Can Meditation Really Cure Disease?

More studies point to the true healing powers of mindfulness meditation. Credit: Getty Images

A growing body of research now links the Eastern practice to improved conditions for serious ailments, from diabetes to heart disease to cancer. How? By "treating the whole person... so they can live in greater health and joy," says Shauna Shapiro, a clinical psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University. And from that so-called "joy," some remarkable things have been shown to occur: One study documented cancer patients who participated in a mindfulness program reducing their stress symptoms by 30 percent compared to non-meditators. Another reported that diabetic patients who meditated had decreased depression, anxiety, and diabetes-specific distress (nearly 40 percent of diabetics struggle with emotional distress that, in turn, leads to overly high blood glucose). Still another found that mindfulness meditation reduced the intensity and emotional sensations of pain by 44 percent compared to a placebo 'pain' cream. What, exactly, is going on here? We talked to Shapiro further about such studies, her and Genentech's new program (Exhale) for those with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF, a terminal lung disease currently without a cure), and how anyone with a serious illness can get started.

How in the world can mindfulness meditation cure disease?

Mindfulness is not a cure-all. I want to be very clear about that. There have been thousands of studies showing that there are psychological and physical benefits to mindfulness meditation, but the intention, especially with IPF, is not to cure the disease or fully treat the symptoms, but to treat the whole person — and that includes their mental and emotional well-being — so they can live in greater health and joy.

If it isn't halting disease, what can mindfulness specifically do for a chronically ill person? 

Mindfulness helps us stay in the present moment, and that is valuable. Usually, we’re okay in the present moment, but when you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness like IPF, there is a lot of fear, sadness, and anxiety about what’s going to happen. You can get stuck in the past and start ruminating — that’s where depression comes from — or get anxious about the future.

Besides IPF, what kind of illnesses would meditation practice help with the most?

Mindfulness meditation was originally brought to Western psychology to support people with chronic pain — to manage resulting psychological stress and alleviate symptoms. Since that time, there’s been thousands of studies for a wide range of chronic illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, anxiety, and depression. The largest studies are done on chronic pain and cancer. What’s interesting is that, normally, the clinical community has a treatment specific to each illness. But mindfulness has a broad spectrum effect across a wide range of pathologies.

And this practice helped you personally, is that right?

When I was 17, I had spinal-fusion surgery, and I went from a healthy active teenager to being unable to walk. During the many months of rehab, when I was trying to live in the body that couldn’t do what it used to do, I began searching for something that could help, and that led me to a monastery in Thailand for my first meditation when I was 20. It impacted me so profoundly that I decided to spend my life studying mindfulness scientifically.

How can we get started on our own?

Choose specific activities that you’re going to do mindfully for the week. So for this week, I might choose to practice mindful eating. Another example is mindful driving or mindfully taking a shower. Anything in this life can be mindfulness practice. The practice doesn’t have to be two hours a day. We did one study with women with breast cancer, and if they just meditated for five minutes a day, they saw changes in how they [think about their experience]. There are also wonderful mindful apps, which I use, and set to ring every hour. A beautiful bell rings, I take a deep breath, I come back to the present moment, and I reenter my focus.

But then our Twitter feed and Inbox jar us back to this anxious reality. 

Well, the first thing to do is just be aware of what is happening. When I get a typical email [with bad news], the first thing I do is to take a breath, and say, “Ouch that hurt," or "That scared me," or "That made me sad." Acknowledge what is happening. Then after I’ve paused and down-regulated my nervous system, that allows me to see clearly what the most appropriate response is. That’s simply what mindfulness does — instead of automatically reacting, we can consciously respond to the events in our lives.