Should Doctors Prescribe Meditation?

February 28, 2017

Is it just us, or was 2016 rough? And '17 is off to a feisty start as well, with political shake-ups jangling our nerves. But more Americans are discovering an ancient coping tool to deal with it all: meditation. The practice is suddenly everywhere: Mindfulness studios and apps abound; athletes and celebrities enthuse. Calming our minds is now a top priority—and a healthy one. Science has picked up speed on meditation research, too. Mounting evidence shows that a quiet mind can have a positive effect on your health, even providing relief for chronic pain and psychological conditions. So find a comfortable seated position and listen up as docs—as well as current research and real-life stories—show how far the power of meditation can go.

Meditation for Migraines

Migraines affect 12 percent of the U.S. population, causing 113 million lost workdays each year. Many sufferers stem the discomfort with medications, but these treatments can come with side effects, the possibility of overdose, and frustration when, for some, they simply don't work.

Elizabeth Kanna learned this the hard way. She'd had migraines since she was 12, sometimes as often as weekly in particularly stressful times. She had taken a more reactive approach for years—tamping down the pain once it had already started, through OTC or prescription drugs. Nothing gave her full relief. But in December 2015, the migraines escalated to twice a week, leaving her totally incapacitated.

Through her own research, she came across the idea that mindfulness could help. "I assumed I'd never have time for it," she says, "but finally I thought, If I don't have 10 minutes a day to try this, I need to look at my life."

She was onto something: A small 2014 study in the journal Headache found that mindfulness had big benefits for people with migraines. Those who practiced mindfulness exercises for eight weeks had fewer migraines, and bouts were shorter and less severe. Another small 2014 study concluded that meditation may help sufferers tolerate and manage their pain.

Researchers aren't sure why meditation makes a difference, though lowering tension seems to play a big role. "High stress levels and fluctuations in those levels can precipitate migraines," says Elizabeth Seng, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Meditation consistently keeps stress lower. But there's more: "It may also help people think about pain differently, which improves their lives even if it doesn't completely banish discomfort," Seng says.

Two weeks after starting meditation, Kanna noticed changes. "I felt calmer overall. I also noticed I got fewer migraines, and when I did, they were shorter and less painful."

The practice helped Kanna become more connected to her body; she's more aware of symptoms like neck stiffness or shallow breathing, which often precede a migraine, so she can mitigate its full force.

Kanna's migraines may never go away, but thanks to meditation, she's no longer a prisoner to pain. "It allows me to live my life the way I want to: not controlled by headaches."

Meditation for Crohn's Disease

The number of people in the U.S. with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) keeps growing—it's now at 1.6 million. The disease includes Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, and there's no cure—sufferers have to manage the chronic conditions through lifestyle changes and medication. But recent research suggests a quieter mind may also help.

Sarah Choueiry Simkin, 32, has been dealing with Crohn's disease since age 13. "I had serious stomach issues—bloody stools, abdominal pain, and weight loss," she says. Simkin tried different medications and diets, but, she says, "Even with treatment, I was still having weekly flare-ups."

At 22, she took up a yoga practice that included snippets of meditation. "I found that the more I practiced those, the lower my stress levels were, and the fewer Crohn's symptoms I'd experience," she says.

Research in the journal PLOS One helps explain this reaction. In the study, IBD and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers who practiced mindfulness for 15 minutes a day had fewer symptoms than those who didn't. But especially interesting was that meditation may have actually changed their bodies; through blood samples, researchers found it reduced the expression of inflammatory genes linked to IBD and IBS. Stay with us: Basically, we all have the same types of genes, but their activation level varies between people. "The genes are either turned on or turned off," says Michael Irwin, M.D., director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. When inflammatory genes are on, they increase inflammation, along with the risk of chronic illness. Meditation, however, helps turn off those genes.

In the 10 years since Simkin started meditating, her Crohn's flare-ups have gone from weekly to no more than once a month. They're shorter and less intense, too.

Meditation has also helped her with mental issues that piggyback on her condition. "Struggling with a chronic disease makes you feel angry and lonely," she says. But for Simkin, meditation quells those feelings during an attack and curbs the anxiety over when or whether the next one will hit. A calmer mind all around.

Meditation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People dealing with PTSD—chronic feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger from a trauma—find it nearly impossible to soothe their constantly on-guard minds. A sexual assault at age 19 left Deborah Avery, now 39, with persistent unease. "I don't remember ever feeling totally safe after that day," she says. When other therapies failed to help, she gave meditation a shot. "It brought about such a calmness in me that I had never experienced before. I knew I had to keep it up."

Meditation's impact on PTSD goes deeper than relaxation. A 2011 review shows that mindfulness improves coping skills, which can help PTSD sufferers better identify what triggers their stress and lower the anxiety that follows. Another study found that mindfulness reduced PTSD symptoms like self-blame.

"With this disorder, you're living a trauma over and over again, setting off a stress response," says Irwin. Meditation, however, pushes you to live in the present and stop replaying traumatic moments. It's what allowed Avery to talk about her sexual assault to begin with, and she says the practice has helped her respond better to traditional counseling. "It lets me sit with my feelings and be present in sessions," says Avery, "so I can talk about what happened, rather than ignore it."

How to Meditate — Right Now

Get started with this guided exercise, adapted from Agapi Stassinopoulos's book, Wake Up to the Joy of You.

Close your eyes and get into a comfortable position. Take a deep breath and exhale, breathing out any tension, anxiety, and worry. As you inhale, breathe in a sense of peace, beauty, and relaxation.

Focus on your heart, and with every breath allow it to expand and fill you with energy. Allow yourself to be quiet and still, knowing you can trust your soul and your spirit. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, just calm. Stay there for a few minutes. Build on this calmness. Now, when you're ready, fill your lungs and body with oxygen, gently exhale, open your eyes, shake your shoulders, wiggle your fingers and toes, and stand up.

Open your arms and exhale a long sigh, "aah." Once more, "aah." Give yourself a big hug.

"Om" on Demand

Interested in meditation but not sure where to start? Try these apps.

  • HeadspaceBefore you dive in, this app leads you through 10 free sessions on how to meditate. ($13/month)
  •  CalmThe guided and unguided meditations here are accompanied by sounds and scenes from nature. ($10/month)
  •  BuddhifyThis app gives you specific meditations based on whatever you're doing at the moment. ($5)
  •  10% HAPPIER: You get seven free days of guided meditations, along with actually funny videos on what meditation is and how to do it. ($10/month)

This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.