So far I have been exploring different nutrients that have positive effects on the immune system. I have also heard that meditation can have such effects, and so wanted to find out more and look at some recent research on the topic. I know that meditation does a lot of good for the body and mind, and was excited to see what the research has to say about it when it comes to immunity.
The first study I found was a systematic review on all randomized controlled trials between 1966 and 2015 that were studying the effects of mindfulness meditation on immune system markers. The authors reported that mindfulness meditation had at least trend-level positive effects on four immune system related parameters (for example reduced C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation). They concluded that while the data is promising, much more research is needed to confirm these findings. (1)
Another review article from 2017 conducted a search on stress management methods and their effect on the microbiota. Our microbiome is affected by stress, which can then cause inflammation in the body and lead to illness. Unfortunately only the abstract was available for reading, but the authors concluded that meditation practices should be incorporated into conventional healthcare interventions as meditation can help regulate the stress response thereby suppressing chronic inflammation. As always, they also call for more studies on the subject. (2)
A handful of other very recent studies and article reviews also reported positive changes in inflammatory markers (3,4,5,6,9), and one mentioned an increased resistance to disease (7). Additionally, a study from 2019 saw that mindfulness meditation improved participants’ mucosal (mouth) immunity as measured by a salivary antibody among other findings (8). Finally, mindfulness-based stress reduction had a positive impact on the immune regulatory effects in women with fibromyalgia (10).
So we can see that these studies found improvements in immunity-related lab values, but does this also mean that a meditator would catch a cold less easily? To investigate this, a study from 2012 compared the effect of meditation with exercise when it comes to preventing respiratory infections. The results of this trial suggest that both moderate-intensity exercise and mindfulness meditation may prevent acute respiratory infections and reduce the severity of the illness, but that mindfulness meditation may be the more potent of the two interventions. (11) Very surprising!
In summary, these studies seemed promising in their results, even if the studies are quite heterogeneous, studying a wide variety of populations, and looking at many different end points. Also, not all of them study the same meditation technique. What I wonder is if you study one technique, can you generalize the results to say that all meditation techniques achieve the same? I would like to think that the results are likely at least similar, with some having different emphases on health. After all, meditation aims to calm the body and the mind, and relieve stress, which might be at least part of the reason meditation is so good for our health. Thus, I would like to see more studies comparing different techniques and their effects not only on immune function, but also on other health related areas.
Reading these studies made me realize how interested the scientific community is becoming in meditation, and its effects on human health. This is nice because the strength of meditation is in that it is free for anyone to practice, and not like a medication one would have to buy. All that is needed is a comfortable way to sit, and a little bit of time. Even if the research is still largely coming out on the benefits of meditation, the fact is that meditation can become a personal scientific experiment for each individual. You can find out for yourself what the benefits are for you, and not necessarily relying on a study to tell you that. Of course, it is nice to get the confirmation from science, as well.
I am very happy to say that I myself recently became a certified meditation teacher. I teach an ancient technique called Hong-Sau, which is centered on watching one’s breath. It’s a technique I personally have practiced for ten years now, and even though it’s hard to say whether meditation has improved my immunity as I am not prone to getting sick in the first place, I can say it has had an enormous effect on my wellbeing in general. Among many other benefits, it has made me more peaceful and calm, which has proven invaluable to me in my personal, and professional life. If it also helps me to stay healthy, even better!
I encourage you to learn how to meditate – despite what you might hear, you don’t have to know how to sit in a lotus pose in order to meditate. Nor do you need lots of time. Even 5-10 minutes daily is a good starting point.
Many options exist to learning meditation, for example you can go online, or download an app to your phone. I also offer lessons online, and would love to teach you my favorite meditation technique!
I hope you enjoyed the read. Let me know if you have any experiences with meditation, or if there is a subject you’d like me to talk about in the future.
Photos by Manol Manolov. manolmanolovphotography.com
- Black, Slavich. Mindfulness Meditation and the Immune System: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940234/
- Househam et al. The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics. 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29306937/?from_term=meditation+immunity&from_pos=2
- Molecular Signature of the Immune Response to Yoga Therapy in Stress-related Chronic Disease Conditions: An Insight. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6937878/#!po=40.9091
- Rapid Changes in Histone Deacetylases and Inflammatory Gene Expression in Expert Meditators. 2020 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24485481/
- Differential DNA Methylation in Experienced Meditators After an Intensive Day of Mindfulness-Based Practice: Implications for Immune-Related Pathways. 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31733290/?from_term=meditation+immunity&from_filter=years.2020-2020&from_pos=6
- Mindfulness training: Can it Create Superheroes? 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6443831/
- Wang et al. The Effect of Mind-Body Therapies on Insomnia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. 2019. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30894878/?from_term=meditation+immunity&from_filter=years.2019-2019&from_pos=5
- Heckenberg et al. An online mindfulness-based program is effective in improving affect, over-commitment, optimism and mucosal immunity. 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S003193841830845X?via%3Dihub\
- Magan and Yadav. Physiological persona differences based on stress and inflammation between meditators and healthy controls. 2019. https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/jcim/ahead-of-print/article-10.1515-jcim-2019-0106/article-10.1515-jcim-2019-0106.xml
- Andres-Rodriguez et al. Immune-inflammatory pathways and clinical changes in fibromyalgia patients treated with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): A randomized, controlled clinical trial. 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889159118312327?via%3Dihub
- Obasi et al. Advantage of meditation over exercise in reducing cold and flu illness is related to improved function and quality of life. 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582749/pdf/IRV-7-0938.pdf