Meditation for Health Purposes
Meditation for health purposes is a mind-body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).a There are many types of meditation, most of which originated in ancient religious and spiritual traditions. Generally, a person who is meditating uses certain techniques, such as focusing attention (for example, on a word, an object, or the breath); a specific posture; and an open attitude toward distracting thoughts and emotions. Meditation can be practiced for various reasons -- for example, with an intent to increase physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance; to cope with one or more diseases and conditions; and for overall wellness. This Backgrounder provides a general introduction to meditation and suggests some resources for finding out more.
aCAM is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degrees and by their allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. Some health care providers practice both CAM and conventional medicine.
The term meditation refers to a group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. These techniques have been used by many different cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. Today, many people use meditation outside of its traditional religious or cultural settings, for health and wellness purposes.
In meditation, a person learns to focus his attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance. Practicing meditation can change how a person relates to the flow of emotions and thoughts in the mind.
Most types of meditation have four elements in common:
Meditation is practiced both on its own and as a component of some other therapies, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. This Backgrounder focuses on meditation practiced on its own.
Meditation used as CAM is a type of mind-body medicine (one of the four domains, or areas of knowledge, in CAM). Generally, mind-body medicine focuses on:
People use meditation for various health problems, such as:
Meditation is also used for overall wellness.
A large national survey on Americans' use of CAM, released in 2004, found that nearly 8 percent of the participants had used meditation specifically for health reasons during the year before the survey.
Mindfulness meditation and the Transcendental Meditation technique (also known as TM) are two common approaches to meditation. They are also two types of meditation being studied in NCCAM-sponsored research projects.
Mindfulness meditation originated in Buddhism. It is based on the concept of being mindful, or having an increased awareness and total acceptance of the present. While meditating, the meditator is taught to bring all her attention to the sensation of the flow of the breath in and out of the body. The intent might be described as focusing attention on what is being experienced, without reacting to or judging that experience. This is seen as helping the meditator learn to experience thoughts and emotions in normal daily life with greater balance and acceptance.
TM originated in the Vedic tradition in India. It is a type of meditation that uses a mantra (a word, sound, or phrase repeated silently) to prevent distracting thoughts from entering the mind. The intent of TM might be described as allowing the mind to settle into a quieter state and the body into a state of deep rest. This is seen as ultimately leading to a state of relaxed alertness.
Practicing meditation has been shown to induce some changes in the body, such as changes in the body's "fight or flight" response. The system responsible for this response is the autonomic nervous system (sometimes called the involuntary nervous system). It regulates many organs and muscles, including functions such as the heartbeat, sweating, breathing, and digestion, and does so automatically.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two major parts:
While scientists are studying whether meditation may afford meaningful health benefits, they are also looking at how it may do so. One way some types of meditation might work is by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Scientific research is using sophisticated tools to learn more about what goes on in the brain and the rest of the body during meditation, and diseases or conditions for which meditation might be useful. There is still much to learn in these areas. One avenue of research is looking at whether meditation is associated with significant changes in brain function. A number of researchers believe that these changes account for many of meditation's effects.
Meditation is generally safe. There have been a small number of reports that intensive meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched. Individuals who are aware of an underlying psychiatric disorder and want to start meditation should speak with a mental health professional before doing so.
Any person who is interested in using meditation as CAM should consider the following:
Some recent studies supported by NCCAM have been investigating:
Sources are drawn from recent reviews on the general topic of meditation in the peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature in English in the PubMed database, selected evidence-based databases, and Federal sources.
Barnes PM, Powell-Griner E, McFann K, Nahin RL. Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults: United States, 2002. CDC Advance Data Report #343 (PDF). 2004. Accessed on January 31, 2006.
Edwards L. Meditation as medicine: benefits go beyond relaxation. Advance for Nurse Practitioners. 2003;11(5):49-52.
Luskin F. Transformative practices for integrating mind-body-spirit.* Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2004;10(suppl 1):S15-S23.
Meditation. Natural Standard Database Web site. Accessed on June 23, 2005.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Expanding Horizons of Health Care: Strategic Plan 2005-2009. Bethesda, MD: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; 2005. NIH publication No. 04-5568.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Mind-Body Medicine: An Overview. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Web site. Accessed on June 30, 2005.
Newberg AB, Iversen J. The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations.* Medical Hypotheses. 2003;61(2):282-291.
The NCCAM Clearinghouse provides information on CAM and NCCAM, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
A service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. CAM on PubMed, developed jointly by NCCAM and NLM, is a subset of the PubMed system and focuses on the topic of CAM.
CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects)
CRISP is a database of information on federally funded scientific and medical research projects being conducted at research institutions.
Web site: www.crisp.cit.nih.gov
ClinicalTrials.gov is a database of information on federally and privately supported clinical trials (research studies in people) for a wide range of diseases and conditions. It is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Web site: www.clinicaltrials.gov
NCCAM thanks the following people for their technical expertise and review of this publication: Michael Baime, M.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Richard Davidson, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison; Robert Schneider, M.D., Maharishi University of Management; and Catherine Stoney, Ph.D., Margaret Chesney, Ph.D., and Jack Killen, M.D., of NCCAM.
This article was provided by U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.