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Meditation May Help Ward Off Illness

Study: Impact on anxiety, immunity may help explain its effect on health
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Feb. 7, 2003 -- Once viewed as a somewhat suspect practice by many Westerners, meditation is becoming mainstream. The ancient discipline is increasingly being embraced within traditional medical circles as a powerful healing tool, and now new research may help explain why it works.

A University of Wisconsin, Madison, study, reported in the February issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, shows that meditation not only has clear effects in areas of the brain focused on emotion, but it also may strengthen the ability of a person to ward off illness.

Researcher Richard J. Davidson, PhD, and colleagues measured brain electrical activity among 25 subjects before, immediately after, and four months following their participation in an eight-week training course in what's called mindfulness meditation. The stress-reduction program emphasizes awareness of sensations and thoughts during meditation, but students learn to avoid acting on their emotions. This type of meditation differs from the more commonly known form called transcendental meditation, which focuses solely on just one thing, such as a sensation or a phrase.

The group attended weekly classes and participated in a seven-hour retreat. Following the instruction, they were asked to practice mindfulness meditation for an hour a day, six days a week. A comparison group of 16 people received no instruction and did not meditate.

Measurement of brain electrical activity showed the meditation group had increased activation in the left, frontal region of their brains - an area linked to reduced anxiety and a positive emotional state.

To test immune function (the ability of a person to ward of illness), the meditators were given flu shots at the end of the eight-week training session, along with the non-meditators. Blood tests taken one and two months after the shots were given showed the meditation group had higher levels of protection than those who did not meditate, as measured by antibodies produced against the flu virus.

"To our knowledge this is the first demonstration of a reliable effect of meditation on immune function [within the body]," Davidson and colleagues write. "The observation that the magnitude of change in immune function was greater for those subjects showing the larger shift toward left-sided [brain] activation further supports [the study's] earlier associations."

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