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The Mysterious 'Medication' of Meditation

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WebMD Health News

May 30, 2000 -- The waves of pain are intense for Regina, the result of an auto accident that left her with neck and jaw injuries. Surgery brought no relief, and pain medications left her drowsy, with virtually no energy. She's had to quit her job as an on-the-rise Atlanta chef. "I didn't like the way they made me feel ... not like myself," the 35-year-old tells WebMD of the pain medication.

Seeking an alternative, she gave meditation a try. Now when the intense pain hits -- which happens at least five times a day -- she calms her thoughts, focuses on her breathing, and meditates it away.

Meditation -- an ancient spiritual tradition -- is for millions of people around the world a 15- or 20-minute daily ritual. While there are several forms of meditation, generally it involves focusing on the breathing, ignoring everyday thoughts, and repeating a word or phrase called a mantra. Relaxation, which is at the heart of meditation, has long been known to quiet a turbulent mind, reduce stress, and, as in Regina's case, provide pain relief.

During the past three decades, a handful of scientists have delved deeper into the mysteries of meditation, trying to understand how the mind affects the body. Studies show that daily meditation can indeed be medication -- creating long-lasting physiological effects that reduce high blood pressure and even help unclog arteries to reverse heart disease.

Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, MD, has studied and written about the physiologic effects of meditation over the past 30 years. Also president of the Mind/Body Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Benson co-authored a recently published -- albeit small -- study mapping, for the first time, exactly what happens in the brain during meditation.

Five long-time meditation practitioners were involved in the study. Each had practiced Kundalini, an Eastern form of meditation, for at least four years. While meditating, each was given a brain scan called an MRI.

"There was a striking quietude across the entire brain which was documented through MRI," Benson tells WebMD. "The areas of the brain that became active from that quietude were those that control metabolism, heart rate, etc.," says Benson, who is also associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The results were published recently in the journal Stroke.

"We knew meditation caused a relaxation response, but we couldn't prove it. We knew that if you thought in a certain way, with repetition, that physiologic changes would occur in the body. Here now is proof that mind, in the form of repetition, is affecting the brain, which affects the body," says Benson.

Also studying meditation over the past 12 years are researchers at the College of Maharashi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. Many of the studies, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, have focused on heart disease and its risk factors.

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