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Meditation for Health: 7 Scientific Takeaways

Close up of man's hand during Yoga meditation exercises in a health club blurred backgroundWhat do the Beatles, Oprah, and Stephen Curry all have in common? Meditation. All found meditation beneficial and helped make it mainstream. Today, meditation is popular, with over 14% of Americans practicing some type of meditation. In 2017, more than 5% of children aged 4 to 17 years were participating in mediation, with some schools offering it as part of the curriculum. More than 2,500 meditation apps have launched since 2015.

But just because celebrities like it, schools use it, and apps offer it, does not mean science supports it. So, what does science say about meditation’s health benefits?

What is Meditation?

Meditation goes back thousands of years and is a broad term that includes a variety of practices which calm the mind and help with overall wellness. Some types include a specific focus, like breathing, visual images, word, sound, or phrase. Other practices center mindfulness, a phrase that describes paying attention to the present moment without making any judgments. Both forms can be combined with other activities, like therapy, to help apply insight from meditation to on-going experiences.

While meditation can be easily adopted by people of many ages and abilities and can be low-cost, research is still understanding its short- and long-term benefits. It is too soon to state definitively the outcomes. And there are documented risks to meditating; a 2020 review found 8% of meditation research participants had a negative effect such as anxiety or depression, which is similar to the rate that those symptoms are reported for psychological therapies.

7 Key Scientific Takeaways

  1. Mindful meditation may ease anxiety and depression. A 2018 study looked at 12,000 participants who used mindful-based approaches. They found that the meditation worked just as well as some evidence-based treatments. However, other studies have had mixed results with either no long-term impact or questions about bias interfering with results.
  2. Meditation seems to work better for chronic pain than acute pain. Research in 2017 concluded that mindful meditation was more successful at reducing chronic pain than other types of treatment. Two years later, additional studies revealed there was no significant difference between cognitive behavioral theory and meditation for treating chronic pain. There has not been evidence that meditation helps short-term pain, although pain tolerance may be improved.
  3. Mindful meditation may improve sleep quality. Preliminary findings suggest that meditation may be able to treat some aspects of sleep disorders. While mindfulness improved sleep quality better than education-based interventions like teaching the importance of sleep, it was equal to evidence-based treatments such as exercise.
  4. Meditation may help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study with veterans showed that meditation was as effective as prolonged exposure therapy for reducing PTSD symptoms as well as depression. It more effective than PTSD health education and improved mood and quality of life. Other studies have also found a reduction in PTSD symptoms after mindfulness treatment.
  5. Mindful meditation may help with substance abuse recovery. Research in 2018 demonstrated that mindfulness was slightly better than other therapies for abstinence from substance use and significantly decreased craving levels. Earlier studies found that mindfulness-based relapse prevention was not more effective than other therapies in preventing relapses.
  6. Mindful meditation may improve the mental health of people with cancer. A large review of research discovered that meditation among people with cancer “significantly reduced psychological distress, fatigue, sleep disturbance, pain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.” Most participants were women with breast cancer so the results may not be the same for other populations or types of cancer.
  7. Meditation may help with eating disorders and weight loss. Studies have shown that meditation is effective for managing eating behaviors but there is conflicting research if it helps with losing weight. Research in 2018 concluded that a combination of formal meditation with informal mindfulness exercises were the most effective methods for losing weight as well as managing eating.

New research on meditation and mindfulness is being published almost daily. While the scientific claims may change, one thing always remains constant: it doesn’t hurt to slow down occasionally.

Sources: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from Time and NIH.