Meditative practices weren’t invented as medical treatments but, rather, as spiritual practices. However, over the years, it’s been discovered that many patients fare better when meditation is part of their treatment regimen. The pioneering work of Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School in the 1960’s led to a wave of studies showing how practices that encourage relaxation and combat negative thinking can benefit patients with various conditions.
Benson was asked by students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Transcendental Meditation (TM) guru from Rishikesh, to study whether patients who meditated had better health outcomes than patients who didn’t. Benson reluctantly agreed to investigate. (At the time, this wasn’t considered a respectable topic of study by many in the medical establishment.) After discovering that TM meditators did fare better than non-meditators, Benson went on to explore other meditative and contemplative practices. He’s credited with coining the term “relaxation response” to describe a bodily response that opposes the well-known “fight or flight” response. Benson found that the relaxed body was more resilient against stress-related illnesses – particularly hypertension.
Since that early work, a large body of studies have been conducted using various methodologies. Typically, the question asked in such studies is whether meditators who use the conventional treatment have better health outcomes than those who only use the conventional treatment.
In science, findings are regarded cautiously — skeptically even — until other scientists independently verify a study’s results. Because biases and methodological problems can result in incorrect results, this caution is needed. Keeping this in mind, one shouldn’t consider this listing to be a full and complete accounting of all illnesses that might be more effectively treated the inclusion of meditation. These are ailments for which there is either strong evidence or preliminary evidence of a benefit. (Preliminary evidence means that some findings exist to support the conclusion, but either with mixed results, weak positive results, or a lack of validation.)
1) Conditions for which there is strong evidence of benefit from meditative practice:
It should come as no surprise that meditation can help depressed individuals. Those with Depression experience relentless waves of negative thinking. Meditation increases one’s conscious awareness of what thoughts are occurring and encourages one to be non-judgmental regarding such thoughts.
It should be noted that in many yogic schools, meditation is contraindicated for the clinically depressed. Instead, active practices, like asana or postural practice, are preferred. Those diagnosed with depression should discuss their intentions to meditate with their psychiatrist or other qualified therapist. Some forms of meditation (e.g. mindfulness meditation) have been more thoroughly investigated than others, and results can vary considerably based on the nature of one’s practice.
b. Chronic pain:
In Vipassana meditation, one learns to be aware of sensations in the body without attaching any labels or judgements to them. Much of the trouble of pain is in how the mind reacts to that sensation, rather than the raw sensation, itself. Meditation can help train one to look more neutrally at the sensations in the body.
As with depression, meditation teaches one to observe what thoughts arise, and to not worsen them by attaching value judgments. By becoming conscious of what anxiety-causing thoughts arise, we can begin to be more aware of how one’s body is reacting to (or overreacting to) a stimulus.
d. High Blood Pressure (Hypertension):
The aforementioned relaxation response — among other effects — reduces the heart rate. As the body pushes less blood through a given segment of blood vessel, blood pressure decreases. It’s worth noting that Herbert Benson was a cardiologist and much of his earliest work focused on hypertensive patients. TM’s role in treatment in hypertension is particularly well-documented.
2) Conditions for which there is preliminary evidence of a benefit from meditative practice:
As was mentioned, this shouldn’t be taken as a complete list. Rather it can be thought of as a sample showing some of the breadth of findings.
a. Digestive ailments (e.g. Irritable Bowel Syndrome):
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a ailment of the large intestine that can result in a number of symptoms including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal pain. Studies in 2011 and 2013 suggested that meditation was helpful for many patients, though other studies have been inconclusive. Stress is a common trigger of IBS and digestive tract ailments, generally, and so it’s not surprising that — at least in those cases where stress is a trigger — that meditation can be helpful.
Fibromyalgia is a condition of musculoskeletal pain that may be accompanied by sleep loss, mood changes, and fatigue. The cause of fibromyalgia remains a mystery, and some experts suspect it must be a complex set of conditions. However, infection and stress are among the triggers of the ailment, and since meditation can help counteract stress and rest helps boost immune system effectiveness, it’s not unexpected that meditation might be helpful in some instances.
Psoriasis is a skin condition in which skin cells reproduce at an excessive rate. The cause of psoriasis hasn’t been well established, but it seems to be linked to a problem of the immune system related to white blood cells. While the findings are limited, to the degree that meditation supports immune function, it could help with cases of psoriasis.
The causes of insomnia are numerous and varied. While meditation may not help every individual with insomnia, it appears that mindfulness based practices help reduce insomnia for many. The quieting of the mind is a major tool in being able to drift into a peaceful slumber.
e. Heart disease:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in India as it is for the entire world. Heart disease is actually a class of diseases including not only conditions that affect the heart, but also those that affect the circulatory system more generally. It includes arrhythmia (disruption in the pace of heart beats,) clogged arteries, and defects in the heart muscle.
Lifestyle habits are among the major risk factors for heart disease. Stress, substance abuse, and poor diet are all contributors to heart disease and all may be swayed by meditation.
There are a number of ways that cancer patients may benefit from meditation. As with other conditions, the boost that meditation can give the immune system may be what people most think of when they consider how meditation might help.
However, it’s not just a matter of how the practice helps the patient fight the disease. One study found that meditation helped cancer patients in remission to be less fearful of recurrence, and stressing over the possibility that cancer will come back is a problem for those who’ve fought off the disease. It’s also the case that meditation may help individuals diagnosed as terminal to mitigate their fear of death.
While meditation shouldn’t be considered a panacea that will fix everything in one’s life, it’s important to recognize that the human body is incredibly effective at self-healing under the right conditions, and those conditions include the capacity to get rest and manage stress.