IS MEDITATION GOOD MEDICINE?

Thousands of years after meditation became the heart of many religious practices, it is increasingly recognized as healthy for the body as well as for the soul. Whether in a secular or a religious context, meditation can help maintain health and ease various medical conditions.

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is the regular and systematic practice of focusing your attention. Some types of meditation, such as transcendental meditation (TM), primarily involve concentration. You focus on a specific sensation, such as your breath flowing in and out of your nostrils, or on a repeated word or phrase. At the same time, you try to disregard the many thoughts that pass through your mind.

In mindfulness meditation, you start by concentrating on one thing, but then turn your attention to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that make up your moment-to-moment experience. The idea is to remain nonjudgmental and somewhat removed from what you observe and feel, with the goal of gaining some insight into yourself.

While the techniques of meditation seem simple, they are not always easy to practice. Considerable discipline is needed to avoid reacting to the many stimuli around you and in your mind and body as you try to concentrate. When practiced regularly, however, meditation encourages a state of calm that is probably the source of its many health benefits.

How the Body Responds to Meditation

Our bodies react to stress with the classic "fight-or-flight" response, producing adrenaline, raising the heart rate and blood pressure, and increasing blood flow to the muscles. This response helps us to combat or flee a particular physical threat. But if we continually react like this to day-to-day stress, we run the risk of suffering a variety of stress-related conditions.

Practicing meditation generates a "relaxation response" - a term coined by Harvard physician Herbert Benson in the 1960s - that decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Last fall, researchers at Harvard's Mind-Body Medical Institute used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to establish that meditation activates brain structures involved in attention and in controlling the autonomic nervous system. Benson emphasizes that these changes can also be achieved through tai chi, Lamaze breathing, or repeating the centering prayers of many religions.

However, some studies suggest that meditation has a bodily impact distinct from that of other relaxation techniques. In one study of hypertension, patients practicing TM lowered their blood pressure levels by twice as much as those who were taught a progressive muscle-relaxation technique. Recently British researchers found that the muscles of runners who practiced meditation reacted less strongly to the stress of exercise (as measured by blood lactate levels) than did runners practicing progressive muscle relaxation or a control group that used neither technique.

Continuing Medical Evidence

Many studies have documented the benefits of meditation for overall health. But it may be particularly helpful for people dealing with medical conditions in which stress is a factor - such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, and insomnia - and where pain and anxiety are involved.

Researchers reported last year (Stroke, March 2000) that people with hypertension who practiced TM not only lowered their blood pressures and pulse rates but also widened their arteries. A control group of individuals who also had hypertension but who spent an equivalent amount of time in relaxing leisure activities lowered their blood pressure but did not experience comparable benefits for their arteries.

A randomized study of people being treated for psoriasis (Psychosomatic Medicine, September/October 1998) found that those who meditated during ultraviolet (UV) light-treatment therapy cleared their skin eruptions significantly faster than those who had UV therapy but did not meditate. meditation instruction experience less pain and anxiety from various causes (particularly fibromyalgia) and use less medication in treating such symptoms.
Researchers investigating meditation's effects on the neuroendocrine system have found that both TM and mindfulness meditation increase blood levels of melatonin, a hormone that is thought to have antioxidant properties.

A Safe Practice

Meditation is safe for almost everyone, with two caveats: First, if you have a serious psychiatric disorder, consult your therapist. Meditation can be a valuable adjunct to psychotherapy, but it's not always advisable. Second, do not use meditation to address unexplained pain or other symptoms in lieu of seeking medical help - if antibiotics or an appendectomy might cure you, you don't want to be meditating instead.

Selected Resources Books

The Relaxation Response, updated and revised (Wholecare, 2000), by Herbert Benson
Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion, 1994), by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Meditative Mind: Varieties of Meditative Experience (J.P. Tarcher, 1996), by Daniel Goleman and Ram Dass
Web sites

Mind-Body Medical Institute: www.mindbody.harvard.edu
The Transcendental Meditation Program: www.tm.org
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society: www.mbsr.com

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