Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.
Different types of meditation have been practiced for thousands of years across the world. Many types have roots in Eastern religions.
Meditation can generally be defined as the self-regulation of attention to suspend the normal stream of consciousness. A common goal of meditation is to reach a state of "thoughtless awareness," during which a person is passively aware of sensations at the present moment. It is this goal that distinguishes meditation from relaxation. Various types of meditation may use different techniques. Techniques that include constant repetition of sounds or images without striving for a state of thoughtless awareness are sometimes called "quasi-meditative."
Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet environment and in a comfortable position. Sessions vary in length and frequency. It is often recommended that meditation be practiced at the same time each day.
There is no broadly recognized certification or licensure for meditation instructors, although some organized religions and professional organizations have specific requirements for formal training and credentialing of new teachers.
There are a number of theories about how meditation works and its potential health benefits. One hypothesis is that it reduces activity of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response), leading to a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, slower breathing and muscle relaxation.
Several preliminary studies of transcendental meditation have noted these types of effects, although the research techniques were of poor quality, and the results cannot be considered conclusive. Changes in hormone levels, lactic acid levels, blood flow to the brain and brain wave patterns have been reported in some studies that were of poor quality. Better research is necessary to make a firm conclusion.
Scientists have studied meditation for the following health problems:
There are several studies of the effects of mindfulness, transcendental meditation or "meditation-based stress reduction programs" on anxiety (including in patients with chronic or fatal illnesses, such as cancer). This research is not well designed, and although some benefits are reported, the results cannot be considered conclusive.
Because of weaknesses in research design, it remains unclear if any form of meditation is beneficial in people with asthma.
Because of weaknesses in research design, it remains unclear if any form of meditation is beneficial in people with fibromyalgia.
High blood pressure
There are reports that transcendental meditation may lower blood pressure over short periods of time and that its long-term effects may improve mortality. However, because of weaknesses in research design, a firm conclusion cannot be reached.
Atherosclerosis (clogged arteries)
Transcendental meditation, along with other therapies, has been reported to help attenuate atherosclerosis in older people, particularly in those with apparent cardiovascular heart disease. Further research is needed to confirm any potential benefits from meditation alone.
Sahaja yoga, which incorporates meditation techniques, may have some benefit in the management of moderate to severe asthma. Further studies are needed before a firm conclusion can be drawn.
Quality of life in breast cancer
Preliminary research suggests no added benefits of transcendental meditation techniques over support groups alone to improve quality of life in women with breast cancer. Additional research would be necessary to form a more firm conclusion in this area.
Preliminary research reports increased antibody response after meditation. Further study is needed to confirm these findings.
Meditation has been suggested for many other uses, based on tradition or on scientific theories. However, these uses have not been thoroughly studied in humans, and there is limited scientific evidence about safety or effectiveness. Some of these suggested uses are for conditions that are potentially life-threatening. Consult with a health care provider before using meditation for any use.
Most types of meditation are believed to be safe in healthy individuals. However, the safety of meditation is not well studied.
People with underlying psychiatric disorders should speak with a mental health provider before beginning meditation because there have been rare reports of mania or worsening of other symptoms. Some publications warn that intensive meditation can cause anxiety, depression or confusion, although this is not well studied.
The use of meditation should not delay the time it takes to see a health care provider for diagnosis or treatment with more proven techniques or therapies. And meditation should not be used as the sole approach to illness.
Meditation is an ancient technique with many modern variations. Meditation has been suggested as a way to improve many health conditions. However, well-designed research is lacking, and the scientific evidence remains inconclusive. People with psychiatric disorders should speak with a mental health provider before beginning meditation. Meditation should not be used as the sole approach to illness.
The information in this monograph was prepared by the professional staff at Natural Standard, based on thorough systematic review of scientific evidence. The material was reviewed by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School with final editing approved by Natural Standard.
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