After much skepticism, scientific research confirms: the use of Eastern meditation techniques can prevent and cure many diseases.
Until the 1950s, meditation was the prerogative of monks. Then with the Beatles it became the practice of the flower children, followed in later years by soccer players and actors: ponder Roberto Baggio and Richard Gere. More recently it has been the turn of CEOs of large multinational corporations-Rao Dalio(Bridgewater associates) and Marc Benioff(Oracle and Salesforce.com). And today even Dmitry A. Medvedev, prime minister of the Russian Federation, has given himself over to meditation.
For the past few years, however, meditation has not only been concerned with “psychological well-being” and has entered hospitals with many applications: from pain control to immunology, from treating hypertension to slowing brain decline.
What does it consist of? What results does it give and by what mechanisms does it act?
IN PRINCIPLE. It all started some 30 years ago when Jon Kabat Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Worcester (Uk) and began using meditation as a therapeutic tool. A tool that is far from easy to offer: in the hectic contemporary life, meditation in the Eastern tradition is difficult practice. But its benefits are no longer in question: it improves attention, cognitive skills and memory, and reduces anxiety and depressive symptoms. Not only that.
At Brown University in Providence (USA), Catherine Kerr exploits meditation for its analgesic effect: she claims it works as a kind of knob that regulates the perception of unpleasant sensations. In 2010, when he was at MIT at Harvard, he showed that if one focuses attention on sensations in the left hand, the brain “map” corresponding to that hand registers a significant drop in the amplitude of waves that filter sensations, letting through only those that exceed a certain threshold.
However, if attention is focused on another part of the body, the waves return to normal. The following year, using magneto-encephalography, a brain imaging technique, he showed that the rhythms of these waves in the brain correlated with sensory attention and that the ability to regulate these waves in the cerebral cortex was greater in subjects capable of meditation.
In other words, meditating allows for greater control over the sensory system and enables one to choose what to focus on. Result? Meditation makes what you do not want to feel go into the background, for example-and this is no small thing-chronic pains.
Fadel Zeidan, a neurobiologist at Wake Forest Baptist University (U.S.), has even quantified the effect of meditation compared with the analgesic power of morphine: “It could reduce the intensity of pain by 40 percent and its unpleasantness by 57 percent, compared with only a 25 percent reduction achieved with morphine,” Zeidan claims.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY. Many cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases are linked to a state of inflammation for which neither the origin nor the cure is exactly known: if the inflammatory state could be reduced, perhaps they could be prevented. This is the path taken almost by accident by Steven Cole, of theUniversity of California Los Angeles (UCLA): he wanted to study whether meditation could reduce the feeling of loneliness in the elderly, a condition that increases the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and even premature death.
So he put about 40 subjects in meditation half an hour a day for 8 weeks. But he soon found that this “therapy” was not limited to affecting psychological well-being: meditation also reduced the activation of inflammation-related genes and thus reduced inflammation itself.
It is also a short step to evaluate the effects on the immune system. Meditation also appears to be effective on a particular type of white blood cell, CD4 T lymphocytes. They are considered the brain of the immune system because they coordinate the activity of the defense army when the body undergoes an infectious attack. But they are also the cells that ravage the HIV virus, responsible for AIDS, by weakening the immune response of patients.
In 2008, David Creswell, of UCLA’s Counsins center for Psychoneuroimmunology, put a group of 24 HIV-positive (i.e., infected, but not with AIDS) subjects into meditation for eight weeks and compared them with an equivalent control group. In meditating subjects, the reduction in CD4 T lymphocytes was lower than in the control group: the effect was of the same magnitude in all 12 meditators, both those on antiretroviral therapy and those who were not.
Meditation proves to be a panacea in many areas. It even seems to be effective against colds: Bruce Barrett, of the University of Wisconsin (U.S.), studied meditation on 51 individuals and calculated that those who meditate have a 40-50% reduction in work days lost to acute respiratory infections, including influenza, compared to those who do not meditate. The duration of the disease is shorter and the symptoms are milder.
CHARACTER. That meditating can calm the most agitated spirits seems trivial, but it has been established that the effects are far more relevant and profound. Take those who for psychosomatics are Type A personalities: competitive in all aspects of life, tend to fight, exhibit aggression (even if repressed), impatience, impatience with the rhythms of others.
These are usually successful individuals, but with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. About 30 years ago Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Massachusetts general hospital in Boston, USA, and founder of the Mind/Bondy Medical Institute, had begun using relaxation and meditation in this type of patient.
Other cardiologists such as Randy Zusman, director of the hypertension program at Massachusetts general hospital, did not believe in the effectiveness of these methods at all and continued to prescribe antihypertensive drugs. Since 2008, Zusman has also changed course and now focuses on meditation and proper lifestyle.
A trial of 60 hypertensive patients convinced her: in 40, meditation had reduced hypertension enough to allow a dramatic drop in medication intake. Zusman also found a biological explanation: “Hypertension is all about the pipes: if the caliber of the pipes is narrow the pressure goes up, if the caliber widens the pressure goes down: relaxation produces nitrogen monoxide, which causes the blood vessels to dilate and thus brings the pressure down.” It is not always easy to make Type A personalities sit still and silent for half an hour. But it works.