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."
Cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, has spent the last 30 years studying the effects of meditation and is founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He tells WebMD that the study offers further evidence that meditation produces measurable benefits. But he rejects the idea that any one type of meditation or relaxation technique is inherently better than another.
"Any practice that can evoke the relaxation response is of benefit, be it meditation, yoga, breathing or repetitive prayer," Benson tells WebMD. "There is no reason to believe that one is better than the other. The key is repetition, but the repetition can be a word, sound, mantra, prayer, breathing or movement."
Benson says stress management can benefit 60% to 90% of people who see doctors for illness. It is increasingly being added to traditional therapies for the treatment of patients with life-threatening illnesses like cancer and AIDS.
"The relaxation response helps decrease metabolism, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and slows breathing and brain waves," he says. "Just about any condition that is either caused or made worse by stress can be helped with meditation."