A Scientific Look at Meditation and the Immune System

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Meditation has many benefits for your psychological well being, but up until recently, it carried a stigma of being more of a spiritual practice, rather than having specific phsyiological benefits. Below is a look at the scientific research into the immunity-boosting benefits of meditation.

As the effects of psychological state on health, especially immune function, are becoming better
understood, more effort is being made to explore the physiological impact of stress-reduction practices.
Researchers use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a standardized meditation program, to
look into meditation’s effects.

In these studies, an experimental group is provided training in MBSR meditation through a weekly class. At home, the participants complete audiotape-guided meditation sessions six times per week. Late in the program, the group embarks on a seven hour retreat intended to tie together concepts from the entire program. After 8 weeks, the program is complete. This standardized approach has allowed for better collaborative assessment of the effects of mindfulness [1].

The results obtained so far are promising. Mindfulness appears to promote immune function in
several instances. In 2003, Davidson and his team tested for the effect of mindfulness on the ability of
the body to generate antibodies to an influenza vaccine [2].

Antibodies are secreted by B cells in response to the detection of a foreign substance in the body [3]. As the circulating antibodies bind, target substances are prevented from entering cells, and tagged for destruction [3, 4]. A larger amount of secreted antibodies reflects a more robust immune response [3]. After the eight week program, the
experimental and control groups were vaccinated. The experimental group was found to have produced
more antibodies in response to the vaccine than the control [2].
A more recent study has explored the effects of mindfulness on susceptibility to influenza and
other acute respiratory infections (ARI). Prevention and treatment of ARIs is difficult, as antiviral drugs
are not very effective and vaccination is not practical for ARIs other than influenza. Past studies have
shown that stress and negative affect correlate with self-reported ARI burden. In 2012, Barrett and his
team recruited otherwise healthy individuals who reported one or more colds per year, to participate in
his study. The participants either completed an exercise regime, participated in MBSR, or continued
their daily routines. Participants reported duration and severity of respiratory infections and were tested
for inflammatory and viral markers throughout the study. Although no significant differences in
infection duration or immunological markers were observed, a significant decrease in self-reported
severity was observed for MBSR participants [5].
The potential benefits of MBSR practice may extend beyond battling the common cold. MBSR
may be helpful in reducing the impact of chronic inflammatory diseases. Rosenkranz and her team
became interested in testing the effect of MBSR on experimentally-induced inflammation as evidence
accumulated that stress exacerbates inflammatory skin conditions. An experimental group participated
in MBSR, while a control group participated in the Health Enhancement Program. This program was
similarly structured to MBSR, but did not teach mindfulness practices. The team used this active
control to help eliminate differences between groups due to variables other than mindfulness. To test
the effects of MBSR on stress-linked inflammation, the team induced psychological stress in their
participants prior to applying an inflammatory agent to their skin. Compared to control, inflammation
was significantly milder in the experimental group. These findings are promising, as chronic
inflammatory diseases are often debilitating and difficult to treat [6].
MBSR has also affected cancer patients. Monitoring of immune profiles of breast and prostate
cancer patients participating in MBSR showed shifts toward more normal appearing profiles.
Production of the pro-inflammatory cytokine, interferon gamma, dropped. Shifts away from proinflammatory
processes may correlate with better prognoses in cancer patients, although this
relationship is not confirmed, nor understood [7, 8].
Researchers are currently working to document additional effects of mindfulness on immunity.
The mechanisms by which MBSR affects immunity have not yet been explored. Creswell proposes the
mindfulness stress buffering hypothesis as a general mechanism. He believes that mindfulness reduces
the psychological impact of external stressors, and minimizes neurological and hormonal changes that
impact immune function [9].
It is critical to fully understand the biological pathways affected by mindfulness in order to
maximize the rewards of mindfulness application. However, in the meantime, evidence suggests that
mindfulness may benefit immunological function over a wide range of functions, from adaptive
response to viruses to neurogenic inflammatory response to irritants. When coupled with the low cost
and low risk of mindfulness, practice appears to be a good health investment.
1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based
on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General
Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33-47.
2. Davidson, R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., . . .
Sheridan, J. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.
Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
3. Murphy, K., & Travers, P. (2008). Janeway’s immunobiology (7th ed.). New York: Garland Science.
4. Segerstrom, S., & Miller, G. (2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A MetaAnalytic
Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601-630.
5. Barrett, B., Hayney, M., Muller, D., Rakel, D., Ward, A., Obasi, C., . . . Coe, C. (2012). Meditation or
Exercise for Preventing Acute Respiratory Infection: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Annals of
Family Medicine, 10(4), 337-346.
6. Rosenkranz, M., Davidson, R., Maccoon, D., Sheridan, J., Kalin, N., & Lutz, A. (2013). A
comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic
inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 27, 174-184.
7. Carlson, L., Speca, M., Faris, P., & Patel, K. (2007). One year preā€“post intervention follow-up of
psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction
(MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 21, 1038-1049.
8. Carlson, L., Speca, M., Patel, K., & Goodey, E. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in
Relation to Quality of Life, Mood, Symptoms of Stress, and Immune Parameters in Breast and Prostate
Cancer Outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 571-581.
9. Brown, K., Ryan, R., & Creswell, J. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for
its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237.

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