Not only does meditation make you feel good, it also is a balancing exercise for the body's systems.
Reviewed By Michael Smith
When it comes to alternative therapy, meditation is one method that's leading the pack, at least in terms of popularity of use.
According to research conducted by David Eisenberg, MD, and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School, mind/body medicine is the most widely used alternative. And it's no wonder, when you look at the medical evidence piling up to support its role in promoting health. At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.
Meditation: More Than Just a "Feel-Good" State
Meditation -- focusing the mind continuously on one thought, phrase or prayer for a period of time -- naturally leads to the "relaxation response," changes in the body that are deeply restorative and which quicken healing. These changes include reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration, and muscle tension, as well as an improvement in immunity. The relaxation response works much like pushing a "reset" button, enabling your body to return to a state of optimal balance. Many studies have been done that show the effectiveness of meditation in treating a number of health conditions.
Some remarkable benefits are possible for women who meditate regularly. One study found that women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) reduced their symptoms by 58%. Another study found that women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flashes.
Even those women struggling with infertility can benefit: In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), the women had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34% became pregnant within six months.
Researchers have also found that new mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
The Healthy Heart
The heart has been the focus of hundreds of studies of meditation worldwide. Regular practice of meditation has been found to significantly reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. These reductions can endure over the long term: In one study, the reductions achieved during an eight-week program were still in place three years later.
Other studies have focused on meditation in relation to heart disease. For example, patients with coronary artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15% increase in exercise tolerance. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
Patients undergoing heart surgery can also reap the rewards of meditation. In one study, angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure. In another, those having open-heart surgery were able to reduce their frequency of abnormal heart rhythms.
The Immune Response
There's also evidence that meditation has immune-enhancing effects. For example, medical students who meditated during final exams had a higher percentage of "T-helper cells," the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of "natural-killer cells," which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
Cancer patients have also experienced the benefits of meditation. In one study, patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.
Though a variety of meditation techniques exist, there are basic elements that anyone can master. Doing as little as 20 minutes per day is enough to begin to see benefits.
1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
2. Focus your attention on the repetition of a word, sound, phrase or prayer, doing this silently or whispering. An alternative is to focus on the sensation of each breath as it moves in and out of your body.
3. Every time you notice that your attention has wandered (which will occur naturally), gently redirect it back, without judging yourself.
Originally published Nov. 18, 1999.
Medically updated Aug. 12, 2004.
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