Meditation & neuroplasticity - evidence-based meditation?

Sasha

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I've just started meditating because of some interesting info I came across that might interest other non-meditators (and maybe experienced ones although you might have come across it!), so I thought I'd mention it here because of the possible health benefits.

By a bit of a random process I stumbled across a fascinating presentation by Dr Richard J Davidson, a research professor of psychology & psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin on the effects on the brain (as measured by MRI scans and so on) of meditation. I found it very interesting because he shows evidence for measurable effects of meditation both on the brains of experienced meditators (Buddhist monks) and newbie people doing meditation training for only half an hour a day for eight weeks, including effects on the immune system.

The immune system stuff comes right near the end of the lecture at 54 mins 27 secs: he mentions a study involving an immune challenge (flu vaccination) to meditators vs controls which found a "significantly more robust" response to the vaccine in the meditators (the graph he shows rather exaggerates the difference in magnitude of the response because the x-axis doesn't start at zero - naughty!). In another study, the investigators spread capsacian (?) cream on participants' skin to cause inflammation and found that 8-week meditators showed greater changes in pro-inflammatory cytokines (dunno what they are but I gather they're good!) than controls.

His lecture is quite techy but there's a very good less techy lecture that covers some of the same stuff by Matthieu Ricard, biologist-turned-Buddhist monk, in similar vein.

If you get interested in neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to specific kinds of training, even in adults) I highly recommend "The Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge. A really good read and jaw-dropping science.

I realise there's a danger of cherry-picking the positive studies in brief presentations like these but it has interested me enought to give meditation a go. All this neuroplasticity stuff has convinced me that even though my current ability to concentrate is impaired because of my illness, it might be possible to train it up if I am patient and follow neuroplasticity principles (start from a manageable but slightly challenging level, build up in small increments to where you're slightly challenged, and do it every day for at least 40 days). I might even get some side-benefits (happiness! better immune system!) while I'm at it.

Have any experienced meditators here had problems due to their ME/CFS with their meditation practice? If so, any advice? Any thoughts on the neuroplasticity stuff?
 

susan

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I have read all this neuroplascticity stuff and the book "the brain that changes itself"....very good read. Have been seriously mediatating and visualing now for 18 mths and it has made a big difference to how I feel...much happier but not improved my condition.
 

Sasha

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Hi Susan, thanks very much for replying - I'm sorry that your health hasn't improved but it's good to know that you've noticed such positive emotional changes. One of the things I find most interesting is the notion that by meditation, people might be able to raise their baseline "set point" of happiness - the one that most research suggests that people return to, regardless of winning the lottery or being rendered quadraplegic. So far, the mainstream view appears to be that this set point is fixed but neuroplasticity research suggests that so much is up for grabs in the brain if training is done according to the appropriate principles that it will be interesting to see how that line of research develops.

Back to counting my breath!
 

froufox

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Hi Sasha & Susan,

I used to meditate a lot, mainly doing TM, both before and since I've been ill, and I have definitely experienced some physical benefits like feeling a lot more relaxed generally throughout the day, and I've even had some dramatic bursts of physical energy after some sessions (again since having ME) which really took me by surprise and just showed me how powerful it can be...I wondered if that was due to it either lowering the high cortisol I used to have, or lowering inflammation which helped my immune system get control of the infections? I remember reading that study too and others when I was researching meditation and it does make sense regarding the cytokines.

However for the last few yrs and particularly when Ive been through periods of being very underweight and when I have too much inflammation going on I find it quite hard to do as the wired & tired feeling is just too strong. In fact sometimes it even seems to amplify the wired feeling and I hve to get up and walk around because I'm so "edgy". So my experience is that sometimes the chemical imbalances are too strong and can get in the way and its just not physically possible to do it...but thats just my experience, I wouldnt want to put anyone else off trying, as I totally believe in meditation can help, its just that I struggle with it at times.

On the other hand and ironically when I'm not so wired/tired I can get into it very easily..its a shame as obviously meditation is supposed to get you into that state in the first place! But obviously with ME nothing is ever straightforward is it? lol :rolleyes: I guess it depends on how sympathetic dominant you are..and whatever else is going in your body.

I have the Brain that Changes Itself too - I agree its fascinating and very inspiring!

Anyway good luck with it!
 

dannybex

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Meditation and Immune Function

Here's a study that showed meditation helped improve immune function:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106?dopt=Abstract

CONCLUSIONS: These findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways and underscore the need for additional research.

There IS a mind-body connection in all disease, IMHO. :)

d.
 

Dreambirdie

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There IS a mind-body connection in all disease, IMHO. :)
I definitely see the results when I make the effort to engage in mindful living, and conscious breathing. Bringing my meditation practice into everyday life practice is the ultimate freedom from stress, and that has big benefits for how I feel.
 

Sasha

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Thanks so much for all your comments - there are clearly some things to watch out for (the wired/tired issue) but it's very encouraging that so many have benefited, in terms of quality of life and (sometimes) health.

Interesting stuff!
 

Cort

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Hi Froufox,

I've had the same experience - meditating left me more jacked up than ever. In fact when I started it made my heart race. If I meditated late at night I couldn't get to sleep...but over time that stopped and it became calming; apparently I had to work through that strange reaction first.

Just watching my body over react to everything and calming it down - telling it to calm down has been quite helpful.
 

Dreambirdie

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I just want to add that I have learned a little trick... which usually helps me when I meditate.

I have a lot of symptoms in my frontal brain, like pressure, headaches, hyperactivity, and other strange indescribable sensations. For years I wrestled with myself internally to CHANGE those, and make them GO AWAY. But as it usually goes with non-acceptance of what is, my resistance would just make them worse. :(:mad::p

FINALLY I got this idea to FOCUS ON THE BACK OF MY HEAD when I meditate, and to just let my frontal brain do whatever it felt like, while I watched with the "eyes behind my head," so to speak. This was and is very helpful and has really helped me calm down during those wired episodes.
 

willow

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That's interesting dreambird.

I love meditating, I can't easily put in to words all it does for me, but it took me a while to find this depth of benefit. Some were fairly neutral, some jarred, felt wrong.

So I didn't consciously do what you did dreambird, but I played around with it until I felt the positives, and still experiment.

Perhaps it's a bit like choosing a healthy diet, the principle is sound, but there's an awful lot of variety between what's optimal for different people.

If anyon'e interested googling meditation and gaba might also bring something up. I've read studies showing meditation increases gaba, which is generally classed as a inhibitory/calming neurotranmitter, but in certain circumstances can be excitory.
 

froufox

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Thanks Cort and Dreambirdie for sharing your experiences.

Thats great that you found a way of dealing with it Cort and eventually got past that initial exacerbation of symptoms. Although I struggle with it, like you I have also found that self-talk helps...its amazing how the body responds to soothing words.

Dreambirdie I can definitely identify with all those indescribable head symptoms but that is a good tip to focus on another part of the body, I think I'll definitely give that a try.

For the moment I've restarted doing that 4-7-8 breathing technique that Dr Weil recommends and according to that article Dr Cheney used to recommend too to help deal with tissue hypoxia. I tried it before but stopped for some reason but the last couple of days since I started doing it again, I've noticed that I'm feeling a bit better cognitively and energywise too. It says that it can take several weeks to get the full benefits so I'm going to persist with it this time!
 

susan

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Holysync

I have really learned to meditate in the last 18 mths and love it too. When I first started I did Holysnc and became soooo agitated that I thought I would never go near it again. Recently i played it again and had a very pleasant experience.

However it might calm me down for about an hour but after that I am off again with the adrenalin running and the heart racing. Tried doing it 3 hrs a a day plus breathing exercises but still cant get control of the adrenalin.