(NaturalNews) Meditation is just as effective as antidepressant drugs in treating anxiety or depression, but without the side effects, according to a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The study was funded by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
The researchers analyzed the results of 47 prior randomized, controlled trials conducted on a total of 3,515 people suffering from depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, chronic pain, stress and other health conditions. In all the trials analyzed, mindfulness meditation had been compared to a placebo or to other treatments.
Mindfulness meditation consists of the regular practice, often 30 to 40 minutes per day, of a person remaining aware of their surroundings (such as sounds), thoughts and emotions, without forming attachment to their outcomes. This is in contrast with concentration practices, in which a person focuses on a single thought or activity (such as chanting or looking at a candle) to the exclusion of all other thoughts.
"Many people have the idea that meditation means just sitting quietly and doing nothing," researcher Madhav Goyal said. "That is not true. It is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways."
According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 9 percent of U.S. residents meditated at least once in 2007, while about 1 percent said that they used meditation as a medical treatment.
Effect similar to drugs
The researchers found that people who underwent a roughly eight-week mindfulness training practice experienced a 5 to 10 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to placebo groups, and a 10 to 20 percent reduction in depression symptoms.
The research also suggested that meditation led to significant reductions in pain, although these findings were not conclusive.
"This is similar to the effects that other studies have found for the use of antidepressants in similar populations," Goyal said.
Little or no effect was found in the other areas of chronic health studied, such as attention, sleep, weight or substance abuse.
"Our review suggests that there is moderate evidence for a small but consistent benefit for anxiety, depression and chronic pain," Goyal said. "There is no known major harm from meditating, and meditation doesn't come with any known side effects. One can also practice meditation along with other treatments one is already receiving."
Meditation for its own sake
The findings suggest that mindfulness meditation may be useful as a substitute or complement to drugs for many chronic conditions, Allan Goroll of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in an accompanying editorial.
"The findings of such research should be the subject of conversations that need to begin in every examination room and extend to engage the media, who play a key role in determining patient attitudes toward health care and the demand for services," Goroll wrote.
Goyal also called for health providers to educate patients about the benefits of meditation.
"Clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that meditation programs could have in addressing psychological stress, particularly when symptoms are mild," he said.
Meditation is not a cure-all, Goyal warned, but it can still provide significant benefits, even above and beyond the treatment of chronic conditions.
"We should keep foremost in our mind that meditation was never conceived of as a treatment for any health problem," Goyal said. "Rather, it is a path one travels on to increase our awareness and gain insight into our lives. The best reason to meditate is to increase insight into one's life which is probably good for everyone."