A new study provides some of the latest and most substantial evidence that meditation may benefit mental and physical health, and not just for devoted practitioners. Researchers in Oregon and China have found that even a few brief meditation sessions can help lower anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and reduce levels of hormones that indicate stress, while also increasing the strength of our immune systems.

The study, published in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved two groups of 40 undergraduates in China. One group was given a generic training in relaxation; the other learned the integrative body-mind training (IBMT) method of meditation, which focuses on body relaxation, breath adjustment, and mental imagery, among other specialized techniques. Both trainings consisted of 20-minute sessions each day for five consecutive days.

Before and after the training, participants completed a battery of tests that measured mood states, levels of attention, and intelligence. The results showed that the participants trained in meditation demonstrated improved attention skills, increased positive emotions, and decreased negative emotions. The participants trained in relaxation showed none of these changes.

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The researchers also tested participants to see how their bodies responded to stress. Each participant completed a stressful task, then received an additional training in either relaxation or meditation. When the results of the relaxation and meditation groups were compared, the meditators showed significantly lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels and weakens the immune system in response to stress. The meditation group also had higher amounts of the antibody sIgA, which is released by our immune system to help fight off bacteria and infections.

But this five-day plan to lower stress may not be as easy as it sounds. The researchers note that IBMT meditation is effective only with a qualified coach, which could pose logistical or financial obstacles. They also note that further research is needed to determine exactly how this method of meditation is so beneficial. “It is possible that studies will uncover new methods of achieving similar benefits,” says Michael Posner, one of the lead researchers.

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