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Can you meditate your way to better health?


Two new studies are the latest to zero in on specific health benefits of mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that involves taking deep breaths and focusing on the moment at hand to clear and calm the mind.

Mindfulness meditation has been studied for decades, Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, told CBS News.

"Mindfulness teaches us to come back to the present moment. Take a breath," said Winston.

Winston said that while it's beginning to be accepted by mainstream medicine, one hurdle to wider access and health insurance coverage is that there haven't been enough clinical trials -- the gold standard in medical science -- proving its effectiveness compared to a placebo or other treatments.

But in recent years an increasing number of studies have linked mindfulness meditation to better health. Click through to see what they found and some of the ways meditation can make a difference...

Back pain relief

New research suggests mindfulness meditation eases low back pain better than standard treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. istockphoto

A study out this week by Seattle researchers found that people who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction -- a combo of meditation, awareness of the body and yoga moves -- had better outcomes when it came to low back pain relief compared to people who received standard treatments or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The scientists randomly assigned 342 adults, ages 20 to 70, with chronic low back pain to receive either eight weekly two-hour sessions of group meditation training or CBT or standard medical care (which could include options like physical therapy or painkillers).

Six months later, the participants in the meditation group had an easier time climbing up stairs, pulling on socks, and getting up out of a chair and they were less likely to be bedridden. Sixty percent of patients in the meditation group showed a "meaningful" improvement in their daily activities. A year later, they were still doing better.

Alternative to painkillers

Mindfulness meditation may use a different pathway in the body to ease pain than the route addictive opioid painkillers use. istockphoto

Another recent study showed mindfulness meditation can help ease more generalized pain. Not only that, it appears to do so using a different pathway in the body than the route addictive opioid painkillers use.

"These findings are of critical importance to the millions of chronic pain patients seeking a non-opiate pain therapy that is fast-acting and effective," said study author Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The research appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The findings come at a time when the U.S. is in the grip of an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse and overdoses. Approximately 4.3 million Americans took prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons in the last month. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

Healthier heart?

Some studies suggest meditation has an affect on blood pressure and stress. istockphoto

According to the American Heart Association, recent studies suggest meditation can help reduce blood pressure. One 2012 study of African-Americans with heart disease linked transcendental meditation with better blood pressure. Those who practiced regularly were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or to die over a five-year period compared with those who attended a health education class.

Mindfulness meditation can include sound or touch, if that helps a person focus on the moment better, including the ringing of a bell, chanting, or handling beads or a simple object to help bring the mind to the present. A technique called relaxation response uses a single word to find focus.

Easing stress and anxiety

Mindfulness meditation teacher Home Nguyen helps business leaders and MBA students to stay calm in the midst of the chaos of the workplace. CBS News' Parvati Shallow reports. 02:44

Mindfulness meditation has long been promoted by practitioners as a great stress buster. And there's actual scientific data to back up the claim. Johns Hopkins researchers culled through 19,000 meditation studies and discovered 47 trials that suggest the alternative therapy can help people suffering from psychological stress, such as anxiety and depression.

On "60 Minutes" last year, Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained scientist who practices and teaches mindfulness, gave Anderson Cooper a few tips on how to incorporate a meditative approach into everything you do: "When you're walking, just walk. When you're eating, just eat. Not in front of the TV, not with the newspaper. It turns out, that's huge."

People can get caught up in mistakes of the past or stress and worry about the future, said Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. "Mindfulness brings us into this moment."

Flu fighter

Meditation may boost the ability to fight illness. Ihar Ulashchyk

One study showed meditation can "boost the healing process" when it comes to colds and flu, said UCLA's Winston.

The study, by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Annals of Family Medicine, included 150 participants, mostly women over 50.

The scientists found that participants who practiced mindfulness meditation or exercised at moderate intensity for eight weeks suffered less from colds and the flu the following winter compared with people who didn't.

Easing inflammation

Meditation may lead to biological changes linked to reducing inflammation and pain. istockphoto

One study co-funded by NIH's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggested that a full day of intense mindfulness by experienced meditation practitioners led to biological changes linked to reducing inflammation and pain.

Researchers took blood samples from 40 meditators -- some experienced, some not -- and found that the experienced practitioners had reduced expression levels of certain genes related to inflammation and histones, a protein connected with DNA. The reduced levels for two of these genes were associated with faster recovery from a stress test.

Sleep helper

Meditation could make sleep less elusive for insomnia sufferers. istockphoto

Findings from a small 2014 study in the journal Sleep showed that meditation-based treatments reduced wakeful hours for people suffering from insomnia. The participants who benefitted from meditation met for two-and-a-half hours, once a week for eight weeks, and participated in a six-hour meditation retreat.

"Omming" the way to kindness

One study suggests people who meditate are more likely to help others. istockphoto

"One of my favorite studies was on altruism. Does mindfulness meditation make you more compassionate?" said Diana Winston, of UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. The study she referenced, by researchers at Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that it does.

Their experiment found that 50 percent of people who'd taken eight weeks of meditation classes gave up their seat in a waiting room to a person with crutches, compared to only 15 percent of the non-meditators.

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