Someone suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma —in which psychological stress plays a major role—may find some relief through mindfulness meditation techniques, according to a study published recently in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity and conducted University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists .
Mindfulness-based stress reduction involves focusing attention on the breath, bodily sensations and thoughts while sitting, walking or practising yoga.
This is the first study of mindfulness meditation that is designed to differentiate effects of mindfulness from other therapeutic mechanisms, such as supportive social interaction, expert instruction, or learning new skills.
"We wanted to develop an intervention that was meant to produce positive change and compare the mindfulness approach to an intervention that was structurally equivalent," Rosenkranz says.
The study compared two methods of reducing stress: a mindfulness meditation-based approach, and a programme to enhance health through means other than mindfulness.
The comparison group participated in the Health Enhancement Program, which consisted of nutritional education; physical activity, such as walking; balance, agility and core strengthening; and music therapy. The content of the program was meant to match aspects of the mindfulness instruction in some way.
For example, physical exercise was meant to match walking meditation, without the mindfulness component.
Both groups had the similar training, the same degree of expertise in the instructors, and the same level of home practice required by participants.
"In this setting, we could see if there were changes that we could detect that were specific to mindfulness," Rosenkranz explains.
Using a tool called the Trier Social Stress Test to induce psychological stress, and a capsaicin cream to produce inflammation on the skin, the researchers tested for levels of immunity and endocrine measures before and after training in the both the methods. Stress reduced in both the techniques, with the mindfulness-based stress reduction approach being more effective at reducing stress-induced inflammation.
Thus, the results indicate that mindfulness techniques may be more effective in relieving inflammatory symptoms than other activities that promote wellbeing.
Rosenkranz emphasizes that the mindfulness-based approach is not a magic bullet. "This is not a cure-all, but our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions."
"The mindfulness-based approach to stress reduction may offer a lower-cost alternative or complement to standard treatment, and it can be practised easily by patients in their own homes, whenever they need," Rosenkranz says.
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