Mindfulness Meditation and Weight Loss
Obesity rates worldwide have more than doubled in the past 36 years.
Research is now heavily focused on prevention and treatment strategies.
Mindfulness is promising as it has been shown to help limit stress and stress-related overeating (10, 11).
It can also increase awareness of hunger and satiety cues, a concept known as mindful eating (12).
A very large observational study showed a relationship between mindfulness and reduced risk of being overweight or obese. Although it was not able to prove that mindfulness causes lower body weight (13).
Results from smaller clinical trials are promising, but we can't make solid conclusions yet (14, 15).
Average weight change by group condition among overweight versus obese participants. Mindfulness dramatically reduced cortisol awakening response in obese but not overweight subjects.
It makes sense that mindful eating is beneficial for weight loss given our modern, fast-paced, fast food lifestyles.
Summary: Research has shown a link between mindfulness and healthy body weight, but more research is needed.
Mindfulness Meditation and Metabolic Risk Factors
Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that raise risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
You are considered to have metabolic syndrome if you have three or more of the following symptoms:
- A waist circumference greater than 102 cm (40 inches) in men and greater than 88 cm (35 inches) in women.
- High triglycerides
- Low HDL cholesterol
- Elevated fasting glucose (sugar)
- High blood pressure.
Observational studies have shown that metabolic syndrome is less common among those who use mind-body practices, including mindfulness (16).
Smaller clinical studies have explored the cause-effect relationships between mindfulness and metabolic risk. Interestingly, improvements to metabolic risk were seen in studies that showed no significant reduction in body weight (15).
In one study of 194 obese adults, the first group received diet and exercise advice, and the second received that same advice plus an all-day mindfulness retreat.
Compared to the first group, the mindfulness group showed significantly improved cholesterol and triglycerides after 12 months, and better fasting glucose levels after 18 months (15).
Changes in weight, fasting glucose, and triglyceride/HDL ratio for mindfulness and control groups from baseline to 18 months. Lower values are better for all 3 measures.
Other studies have shown mindfulness may improve blood pressure in those with hypertension, as well as exercise capacity and heart rate in those with heart disease (17, 18).
The mechanism for these changes is still unknown, but it's suspected that mindfulness can alter the autonomic nervous system, which regulates blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate (17).
Summary: Mindfulness appears to improve certain metabolic risk factors, even without weight loss. In particular triglycerides, cholesterol ratios, blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
Mindfulness Meditation and the Gut Microbiome
The human body is full of bacteria.
These bacteria make up the human microbiome, mostly located in the large intestine or "gut."
Alterations and imbalances in the microbiome may contribute to inflammation, weakened immunity, and maybe even weight gain(19).
Very small, early studies on humans have shown a correlation between psychological stress, stress hormones, and changes in microbial composition (20).
In theory then, mindfulness based stress reduction could be a way to help prevent negative changes in the microbiome.
This has so far been tested in rodent studies designed to place mice in stressful situations (19, 21).
Increased stress seems to dramatically alter the types of bacteria in a mouse's gut, which has been observed multiple times.
Interestingly, this shift in bacteria does indeed increase inflammatory marker levels in the blood, which has huge implications for many common health conditions.
Summary: Research has linked psychological stress to changes in the microbiome, which could theoretically contribute to illness. But more human studies are needed to determine if mindfulness can help maintain a healthy microbiome.
Mindfulness Meditation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common health problem, affecting 7-10 percent of the world population.
The exact causes of IBS are unknown, but it's likely multifactorial. Gut microbiome imbalance, stress and other psychological issues are suspected triggers (19, 23, 24, 25).
Considering the potential benefits of mindfulness on each of those triggers, it makes sense it helps with IBS management.
In one study of 43 IBS patients, the group who received mindfulness training showed significantly greater reductions in IBS symptoms than the group who received standard medical care (26).
These benefits were still noticeable after 6-months.
Other small studies have shown 30 minutes of mindfulness activity per day to help with IBS symptoms, although these weren't well-designed (27, 28).
Summary: Small studies indicate that mindfulness may help relieve IBS symptoms. This makes sense given the suspected triggers of IBS are stress and psychological-related.
Mindfulness Meditation and Pregnancy
Stress during pregnancy has been associated with negative health outcomes, including preeclampsia, hypertension, and low birth weight (29, 30, 31).
Small studies have shown that mindfulness may lessen pregnancy-related stress.
In one study of 74 pregnant Indian women, participants who received twice-weekly mindfulness sessions for 5 weeks showed significantly reduced perceived stress than the control group (32).
This suggests mindfulness could very well be beneficial in reducing day-to-day perceived stress during pregnancy, but much more research is needed.
Summary: A small study shows that mindfulness reduces perceived stress in pregnant moms at 12 weeks gestation. More research is needed though.
Mindfulness Meditation and Cancer
In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cases of cancer worldwide.
The number of new cases per year is expected to increase 68% by 2030.
Mindfulness has been shown to significantly improve symptoms and side effects from cancer and its treatment. This includes stress, anxiety, depression, vitality, fatigue, and sleep levels (33, 34, 35, 36, 37).
Newer studies suspect that mindfulness may also help to treat cancer progression in the first place. In particular, markers of cancer activity in breast cancer.
The mechanism for this is still under investigation, but stress reduction appears to play a key role (38, 39).
In one study of 128 stage I to III breast cancer patients who had completed standard medical treatment:
- One group of 53 patients attended eight, 90-minute mindfulness-based educational sessions, plus a 6-hour mindfulness retreat.
- The second group of 49 patients attended a 90-minute group supportive-expressive therapy (SET) sessions once a week for 12 weeks.
- The third control group of 26 patients attended single 6-hour stress management session.
Compared to the mindfulness and SET groups, the control group had significantly shorter telomeres following the intervention.
Telomeres protect the structure of DNA. Shorter telomeres have been linked to disease progression and mortality in breast cancer and leukemia (39, 40).
Although it could have exciting implications for cancer treatment, it's important to remember this is an emerging area of research. Mindfulness should not replace standard cancer care, but instead be used alongside it.
Summary: There is potential that mindfulness can positively influence cancer progression, or at least breast cancer. At a minimum, mindfulness appears to improve certain cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.