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Meditation May Cut Inflammation
New research reveals one way in which stress-easing meditation aids overall health

08/02/2016 Craig Weatherby and Michelle Lee
Ever wanted to give meditation a whirl?

There's plenty of evidence that it's not just for spiritual seekers.

This ancient practice is fast gaining ground among folks focused more on its reported health benefits than its reputed spiritual boons. 

Growing evidence indicates that meditation may boost the immune response to cancer, ease depression and stress, and perhaps even lengthen life spans.

Why would that be?

Brain-imaging studies see meditation-related changes in areas associated with better vision, hearing, decision-making, and working memory … see Meditation Builds Gray Matter

A recent clinical study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that — compared with non-meditators — experienced meditators enjoyed 3 advantages (Rosenkranz MA et al. 2016):
  • Less inflammation in the brain
  • Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • More psychological traits links to wellbeing and resilience
And the authors of a recent evidence review found earlier clinical studies that detected similar effects (Black DS et al. 2016).

Another new clinical study examined how meditation influences the immune system to ease damaging stress, resulting inflammation, and related dysfunctions.

Meditation may improve your inflammatory response
The encouraging new clinical study comes from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.

The Carnegie Mellon group wanted to look for links between "mindful” meditation and inflammation — a key aspect of the body's immune system (Creswell JD et al. 2016).

Mindful meditation is a type in which — instead of repeating a mantra (word or phrase) — practitioners pay attention to their breath, and when their attention inevitably wanders, they simply refocus attention on their breath.

The Pittsburgh-based team recruited 35 adults who were looking for work and dealing with the stress caused by a job search. They divided the volunteers into two roughly equal groups:
  • Meditation group – members participated in a three-day meditation weekend retreat
  • Control group – members completed a three-day relaxation weekend retreat without meditation.
The people assigned to the meditation group were taught mindful meditation, practiced it during the three-day retreat, and were encouraged to continue it afterwards.

The relaxation group participated in activities like stretching, and distraction from their stress, but was not taught mindful meditation or encouraged to practice it.

All of the study participants were given brain scans and blood tests immediately before and after participating in their assigned three-day program, and again four months after the end of each three-day program.

Follow-up blood tests performed four months later found that only the meditation group had lower levels of a key marker of inflammation called interleukin-6 (IL-6) … an effect that could and should bring a number of benefits.

And, while the members of both groups felt more relaxed after the three-day retreat, only the meditation group still reported stress-reduction benefits four-months later.

Remarkably, those stress-reduction benefits persisted in the meditation group even if they hadn't kept meditating between the end of the three-day study period and the follow-up tests conducted four months later.

Brain scans of the meditation group showed greater communication within the portions of the brain that handle stress management … a beneficial effect previously associated with reductions in the same marker of inflammation (IL-6) found reduced in the Carnegie Mellon study's meditators.

Versus the relaxation-only group, the brain scans of the meditating group showed better inter-connections within the area of the brain related to decision-making and attention to detail.

How and why did weekend-long meditators receive lasting results?
Why did members of the meditation group report lasting relaxation results, even if they hadn't kept meditating?

The research team believes that the changes in brain connectivity and function that came from true meditation (rather than just relaxation) helped the brain significantly manage stress better. 

And stress is proven to elevate inflammation levels throughout the body, with dire long-term consequences.

This chronic inflammation is known to cause long-term effects on the body's immune response by putting your body into a constant "panic mode.”

Such sustained responses to chronic, "silent” inflammation can lead to plaque buildup and heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, depression and even Alzheimer's disease.

The study's lead author, Dr. David Creswell, believes that the changes in the brain during the weekend of meditation significantly lowered stress, leading to a drop in inflammation, and that the changes in the brain due to meditation had a lasting impact, even months down the road.


Sources
  • Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):13-24. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12998. Epub 2016 Jan 21.
  • Brewer JA, Garrison KA. The posterior cingulate cortex as a plausible mechanistic target of meditation: findings from neuroimaging. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:19-27. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12246. Epub 2013 Sep 13.
  • Creswell JD, Myers HF, Cole SW, Irwin MR. Mindfulness meditation training effects on CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV-1 infected adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2009 Feb;23(2):184-8. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2008.07.004. Epub 2008 Jul 19.
  • Creswell JD, Taren AA, Lindsay EK, et al. Alterations in resting state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biological Psychiatry, 2016.
  • Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16(17):1893-1897. Ngô TL. Review of the effects of mindfulness meditation on mental and physical health and its mechanisms of action. Sante Ment Que. 2013 Autumn;38(2):19-34. Review. French.
  • Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Perlman DM, Bachhuber DR, Schuyler BS, MacCoon DG, Davidson RJ. Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016 Jun;68:117-25. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.02.013. Epub 2016 Feb 20.
  • Taren AA, Gianaros PJ, Greco CM, Lindsay EK, Fairgrieve A, Brown KW, Rosen RK, Ferris JL, Julson E, Marsland AL, Bursley JK, Ramsburg J, Creswell JD. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Dec;10(12):1758-68. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv066. Epub 2015 Jun 5.
  • Wells RE, Yeh GY, Kerr CE, Wolkin J, Davis RB, Tan Y, Spaeth R, Wall RB, Walsh J, Kaptchuk TJ, Press D, Phillips RS, Kong J. Meditation's impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study. Neurosci Lett. 2013 Nov 27;556:15-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2013.10.001. Epub 2013 Oct 10.