To be honest, before I began researching for this ongoing Meditation Feature Series, I knew I would find a lot of studies showing effects of meditation on physiology and mental well-being, and I thought there might only be limited research about effects on medical diseases. Knowing, for example, that meditation reduces blood pressure, I thought there might be a few studies showing that meditation can improve or maybe prevent heart disease. I didn’t expect much else. Instead, I was astounded by the amount of research about how meditation can improve symptoms of medical illness. In particular, I was amazed at how many different medical diseases appear to be affected by meditation practise.
- This review paper says transcendental meditation decreases hypertension (clinically high blood pressure) and death from cardiovascular events (like heart attacks). In one study, for example, patients with heart disease that did a transcendental meditation course had less instances of heart attack, stroke, and death over about 5 years than patients that did a non-meditation, health education course.
- Another review paper shows that mind-body therapies like yoga and mindfulness meditation can help ease symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).
- An 8-week mindfulness meditation course improved physical functioning in elderly adults with chronic lower back pain, according to this study.
- Another study of a similar meditation course showed improvement in symptoms of fibromyalgia, a condition characterised by chronic pain. These effects were still present 3 years after the course.
- That same mindfulness meditation course appears to reduce the severity, duration, and days of work missed from cold and flu, according to a study published this year, which also found that exercise was effective in reducing these things, but meditation was better. So imagine the effects of exercise and meditation combined!
This evidence adds to my already existing beliefs that a) many medical illness, although made up of different symptoms, often share common underlying mechanisms, such as chronic inflammation, and b) that psychological well-being and physical well-being go hand-in-hand. It’s not just hippie faff.
There is one big caveat that I want to point out now. There is no evidence yet to show that meditation alone can completely cure any medical disease. None. Zilch. So if you decide to entirely replace your doctor’s recommended treatments with meditation alone, then you’re an idiot. My apologies for putting it so bluntly, but it needs to be said. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) thinks you’re an idiot too.
Instead, I believe that meditation, like many things, can be used in parallel with many conventional therapies, drug or otherwise. It’s like taking a vitamin supplement. You wouldn’t just take the supplements – you have to eat real food, too. And meditation certainly doesn’t need to be used only by patients who are already ill, but can improve general well-being in all of us, whether we are physically healthy or not.