Examining the Science

Meditation Meditation Hiking

The Science of Meditation

It is normal for individuals to approach mindfulness with a degree of skepticism. For some, the whole concept seems a bit abstract. How can sitting quietly for 15-30 minutes a day change the way our brains function and boost immune system activity, while simultaneously reducing stress?

Before you dismiss meditation too quickly, you should know that there is a large and growing body of clinical evidence supporting the various health benefits of the practice. Many of the studies have been conducted by highly regarded researchers and published in peer reviewed journals.

In fact, over the last thirty years, researchers at a number of leading universities – including the University of Massachusetts, UCLA, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin – have made great progress in linking mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to a number of very important physiological and psychological health benefits. These medical benefits and improvements in psychological symptoms affected individuals suffering from a wide range of medical diagnoses and pain conditions.

The list of health benefits that have been scientifically linked to mindfulness are cause for great excitement in the IBD community, particularly for those patients who experience high degrees of stress or feelings of depression. We have outlined some of the key scientific findings on the medical benefits of meditation and MBSR below.

Summary of the Available Research:

Meditation May Reduce Anxiety: there is evidence that individuals who practice mindfulness may experience reduced levels of physiological and psychological anxiety.[1]

Meditation May Reduce Depression: a number of studies have demonstrated that individuals suffering from depression experienced marked improvements in their symptoms after completing MBSR programs.[2,3]

Meditation Can Improve One’s Mood, Encourage a Positive Attitude, and Enhance the Subjective Quality of Overall Wellbeing: one of the most consistently reported benefits of meditation is its ability to improve the lives of people who practice it. Individuals who use MBSR report clinically significant improvement in mood, attitude, and wellbeing compared to the control group of non-meditators. This finding has been replicated in numerous studies. [4,5,6,7,8,9]

Meditation Can Reduce Stress: two studies investigated meditation’s impact on stress levels, and determined that the group of meditators experienced lower levels of physiological and psychological stress compared to the group that did not meditate. Additionally, one study reported that the meditation group experienced lower levels of job burnout compared to the control group.[6,7]

Meditation May Protect the Brain from the Effects of Aging: Fairly recent studies have suggested that meditation may actually help protect brain functionality as we age. The research showed that individuals who meditated preserved the gray matter in the brain to a greater degree than individuals who did not meditate. Additionally, the meditation group demonstrated statistically better attention skills than the control group.[10,11]

Meditation Can Cause an Improvement in the Physical Symptoms of Some Diseases, and Even Reduce Chronic Pain: Meditation has been shown in a number of carefully controlled studies to have a beneficial impact on a number of chronic diseases. Kenneth Kaplan at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts published a study that showed patients with fibromyalgia benefitted significantly from the use of the MBSR in their treatment protocol. Over half of the patients using a meditation program as part of their treatment regimen demonstrated moderate to marked improvement in their symptoms.[12] In two separate studies in 2007 and 2008, David Creswell at UCLA released data that showed mindfulness actually reduces the amount of pain experienced by individuals across a range of chronic diseases.[5] The 2008 study was groundbreaking in that it showed that MBSR may slow the rate of progression of HIV in affected patient populations.[13]

In two separate research studies, Jon Kabat-Zinn showed that MBSR reduces chronic pain and also may increase the healing rate of patients with severe psoriasis.[14,15] Additional studies over the last few years have suggested that MBSR may have beneficial qualities for cancer patients, although much more research is needed in this area. [16]

To date, researchers have not concentrated on examining a link between meditation and IBD. Research is needed to determine if similar reductions in pain are possible for patients with IBD.

Meditation May Strengthen the Immune System: in 2003, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin – Madison caused a stir in the medical community with the release of his Promega study. The study, which included approximately 50 patients, showed that people who meditated had increased brainwave activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention and mood regulation. The results showed that meditators were able to self-induce activity in this area of the brain, leading to an increase in positive emotion/mood (positive affect) and a reduction in negative emotions (negative affect).

However, the greatest surprise out of the study may have been the finding that the meditation group also demonstrated significantly more resistant immune systems when compared to the control group. Davidson was able to show this by injecting participants with vaccines and monitoring the resistance of the respective groups to the foreign bodies. In all cases, the patients who used MBSR demonstrated increased immune system strength after beginning to meditate, as well as more robust immune systems than those who did not meditate.[4]

Benefits of Meditation May Be Long-Term: the benefits of meditation may not be limited to the period of time when the individual is actively meditating. A few studies have shown that when MBSR is utilized as part of a medical treatment regimen, the results often carried forward over many years, with patients demonstrating sustained improvement in their health.[1,6,17]

Potential Methods of Action

So how does meditation achieve these affects on the body? Researchers are only starting to piece together this complicated puzzle. Initially, there is evidence to suggest that meditation triggers activity in areas of the brain that suppresses stress and disease-related genes, while activating the prefrontal cortex responsible for positive emotions. Essentially, it is a powerful one-two punch: the potential to suppress stress, while simultaneously enhancing our feelings of wellbeing. And there is data supporting these hypotheses.

In one study published in the Public Library of Science, researchers took blood samples from 19 individuals who were frequent meditators, and compared these samples to those of 19 people who had never meditated before. The researchers ran genomic analyses on the blood, and found that the group of meditators suppressed twice the number of stress-related genes that the non-meditators did. In fact, the meditators suppressed 1,000 stress genes that the non-meditators did not surpress.[18]

Dr. Dean Ornish, professor of medicine at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute at the University of California at San Francisco, similarly found that when meditation was combined with better nutrition and moderate exercise, the genes associated with cancer of the prostate were suppressed.[19] These studies hint at the potential meditation may have to significantly impact our health and wellness.

Next Section: How to Practice It

Selected References