The Effects of Meditation on Inflammation
Over the past two decades, mind-body interventions like meditation have been gaining empirical support for their ability to lessen perceived stress, alleviate depression, reduce loneliness, and even downregulate central inflammatory pathways.1,2
In a 2016 randomized controlled trial, researchers found, for the first time, that mindfulness training impacts measurable brain circuits that produce inflammatory health benefits.1 Half of a group of 35 stressed adult job seekers were asked to participate in an intensive three-day mindfulness meditation retreat program while the others simply completed a three-day relaxation program that did not have a mindfulness component. Brain scans tested for alterations in default mode network (DMN) resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC), and the results suggest that mindfulness meditation training, and not relaxation training, increases posterior cingulate cortex rsFC with left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC)—a region known to be important in top-down executive control at rest, which, in turn, is associated with improvements in a marker of inflammatory disease risk. Blood samples showed that participants who underwent the mindfulness training had lower levels of interleukin-6, a biomarker of inflammation, than those who did the relaxation retreat.1
Several other studies have investigated the neurobiological effects of meditation. A 2017 meta-analysis of 45 studies found that meditation reduced cortisol, C-reactive protein, blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.2 The analysis concluded that, overall, meditation practice leads to decreased physiological markers of stress in a range of populations.2 In the following video, IFM speaker Leonard H. Calabrese, DO, FACR, discusses the research that links meditation to downregulation of central inflammatory pathways:
Leonard H. Calabrese, DO, FACR, is a board-certified rheumatologist, an osteopathic physician, and an internationally recognized HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C researcher at the Cleveland Clinic.
Another study examining the effect of yoga and meditation on mind-body health found an increase in plasma levels of BDNF and increases in the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response in study participants who attended a three-month retreat.3 Plasma levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 were increased and the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-12 was reduced after the retreat.3
Stress has also been shown to affect the gut microbiome; the fight-or-flight response triggered by psychological stress typically prompts corticotropin-releasing hormone and catecholamine production in various parts of the body, which ultimately disturbs the microbiota.4 In the absence of stress, a healthy microbiota produces short-chain fatty acids that exert anti-inflammatory and antitumor effects. During stress, an altered gut microbial population affects the regulation of neurotransmitters mediated by the microbiome and gut barrier function. A 2017 study on the effects of stress and meditation on the immune system, human microbiota, and epigenetics found that meditation helps regulate the stress response, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation states and maintaining a healthy gut barrier function.4
- Creswell JD, Taren AA, Lindsay EK, et al. Alterations in resting-state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biol Psychiatry. 2016;80(1):53-61. doi:1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.008.
- Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Jenkins ZM, Ski CF. Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;95:156-178. doi:1016/j.jpsychires.2017.08.004.
- Cahn BR, Goodman MS, Peterson CT, Maturi R, Mills PJ. Yoga, meditation and mind-body health: increased BDNF, cortisol awakening response, and altered inflammatory marker expression after a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:315. doi:3389/fnhum.2017.00315.
- Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. The effects of stress and meditation on the immune system, human microbiota, and epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017;31(4):10-25.