From claims of reducing stress, anxiety and depression, to alleviating migraines, reducing blood pressure, decreasing the risk of cancer, increased immunity to disease and a host of other benefits, meditation has been credited with multiple health benefits in recent years.
However, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 would beg to differ. It used a meta-analysis, which is a statistical review of a number of single studies, of 47 randomised control studies of meditation programs, and included 3,515 participants. Only small to moderate reductions in anxiety, depression and pain were found, and these effects were comparable to the effects of antidepressant usage, though without the side effects.
There was low evidence of improvements in stress, distress and quality of life, and insufficient or no evidence of improvement in mood and feelings, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep and weight loss. Meditation was not found to be more beneficial than exercise, therapy or prescription drugs.
The poor quality of existing research into mindfulness meditation was brought into question in the meta-analysis study. Poor quality research in the past may have been due to lack of funding, although this is unlikely to be the case at University of Massachusetts where Jon Kabat-Zinn has been researching his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs for decades. Most of the meditation trainers did not meet a standardised training criteria and experience in meditation varied widely (4 months to 25 years). Another factor that may have affected the quality of research is potential for bias, that is, people who are either experienced meditators or who believe in the benefits, are more likely to enrol in meditation programs and report they benefitted from it. The study also compared various meditation techniques such as mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation in the one meta-analysis. Given the variations in the studies, more research in future would give a clearer picture. Despite this, the study does recommend that clinicians discuss meditation programs with their clients to help reduce psychological stress.