Meditation as Medicine on the Rise

Doctors refer patients to mindfulness programs for any number of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, anxiety and panic, job or family stress, chronic pain, cancer, HIV infection, AIDS, headaches, sleep disturbances, type A behavior, high blood pressure, fatigue and skin disorders.

In keeping with the growing interest in preventative medicine, some insurance companies, such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Massachusetts and a number of insurers in what Thurman calls “the more enlightened states like Oregon and California,” are now paying for all or part of these programs.

Research for Coverage

While the National Institutes of Health says it is too soon to quantify the medical benefits of meditation, Anita Greene, spokeswoman for the Institute’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine division, concedes, “It is a therapy worthy of further scientific investigation to refute or support the health claims being made.”

In fact, in 1999, the NIH granted Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, $8 million during a five-year period to study the effects of meditation in African Americans with cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers at Maharishi say that relaxing and reducing stress through transcendental meditation may reduce artery blockage and the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study released in the March issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke (see related story).

Another recent pilot study, published in the May 15 issue of NeuroReport, by Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a Harvard research fellow in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, suggests meditation activates specific regions of the brain that may influence heart and breathing rates. Using a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Lazar measured blood flow changes in experienced meditators.

“What we found were striking changes. There was significant decrease in blood flow and activity in specific areas of the brain,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass.

The usual, fight-or-flight brain response liberates adrenalin and is stressful to the body, he explains, but during meditation the brain acts to quiet the body through concentrated breathing or word repetition, evoking a relaxation response that minimizes the harmful effects of stress.

“It does away with the whole separation of mind and body and gives further proof to insurers that [meditation] is cost effective,” he says. Ultimately, Benson predicts, medicine will be akin to a three-legged stool, leaning on pharmaceuticals, surgeries and procedures, and self-care, which includes, meditation, nutrition, exercise and health management.

A Tool for Transformation

But, Thurman points out, meditation is for more than just health benefits: It is a tool for seeking inner transformation. Meditation practices in the health field are secular, however.

“We get everyone from born-again Christians to avowed atheists. We tell people we are not trying to make anyone into anything,” Duke’s Brantley reassures. No matter what their religious persuasion, he says, patients find an increased awareness and appreciation of their lives.

Registered nurse Shirley Gilloti, a San Rafael, Calif., health educator and mindfulness training teacher agrees, “I tell people to try to bring more mindfulness to saying their rosary if that’s what they do.”

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