An In Depth Look at Meditation + What Science Has to Say

By the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body and behavior. A new report based on data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that U.S. adults’ use of meditation in the past 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017 (from 4.1 percent to 14.2 percent). The use of meditation by U.S. children (aged 4 to 17 years) also increased significantly (from 0.6 percent in 2012 to 5.4 percent in 2017).

There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking or other positions); a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object or the sensations of breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).

What Science Says About the Effectiveness of Meditation

Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions. And there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. This includes flare-ups in people who’ve had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety, depression and may help people with insomnia.

Read more about meditation for these conditions:


  • A small 2016 study funded in part by the NCCIH found that mindfulness meditation helps to control pain. It also doesn’t use the brain’s naturally occurring opiates to do so. This suggests that combining mindfulness with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s opioid activity may be particularly effective in reducing pain. Visit the NCCIH Web site for more information on this study.
  • In another 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults aged 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or usual care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement. It was greater than those who got usual care, including long after the training ended. The researchers found that participants in the MBSR and CBT groups had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care. There were no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT.

For High Blood Pressure

  • Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • The findings also suggested that practicing meditation can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility and coping ability.
  • A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques. This is in terms of blood-pressure lowering, because there are few head-to-head studies.

For Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Results of a 2011 NCCIH-funded trial that enrolled 75 women suggest that practicing mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks reduces the severity of IBS symptoms.
  • A 2013 review concluded that mindfulness training improved IBS patients’ pain and quality of life but not their depression or anxiety. The amount of improvement was small.

For Anxiety, Depression and Insomnia

  • A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep.
  • A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups.
  • In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This is a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI). Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.

For Smoking Cessation

  • The results of 13 studies of mindfulness-based interventions for stopping smoking included promising results regarding craving, smoking cessation and relapse prevention. However, the studies had many limitations.
  • A 2011 trial comparing mindfulness training with a standard behavioral smoking cessation treatment found that individuals who received mindfulness training showed a greater rate of reduction in cigarette use immediately after treatment. At the 17-week follow-up.
  • Results of a 2013 brain imaging study suggested that mindful attention reduced the craving to smoke. It also reduced activity in a craving-related region of the brain.

Other Conditions

  • Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain.
  • A 2014 research review suggested that mind and body practices, including meditation, reduce chemical identifiers of inflammation and show promise in helping to regulate the immune system.
  • Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet and music therapy.

Meditation and the Brain

Some research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body. It could also potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors.

Read more about meditation and the brain:

  • In a 2012 study, researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults who don’t meditate. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
  • A 2013 review of three studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall or even reverse changes taking place in the brain. This is when due to normal aging.
  • Results from a 2012 NCCIH-funded study suggests that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala. This is the part of the brain involved in processing emotions. Different types of meditation can affect the amygdala differently even when the person is not meditating.

What Science Says About Safety and Side Effects of Meditation

  • Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people.
  • People with physical limitations may not be able to participate in certain meditative practices involving movement. People with physical health conditions should speak with their health care providers before starting a meditative practice. They should also make their meditation instructor aware of their condition.

NCCIH-Funded Research

NCCIH-supported studies are investigating meditation for:

  • Teens experiencing chronic, widespread pain, such as from fibromyalgia
  • Stress reduction for people with multiple sclerosis
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, headaches and reducing blood pressure.

More to Consider

  • Don’t use meditation to replace conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
  • Ask about the training and experience of the meditation instructor you are considering.
  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

This article and research originally appeared on the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Keep reading for more techniques on overcoming mental illness with mindfulness:


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