How Meditation Can Help Manage Chronic Illness

Research shows that meditation can improve mental health and reduce symptoms associated with chronic conditions.

Medically Reviewed
a woman who is sick using meditation to help manage illness
Many people have found that a regular meditation practice helps reduce symptoms of chronic illness — and there’s also a strong body of research that supports the connection.Phanie/Alamy

Meditation is the practice of thinking deeply or focusing one’s mind for a period of time with the goal of evoking feelings of relaxation and inner peace.

It’s an ancient practice that’s been around for centuries but has gained resurgence in recent years, as researchers study it to determine its effects on health.

A number of studies have established the many benefits of meditation, including using it as a tool in managing chronic illnesses.

Meditation and Mental Health

Considering meditation is focused on calming the mind, it may be natural to assume that the practice can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

While it is not a universal cure, many people suffering from these mental illnesses find some relief in practicing meditation. And there’s scientific evidence to back up the benefits.

A meta-analysis?found that mindful meditation programs over an eight-week period may help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. (1) Researchers from Johns Hopkins reviewed more than 18,000 studies and found 47 trials met their criteria for well-designed research. Overall, data on 3,515 participants were collected.

Another study found that mindfulness-based therapy may be as effective in preventing depression relapse as antidepressants for those with recurrent depression. (2) But the authors note that the findings were based on a small number of trials and need to be replicated. Furthermore, there is no way to tell yet which patients may benefit from mindful meditation and which may respond better to medication.

If you’re on antidepressants, it’s important to speak to your doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan. Your doctor can also help you determine if meditation is a proper tool to help you manage a mental health condition.

Meditation and Heart Health

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in the?impact of meditation on heart health. Lowering stress levels, which meditation can help with, can help keep?blood pressure?in check, and in turn benefit the heart.

A study found that people who practiced?yoga, which incorporates aspects of meditation, for eight weeks saw a slight drop in blood pressure compared with those who did not. (3) Still, while it’s suspected that the benefits were due to both physical activity and stress reduction, there was no way to separate the two to measure the impact of each.

Mladen Golubic, MD, PhD, medical director at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at the University of Cincinnati, points to more?research that found transcendental meditation may have the potential to reduce blood pressure. (4) “Even in patients with difficult-to-control blood pressure who might be on two or three medications, randomized clinical control trials have shown that once they learn and practice transcendental meditation they can improve their blood pressure and in fact some of them can even get off medications sometimes.”

In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued its first-ever statement on meditation, saying the practice may reduce the risk of heart disease. (5) Prior to making the statement, a committee of experts analyzed 57 studies on different forms of “sitting meditations,” such as mindful meditation and transcendental meditation. The group did not look at meditation that incorporated physical activity, such as yoga, since exercise itself has been proven to benefit the heart.

While the research suggested there appears to be a link between meditation and decreased risk of heart disease, the AHA emphasizes that more research needs to be done, and people should focus on proven lifestyle modifications to reduce heart disease risk, including a healthy diet, physical activity, smoking cessation, blood pressure control, and managing cholesterol levels. At this point, meditation should be viewed as an additional boost toward cardiovascular health, the AHA says.

Meditation to Treat Chronic Pain

As the nation continues to suffer from the opioid epidemic, researchers are trying to find alternate ways to help patients find relief from chronic pain. One of the techniques they have turned to is mindfulness meditation, and there’s some research to suggest it may help.

One study found mindful-based stress reduction therapy helped improve symptoms in adults with chronic lower back pain. (6) Another found that mindful meditation can help ease chronic pain by using a different mechanism in the body than that which is used by potentially addictive opioid painkillers. (7)

Dr. Golubic notes that meditation practice along with yoga has been shown to decrease inflammation in white blood cells.

“The higher inflammation you have, the more pain you have,” he says. “The way that aspirin, ibuprofen, [and] all of the other NSAIDs work is they inhibit those pain mediators that are inflammatory.”

If meditation reduces inflammation, it is likely this might be the mechanism that reduces pain, he explains.

More studies are needed on the effects of meditation on chronic pain, but researchers say it is encouraging that it could be an alternate or supplementary therapy.

Meditation and Cancer

There’s reason to believe meditation can help cancer patients, as well. In fact, some research suggests that meditation can even change your body on the cellular level. A 2014 study found that the telomeres — the protein caps at the end of DNA strands that protect chromosomes — of breast cancer patients who practiced mindfulness meditation stayed the same length over the three-month study period. In contrast, participants who did not meditate had shorter telomeres over this time. (8) This finding was further supported by a 2020 meta-analysis. (13)

While scientists are still working to understand the health impact of telomere length, they believe longer ones have protective benefits against disease.

Meditation can also help cancer survivors deal with the emotional distress that often accompanies the disease. A study found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced stress and slightly reduced symptoms of depression in breast cancer patients. (9)

“Just being diagnosed with cancer is stressful enough, but then going through all the treatments and going through all the tests and worrying if the cancer will come back, that’s all additional stress,” Golubic says.

How Meditation Can Improve Sleep

Meditation promotes relaxation, so it seems logical that practicing it would promote good sleep. And there’s scientific research that backs that claim up, too.

A study found that participants who practiced mindfulness meditation had less insomnia, fatigue, and symptoms of depression at the end of a six-week program than those who did not practice mindfulness meditation. (10)

According to the National Sleep Foundation, meditation has even been shown to reduce the use of sleeping pills. Furthermore, combining meditation with cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) has been found to improve sleep better than CBT-I alone. (11)

Meditation and the Gut

While researchers are still working to better understand the relationship between the mind and the gut, they have reason to believe there is a connection where one affects the other.

Stress appears to exacerbate symptoms of both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases (IBDs) like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fatigue that can come with both conditions can also lead to stress, so scientists are working to find ways to help break this vicious cycle. One such method is meditation.

A study from 2015 found that the relaxation response that comes from participating in such activities as meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer significantly improved symptoms of both IBS and IBD, reduced anxiety, and improved overall quality of life. (12)?And then a 2020 study reported similarly strong results for IBS patients who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. (14)

Another study found that people with ulcerative colitis who practiced yoga meditation reported an increase in quality of life and decrease in disease activity. (15)

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine. March 2014.
  2. Kuyken W, Warren FC, Taylor RS, et al. Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Prevention of Depressive Relapse. JAMA Psychiatry. June 2016.
  3. Cramer H, Haller H, Lauche R, et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Yoga for Hypertension. American Journal of Hypertension. September 2014.
  4. Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood Pressure Response to Transcendental Meditation: A Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Hypertension. March 2008.
  5. Meditation May Decrease the Risk of Heart Disease. American Heart Association. September 28, 2017.
  6. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial.?JAMA. March 2016.
  7. Zeidan F, Adler-Neal AL, Wells RE, et al. Mindfulness-Meditation-Based Pain Relief Is Not Mediated by Endogenous Opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. March 16, 2016.
  8. Carlson LE, Beattie TL, Giese-Davis J, et al. Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery and Supportive-Expressive Therapy Maintain Telomere Length Relative to Controls in Distressed Breast Cancer Survivors. Cancer. February 1, 2015.
  9. Bower JE, Crosswell AD, Stanton AL, et al. Mindfulness Meditation for Younger Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Control Trial. Cancer. April 15, 2015.
  10. Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, et al. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine. April 2015.
  11. How Meditation Can Treat Insomnia. Sleep Foundation. April 19, 2022.
  12. Kuo B, Bhasin M, Jacquart J, et al. Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated With a Relaxation Response Mind-Body Intervention in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. PLoS One. February 21, 2017.
  13. Schutte NS, Malouff JM, Keng SL. Meditation and Telomere Length: A Meta-Analysis. Psychology & Health. August 2020.
  14. Naliboff BD, Smith SR, Serpa JG, et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Improves Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Symptoms Via Specific Aspects of Mindfulness. Neurogastroenterology
    & Motility
    . September 2020.
  15. Yeh AM, Wren A, Golianu B. Mind-Body Interventions for Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Children. April 3, 2017.
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