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The relationship between chronic inflammation and psychological stress has been well documented. Learning how to effectively manage stress has traditionally been taught as a strategy to reduce the impact stress can have in provoking symptom flares. Managing stress is one thing, but is there anything that can actually reduce the immune response itself?

It appears mindfulness meditation may have a role here.

Mindfulness meditation has been enjoying a surge in popularity and in particular has been found to be effective in alleviating the emotional distress associated with stress such as anxiety and depression.

It has also been shown to be helpful in those living with severe chronic pain, but until now little research has been available to critically examine whether mindfulness truly does make a difference in other areas (such as chronic inflammation).

Let’s look first at mindfulness and pain management.

Mindfulness meditation has been used as a technique to assist those living with severe pain to manage their symptoms more effectively.

It’s not a method to make the pain go away, but by practising mindfulness, a person learns initially to focus attention on the breath, to notice the sensations being experienced by the body, and the thoughts and feelings associated with these sensations. The person gradually learns to accept the pain rather then tensing or resisting it (which exacerbates the severity of the symptoms) and their mind becomes less sensitised to the noxious stimulus. Subsequently the practice allows the person  to experience a reduction in the severity and impact the pain has on their lives, allowing them to function better.

Mindfulness and inflammation.

Dealing with pain is one thing, but what about inflammation? Can mindfulness be shown clinically to make a positive difference?

A study from the University of Winsconsin set about to look at just this, comparing the impact of mindfulness mediation vs. a behavioural technique of stress reduction.

In this study, the group was divided to either attend an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or the Health Enhancement Program (HEP) that uses behavioural intervention including nutritional education, physical activity (that includes walking, balance, agility and core strength) and music therapy.

Stress management techniques including deep breathing, yoga, physical activity etc.  have often been found useful to assist people to develop resiliency to life’s stressors. This study is a first in looking to make the direct comparison of these types of recognised techniques vs. mindfulness specifically.

The stresses being evaluated comprised a physical stress where capsaicin cream was applied topically to forearm skin and psychological stress induced using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Measurements of inflammatory and immune markers were measured before and after the MBSR training.

Results for psychological stress

Cortisol levels  were measured following both the mindfulness and HEP training. Cortisol is a stress hormone released as part of the body’s fight or flight mechanism. Here the results in both the MBSR and HEP group in reducing cortisol levels were comparable.

Results for physical stress i.e. inflammation

Here, the difference lay in that the MBSR group was significantly more effective in relieving the inflammatory response.

So what does this mean?

In dealing with the emotional reaction to stress, both mindfulness and commonly used behavioural practices work very well. In other words both forms of stress education work well to reduce the psychological impact of stress.

But it was In terms of the actual physical symptoms however, that the mindfulness practice showed a physiological benefit by buffering the psychological effects that stress can have on neurogenic inflammation. 

One reason this study is important is because mindfulness meditation has been enjoying a substantial increase in interest for the purported health benefits, despite relatively little evidence being available to support the claims. This study has helped to demonstrate one area where mindfulness meditation does appear to have a useful advantage compared to other behavioural techniques in relieving inflammatory symptoms.

The author of the study stresses that while this shows mindfulness is a useful tool in managing chronic inflammation it is part of a tool kit and may be shown to help some people more than others. In addition learning mindfulness meditation is inexpensive and once the skill has been mastered , can be readily practised without supervision by a person at home or anywhere else.

This is very good news for those living with conditions associated with chronic inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis a, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

Have you had any experience of mindfulness meditation providing a health benefit? I’d love to hear if you have.

Melissa A. Rosenkranz, Richard J. Davidson, Donal G. MacCoon, John F. Sheridan, Ned H. Kalin, Antoine Lutz. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2013; 27: 174 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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