Fact from Fiction
Updated: May 20, 2022
Meditation has a PR problem. There is a stigma attached to it. This is one of the challenges I face when working in this space. But the evidence is robust and supports the practice. I approach audiences with the research at hand, citing primary studies as articles often exaggerate or misrepresent research findings. I look for studies published in reputable journals like Science, Cell, or Nature. I look at sample sizes and look for controlled clinical trials. Controlled studies provide researchers with yardsticks against which they can test variables like the effects of an 8 week focused attention meditation practice on inflammation markers, for example. I also prefer blinded studies which are designed to minimize bias in clinical trials. I look for replicability and similar studies by different investigators. Replication gives more confidence that results are reliable and valid. I look for statistical significance. Statistical significance measures the size of an effect in a particular study to help researchers determine whether a correlation is probable or due to chance. And I do my best to understand and translate the findings for audiences, neither exaggerating findings nor promoting meditation as a cure all for complex physical or psychological problems.
Meditation has been shown to be helpful for a variety of conditions and certain psychological disorders. A number of researchers have investigated how meditation works and how it affects the brain. Meditation has been used for thousands of years to increase calm, focus and relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Some research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.
Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain.
A small 2016 study funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindfulness meditation does help to control pain and doesn’t use the brain’s naturally occurring opiates to do so. This suggests that combining mindfulness with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s opioid activity may be particularly effective for reducing pain. Visit the NCCIH Web site for more information on this study.
In another 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults aged 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or usual care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement, and it was greater than those who got usual care, including long after the training ended. The researchers found that participants in the MBSR and CBT groups had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care. There were no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT. Visit the NCCIH website for more information on this study.
High blood pressure
Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
The findings also suggested that practicing meditation can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping ability.
A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of blood-pressure lowering because there are few head-to-head studies.
Anxiety, depression, insomnia
A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep.
A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.
In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.
Results from a 2011 NCCIH-funded study of 279 adults who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found that changes in spirituality were associated with better mental health and quality of life.
Guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians published in 2013 suggest that MBSR and meditation may help to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression while enhancing mood and self-esteem in people with lung cancer.
Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2014 by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIC) recommend meditation as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients treated for breast cancer. The SIC also recommends its use to improve quality of life in these people.
Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. However, differences in study designs mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn.
Because only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its use for this condition.
A 2014 research review suggested that meditation reduces chemical identifiers of inflammation and shows promise in helping to regulate the immune system.
Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy.
There are many types of meditation and researchers are now testing to see how different techniques affect mind and body.
There is a lot of misinformation out there- from poor reporting to anecdotes disguised as evidence and unsupported claims made by uninformed teachers, coaches, or gurus. There is little evidence supporting the efficacy of crystals, reiki, tapping, quantum jumping, homeopathy, manifesting, and some supplements, for example. Yoga, acupuncture, tai chi/qi gong, massage, and hypnosis have better track records and quality studies backing them for the treatment of specific conditions. There is no single cure-all, however. So, it is best to approach wellness holistically- paying attention to sleep, diet, exercise, relationships, and other complementary approaches.
It is important to note that belief does play a role in healing. A person who believes in crystals, angels, vibrational fields, or reiki may see some benefits. I am not discounting this. Our thoughts, feelings, and expectations can have a powerful and positive effect on our well-being. Scientists call this the placebo effect, which itself has become an object of investigation.
I also acknowledge the limitations of science which provides no answers on the nature of consciousness or explains what happens after death. Many mysteries remain unexplored.
But I remain skeptical of New Aged claims and the misappropriation of meditation for unproven ends. Absent empirical evidence, I neither promote nor share protocols I couldn't back up with data. This comes from a place of humility. I don't know, so I take the time to research and to learn. Any strategy I recommend should be able to stand up to the rigors of science and investigation. If it doesn't, I can admit my limitations, my not knowing, or point to the paucity of evidence.
I invite others to do their own homework. Don't take my word for it. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) supports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The NCCIH is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. The mission of NCCIH is "to determine, through rigorous scientific investigation, the fundamental science, usefulness, and safety of complementary and integrative health approaches and their roles in improving health and health care."
It's a good starting place: www.nccih.nih.gov