Ask Well: The Health Benefits of MeditationNovember 20, 2015
Meditation has long been used to induce calm and physical relaxation. But research on its potential uses for treating medical problems “is still in its very early stages,” and designing trials can be challenging, said Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist who founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So it’s not surprising the scientific literature is filled with mixed findings at this point in time.”
Some studies have suggested meditation may help reduce blood pressure in young adults at risk of hypertension, ease anxiety and bolster quality of life in cancer patients, and reduce the incidence, severity and duration of acute respiratory illnesses like flu. A 2010 review of the research reported that meditation and other mind-body therapies may help relieve some common menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.
Meditation has been studied for many conditions, but the studies are rife with inconsistencies, and the benefits found are often modest. A randomized controlled trial of 75 women with irritable bowel syndrome, for example, reported that mindfulness meditation, the best-studied type of meditation, reduced the severity of symptoms. But a 2013 review of the literature concluded that the training did not curb anxiety or depression for I.B.S. patients and that improvements in quality of life and pain were small.
On its website, the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health cautioned that there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the use of mindfulness meditation for relieving pain, quitting smoking or managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It said there was only “moderate evidence” that mindfulness meditation eased anxiety and depression.
Laboratory studies have found that meditation produced changes in brain circuits involved in regulating emotion, Dr. Davidson said, and may reduce markers of inflammation and stress hormones like cortisol.
He noted that there were many types of meditation and that research showed that the effects varied tremendously among individuals, adding, “This is not a one-size-fits-all.”