Research Findings on Mindfulness

November 2, 2020 Joe Brady

A strong mind and a strong body go together. Healthy activities that fully engage the mind and body are some of the most popular activities in the world today. More enjoyable than activities that are done absentmindedly, activities like tai chi, yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and therapies such as massage therapy, and acupuncture all have rich traditions that have held people’s interest for centuries. Mind and body practices are challenging activities or techniques that require some skills and are usually administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. The mind must be fully engaged in the activity for these techniques to work, and that very activation of the full power of mind and body that may explain why they seem to have such a wide variety of health benefits.

Extensive research is being done on mindfulness-based interventions for a variety of health purposes. Let’s look at what some NCCIH-funded studies of mindfulness have shown:

  • People who are naturally more mindful report less pain and show lower activation of a specific region of the brain in response to an unpleasant heat stimulus, according to an NCCIH-funded study. The innate ability to be mindful—that is, to pay attention to the present moment without reacting to it—differs among individuals. 
  • Group sessions of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can provide cost-effective treatment for chronic low-back pain, according to NCCIH-funded research
  • A study partially funded by NCCIH showed that mindfulness meditation helps relieve pain by a mechanism that’s independent of opioid neurotransmitter mechanisms in the body. This finding is important because it suggests that mindfulness may act synergistically with other forms of treatment that do rely on opioid signaling.

Research findings suggest that several mind and body practices are helpful for a variety of conditions. A few examples include the following:

  • Tai chi appears to help improve balance and stability, reduce back pain and pain from knee osteoarthritis, and improve quality of life in people with heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.
  • Acupuncture may help ease types of pain that are often chronic, such as low-back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis/knee pain. Acupuncture may also help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches.
  • Meditation may help reduce blood pressure, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people with ulcerative colitis. Meditation may also benefit people with insomnia.
  • Yoga may benefit people’s general wellness by relieving stress, supporting good health habits, and improving mental/emotional health, sleep, and balance. Yoga may also help with low-back pain and neck pain, anxiety or depressive symptoms associated with difficult life situations, quitting smoking, and quality of life for people with chronic diseases.
  • Mindfulness practices may be helpful in treating opioid use disorder. A recent NCCIH-funded study provided preliminary evidence that mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement (MORE)—an integrative behavioral group therapy that involves training in mindfulness, reappraisal, and savoring skills—may be a useful addition to methadone maintenance therapy for people with opioid use disorder and chronic pain.

Mind/Body Therapies as Treatment for Specific Health Problems

Mind and body practices, in particular, including relaxation techniques and meditative exercise forms such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are being used by older Americans, both for fitness and relaxation and because of perceived health benefits. A number of reviews of the scientific literature point to the potential benefit of mind and body approaches for symptom management,

  • Osteoarthritis. Practicing tai chi—a traditional Chinese form of exercise—may be helpful for managing osteoarthritis of the knee. Guidelines issued by the American College of Rheumatology conditionally recommend tai chi, along with other non-drug approaches, for this condition.
  • Menopausal symptoms. Overall, there is scientific evidence suggesting that some mind and body approaches, such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation may provide some relief from common menopausal symptoms.
  • Sleep problems. Using relaxation techniques, (e.g., progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises) before bedtime can be helpful components of a successful sleep regimen.
  • Shingles. Tai chi may help older adults avoid getting shingles by increasing immunity to varicella-zoster virus and boosting the immune response to varicella vaccine in older people. While there have only been a few studies on the effects of tai chi on immunity to varicella, the results so far have been promising.

Mind and body practices generally have good safety records when done properly by a trained professional or taught by a well-qualified instructor. However, just because a practice is safe for most people doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for you. Your medical conditions or other special circumstances (such as pregnancy) may affect the safety of a mind and body practice. When considering mind and body practices, ask about the training and experience of the practitioner or teacher, and talk with that person about your individual needs. Also, don’t use a mind and body practice to postpone seeing a health care provider about a health problem.

Take charge of your health—talk with your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Together, you can make shared, well-informed decisions.

For more information see https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health

Here is a list of recent research studies on mind/body practices on a wide variety of health issues.

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Mind and Body Approaches for Stress and Anxiety: What the Science Says | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/mind-and-body-approaches-for-stress-science

Mind and Body Approaches for Chronic Pain: What the Science Says | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/mind-and-body-approaches-for-chronic-pain-science

Mind and Body Approaches for Stress | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/mind-and-body-approaches-for-stress

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/irritable-bowel-syndrome-in-depth

Mind and Body Practices | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/mind-and-body-practices

8 Things To Know About Mind and Body Approaches for Health Problems Facing Military Personnel and Veterans | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-mind-and-body-approaches-for-health-problems-facing-military-personnel-and-veterans

Meditation: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth

Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name? | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/complementary-alternative-or-integrative-health-whats-in-a-name

Complementary Health Approaches for Chronic Pain: What the Science Says | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/complementary-health-approaches-for-chronic-pain-science

Sleep Disorders: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/sleep-disorders-in-depth

Low-Back Pain and Complementary Health Approaches: What You Need To Know | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/low-back-pain-and-complementary-health-approaches-what-you-need-to-know

Chronic Pain: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/chronic-pain-in-depth

Terms Related to Complementary and Integrative Health | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/terms-related-to-complementary-and-integrative-health

Menopausal Symptoms: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/menopausal-symptoms-in-depth

Rheumatoid Arthritis: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/rheumatoid-arthritis-in-depth

Fibromyalgia: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/fibromyalgia-in-depth

Anxiety at a Glance | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/anxiety-at-a-glance

Cancer: In Depth | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cancer-in-depth

Stress | NCCIH

https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/stress