By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD
Good news (as of February 22, 2016): finally science is starting to explain how mindful meditation can be good for your health. Last month, a study published in the Biological Psychiatry journal proved that mindfulness meditation combines the default state network (a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other) with a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest (the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which in turn is associated with improvements in Interleukin -6 levels. Interleukin-5 is a marker of inflammatory disease risk. They recruited 35 jobless adults, who were separated in 2 groups: one group was immersed in a 3-day intensive residential mindfulness meditation and the other group in a relaxation training program. Blood samples and a resting state scan test were taken before and after the program. The key findings indicated that mindfulness meditation training, and not relaxation training, increased posterior cingulate cortex resting state functional connectivity with left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region important in top-down executive control). According to this study “these pre-post training alterations statistically explained 30% of the overall mindfulness meditation training effects on Interleukin-6 at follow-up after 4 months“. In healthy men, elevated levels of Interleukin-6 are related to increased risk of future Myocardial infarction, for example heart attack.
More than 9 years ago I read a study that completely changed my point of view about meditation. I am very lucky to have an open-minded meditation-practicing mother who taught me the basic techniques when I was very young, but as a researcher I did not connect the power of meditation with any “biological” or scientifically proved alteration. Many people meditate to reduce psychological stress and health problems, but my mother taught me to meditate to reach a nirvana-like moment of peace and clarity. We focused on the moment – not searching for fixing any problem – and just enjoyed the experience.
Meditation can be defined in psychological terms as the practice of disciplining one’s attention in an effort to attain a certain state of mind. There are two different types of meditation: spiritual (known for the presence of mantras and thoughts about God and God’s attributes) and secular meditation independent of any religious motivation. In the study that changed my view of this practice, Wacholtz and Pargament (1, 2) studied how these 2 types of meditation helped people deal with pain. They asked the participants to meditate for 20 minutes each day over a period of 2 weeks. One group was told to practice spiritual meditation and a second group would practice secular meditation. A third group of people were asked to not meditate as a control. Then, the researchers performed the simple “please introduce your hand in this cold ice water and try to hold it there as long as you can” method. How long could the participants keep their hand in this very uncomfortable situation? Well, the “spiritual” group had greater decreases in anxiety and more positive mood, spiritual health, and spiritual experiences, plus they tolerated pain almost twice as long as the other two groups. Of course, just meditation gave the participants a better tolerance to the -2C water. In 2008 they published another study where they showed that spiritual meditation was more effective than secular meditation at reducing the severity of migraines in chronic patients.
Recently, a variety of studies are proving that meditation is an effective treatment for stress and pain. For example in Nature Review Neurology, Jensen et al. reviewed a number of publications on this very topic. First of all, they note that meditation is not an invasive therapy, moreover they conclude that the “evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation has both immediate and long-term effects on cortical structures and activity involved in attention, emotional responding and pain”.
On the other hand, a meta analysis published this year by Goyal et al. in JAMA Internal Medicine (they included 47 trials with 3515 participants) found that mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain. They detected low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life, and low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. In conclusion, they found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment, like medicine or workout.
Let’s face it: the happiest guy in the world, Dr. Matthieu Ricard (yes, he has a PhD in molecular biology), meditates often as the basis of his awesomeness, so let’s follow his example… or in scientific language: he has being proving his hypothesis with 100% success, and we can reproduce his experiment at any time in our own lives.
To find a meditation group near you and more information check the free mediation info website.
This post was originally published on June 4, 2014.