Stress is bad for everybody—but particularly for people who suffer from a chronic inflammatory condition such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. That’s because stress contributes to inflammation…so it makes sense to take steps to reduce stress.
A particular type of stress-reducing technique appears to be uniquely beneficial when it comes to quelling inflammation, according to a new study. Best of all, this technique requires no drugs (or any foreign substance, for that matter)…it’s easy to do…and it can be done anywhere.
How the study was done: Healthy volunteers were divided into two groups. One group was instructed in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a technique in which a person meditates by focusing attention on his breathing and bodily sensations while sitting still, walking or doing yoga. The thing to notice is that this sort of meditation emphasizes mindfulness —which means to foster an awareness of each sensation, emotion or thought as it unfolds in the moment, catching and then releasing it without judgment. The other group participated in a program that combined physical activity, music therapy and instruction in improved nutrition—all of which are known to improve well-being but do not include the idea of mindfulness. Both groups received the same amount of training and did the same amount of at-home practice for eight weeks.
Before starting and again after the end of the eight-week programs, the researchers provoked stress in the participants by asking them to give short impromptu speeches and to do some mental arithmetic problems. Next, a cream with an irritant was placed on the participants’ forearms to induce inflammation, then a sucking device was applied to raise blisters. This allowed the researchers to collect some fluid from the irritated skin so that levels of two cytokines (proteins released by the immune system) could be measured. Researchers also measured the size of the resulting inflamed areas of skin and the amount of the stress hormone cortisol secreted in the participants’ saliva at various times throughout the day.
Results: It was not surprising that the stress caused by giving speeches and doing mental math caused increases in markers for stress—and the levels of the cytokines and cortisol were about the same in both groups. But: Participants who had practiced mindfulness meditation showed significantly less stress-induced inflammation (as measured by the area of inflamed skin) than those in the other group…and their cortisol levels on a normal day showed a healthier circadian rhythm.
In other words, the meditators had reduced their bodies’ inflammatory response—something that would be good for anyone, but that could provide an especially profound health benefit for a person with an inflammatory condition!
Bottom line: If you have a chronic inflammatory health problem—or if you want an extra measure of protection against the harmful effects of inflammation—consider taking a class in mindfulness meditation. It’s a very popular sort of meditation, and you shouldn’t have trouble finding a class in your area. Or visit the Web site of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society to search for an MBSR-trained practitioner near you.