Meditation prevents colds
Meditating a couple of times a week reduces the likelihood of succumbing to a cold or flu, researchers at the University of Wisconsin discovered. According to their research, the protective effect of meditation is greater than that of moderately intensive cardio training.
Flu & cold
The first author of the study that was recently published in the Journal of Family Practice, Bruce Barrett, has done a lot of research on flu and the common cold. In 2002 and 2010 he published two studies, which are still quoted by the anti-quackery lobby, in which he showed that Echinacea supplementation doesn't reduce the chance of catching cold. [Ann Intern Med. 2002 Dec 17; 137(12): 939-46.] [Ann Intern Med. 2010 Dec 21; 153(12): 769-77.] In 2011 Barrett published the results of a study in which he showed that colds can be effectively fought in some people by giving them a placebo.
Barrett's interest in cold and flu comes through the statistics: every year in the US alone thirty thousand people are killed by viruses that are harmless to most people, and half a million people are admitted to hospital with viral infections. Colds – and that's not including real influenza – cost the American economy forty billion dollars each year.
Because there are indications that meditation reduces stress, and stress has an adverse effect on the immune system, Barrett and his colleagues wondered whether meditation could reduce the likelihood of developing a cold, or acute respiratory infection. To answer this question the researchers did an experiment with 149 people over the age of fifty. Most of the test subjects were white women, who the researchers divided over three groups.
One meditation group did a mindfulness meditation course developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. They followed the course for eight weeks and did two and a half hours of meditation every week. [Meditation] The subjects in this group also did 45 minutes of meditation each week at home.
A first control group did physical exercise for a period of eight weeks. [Exercise] The subjects did two and a half hours a week of moderately intensive training on cardio machines in a gym. In addition they exercised for 45 minutes each week outside the gym: they walked or ran.
A second control group did nothing. [Control]
Both meditation and exercise reduced the chance of developing a cold, Barrett discovered. During the course of the eight weeks that the experiment lasted 27 people became ill in the meditation group and 26 in the exercise group, whereas 40 people became ill in the control group. In the meditation and exercise groups the symptoms were also less serious.
"Incidence, duration, and global severity of acute respiratory infection illness were 33 percent, 43 percent, and 60 percent lower in the mindfulness group, compared with control", the researchers write. "Compared with the control group, all-cause absenteeism was 31 percent lower in both intervention groups. Although not all of these observed benefits were statistically significant, the magnitude of the observed reductions in acute respiratory infection illness is surely clinically significant."
How exactly meditation protects against viruses the researchers are not sure. They found the same number of viruses and immune cells in the nasal cavities of all groups. They observed a higher production rate of interleukine-8 in the meditation group, but the effect was not statistically significant.
Meditation had no effect on stress levels or mental health - probably because the subjects were all comfortable with themselves and extremely mentally stable anyway.
"Interpreting these findings, one might hypothesize that sicker and more stressed people would have more to gain, and that similar interventions might yield greater benefits in those populations", the researchers speculate. "That hypothesis deserves further testing."
Ann Fam Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;10(4):337-46.
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