Using the Mind to Reduce Inflammation

Mindfulness training reduces inflammation moderately in comparative study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) If you're in pain, you probably don't feel great. If you're emotionally frustrated or upset, it can make your pain worse. So then how do you break the cycle?

One method to stop the madness might be practicing mindfulness, according to a recent study.

Researchers compared two small groups who spent eight weeks in a health enhancement program. One group learned mindfulness, and the other learned about other healthy behaviors.

The participants reported similar levels of stress and stress reduction, but the group practicing mindfulness had less inflammation at the end of the study than the other group had.

If future research adds to the evidence, mindfulness may help with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

"Learn to practice mindfulness."

The study was led by Melissa A. Rosenkranz, PhD, of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging & Behavior and Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The researchers compared two different stress reduction methods. One was mindfulness, which involves teaching patients to focus on their breathing, their physical sensations and their feelings and emotions while "in seated postures, walking and yoga."

The 49 volunteers for the study were randomly assigned to either an 8-week class on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or an 8-week class called the Health Enhancement Program.

Participants were excluded if they had a lot of experience with meditation, had remarkably high exercise habits (over five times a week), played a vigorous sport, couldn't walk, used psychiatric drugs or steroids, worked nights, had diabetes, were pregnant, had a fear of needles, had a vascular disorder, were alcoholics or were addicted to drugs.  

Both groups attended 2.5-hour sessions once a week, plus a full-day session and daily practices requirements of 45 to 60 minutes.

The Health Enhancement Program, instead of teaching mindfulness, focused on physical activity, balance/agility/core strength, nutritional education and music therapy. Each of these parts was created to be similar to an activity in the mindfulness program, minus the actual "mindfulness" part.

All the participants were intentionally subjected to minor psychological stress (public speaking and mental math) and physical inflammation so the researchers could measure their stress and inflammation. The researchers caused inflammation by putting a hot pepper cream on their forearms.

The researchers also measured and recorded the participants' individual levels of inflammation in their immune system and in their endocrine system at the start and end of the program.

The participants in both groups had similar levels of cortisol, a hormone produced from stress, in their blood at the end of the eight weeks, regardless of which program they were in.

The amount of psychological distress and physical pain they felt was also similar across both groups. However, the actual levels of inflammation were lower in the group which participated in the mindfulness program than in the group that did the Health Enhancement Program.

"These results suggest behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity may be of therapeutic benefit in chronic inflammatory conditions," the researchers wrote.

The physical way in which the inflammation was reduced led the researchers to believe that mindfulness may be effective in reducing inflammation associated with certain chronic inflammatory conditions.

These sorts of conditions include autoimmune disorders such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis as well as conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.

The researchers also cautioned, however, that the effects are modest and may only work for certain people, such as those who do not respond to medication.

"This is not a cure-all, but our study does show that there are specific ways that mindfulness can be beneficial, and that there are specific people who may be more likely to benefit from this approach than other interventions," said Dr. Rosenkranz in a statement about the study.

"The mindfulness-based approach to stress reduction may offer a lower-cost alternative or complement to standard treatment, and it can be practiced easily by patients in their own homes, whenever they need," she said.

The findings of the study are not surprising to Diane Shiao, DPT, a dailyRx expert and a physical therapist at Revive Physical Therapy and Wellness in New Jersey.

"Your mind is a powerful tool. It is the control center of your body," Dr. Shiao said. "It has been proven that you can lower high blood pressure by focused deep breathing and improve athletic scoring by mental imagery. So why not reduce inflammation with mindfulness if the brain is connected to all parts of the body?"

She added that some of the inflammation may be connected to stress levels that can be lowered through mindfulness.

"Your emotions and thoughts can manifest in your body. Stress can present as physical symptoms," Dr. Shiao said. "If you use your mind to reduce the stress which is the cause of inflammation, then the unwanted physical symptoms such as pain will reduce."

The study was published in the January issue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity. The research was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute for Mental Health, the Fetzer Institute, and gifts from Adrianne and Edwin Cook-Ryder, Bryant Wangard, Keith and Arlene Bronstein and the John W. Kluge Foundation. Information on conflicts of interest was unavailable.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 26, 2013
Last Updated:
February 4, 2013