Natural Alternative To Drugs | Health Blog

Date: 02/24/2011    Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen

Meditation VS Medication

If breathing is good for you (and it is), then paying attention to your breathing is even better. That's the conclusion reached by several studies investigating the benefits of a practice known as mindfulness meditation -- a practice in which you sit quietly for ten minutes while focusing on your breathing and body. You don't judge any thoughts that arise; you merely notice them.  The practice helps you to be "be here now," as Dr. Richard Alpert (a.k.a Ram Dass) so succintly described back in the hippie era. 

According to a recent article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, mindfulness meditation boosts mood and relieves anxiety. The authors reviewed 39 studies involving 1,140 patients. Their conclusion: mindfulness meditation is especially effective for people suffering from mood problems like generalized anxiety disorder and recurring depression. It also helps those suffering from anxiety related to illnesses like cancer. In fact, a related study just published in the Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that mindfulness meditation is just as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses of depression. Said researcher Stefan Hoffman, professor of psychology and  Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, "I was skeptical at first. I wondered, 'Why on Earth should this work?' But it seems to work quite well."

It's rather surprising that anyone should be surprised at meditation's benefits, given the history of clinical evidence attesting to it. Back in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching mindfulness meditation to patients to help them cope with pain and stress. Among other things, his research found that the practice sped up eczema healing time by 400 percent. Even earlier, in 1975, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University published The Relaxation Response, based on studies showing profound physical and emotional benefits from what's essentially a meditative breathing technique. .

In the intervening years, there have been  many such studies and claims, and they keep rolling in. According to the Transcendental Meditation (TM) website, for instance, just 20 minutes of practice twice a day will reduce stress, improve health, enhance creativity, promote work success, and ultimately, create world peace. TM costs a tad more than simple mindfulness -- $1500 for the first fourth-month course, with recommended advanced courses offered at regular intervals. But then, the meditators haul out the data. "More than 600 scientific studies verifying the wide-ranging benefits of the Transcendental Meditation technique have been conducted at 250 independent universities and medical schools in 33 countries during the past 40 years," says the website.

Unlike mindfulness meditation, TM uses mantra rather than breathing as the focus of attention, but both techniques essentially train the mind to be quiet. In the case of mindfulness meditation, a study  published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2008 showed that the technique  prevents relapses of depression as well as maintenance antidepressants do and do a better job of improving quality of life. As an added plus, according to the study, MBCT (minfulness based cognitive therapy) is more cost effective than anti-depressant therapy -- or TM, for that matter. Mindfulness meditation was also shown to reduce fatigue and depression for upwards of six months among MS patients who participated in a Swiss study.  Patients reported many areas of improvement after just eight weeks including reduced anxiety, diminshed depression, and significant improvement in quality of life.

Why does meditation work?  Some researchers say that by training the mind to focus on the present moment, meditators limit the impact of regrets about the past and worries about the future and this reduces stress.  Meditators also increase their ability to keep things in perspective -- whether suffering a debilitating medical condition or dealing with a life crisis.  And naturally, such effects show up in the brain's physiology.

In fact, a recent study of changes in brain structure in meditators shows not only that the brain changes because of meditation -- it also gets larger and changes structure.  Before and after MRI scans of the brains of 16 people who engaged in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program  showed increased grey-matter density in areas associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  At the same time, they showed decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, an area highly correleated to stress and anxiety. Among the control subjects who did not participate in mindfulness meditation, no such changes were found.  According to the study's main author, Britta Hölzel, Ph.D., a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany, "Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change."

In spite of its undeniable benefits to mental and emotional health, not everyone suffering from anxiety or depression will benefit from mediation. In the case of severe depression, adjunct therapies may be needed. And for patients afflicted with psychosis, meditation can actually set off episodes, so it needs to be used with care. And then, there are those who sit down to meditate and find themselves instead wriggling about and thinking about monkeys. For them, another possible alternative to medications is neurofeedback, which essentially helps patients to align their brain waves with meditative states. A technician attaches electrodes that measure brain activity to the patient's scalp while the patient watches images on a computer screen. If the brain is producing the desired types of waves, the patient gets pleasing images and sounds.  After a while, the patient learns how to alter her brain waves to the desired frequency and this helps reduce stress, increase focus, and improve mood. First developed in the 1960s and 70s, neurofeedback has been found effective in treating conditions including ADHD,  depression, autism and anxiety.

The bottom line is that for depression and anxiety -- unless based in psychosis -- there are great alternatives to medication available. Just switch one letter -- the "c" in medication -- to a "t", and you've got one of the best of those alternatives.

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Comments

  •  
    Submitted by Kerrie on
    February 26, 2011 - 7:03pm

    What an excellent article! Thank you for putting all that research so simply, I will be putting up a link from my meditation for schools web site www.rainbowcrystalconnection.com . I wish someone had taught me meditation when I was a child- the benefits it has had for me as an adult have need life changing!

  •  
    Submitted by Cecilia Alcantar on
    August 17, 2011 - 6:31pm

    Jon, I do meditate daily and believe in benefits from doing so.
    I focus on the positive clarity that comes from spending short, quiet times throught my day.
    I can attest to being more capable of handling all health issues that I comfront.
    Meditation, for me has helped me to better cope with life.
    This topic of meditation in this newsletter, has reaffirmed my dependence on the value of positive thinking through meditating.
    Thank you.
    Cecilia Alcantar
    Dallas Texas

  •  
    Submitted by Bill Brander on
    December 17, 2011 - 9:06am

    Dear Dr Barron,
    Are you aware of a meditation practice known as "Sahaja meditation" "Sahaja" means "spontaneous" or "born within", i.e. the power to achieve the meditative peaceful state is within us all and can be awakened easily, and it does not cost a dime! You cannot pay for what you already have within you.
    There are centers for Sahaja meditation in more than 95 countries and in the USA in most states/large cities.
    There is plenty of medical evidence as to the effect of Sahaja Meditation, and its benefits to emotional and physical well being, and in healing many
    conditions.
    If you are interested, I would be pleased to introduce you to some of the doctors involved in the research and practice of Sahaja Meditation.

    I have practiced Sahaja meditation for 32 years. It has transformed my life.
    I have been a fan of yours for some years, and I thank you for your contribution to my nutritional knowledge and experience.
    A Happy Christmas to you and your family.

    Warmest regards

    Bill Brander

  •  
    Submitted by Letitia on
    May 20, 2015 - 1:31pm
    Coconut Creek , Florida

    When you speak in cadence, breath deeply to steady your self, focus on your breathing, count aloud, repeat your code of self worth -- all have a similarity -- breathing. Don't laugh, I'm serious here. My grandmother used to say, "Count to 10 (aloud)."
    I say --Take a few deep breaths, do it, and then keep breathing. Pay attention, people under stress tend to hold their breath. Don't hold your breath.

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