Meditation has been touted as a miracle cure for everything from anxiety to insomnia, but can it make you physically healthier too? A small study from the University of Wisconsin found that meditation might ward off colds or the flu. Looking at a sample of around 400 adults, all of whom had gotten their flu shot, the study found that a group that practiced meditation got slightly fewer respiratory illnesses, and took fewer days off work, compared with a group that exercised and a control group. The study was published in the journal PLOS One in June 2018.
One of the reasons meditation could potentially keep you healthy is because it's a proven stress buster, and less stress equals less sickness. Other studies have cited a connection between meditation and physical health, too. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress lowers your body's white blood cell count. Because white blood cells are vital for fighting off infection, those with a low count are more susceptible to illness.
Stress also increases inflammation, which can negatively impact your immune system. "In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you," the Cleveland Clinic explained on its Health Essentials blog. In the UW study, researchers concluded that both mindfulness meditation and exercise could potentially ward off respiratory infections by reducing stress and keeping your immune system strong, but the findings warrant further research.
"Until that research is done, we feel justified in advocating for both mindfulness and exercise because benefits appear likely, and there are minimal risks," Bruce Barrett, a UW Health family medicine doctor who led the study, is quoted as saying in the Wisconsin State Journal. That said, these strategies are meant to be used in conjunction with things like getting your flu shot, getting good sleep, and practicing good hygiene to avoid getting sick.
The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which funded the UW study, said on its website that there is evidence that meditation can be beneficial in easing symptoms of some physical ailments. "Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions, and there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis."
Because myriad existing physical conditions are exacerbated by stress, and others can occur as a result of a weakened immune system, meditation is a relatively risk-free way to reduce stress and potentially strengthen the immune system. That being said, if you do have a serious medical condition, the NIH recommends speaking with your doctor before adopting a meditation practice.
"Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care," the NIH advised.
What's more, meditation should not be used as an alternative to medical care when you're sick. But when used along with other modalities, meditation can offer mental and physical benefits that can help prevent illness by boosting your immune system. Personally, as a sometimes-meditator, I feel less anxious and I have less physical body pain from a chronic neck and shoulder condition when I meditate.
If you're worried about getting sick this winter, adding meditation to your cold-prevention strategy (along with a flu shot), can't hurt. Give it a try for 30 days and see if you feel less stressed. If you're new to meditation, there are plenty of meditation apps to help you get started. Whether it's meditation or exercise, anything you can do to reduce your stress levels is good for your immune system, and a healthy immune system is the best defense against colds and the flu.