Meditation and it's health(?) outcomes

One of my favorite part with yoga is the broad spectrum of the techniques it offers for living a healthy life. If I need to destress I use relaxation and breathing techniques. If I want to get stronger and more flexible I practice the asanas. If I want a healthy mind I meditate. Or? Does these techniques promote ones health?

Here’s one example of when yoga and science meet. Or, one part of yoga - meditation. A study of importance that we can learn from when parts of yoga practice meets science.

Meditation is being used to treat stress-related conditions and to promote health. Because of its growing popularity clinicians needs to now more of its effects. This is the objective of a systematic review by Goyal & Singh (2014) that I'm about to discuss and summarize here.


Meditation programs - Selection, criterias & classification

Meditation is being practiced both by itself alone and integrated with other practices. Such as yoga. It is most often categorized as emphasizing “mindfulness,” “concentration,” and “automatic self-transcendence”. In this review (Goyal & Singh, 2014) the most common techniques included were:

  • Transcendental meditation (TM)

  • Mantra meditation

  • Mindfulness meditation

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

It evaluated the effects on the following variables:

  • negative affect like depression, anxiety and stress

  • positive affect like well-being

  • mental component of health-related quality of life

  • health-related behaviors affected by stress like substance use, sleep and eating

  • pain

  • attention

  • weight

  • clinical conditions

The study only included randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Out of 18,753 citations and 1651 full text articles - 47 trials met the inlusion criterias. In total there were 3,320 participants included.

The evidence got classified into four categories:

  • 1) “High” grade

  • 2) “Moderate” grade

  • 3) “Low” grade

  • 4) “Insufficient”


The results of the study

Mantra meditation programs (TM included):

  • low or insufficient evidence for any psychological stress and well-being outcomes.

Mindfulness meditation programs (MBSR included):

  • moderate evidence for negative affects as anxiety and depression, and also pain.

  • low evidence to improve stress and mental health-related quality of life.

All included meditation programs:

  • low or insufficient evidence of an effect on positive mood, attention, sleep and weight.

  • insufficient evidence on the effect on health-related behaviors affected by stress. Such as substance use and sleep.

Comparative analyses:

  • low or insufficient evidence that any of the programs were more effective than:

  • exercise

  • progressive muscle relaxation

  • cognitive-behavioral group therapy

  • other specific comparators in changing any outcomes of interest.


"While meditation programs generally seek to improve the positive dimensions of health, the evidence from a small number of studies did not show any effects on positive affect or well-being for any meditation program" (Goyal & Singh, 2014).


So, should we stop meditating?

NO, of course not. The results for negative effects could be comparable with the expected effect of antidepressants. Without the associated toxicities. The programs in mindfulness shows small improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain. (Goyal & Singh, 2014).

The results for negative effects could be comparable with the expected effect of antidepressants. Without the associated toxicities.


The real good stuff

The writers mention a few important observations. First, the lack of studies that met the inclusion criterias. That means that the quality of the studies needs to get better for us to study this topic further.

Second, they discuss the importance of defining meditation in itself. The historical aspect of meditation doesn't come in programs of example 4-12 weeks. Also, not in the way research community conceptualizes meditation programs. Nowadays, meditation is often claimed to lead to positive health outcomes. This therapeutical aspect of meditation is different from a historical perspective. Where awareness and existential questions more commonly has a bigger role. So, that leaves the translation of these traditions into research into a challenge. (Goyal & Singh, 2014).

The review has many more details to it and it's a good read. Especially the details about all the studies included. I recommend reading the whole study.


What does this mean?

Meditation can give you results. Most likely if you already believe in meditation as a strategy for health and well-being. So keep on meditating if you like it.

Although, meditation in general does not show strong evidence for positive health outcomes.

In mindfulness based meditation programs there were moderate evidence for depression, anxiety and pain. This could possibly be comparable with the expected effect of antidepressants.

Most likely will the knowledge about this topic change and develop over the coming years.

The definition and conceptualization of meditation has to develop within the research community.


Goyal M. & Singh S. et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

ResearchSara Hoy