Meditation shows promise for improving health for people with a range of conditions, from insomnia to heart disease
“Initially, all he wanted was for his symptoms to go away. To disappear, to be like it was before.”
University of Minnesota Medical School psychiatry professor Kelvin O. Lim, M.D., recalls a military veteran who had struggled for years with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But after participating in a study examining the effect of meditation on PTSD symptoms, the veteran described astonishment at how fundamentally transformative the practice had been for him.
“It changed his relationship with his symptoms,” says Lim, who works with patients at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System and U of M. “After five years of going through therapies, and there's no loss of the symptoms, he said meditation helped him change his self-identification from ‘I'm PTSD’ to ‘a person who has PTSD symptoms.’ It’s separating the person from the symptoms.”
From PTSD to diabetes and heart disease, the University of Minnesota—with leadership and support from its newly renamed Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing—is at the forefront of studying meditation’s potential to manage disease and foster well-being.
“It would be hard to find a university that’s doing more,” says the center’s founding director, Mary Jo Kreitzer, Ph.D., R.N.
PTSD: Reduction in symptoms
Mindfulness, or the practice of cultivating nonjudgmental awareness, is at the core of the 22-year-old center’s mission. The Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing uses a decades-old program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), of which meditation is a key component. It’s being evaluated in studies across the U for its promise in managing a range of conditions.
Another type of meditation, transcendental meditation, has been assessed as a possible tool in the treatment of PTSD and, in healthy college students, generalized stress. Lim, who holds the Drs. T.J. and Ella M. Arneson Land Grant Chair in Human Behavior, led those studies.
Previously, he also led a randomized clinical study funded by the VA comparing MBSR to group therapy as a possible treatment for PTSD. That study concluded that MBSR yielded greater improvement in self-reported symptom severity than common group therapy.
Lim, himself a practitioner of transcendental meditation, says that like MBSR, it has “both advantages and disadvantages.” Transcendental meditation instruction is tightly standardized throughout the world, he explains, thereby ensuring consistency across studies, while MSBR offers a range of approaches—“the Swiss Army knife for mindfulness.”
Each of his studies revealed different changes in the electrical power frequency in the brains of participants, depending on the type of meditation used.
Heart disease: ‘A tool in the toolbox’
Meditation appears to have a positive effect on heart health, as well. University of Minnesota Health cardiologist Prabhjot S. Nijjar, M.D., in collaboration with Kreitzer and Medical School associate professor Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., M.P.H., is exploring whether—and precisely how—MBSR may help prevent or ameliorate heart disease.
“I’ve been interested in meditation, and the mind-body connection, on a personal level for a long time,” says Nijjar, who began meditating while he was in medical school and noticed that it seemed to help significantly with stress-induced back pain.
“Nobody doubts that meditation makes you feel good,” Nijjar says, and many people have felt it makes a difference in easing various physical ailments. “But what is it doing toward the actual disease process?”
As a cardiologist, he was eager to find out. “It’s clear that stress plays a big part in cardiac disease,” he says.
Not only does stress contribute to heart disease to begin with, but the added stress of experiencing a cardiac event can exacerbate it. “I wanted to really [establish] whether meditation has beneficial effects for cardiac patients—and understand how it works.”
A mentor pointed Nijjar toward heart rate variability as one key way to examine the autonomic nervous system. That’s the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling basic, unconscious bodily functions like breathing, heartbeat, and digestion. Counterintuitively, variability here is a good thing.
“If your sympathetic nervous system is revved up—which is bad—your heart rate stays steady. When you’re nervous or stressed out, your heart rate doesn’t change,” says Nijjar, an assistant professor of cardiology in the Medical School.
Conversely, “when you’re relaxed or sleeping and your parasympathetic system is active, that’s when your heart rate has these fine changes from beat to beat.”
A few years ago, Nijjar completed a study showing that MBSR helps improve heart rate variability in healthy subjects.
Currently, the group is studying MBSR’s effects on people who have experienced a heart attack or other cardiac event. They’re evaluating data on 47 participants’ sleep activity, inflammation markers, quality of life, and heart rate variability to see whether there are differences between those who are meditating and those who aren’t.
Their strikingly successful recruitment and retention rate—95 percent, for a commitment that includes nine three-hour sessions over eight weeks—suggests that meditation may help keep patients engaged in their recovery. Given that cardiac rehab completion rates hover around 50 percent nationally, it’s an intriguing proposition.
“I see mediation being a part of all of the therapies that we have,” Nijjar says. “A tool in the toolbox.”
Even broader applications
Kreitzer, also a professor in the U’s School of Nursing, has been part of other studies demonstrating MBSR’s utility for managing depression and anxiety in people who have had organ transplants and chronic insomnia. In the insomnia study, MBSR was found to be as effective as a leading prescription sleep aid.
Most recently, Kreitzer worked with the Health Partners Research Foundation on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study exploring MBSR’s ability to help people who have diabetes manage stress and adhere to their treatment regime.
She’s particularly excited about collaborating on a new, NIH-funded study exploring meditation’s potential role in enhancing mind control via a noninvasive brain-computer interface technology designed to help people move physical objects using only their thoughts. The implications for people suffering from neuromuscular disorders and for people who rely on prosthetics could be substantial, Kreitzer says.
Lim expects the role of meditation in treating disease and cultivating wellness only to grow as proof of its efficacy accumulates.
“The barriers to the idea of meditation are so greatly reduced from 30 years ago,” he says. “Now it’s part of the culture. People are spending money out of pocket for integrative medicine approaches because they see the value.”
Kreitzer concurs. “This is not a hard sell anymore,” she says. “People are attracted [to meditation] for a reason: positive health outcomes.”
Make a gift today to the U's Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing. To learn more about how your gift can make a difference, contact Dianne Lev at 612-624-1121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.