory cortex, which governs how physical stimuli are felt on the skin, was significantly reduced, and there were changes in the brain regions that control how pain is perceived on a conscious level.

The results of all of these studies suggest that meditation may have some value in helping people deal with psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and stress. This is significant both for the clinical setting and for people who need help coping with these problems at home. There have been hints that meditation may affect other systems of the body, for example, in boosting the immune system and decreasing the need for blood pressure medication.

Yoga, the final mind-body practice we will look at in this series, has been dubbed “meditation in motion,” and has also been shown to be useful in a variety of sometimes-surprising settings.

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