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Mindfulness eases inflammation

12 February 2013

Meditation is gaining popularity and along with that popularity is ongoing analysis. The Western mind is seeking to find “proof” for the efficacy of what Eastern practitioners have experienced for centuries. As that quest progresses, more and more is being understood about meditation, about what it does to the mind and body as well as the effects that it has. Last year we reported in this news column that meditation can reduce inflammation. Now a new study has shown that mindfulness meditation not only reduces inflammation, it reduces inflammation more effectively than some other behavioural strategies.

Mindfulness meditation entails observing, without judgement, the movements of your mind. It involves quiet time, either sitting or lying down, and using the breath or letting the mind rest on sounds in the immediate environment to bring the mind into the present. It is a practice that has been taught in many forms across many cultures across many centuries. In the case of people with chronic pain, mindfulness meditation involves these same techniques.

The new study involved two groups of people who suffered from chronic inflammatory conditions including arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. One group was given instruction in mindfulness meditation as a way to reduce stress. The other group took part in a program of activities that have been shown to reduce stress. Those activities included physical activities like walking, balance training, agility skills training, core strengthening and music therapy. These activities all promote wellbeing and therefore are expected to help with pain management.

Both of the groups had the same amount of training and engaged in the same amount of home practice.

The experiment then was to expose both groups to psychological stress using the Trier Social Stress Test and then apply capsaicin cream to their skin. Capsaicin is the active ingredient of chillies and it causes local inflammation (as anyone who has ever bitten into a chilli-laden Mexican pizza will agree).

Using blood tests to measure immune and hormonal markers of inflammation, it was shown that both groups had reduced stress levels by the end of the experiment. The mindfulness meditation group, however, experienced much less inflammation than the other group.

So while it has already been established that mindfulness reduces inflammation, this study showed that it does it to a greater degree than other effective behavioural therapies.

For people with stress related-inflammatory conditions then, mindfulness meditation is a safe approach that may provide some welcome relief.