Forget “Starve a Cold, Feed a Fever.” Meditate!

Americans suffer around 500 million colds between them each year, costing some $40 billion in lost work days, doctors’ visits and medicines.

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Every now and then, a piece of mindfulness research turns up that I get excited about, not just because it tells us more about the potential benefits of practice, but because I know it’s going to make it easier to explain those benefits to others.

This is usually because a) the study is easy to describe b) it connects with an experience that most of us empathize with and c) it offers a clear picture of how mindfulness helps. I felt one of those waves of excitement (a springy sensation in the solar plexus) when I read Bruce Barrett’s latest study, which looks at whether there’s a relationship between starting a mindfulness practice or exercise regime and the subsequent incidence of respiratory infections. Would taking a mindfulness course or exercise have an effect on how often people caught a cold or the flu, and how sick they felt when they did fall ill?

The study ticks all three boxes. First, the study design was simple: Barrett and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin randomly assigned 149 people (aged 50+) to either a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, an equivalent exercise program, or a control group given no particular instructions to follow. Then they tracked how often they fell prey to a cold or the flu over the following months. It ticks the empathy box because everyone knows what it’s like to get a chest infection and can see the value of succumbing less often. And the results are clear – compared to those in the control group, people who took the mindfulness course had four times fewer “sick days” (16 compared to 67), fewer bouts of infection (27 compared to 40), and were ill for just over half as long, with less severe symptoms. Given that a flu vaccine reduces incidence of infection by around 60-70 percent (and only works for some strains), this suggests that meditation practice, associated with a 40-50 percent reduction,  may be a pretty good alternative or addition – that’s box three ticked.

Including an exercise group for comparison was a bonus stroke of genius. Everybody understands that exercise is good for you, and it probably isn’t a surprise to learn that the group who worked out also got sick less often. But the discovery that mindfulness matched the exercise program in its protective impact really brings home a message – that meditation is good for you in about the same measure as  exercising, which most everyone agrees is a jolly healthy thing to do. In some aspects, mindfulness may be more effective – the fewer reported “sick days” and reduced symptom severity among the meditating group might suggest the practice helped them manage illness sensations more easily – perhaps, they were able to experience symptoms more mindfully, without being overwhelmed or struggling with them, as often happens when we get ill?

Americans suffer around 500 million colds between them each year, costing some $40 billion in lost work days, doctors’ visits and medicines. There  are currently no proven ways of protecting from a cold (apart from hand-washing and avoiding infected people) so it’s not hard to see the public health benefits of encouraging practices that might reduce incidence and severity to such a large extent.

Of course, being the first study of its kind, this research needs replicating, but as we already know that meditation reduces stress, and that stress damages the immune system, there are very plausible mechanisms to explain this rather spectacular-seeming result. It’s also worth remembering that one of the best-known trials of mindfulness-based stress reduction found increased antibody response to a flu vaccine among course completers. Bruce Barrett’s work adds further to our understanding, and could be a big step on the way to widespread recommendation of meditation, along with exercise, as a simple and effective way of looking after your well-being.