Meditation May Work
Practicing meditation has been shown to
induce some changes in the
body, such as changes in the body's "fight or flight" response. The
system responsible for this response is the autonomic nervous system
(sometimes called the involuntary nervous system). It regulates many
organs and muscles, including functions such as the heartbeat,
sweating, breathing, and digestion, and does so automatically.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into
two major parts:
- The sympathetic nervous system
helps mobilize the
body for action. When a person is under stress, it produces the
fight-or-flight response: the heart rate and breathing rate go up, for
example, the blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood), and
- The parasympathetic nervous
system creates what
some call the "rest and digest" response. This system's responses
oppose those of the sympathetic nervous system. For example, it causes
the heart rate and breathing rate to slow down, the blood vessels to
dilate (improving blood flow), and activity to increase in many parts
of the digestive tract.
While scientists are studying whether
meditation may afford
meaningful health benefits, they are also looking at how it may do so.
One way some types of meditation might work is by reducing activity in
the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the
parasympathetic nervous system.
Scientific research is using sophisticated
tools to learn more about
what goes on in the brain and the rest of the body during meditation,
and diseases or conditions for which meditation might be useful. There
is still much to learn in these areas. One avenue of research is
looking at whether meditation is associated with significant changes in
brain function. A number of researchers believe that these changes
account for many of meditation's effects.
Effects and Risks
Meditation is generally safe. There have
been a small number of
reports that intensive meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in
people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not
been fully researched. Individuals who are aware of an underlying
psychiatric disorder and want to start meditation should speak with a
mental health professional before doing so.
Any person who is interested in using
meditation as CAM should consider the following:
- Meditation should never delay the time it
takes you to see your
health care provider about having a medical problem diagnosed or
treated, and it should not be used as the only treatment without first
consulting your provider.
- Tell your health care providers about any
alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do
to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
- If you are interested in learning
meditation, ask about the
training and experience of the instructor (see also NCCAM's pdf
- Find out whether there have been any
research studies published on meditation for the health condition you
are interested in.
provided this material for your information. It is not
intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your
primary health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions
about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of
any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCAM.