It’s beginning to look a lot like… winter. With the drop in temperature comes the rise in sneezing, sniffling, and other nasty symptoms of viral respiratory inflections like the flu and the common cold. Luckily, science may have another solution to fight feeling under the weather: meditation. A study published in Annals of Family Medicine discovered eight weeks of mindful meditation (and cardio exercises!) reduced the effects of respiratory infections up to 50 percent Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection: a randomized controlled trial. Barrett, B., Hayney, M.S., Muller, D., et al. Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Madison, WI. Annals of Family Medicine, 2012 Jul-Aug;10(4):337-46..
One hundred and fifty adults (mostly women over 50 years old) were randomly split into three groups. One group practiced mindful meditation for eight weeks, one group participated in moderate cardio exercise (brisk walking, jogging, or biking), and the control group did neither. Scientists monitored the subjects’ respiratory health (symptoms like a runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing, and sore throat) twice a week from September to May. The results of the study linked mindful meditation to a 40 to 50 percent decrease in sickness symptoms, and exercise a 30 to 40 percent decrease in symptoms. Researchers also found that both meditation and exercise groups missed fewer days of work than the control group. (Extra holiday bonus, anyone?) The meditation group reported 16 sick days, the exercise group 32, and the control group 67 days.
Can We Trust It
Before booking a weekend meditation retreat, remember the study’s participants were mostly women and all were over 50 years old, so it’s unclear if there would be similar results with younger participants, especially males. There has been, however, other research that has linked meditation, immune function, and chronic illness Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., et al. Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. Mindfulness meditation, anxiety reduction, and heart disease: a pilot study. Tacon, A.M., McComb, J., Caldera, Y., et al.The Department of Health, Exercise, and Sport Sciences, Texas Tech University, Texas. Family & Community Health, 2003 Jan-Mar;26(1):25-33. Meditation's impact on chronic illness. Bonadonna, R. College of Nursing, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC. Holistic Nursing Practice, Holist Nurs Pract. 2003 Nov-Dec;17(6):309-19.. The study doesn't examine why meditation and exercise may ward off respiratory infections either. A separate study suggested mindful meditation can promote better health by promoting self-awareness while regulating attention, body awareness, and emotions. Yet, how attentiveness translates to fewer sick days still seems pretty vague.
Study author Bruce Barrett explained the study is the first trial of its kind, so readers have to be skeptical until another study can be replicated. Luckily, the researchers are already working on conducting another larger study with the same setup, which will be out in a few years.
Why It Matters
Barrett pointed out what seems to be the most interesting part of the study: The biggest difference between how meditation and exercise affected health was how people responded to the inflection, the severity of symptoms, and how it impacted their life. The researchers surmised that meditation's ability to reduce stress has something to do with the participants' better ability to fend sickness, but interestingly, stress and sleep levels did not drastically fluctuate between the two groups.
So until all the facts are sorted out, it may be worth meditating and exercising to strengthen the body and mind while dodging seasonal sickness. Even better: Kill two birds with one stone and practice yoga.
Do you think meditation could help combat the common cold? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @lschwech.