Selected Essays

Treating Illness with Meditation

Marietta Sabetta decided that the way to make a stand against her moderately high blood pressure was to sit still.

The 52-year-old Seymour, Conn., woman asked her doctor if she could try lowering her blood pressure by taking a meditation class at Griffin Hospital.

On most Wednesday evenings since last March, she has followed instructor Lauren Liberti through a series of mindfulness exercises, beginning with simple yoga positions and leading to a meditation session that might, on a given night, involve simply focusing on breath.

"My doctor thought it was a great idea," Sabetta said. "It feels comfortable and peaceful, and it's very, very strengthening emotionally."

And her blood pressure? It's down to normal, she says, thanks to meditation. It's been more than three decades since Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University and his colleagues found that meditation induces a calming state that is the opposite of the revved-up, heart-pounding "fight or flight" reaction to stress. Because everyone agreed that stress was bad, hard evidence that meditation fought stress established meditation as a healthful practice.

Since then, meditation has moved from the ashram to the living room. Time Magazine recently reported that about 10 million Americans say they practice some form of meditation. While meditation - from guided imagery to mindfulness exercises - is widely used in health care, researchers are now looking beyond meditation's stress-relieving virtues to see how it may rewire the brain's circuitry and treat or prevent certain ailments.

Richard J. Davidson, a research professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and director of the university's Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, is one of the leaders in this still embryonic field. He said it is growing rapidly, thanks to recent advances in brain imaging and brain science.

"It's an approach rooted, much more than in the past, in the neuroscience research tradition," he said. "It is research that emphasizes the emotional benefits of meditation and corresponding changes in brain and peripheral biology that may be associated with the cultivation of certain kinds of positive emotions that meditation is said to increase."

Davidson was the lead author of a recent, much-publicized study that measures brain activity in subjects before, immediately after and four months after they complete an eight week training program in mindfulness meditation. A group of 25 meditators, taught to cultivate a deep awareness of thoughts and feelings, showed heightened brain activity in an area associated with "positive effect," or happiness, compared with a group of 18 non-meditators. After the study, both groups got flu shots. The meditators produced up to 25 percent more antibodies to influenza. The results suggest that the brain changes might be related to a boost in the immune system. Davidson and his colleagues also have been using brain-imaging technology to examine the brains of some of the world's most experienced meditators - Tibetan Buddhist monks, who are being studied with the blessing of the Dalai Lama. (Davidson helped organize a Sept. 13 meeting between leading scientists and the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) The work has not yet been published, but Davidson wrote last year that one monk showed intense activity in part of the brain associated with happiness, scoring higher than nearly 200 other individuals who had been observed.

Other studies being conducted across the country are examining how various forms of meditation might help to treat or prevent a number of illnesses. These include, for example, heart disease in specific populations, binge eating and recurrent abdominal pain. Other projects are evaluating meditation as a way to improve the quality of life for patients with cancer and various stages of HIV and to reduce seniors' susceptibility to shingles.

Much of the research is being sponsored by the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, said the field is expanding, thanks, in part, to the role of the NIH. Katz said that the NIH has determined that practices like meditation need to be backed up with credible science, "which means that you have scientific outcomes that can hold their head up in public," he said. Good science, said Katz, also makes believers of health plans, which can fold proven practices into the services they will provide to members.

Doctors who now encourage patients to meditate acknowledge that it's often trickier than prescribing drugs.

Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a Manchester, Conn., cardiologist, sad that he is not that fussy about what kind of meditation his patients take up, as long as it suits them. For example, if they're Catholic, he'll ask if they are averse to prayer. "If they say 'No,' I tell them to just say 'Hail Mary, full of grace' over and over again," he said.

One of his patients, Jilline Miceli, 64, formerly of South Windsor, Conn., and now of Bonita Springs, Fla., was diagnosed with congestive heart failure three years ago and became a heart transplant candidate in 2001. She credits meditation - along with drug treatment, yoga and her family and friend's prayers - with helping to get her off the transplant list.

Dr. Karen Prestwood, an associate professor of Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, regularly teaches a mind-body skills group at the health center that meets for two hours a week for 10 weeks. She uses both what she calls passive forms of meditation - such as mindfully noticing thoughts that arise - and active forms, like "chaotic breathing," which involves breathing techniques and body movement.

Ultimately, whether meditation is prescribed, and if so, what kind, may be dictated by the patient's preferences and also by the particular ailment. Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, said future research may show that a particular form of meditation works best to help treat or prevent a given illness. Benson, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard who also is founding president of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, said he believes that all effective forms of meditation induce what he calls the relaxation response, characterized by lowered blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and metabolism.

"That is simply a doorway that clears the mind," he said, noting that the relaxation response is the starting point for advanced meditative states that may be able to address specific health problems.

Davidson cautions that the in-depth study of meditation is new. It's too early to make any claims about physical healing. The research underway isn't simply about proving how healthful meditation is. Some techniques, when tried out against certain maladies or as an adjunct to other therapies, will undoubtedly fail. And there is the danger, as with any self-care practice, that patients may blame themselves for nor not meditating well enough if their disease gets worse.

Garret Condon
The Hartford Courant

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