This brief study of the effectiveness of meditation as a medical treatment is the 3rd of our weekly series on alternative health. The first week we looked at acupuncture, the second, chiropractic.
So far we have concluded that acupuncture has questionable health benefits, and may be just a placebo. Our survey of the evidence for chiropractic was more devastating; in our post we saw a significant amount of evidence that chiropractic was at best harmless, and at worst, potentially damaging.
This week’s post is on meditation. Let’s see how the evidence stacks up.
What is meditation?
Because there is no official body to represent meditation in the UK, there is no official definition of what it actually is. Perhaps a good working definition would be:
“Using posture, breathing and concentration techniques to increase awareness, focus, peace of mind, and to help the practitioner to live more in the present.”
Meditation has been practiced in some form in all the world religions for millennia. It’s basically a way of calming the mind, of decreasing the day to day chatter so you can focus on the now.
Meditation actually has a few different names –
In this article, I will call it meditation. But you can use the above terms pretty much interchangeably.
What is it Used For?
People use meditation for dealing with a wide range of issues and symptoms. Many use it for stress reduction and management. Others use it for dealing with the symptoms of mental illness – depression and anxiety in particular.
Still others use for helping with physical symptoms – back pain for example. Some even claim it can help deal with arthritis and other physical health conditions.
Does it Work?
Normally when looking at different treatments you have to qualify this question somewhat; you must say: What does it work with, what conditions, and what symptoms can it help treat?
With meditation, you can almost say an unqualified “yes – it does work”, such is its miracle cure claims. Many senior scientists and doctors affirm the effectiveness of meditation as a treatment for a range of health conditions. And the evidence seems to back it up.
A recent meta study surveyed the literature on meditation and drew up a list of some of the evidence-based health benefits that regular meditative practice gives. They include:
A 2016 study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that meditation does help control pain. Another 2016 NCCIH found that meditation was useful for treating back pain.
Researchers at John Hopkins University in the US recently sifted through 19,000 meditation studies, they found many of the studies were good evidence based with a good sample size, making many of them valid studies. They suggested that many of these studies show that meditation can actually, genuinely, ease psychological stress like anxiety and depression – by a significant amount.
Is There Any Down Side?
It would seem from the wealth of studies (see above) that meditation is an all singing, all dancing panacea for a variety of physical and mental ills.
But it is worth asking - is there a flipside to meditation? Does it have any potential negative effects?
The Independent recently ran a story on a possible hidden, problematic side of meditation. The article cites a study ran in 1992 by David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA, who published an article about meditation retreats.
After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 per cent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and seven per cent profoundly adverse effects.
The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation.
The Guardian, too, published a similar article in 2014 saying that “Mindfulness therapy comes at a high price for some, say experts” and that “Much-hyped therapy can reduce relapses into depression – but it can have troubling side effects”
It would seem that the evidence for the effectiveness and health benefit of meditation is mixed. Yet if we look again, we see that the sheer number of studies telling of the benefits of
meditation vastly outweigh that telling a negative story.
With a practice that has such mass appeal, there are always going to be outliers; stories that crop up that tell a different story. But just look at the thousands of scientific studies that have been conducted about depression – the vast majority weigh in its favour.
Meditation is popular and has gone mainstream. We can perhaps see the evidence for this in the fact that NICE has approved mindfulness meditation for the treatment of depression. NICE only approve treatments that have a good base of evidence; it seems meditation has passed the test.
Perhaps we have to wait for future studies to reveal more uses for meditation. The future is bright for meditation!
It may not be a cure all, but as a free, easy healthy-living practice with no side effects - it can’t be beaten!