Commercialappeal.com: I feel like broken a tape recorder talking about the same stuff over and over: hand washing, cough etiquette and social distancing as ways to prevent getting the flu. So I was thrilled to find a 2003 research article from the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (not my usual bedside reading) on how meditation could help us in fighting the flu.
Meditation may seem like an Eastern concept, but in fact it is well grounded in Western religion in the form of prayer. In Joshua 1:8, God says to meditate on His word day and night. Rick Warren, in his book “The Purpose Driven Life,” writes, “Meditation is focused thinking. It takes serious effort … No other habit can do more to transform your life.”
Some Eastern gurus are more expansive. In lay language, meditation is “a simple process of watching your own mind. Not fighting with your mind. Not trying to control it either. Just remaining there as a choiceless witness.” So teach the Indian mystics. “In meditation there is no prejudice, and no judgment,” according to the meditation Web site osho.com.
Science also attests to the power of meditation. In the 1960s, a Harvard professor secretly brought Tibetan monks into his laboratory and conducted various physiological tests while the monks were meditating. His findings startled his scientific colleagues: Meditation altered the physiology of the body.
Through meditation, the monks were able to alter their skin temperature, oxygen consumption, blood pressure and heart rate. Today, studies show that a single session of meditation alters brain activity. Scientists have studied people who listened to a meditation audiotape and compared them to those who listened to a nonmeditation audiotape. The people listening to the meditation tape had greater reduction in “beta” electrical activity in the frontal part of the brains, which is consistent with increased relaxation.
These findings have led some researchers to describe meditation as the fourth major state of consciousness after ordinary waking, dreaming and deep sleep.
But what does all this have to do with the flu?
In the controlled study in Psychosomatic Medicine, 48 employees at a biotechnology corporation in Madison, Wis., were randomly divided into two groups. One group received eight weeks of meditation training, including three hours of classes per week, and one seven-hour silent retreat. The subjects were also asked to meditate on their own for one hour a day, six days a week, guided by audiotapes. The other group received no training.
Then the two groups were injected with the seasonal flu vaccine and subsequently the protective antibody response was measured. The meditators had a statistically significant greater immune response to the vaccine than the nonmeditators. It was almost as if the vaccine was more potent in the meditators.
How can meditation bring about such a profound effect? I suspect it has to do with stress reduction. We know when individuals eat a good diet, exercise, sleep well and have less stress (through meditation or other activity) their immune system is stronger. In the study the meditators had a brain pattern usually associated with a positive mood — as if they were more happy.
Though the sample size was small, I think this study is interesting — and timely — in light of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Memphis this week. The religious leader meditates for four hours a day. The most I can hold my attention is about four seconds — which I attempt few nights a week while putting my 10-year-old to sleep and chanting a religious hymn.
Maybe the Dalai Lama can do some training sessions for us to help make our city happier and more resistant to the flu.
Dr. Manoj Jain is an infectious disease physician and member of the Healthy Memphis Common Table Council. His other articles are at mjain.net.