In today's fast-paced society, more and more people are turning to meditation to help deal with the stress of everyday life. However, meditation is more than just a way to switch off and relax. This age-old technique is a powerful tool that can benefit an array of health conditions-from insomnia and anxiety to cancer and heart disease.
In one of the latest studies, 'mind-fulness meditation' showed a positive effect on the immune system of those with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Researchers from the Cousins Center for Psychoneuro-immunology at UCLA tracked CD4+
T lymphocytes-the immune cells attacked by HIV-in a group of HIV-positive adults during an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) meditation programme.
Surprisingly, the group showed no loss of CD4+ T lymphocytes during the study, suggesting that mindfulness training can buffer these cell declines. In contrast, the HIV-positive controls not practising the meditation showed a significant decline in these immune cells over the same eight-week period.
These effects were independent of antiretroviral (ARV) medication to slow the progression of HIV. Moreover, the more meditation classes the participants attended, the better their cell counts were, indicating a dose- response relationship (Brain Behav Immun, 2008 Jul 19; Epub ahead of print).
This new study adds to the growing evidence suggesting that meditation has the potential to prevent and treat a range of medical conditions. Two recent studies from the University of Pittsburgh, PA, found that meditation can help patients with chronic lower back pain. On analyzing diary entries, one study found benefits such as less pain, improved attention, better sleep, enhanced feelings of wellbeing and an improved quality of life (J Pain, 2008; 9: 841-8). The other-a random-ized, controlled preliminary trial-concluded that meditation "may lead to improvement in pain acceptance and physical function" (Pain, 2008; 134: 310-9).
Meditation can also help the cardiovascular system. When 60 hypertensive African-Americans with atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in the arteries) were encouraged to practise mantra-based Transcendental Medita-tion (TM), after nine months, all showed marked decreases in the thickness of their arterial walls, while non-meditators showed increases in their artery-wall thicknesses. Indeed, in this study, meditation also resulted in an 11-per-cent decrease in the risk of heart attack, and an 8- to 15-per-cent lower risk of stroke (Stroke, 2000; 31: 568-73).
TM was also able to reduce blood pressure and medication use in a one-year study of hypertensive patients (Am J Hypertens, 2005; 18: 88-98).
There are more generalized health benefits, too. An analysis of US hospital records revealed that regular meditators required half the number of in- and outpatient treatments compared with non-meditators in 17 treatment categories. Meditating
over-40s fared particularly well, with hospital admission rates that were a third of those of non-meditators (Psychosom Med, 1987; 49: 493-507).
Meditation may even increase longevity. A three-year study carried out in eight old-people's homes found that 80-year-olds who learned to meditate were not only happier and better adjusted than non-meditators, but they also lived longer (J Pers Soc Psychol, 1989; 57: 950-64).
Future therapeutic roles
More and more uses for this simple stress-reduction technique are being uncovered. Meditation has shown evidence of efficacy in the treatment of psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, sleep disturbances, eating disorders and symptoms associated with cancer. The connection between medicine and meditation is further under-scored by their shared etymological origins from the Latin word mederi, which means 'to heal' (JAMA, 2008; 300: 1350-2).
Perhaps the most interesting finding so far is that meditation may help children with learning disabil-ities and ADHD (attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder). A pilot study of 34 adolescents with learning disabilities before and after five weeks of mindfulness meditation reported that all showed less anxiety, enhanced social skills and improved academic performance (Complement Health Pract Rev, 2008; 13: 34-45).
Similarly, mindfulness training may help ADHD. UCLA researchers concluded that: "Mindfulness training is a feasible intervention in a subsetof ADHD adults and adolescents and may improve behavioural and neuro-cognitive impairments" (J Atten Disord, 2008; 11: 737-46).
Precisely why meditation is so beneficial for such a wide variety of cases is unclear, but may be related to stress hormones. Just four months of regular meditation reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, impli-cated in a number of health problems (Psychoneuroendocrinology, 1997; 22: 277- 95). Meditation can also affect other factors of wellbeing-physiological and psychological-and even brain function (JAMA, 2008; 300: 1350-2).
Whatever the mechanism, it's clear that meditation has the potential to benefit all of us. In the words of the renowned Buddhist teacher from Tibet, the Venerable Sogyal Rinpoche, "The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself for this life."