By Susan Chow, PhD, ELS
Meditation is widely practiced and believed to have beneficial health effects, but the research to understand how it works and the effects it can have are only beginning to cut the surface of the practice.
Initial studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s were poorly controlled and the results achieved were thus not reliable. However, modern technology and experimental techniques have allowed the research to look further into what changes are noted when people meditate, over the short and long term.
Several studies have noted that meditation can have an effect on blood pressure, suggesting that it may be beneficial in the management of hypertension and help to prevent cardiovascular disease.
One study of 298 university students found that the practice lowered blood pressure of individuals at risk of developing hypertension. Additionally, meditation was noted to have a beneficial effect on psychological distress, anger management, anxiety and depression.
In particular, transcendental meditation has significant evidence to support its use in the management of hypertension and is recommended by the American Heart Association for this indication. However, it is not clear if this technique is superior to other types of meditation.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
In 2011, a clinical trial of 75 women that practiced mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks showed a reduction in the severity of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. A review of the subject in 2013 found that meditation helped to slightly improve pain and quality of life, although it did not have a noticeable effect on depression or anxiety.
In 2014, a pilot study of 55 adults with ulcerative colitis in remission observed the effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for 8 weeks, compared with a placebo procedure. The results of the study did not find significant changes between the two groups in physiological markers for the disease, such as inflammation and symptoms.
However, patients that practiced MBSR perceived stress during flare-ups, prompting conclusive recommendation that it may be beneficial for patients with moderate ulcerative colitis in remission.
Anxiety and Depression
There is moderate evidence to support participation in mindfulness meditation programs to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. A review of 47 trials that encompassed more than 3000 participants reported this finding, but there was no supporting evidence that the practice changed stress-induced behaviors, such as sleep disorders and substance abuse.
A small study of 54 adults with insomnia investigated the effect of MBSR on the symptoms. The results found that the meditation technique helped to reduce the severity of insomnia in comparison to the control group, although further research is needed to confirm this suggestion.
There is some research to support the practice of meditation to aid in the cessation of smoking, but the evidence is not abundant. One randomized controlled trial showed that mindfulness meditation helped to reduce the rate of cigarette use, both in the short term and four months after treatment. This is thought to be in part due to the ability of mindfulness awareness to reduce cravings to smoke.
In addition, the practice of meditation has been linked to several other health outcomes, including:
- Improved mental health
- Increased quality of life
- Enhanced immune function
Last Updated: Nov 22, 2015