People with asthma, arthritis, and other chronic inflammatory conditions have been found to benefit significantly from meditation practices, according to a new study that provides fresh evidence of the clear connection between mind and body in a person’s overall health.
Neuroscientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison determined individuals who learned to practice mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, originally designed for patients with chronic pain, experienced marked relief from a variety of inflammation-related conditions, in which psychological stress plays a major role.
The practice involves focusing attention on the breath, bodily sensations, and mental state while seated, walking, or practicing yoga. While interest in meditation as a stress-busting practice has grown, only now is scientific evidence showing specific health benefits, said the researchers.
The new study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, is one of the first designed to quantify the health benefits of meditation vs. other healthy activities.
Lead researcher Melissa Rosenkranz, an assistant scientist at the center, said the study compared the effects of meditation with a program designed to enhance health in ways unrelated to stress reduction — involving nutritional education, physical activity, and music therapy.
"We wanted to develop an intervention that was meant to produce positive change and compare the mindfulness approach to an intervention that was structurally equivalent," Rosenkranz said.
Study participants were divided into two groups. Both had the same amount of training, the same level of expertise in the instructors, and the same amount of home practice. Using a stress test to induce psychological stress and a pepper-based cream to produce inflammation on the skin of study participants, researchers monitored biochemical changes in their bodies after being trained.
The results showed that while both techniques reduced stress, meditation was more effective at reducing stress-induced inflammation — which can ease the suffering of people with related conditions, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
"This is not a cure-all,” Rosenkranz noted. “But our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions."
The study was funded, in part, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health.