Mar 17, 2014

Is Meditation Good for Your Health?

Meditation is often listed as an "alternative" medical treatment, part of a healthy lifestyle, and is often recommended by those who market themselves as practicing integrative or complementary medicine. Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed thousands of reports on meditation and found 47 studies that were sufficiently well-designed to be included in a meta-analysis. The researchers wanted to examine the scientific evidence for meditation programs: does meditation reduce anxiety or depression; does meditation enhance mood and mental health-related qualities of life; does meditation increase focus and attention; what effect does meditation have on substance abuse, eating habits, sleep, pain, and weight in adults? [Goyal M and others. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014.]
The authors concluded:
  • Mindfulness meditation programs showed (a) moderate evidence of reduction of anxiety, depression, and pain, (b) low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life, and (c) low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.
  • Mantra-based programs, such as transcendental meditation, demonstrated no benefit.
  • There was no evidence that meditation programs were better than drugs, exercise, or other behavioral therapies.

According to Consumer Health Digest: "The published report did not consider the extent to which meditation is inappropriately recommended to people who would benefit much more from counseling or psychotherapy that helps them identify and deal with the causes of stress responsible for their symptoms."

I doubt if this new study will have much impact on the beliefs of those who are certain meditation reduces their stress levels, their blood pressure, their heart rate, and increases their energy level while protecting them from the flu, cancer, and who knows what else.
What about all those scientific studies on the benefits of relaxation techniques? Herbert Benson has made a career out of writing papers and selling books touting the benefits of what is now called the Benson Relaxation Technique. He's published over 200 articles and several books claiming all kinds of wonderful effects from reducing stress by relaxation as part of his promotion of mind-body medicine and bringing spirituality into healing. It's possible that most of his studies wouldn't make the cut for a similar study that included other forms of relaxation besides meditation because his studies have been too small or too short or had some other methodological flaw. 
For example, in 1974 he published an article in Lancet: "Decreased blood-pressure in pharmacologically treated hypertensive patients who regularly elicited the relaxation response." The study had 14 subjects. Still, his many studies seem to support the notion that relaxation therapy and stress reduction lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. According to Dr. Steven Novella, "There is a known mechanism for this - emotional stress increases sympathetic [nervous system] tone, which raises blood pressure and stresses the heart."* In any case, meditation is just one way to relax, but apparently it isn't superior to anxiety drugs or exercise for reducing stress or improving one's health.
Finally, nobody should be surprised that transcendental meditation isn't all its founder and defenders claim it is. 

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