What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner

Evidence Based Rating Scale

What Is It?

Practiced for several thousand years, meditation is a mind-body technique in which a person engages in quiet contemplation in order to induce a state of mental and physical tranquility. Most types of meditation have come to the West from Eastern religious practices--particularly those of India, China, and Japan. It is only in the past three decades that the technique has begun to be used mainly for health purposes, particularly for treating stress and reducing chronic pain.

The three most popular meditation techniques in the United States are transcendental meditation (TM), breath meditation and mindfulness meditation. In doing TM you repeat a simple word or sound (called a mantra) to yourself throughout the meditation to focus your thinking and help achieve a state of calm. Breath meditation calls for concentrating on the process of inhaling and exhaling to help clear the mind. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment, acknowledging thoughts as they come up and observing them without judgment.

TM became a household word in the 1960s, when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (whose followers included the Beatles) brought it to the U.S. During this time, reports had reached the West of Indian yogis, and meditation masters who were able to alter their states of consciousness and control bodily functions such as blood pressure. This sparked Western researchers and health professionals--and the public at large--to begin to explore the health-enhancing potential of this ancient technique. It gained further credence when Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, published his continually popular book, The Relaxation Response in 1975. It showed how meditation could help treat high blood pressure, chronic pain, insomnia, and many other physical ailments.

Today, meditation is widely accepted as an adjunct therapy for pain reduction and stress management, and is taught and practiced in many hospitals and medical centers throughout the U.S. It is also an integral part of other mind-body techniques including yoga, qigong, and tai chi, which have gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years.


No matter which meditative technique is used, its effect on the body is similar. Researchers have found that meditating lowers levels of stress hormones, and therefore supports the healthy functioning of the immune system. In fact, by decreasing the level of one such hormone--epinephrine--meditation has been shown to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood and therefore help arteries to remain clear.

In addition, electroencephalograph (EEG) studies of the brain in those who are meditating show that meditation boosts the intensity of alpha waves--with quiet, receptive states--to levels not seen even during sleep. People who meditate also show improved blood circulation, which protects the arteries; lowered blood levels of lactic acid, which is associated with anxiety; and lowered heart rate, which places less demand on the heart. Another effect of meditation is that breathing slows, so the body uses less oxygen.

What You Can Expect

Meditation is easily practiced at home on your own. You can learn meditation techniques through books or audio or videotapes, or you can take a class in meditation to get started. Classes are frequently offered at yoga centers or community centers, and are usually taught by long-time meditators who are well versed in meditation practice. A typical class might meet for an hour once a week for several weeks and you might be exposed to one or more meditation techniques.

Whether you practice transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, or breath meditation, the goal is the same: inner peace and relaxation. In all three techniques, you sit comfortably with your back straight, either in a chair or on the floor, with your eyes closed, breathing deeply. The techniques do differ slightly in how they are performed, however.

When practicing TM, for example, you repeat a mantra (often a Sanskrit word) to yourself throughout the meditation. A teacher may give you the mantra or you may simply use a word that is calming to you, such as "peace" or "one." Saying the mantra helps prevent distracting thoughts from entering your mind and allows you to gradually relax and release stress. One goal during TM is a passive attitude that allows thoughts, images, and feelings to pass through your consciousness almost unnoticed.

Mindfulness meditation, also known as Mind Body Stress Reduction or MBSR, (a technique researched and popularized in the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussetts Medical Center) helps you to become more in touch with what is happening in your body and mind at the time it actually is happening. In mindfulness meditation, you pay attention to your thoughts as they come up and observe them without judgment. This technique may include a body scan, in which you methodically bring attention to each part of your body from head to toe. As you let go of thoughts or images associated with a certain body part, the body part lets go, too, thus releasing much of its tension. The body scan has been found to be an excellent way to help people who are dealing with chronic pain. For best results, a body scan should take about 45 minutes.

Breath meditation involves focusing on breathing in and breathing out. When practicing this technique, you should try not to let your thoughts shift from your breath. According to practitioners of this type of meditation, concentrating on something as simple and elemental as the breath helps to clear the mind.

No matter what type of meditation you practice, the recommended goal is two 20-minute sessions a day--ideally once before breakfast and once before bedtime. The more you practice, the more adept you will be at achieving a state of calm and relaxation.

Meditation is one of the better-studied alternative therapies, and it has been shown to provide a wide range of health benefits. It is particularly helpful in treating heart disease (1, 2, 3, 4). Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The number of adults suffering from hypertension and cardiovascular disease is steadily rising. Meditation may help to lower blood pressure by reducing the physical measures of stress such as heart rate, sympathetic nerve activation and cortisol excretion. Certain demographic groups are particularly susceptible to heart disease. Post-menopausal women are at greater risk for heart related illness due to the lack of estrogenic cardio-protection in their later years. Meditation has been shown to benefit women who suffer from cardiovascular disease after this time (5, 6). In fact results suggest that the number of months a woman has practiced meditation is inversely related to her risk of cardiovascular disease. African-Americans are also at high risk of hypertension and heart disease. A study including 150 participants shows that meditation can effectively lower hypertension in this at risk population (7).

Not all studies on the effectiveness of meditation for battling cardiovascular disease have been positive. More large scale studies with diverse participants are needed to determine if the effects of meditation are of significant benefit to everyone (8, 9).

Another promising realm of research on the benefits of meditation comes from its use as an adjunctive therapy for the treatment of various kinds of cancers. The news of a diagnosis of cancer often leaves a person in a state of fear and emotional distress. The treatments used to battle cancer often ravage a person’s body and mind through financial and familial worry. Meditation has been shown to lessen the distress, fear, and depressed mood that often accompanies the diagnosis and treatment of cancer (10, 11, 12, 13).

Some research has gone even further to investigate the effect of meditative practices on the immunological markers of cancer. Results appear promising. Studies show increased natural killer and other immune markers (14, 15). This may lead to eventual influence on tumor cell regression (16). As meditation has no negative side effects in this population, meditation may prove to be a standard adjunctive therapy for cancer in the not too distant future.

Psychiatric illnesses have also shown a positive response to regular meditation. Regular meditation practices has been shown to increase neural activity in the brain regions associated with positive mood states. These effects may benefit those who suffer from generalized anxiety disorders, and conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) (17, 18). Other conditions such as depression may also be alleviated by meditation. Drug therapy for depression can be costly. Preliminary studies have shown that meditation may be an effective maintenance therapy to prevent recurrent episodes of depression (19). Studies are currently underway to see if meditation can be used to help treat childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and those suffering from the impulse control of addictive behaviors (20, 21).

By teaching you to focus and accept the current state of your body and mind, meditation has been shown to reduce the pain and suffering of those in chronic pain (22, 23). Chronic pain can come in many forms such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic back pain, migraine and a myriad of other conditions. A study conducted on 50 rheumatology patients showed benefits of meditation that lasted nearly two years after the completion of the study (24). Other pain conditions such as fibromyalgia have shown mixed results when treated by meditative practices. Smaller trials have shown a decrease in achiness, depression and sleeplessness after meditative treatment (25, 26). However not all meditative modalities have shown uniform rates of success (27).  

The benefits of meditation are not reserved only for those with health conditions. The healthy but overstressed can also benefit from this ancient modality. Regular meditation has been shown to help the healthy combat occupational stress, protect against internalizing the stress from others, and handle the stresses of your everyday life with greater poise and compassion (28, 29, 30, 31, 32).

Meditation has also been associated with a longer life span, better quality of life, fewer hospitalizations, and reduced health-care costs. It has also shown promise as an adjunct therapy in relieving mild depression, insomnia, tension headache, irritable bowel syndrome, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) (33, 34, 35).

How To Choose a Practitioner

There are no nationally recognized licensing or certification programs for "meditation teachers". However there are reputable programs that train instructors to teach meditative-type practices for personal health and growth ( see also the WholeHealthMD Reference Library entry  for Mind-body Skills Instructor). Ask your health-care practitioner for a referral. You may also want to ask friends who practice meditation for their advice. Some schools of meditation have more overt connections with a religious practice than others. You might study Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist meditations as well as secular meditations such as TM or MBSR that support any religious orientation, so shop around to make sure you're comfortable with the philosophy and approach of your meditation teacher.

  • Do not practice meditation if you are epileptic. The brain wave states produced during meditation may increase the frequency or severity of your attacks.
  • Some people may be temperamentally unable to achieve the tranquility of meditation, and unsuccessful attempts could aggravate any stress and anxiety they're already feeling.
  • If the symptoms (such as headaches, shortness of breath, fatigue, or chronic pain) that prompted you to try meditation persist, see a conventional doctor for treatment.
  • In deep states of meditation, some people become aware of long-buried memories of child abuse or other childhood traumas. If disturbing thoughts or memories plague you, contact a mental health professional.



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  4. Sainani GS. Non-drug therapy in prevention and control of hypertension. J Assoc Physicians India. 2003 Oct;51:1001-6.
  5. Walton KG, Fields JZ, Levitsky DK, Harris DA, Pugh ND, Schneider RH. Lowering Cortisol and CVD Risk in Postmenopausal Women: A Pilot Study Using the Transcendental Meditation Program. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:211-5.
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  9. Canter PH, Ernst E. Insufficient evidence to conclude whether or not Transcendental Meditation decreases blood pressure: results of a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. J Hypertens. 2004 Nov;22(11):2049-54.
  10. Deng G, Cassileth BR. Integrative oncology: complementary therapies for pain, anxiety, and mood disturbance. CA Cancer J Clin. 2005 Mar-Apr;55(2):109-16.
  11. Shannahoff-Khalsa DS. Patient Perspectives: Kundalini Yoga Meditation Techniques for Psycho-oncology and as Potential Therapies for Cancer. Integr Cancer Ther. 2005 Mar;4(1):87-100.
  12. Deng G, Cassileth BR, Yeung KS. Complementary therapies for cancer-related symptoms. J Support Oncol. 2004 Sep-Oct;2(5):419-26; discussion 427-9.
  13. Carlson LE, Speca M, Patel KD, Goodey E. Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress and levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2004 May;29(4):448-74.
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  16. Yu T, Tsai HL, Hwang ML. Suppressing tumor progression of in vitro prostate cancer cells by emitted psychosomatic power through Zen meditation. Am J Chin Med. 2003;31(3):499-507.
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  18. Jorm AF, Christensen H, Griffiths KM, Parslow RA, Rodgers B, Blewitt KA. Effectiveness of complementary and self-help treatments for anxiety disorders. Med J Aust. 2004 Oct 4;181(7 Suppl):S29-46.
  19. Bitner R, Hillman L, Victor B, Walsh R. Subjective effects of antidepressants: a pilot study of the varieties of antidepressant-induced experiences in meditators. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2003 Oct;191(10):660-7.
  20. Greydanus DE, Pratt HD, Sloane MA, Rappley MD. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents:interventions for a complex costly clinical conundrum. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2003 Oct;50(5):1049-92, vi.
  21. Kavanagh DJ, Andrade J, May J. Beating the urge: implications of research into substance-related desires. Addict Behav. 2004 Sep;29(7):1359-72.
  22. Astin JA. Mind-body therapies for the management of pain. Clin J Pain. 2004 Jan-Feb;20(1):27-32.
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  25. The best way to treat fibromyalgia. It may require more than one strategy, but you can get some pain relief and feel a lot better about life.Harv Womens Health Watch. 2004 Jan;11(5):4-5.
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  27. Astin JA, Berman BM, Bausell B, Lee WL, Hochberg M, Forys KL. The efficacy of mindfulness meditation plus Qigong movement therapy in the treatment of fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial. J Rheumatol. 2003 Oct;30(10):2257-62.
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  33. Khalsa SB. Treatment of chronic insomnia with yoga: a preliminary study with sleep-wake diaries. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2004 Dec;29(4):269-78.
  34. Harinath K, Malhotra AS, Pal K, Prasad R, Kumar R, Kain TC, Rai L, Sawhney RC. Effects of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation on cardiorespiratory performance, psychologic profile, and melatonin secretion. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Apr;10(2):261-8.
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  36. Khalsa HK. Yoga: an adjunct to infertility treatment. Fertil Steril. 2003 Oct;80 Suppl 4:46-51.

 Evidence Based Rating Scale 

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements and therapies demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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