Posted by: manjitsandhu | June 1, 2010

Can Meditation Replace Modern Medicine?

Interest in mind-body medicine has blossomed in the last decade. Leading hospitals now incorporate holistic medicine, spiritual care programs and meditation into mainstream treatment programs. As we see mind-body medicine crossing this threshold into routine care, we should inquire into its benefits and limitations, lest expectations of meditation become rooted in hopeful superstition rather than scientific fact.

Over 40 years ago the Beatles introduced a mystic named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to the West. The result: a new respect for the healing power of the mind began to grow. The Maharishi encouraged his followers to eschew even allopathic medicine in favor of spending long periods in his signature form of meditation. Modern day followers of the Maharishi’s meditation movement continue to reject medication in favor of meditation and an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Insiders claim they no longer need asthma medications, anti-depressants and other maintenance drugs. Some make wild claims about their health, resistance to the aging process and longevity.

If only it could be so. Few peer-reviewed studies exist to support those more extreme claims. Indeed, history is littered with yogic mystics, some of whom have meditated for hours each day, who had only normal lifespans. We are left with the questions: can meditation replace medications? What is an appropriate place for meditation within the continuum of scientifically validated health care?

The answers are simple. The health of the body is dependent on wellness being realized on multiple physical, mental and emotional levels. When we are in a healthy, secure and stable mental and emotional state, our brain operates in a favorable parasympathetic mode. This facilitates healthy hormonal balances, optimal tissue repair, cellular reproduction and other functions essential to a healthy physical being. Conversely, when we are feeling insecure, fearful, or angry, the brain sends the body into a parasympathetic mode in which we experience a concomitant detrimental decrease in metabolic functions of digestion and elimination, inflammation and impaired immunity.

Meditation is a remarkably beneficial tool for taking the mind and body out of the detrimental stress-induced state and placing it in the healing state of sympathetic dominance – the body’s natural balance called homeostasis. In this state the body can repair itself, reestablishing hormonal balance and detoxifying as vital organ functions, digestion, and even natural immunity factors within the blood stream begin to surge. In this state, medications have the best chance to work quickly, cleanly and with minimum undesirable side effects.

Today, prescriptions are frequently written for ailments which we know have stress connections — IBS, depression, insomnia and eating disorders are all examples. Should we not also consider meditation as a supplemental treatment which can reduce health care costs and help avoid the often damaging side effects of more aggressive treatments?

Although meditation should not replace modern medicine, it is a profoundly beneficial adjunct that can significantly increase the effectiveness of standard, Western medical treatments. The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, reported that hypnosis (itself a form of meditation) accelerated post-surgical healing and reduced the need for pain medications. Long time meditators consistently report on the verifiable ways meditation has changed lives and health. With proven stress reduction and mood-elevating benefits, meditation is a logical addition to the wide spectrum of healing options that should be available.

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Manjit Sandhu


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