It’s hard to believe some still question whether meditation can have a positive effect on mind and body. A very selective research review recently raised the question, leading to headlines (such as one in The Wall Street Journal) that said the benefits are limited.
As a physician and scientist, I’ve been researching effects of meditation on health for 30 years, and have found it has compelling benefits. Over the past year, I’ve been invited by doctors in medical schools and major health centers on four continents to instruct them on the scientific basis of mind-body medicine and meditation in prevention and treatment of disease, especially cardiovascular disease.
Research on Transcendental Meditation, for example, has found reduced blood pressure, stress and insulin resistance (useful for preventing diabetes), slowing of biological aging, and even a 48% reduction in the rates of heart attack, stroke, and death. I would consider those to be benefits. And so does the American Heart Association, which last year released a statement saying that decades of research indicates TM lowers blood pressure, and may be considered by clinicians as a treatment for high BP.
Research on meditation has shown a wide range of psychological benefits. For example, a 2012 review of 163 studies that was published by the American Psychological Association concluded that the Transcendental Meditation technique had relatively strong effects in reducing anxiety, negative emotions, trait anxiety, and neuroticism, while aiding learning, memory, and self-realization. Mindfulness meditation showed effects in reducing negative personality traits and stress, and in improving attention and mindfulness. The review concluded, “The effects found in the current analyses show that meditation affects people in important ways.”
Why, then, did the recent review published in a specialty journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Internal Medicine) conclude there were limited benefits, with mindfulness meditation showing only moderate or low evidence for specific stress-related conditions such as anxiety?
That review was narrowly focused on research on meditation for certain types of psychological stress, so objective benefits such as reduced blood pressure and heart disease were outside its scope. In addition, that review only looked at studies in which the subjects had been diagnosed with a medical or psychiatric conditions. The authors excluded studies of otherwise normal individuals with anxiety or stress, as well as any study that wasn’t on adults.
These limited selection criteria resulted in the omission of many rigorous studies, which, when taken as a whole, show that at least some forms of meditation are beneficial for reducing stress and anxiety. A 2013 meta-analysis (a type of rigorous review) of 16 controlled studies among 1295 participants (10 of which matched the JAMA Internal Medicine criteria for active controls) found that the Transcendental Meditation technique significantly reduced anxiety, the most common form of stress. And the greater the starting level of anxiety in the test subjects, the greater the reduction with meditation.
In a commentary that accompanied the article published by the AMA, Allan Goroll, MD, states, “The modest benefit found in the study by Goyal et al begs the question of why, in the absence of strong scientifically vetted evidence, meditation in particular and complementary measures in general have become so popular, especially among the influential and well educated.”
I can answer that. Complementary and alternative approaches (now called integrative medicine) have indeed been shown in rigorous scientific studies to have some major effects on mind and body health. But, equally important, people who use natural approaches are taking a more active role in their health. This is called self-empowerment. This is what medical professionals should desire for their patients and themselves. This is the grail. We want people to adopt healthier behaviors and outlooks and attitudes, to take more responsibility, to use their own inner healing abilities. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the majority of chronic diseases could be prevented by healthy behaviors. That is, by people managing their own stress and lifestyle.
In addition, think for a moment about acupuncture. There’s been extensive research on its effectiveness in treating pain. Some of that research shows it to be better than a placebo; much of it shows it to be about the same as a placebo. But most of the research shows that it’s better than no treatment. It's astounding that people can reduce their own pain, yet medical journals are typically gripped by the fact that it’s often no better than a placebo.
Finally, people meditate because it can fundamentally change their self-perceptions and sense of suffering. And, yes, research also supports this. In studies on long-term and even short-term practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, subjects report the experience of a deep level of unity and wholeness in their awareness. This gives them a profound experience of peace, connectedness, and relief from stress. EEG and brain imaging research confirms that meditators’ brains actually function differently than those who haven’t learned the technique.
So to Dr. Goroll and all those who wonder why anyone would meditate, my observation, based on decades of published peer-reviewed scientific research, is that at least certain forms of meditation may greatly contribute to a healthy, balanced mind and body. To ignore the evidence is ignoring the scientific basis of medicine.
As can be seen in the presentations on meditation at the recent world economic summit in Davos, Switzerland and the cover story in the February 2 issue of TIME magazine, the benefits of meditation are coming to be widely accepted by health professionals, business leaders, and the media. It’s now time for the medical profession to catch up and provide this information to those who depend on them for the most advanced knowledge and technologies for mind and body health.