Integrating the “M” words: Meditation and medicine

meditation men women

By Marie Angeli Adamczyk, M.D.

Hallmark Health Medical Associates

meditation men women

Meditation can be a healthy addition to traditional medicine.

If, along with giving you a prescription for medication, your doctor suggested you also try meditation, would you leave their office thinking they were crazy?

Over the past years, I’ve paid close attention to the mounting research that has shown mindfulness meditation improves nearly every aspect of health. And I’m not the only one. More physicians are recommending patients begin to practice meditation. We don’t replace medication with meditation, but instead integrate it into medical treatment.

I help my patients understand the four pillars of healthy living:

  • Good sleep
  • Balanced diet
  • Exercise
  • Mindfulness meditation

When I introduce the topic of meditation, I sometimes don’t even say the “M” word for fear my patients will run out of the room! But most patients, while surprised at my suggestion, are pretty receptive to the idea. I give them the same advice regarding meditation that I do when it comes to diet and exercise: start small. Stop for just three minutes to listen to every sound that comes along, or focus on breathing naturally – through your abdomen and not your chest.

Every minute of meditation counts. If you can only stop and meditate for a couple minutes, it won’t go to waste. It’s just like exercise – you don’t have to do it all in one session. You can break it up into smaller chunks when you have time. Also, studies have shown that even if you stop your meditation practice, you will feel its effects for four months.

Meditation has been around for centuries, with people practicing it as part of their religion or as a way of life. It’s only recently we have been able to scientifically prove that meditation can have a powerful impact on overall health.

How can meditation improve health and well-being?

The practice of meditation can be as simple as taking a deep breath or as complex as a philosophy for living. It really comes down to three disciplines and your ability to:

  • Focus on the present moment
  • Bring your mind and body into alignment
  • Integrate yourself with the people and world around you

This self-awareness allows us to maximize our capabilities, become more efficient, grow, and heal.

Researchers have long tried to understand how meditation can contribute to health and well-being. Through these studies, we have come to realize that meditation can boost the immune system, reduce stress, and ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

In a study described by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Full Catastrophe Living,” researchers examined the effects of meditation in conjunction with standard treatment in patients with psoriasis, an autoimmune disease. Patients were divided into two groups – one practiced meditation during treatment and the other underwent the same treatment without practicing meditation. They found the healing process was four times more effective in the patients who meditated.

Stress causes your body to go on the defense – fight or flight – rather than focus on healing, and it is known to play a role in chronic inflammatory conditions. A 2013 study compared two groups – one that completed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction meditation training and one that completed a Health Enhancement Program that included physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy. The researchers then induced stress and inflammation, and measured the responses. The meditation group experienced a significantly smaller inflammation response despite equivalent levels of stress hormones, suggesting meditation may benefit patients with chronic inflammatory conditions.

There’s no shortage of studies on the effects of meditation on everything from immune function in AIDS patients, to lowering blood pressure, to increasing the success rate of smoking cessation. However, it’s unclear exactly why meditation seems to work.

A study published in January 2016 explored brain activity after mindfulness meditation. It focused on participants in two groups, one that completed a mindfulness meditation retreat and one that completed a relaxation retreat without a mindfulness component.

The participants’ brain scans after their retreats showed an interesting finding. The functional connectivity between the area of the brain involved with internal reflection and the area key to attention and decision-making significantly increased in the meditation group. Blood tests also showed the meditation group had lower levels of inflammation. The researchers concluded that the increased connectivity helps the brain manage stress, and therefore reduces inflammation.

When can meditation help most?

Meditation can’t cure everything, and it can’t always stand on its own as a treatment plan. We all have built-in healing properties. If you’re able to use meditation to harness those capabilities and forgo medication, that’s great. You avoid the potential side effects of a medication as a result. However, when that is not possible, you may see better results by integrating meditation into a treatment plan rather than relying on medication alone.

I urge everyone to practice some form of meditation to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but I emphasize it a little more for patients dealing with some medical or behavioral problems, such as:

  • Insomnia: This problem often sets in when we don’t feel safe. For many insomnia patients, their brains won’t stop racing. They can’t stop thinking about all the things they need to take care of, or the possible consequences of this or that. With meditation, you can say, “No. I’m safe, and all this can wait because my life is not threatened right now.” Your body only goes to sleep when you allow it, and meditation can give you that control.
  • Managing pain: Think about breathing techniques practiced by pregnant women in labor. By practicing this type of meditation, they are not thinking solely about the pain. Instead, they are allowing other parts of the brain to take over rather than dwell on or exaggerate the pain. This same technique can be used in managing many types of pain.
  • Smoking cessation: As mentioned, you can breathe through pain, and addiction is the pain of craving. I tell people who want to stop smoking to take a deep breath – without the cigarette! Then take another deep breath. Pain is a mix of many things that are not just physical, including memory, culture, and knowledge. Meditation can be an effective way to fight the physical and emotional pain of craving something.

When medical treatment is not enough, meditation may be able to help you accept your illness and live life more meaningfully. You may find you’re less anxious and irritable, and appreciate your life more.

Whether you are in perfect health or struggle with a medical condition, meditation can be a powerful tool to maintain and restore your health.   I myself engage in various meditation practices based on what works for me at the time. Sometimes bell sounds keep me focused, sometimes body scans. I’m always on the lookout for another way to put my mind where my body is. The one thing that is consistent is that I engage in it daily, and this is what counts the most – the persistent investment in well-being.

If you would like to learn more about how to integrate meditation into your healthy lifestyle, schedule an appointment with Dr. Adamczyk or call (855) 446-2362.

Tags: family health, meditation

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