Using data from 47 earlier studies, researchers
found moderate evidence to support the use of mindfulness meditation
to treat those conditions. Meditation didn't seem to affect mood,
sleep or substance use.
"Many people have the idea that meditation means just sitting
quietly and doing nothing," wrote Dr. Madhav Goyal in an email to
Reuters Health. "That is not true. It is an active training of the
mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs
approach this in different ways."
Goyal led the study at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
He and his colleagues write in JAMA Internal Medicine that
meditation techniques emphasize mindfulness and concentration.
So-called mindfulness meditation is aimed at allowing the mind to
pay attention to whatever thoughts enter it, such as sounds in the
environment, without becoming too focused. Mantra meditation, on the
other hand, involves focusing concentration on a particular word or
Approximately 9 percent of people in the U.S. reported meditating in
2007, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 1
percent said they use meditation as some sort of treatment or
For the new report, the researchers searched several electronic
databases that catalog medical research for trials that randomly
assigned people with a certain condition — such as anxiety, pain or
depression — to do meditation or another activity. These randomized
controlled trials are considered the gold standard of medical
The researchers found 47 studies with over 3,500 participants that
met their criteria.
After combining the data, Goyal said his team found between a 5 and
10 percent improvement in anxiety symptoms among people who took
part in mindfulness meditation, compared to those who did another
There was also about a 10 to 20 percent improvement in symptoms of
depression among those who practiced mindfulness meditation,
compared to the other group.
"This is similar to the effects that other studies have found for
the use of antidepressants in similar populations," Goyal said.
Mindfulness meditation was also tied to reduced pain. But Goyal said
it's hard to know what kind of pain may be most affected by
The benefits of meditation didn't surpass what is typically
associated with other treatments, such as drugs and exercise, for
"As with many therapies, we try to get a moderate level of
confidence that the therapy works before we prescribe it," Goyal
said. "If we have a high level of confidence, it is much better."
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But he noted that the researchers didn't find anything more than
moderate evidence of benefit from meditation for anxiety, depression
There was some suggestion that meditation may help improve stress
and overall mental health, but the evidence supporting those
findings was of low quality.
There was no clear evidence that meditation could influence positive
mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep or weight.
"Clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the
role that meditation programs could have in addressing psychological
stress, particularly when symptoms are mild," Goyal said.
Dr. Allan Goroll, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new
study, told Reuters Health the analysis is an example of an area of
much-needed scientific study, because many people make treatment
decisions based on beliefs — not data.
"That is particularly the case with alternative and complimentary
approaches to treating medical problems," he said. "It ranges from
taking vitamins to undergoing particular procedures for which the
scientific evidence is very slim but people's beliefs are very
Goroll is professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts
General Hospital in Boston.
Goyal said people should remember that meditation was not conceived
to treat any particular health problem.
"Rather, it is a path we travel on to increase our awareness and
gain insight into our lives," he wrote. "The best reason to meditate
is to gain this insight. Improvements in health conditions are
really a side benefit, and it's best to think of them that way."
Internal Medicine, online Jan. 6, 2014
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