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 This may be beneficial for people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma—in which psychological stress plays a role. Emerging research highlights the likelihood of multiple, distinct pathways underlying the effect of lifestyle interventions like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga on immune function.
In one 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 completed a three-day relaxation program that did not have a mindfulness component. Brain scans suggested that mindfulness meditation training, and not relaxation training, increases posterior cingulate cortex resting state functional connectivity within the 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
A recent large, randomized controlled trial examined whether aerobic exercise and meditation could decrease systemic inflammation.3 The eight-week study found that exercise participants had decreased serum interferon-gamma-inducible protein-10 (a chemokine associated with interferon activity and illness), both post-intervention and 17 weeks later, whereas mindfulness meditation had a delayed effect on C-reactive protein (CRP), an important inflammatory biomarker.3
Building on studies like this, researchers speculated that mindfulness might also be effective in reducing elevated interleukin-6 in the bloodstream that can appear in patients who chronically abuse alcohol.4 A 2019 study in 72 adults found that greater mindfulness practice time was significantly associated with reduced IL-6 levels, suggesting that the level of engagement in mindfulness training may predict changes in the inflammatory pathophysiology in adults with alcohol dependence .4
Several other studies have investigated the immunological 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 A 2019 systematic review suggests that yoga can be a viable intervention to reduce inflammation across a multitude of chronic conditions.5
Exposure to chronic stressors may affect the risk of developing hypertension and type 2 diabetes, as inflammation has been shown to play an important role in the pathogenesis of these diseases. To this end, researchers studied whether brain education–based meditation (BEM, also known as brain wave vibration meditation)—a modernized version of a traditional mind-body training from Korea—may be beneficial for patients with these inflammatory diseases. In this small pilot study, compared to health education alone, BEM helped to lower LDL cholesterol level and the inflammatory gene expression in patients and induced positive effects on self-reported mental/physical states.6
In the following video, IFM educator Leonard H. Calabrese, DO, FACR, discusses the research that links meditation to downregulation of central inflammatory pathways:
A 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 healthy study participants who attended a three-month retreat.7 Plasma levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-10 were increased and levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-12 were reduced after the retreat.7
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, which ultimately disturbs the microbiota.8 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 inflammatory states and maintaining healthy gut barrier function.8
These studies add to the growing body of knowledge about the connection between stress, inflammation, and mindfulness and their impacts on health. The continued research moves us toward a better understanding of how mindfulness interventions work, particularly regarding the training components that drive health-related benefits. Follow the links below to learn more about the potential benefits of mind-body interventions.
- 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
- Meyer JD, Hayney MS, Coe CL, Ninos CL, Barrett BP. Differential reduction of IP-10 and C-reactive protein via aerobic exercise or mindfulness-based stress-reduction training in a large randomized controlled trial. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2019;41(2):96-106. doi:1123/jsep.2018-0214
- McClintock AS, Goldberg SB, Coe CL, Zgierska AE. Mindfulness practice predicts interleukin-6 responses to a mindfulness-based alcohol relapse prevention intervention. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2019;105:57-63. doi:1016/j.jsat.2019.07.018
- Djalilova DM, Schulz PS, Berger AM, Case AJ, Kupzyk KA, Ross AC. Impact of yoga on inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review. Biol Res Nurs. 2019;21(2):198-209. doi:1177/1099800418820162
- Lee SH, Hwang SM, Kang DH, Yang HJ. Brain education–based meditation for patients with hypertension and/or type 2 diabetes: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Medicine. 2019;98(19):e15574. doi:1097/MD.0000000000015574
- 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.
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