Meditation: How it can help boost your immune system and reduce stress

Meditation is something we can do to help ourselves during these uncertain times. Please consider meditation to control stress and depression, as well as boost your immune system. There is a lot of positive research on the health benefits of meditation.

Immune effects: There are many studies that show an increase in immune cell activity following meditation. 

One comprehensive review of randomized controlled trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system showed that mindfulness meditation decreased specific markers of inflammation, increased cell-mediated immunity, and increased enzyme activity that guards against cell aging. 1

A randomized, controlled study on the effects on brain and immune function of a well-known and widely used 8-week clinical training program in mindfulness meditation was applied in a work environment with healthy employees. At the end of 8 weeks all employees were vaccinated for influenza. 

The findings demonstrated that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. The findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways. A significant increase in antibody titers to the influenza vaccine was seen among subjects in the meditation group compared with those in the control group.2

A study in Psychosomatic Medicine examined the effects of a structured, 8-week, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program on perceived stress, mood, endocrine function, immunity, and functional health outcomes in individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Natural killer (NK) cell activity and number increased significantly in the MBSR program group compared to the comparison group. NK cells play a major role in the host-rejection of both tumors and virally infected cells.3

Stress/Anxiety/Depression:

In the journal Brain and Cognition, a systematic review was performed of the literature on the effect of secular mindfulness techniques on function and structure of the brain. The review stated functional and structural changes were seen in multiple areas of the brain. In addition, meditation led to changes in the amygdala consistent with improved emotion regulation. These findings indicate that meditation induced emotional and behavioral changes are related to functional and structural changes in the brain.4

In Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, study found that both Zazen and Tai Chi meditations significantly enhanced openness to experience. The enhanced openness was associated with improved strategies for coping with stress. They also had improved mood compared with non-meditating controls. They concluded that both, diametrically different types of meditation, are conducive to mental health by improving the general well-being, counteracting stress, and leading to a better vigor of spirit5

Stress and immune function are related. One avenue is via the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and gut microbes. The HPA axis is our central stress response system. Researchers performed a scientific literature database search with the goal of reviewing the link between stress management techniques and human gut microbiotaPsychological stress typically triggers a fight-or-flight response releasing hormones which ultimately disturb the microbiota.  A healthy microbiota produces short-chain fatty acids that exert anti-inflammatory and antitumor effects. During times of stress, the gut microbiota is disturbed, and this affects the regulation of neurotransmitters mediated by the microbiome and gut barrier function. The authors found that meditation helps regulate the stress response, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation states and maintaining a healthy gut-barrier function. 6 A healthy gut barrier is key to good immune function. 

The National Institute of Mental Health lists major depressive disorder (MDD) as the most common mental disorder in the United States. As we enter into a state of chaos and fear depression rates are sure to rise. A randomized controlled trial was done to determine the effects of 12-week yoga and meditation intervention on depression severity and systemic biomarkers of neuroplasticity (new neural connections) in adult MDD patients on routine drug treatment. There was a significant decrease in depression scores and significant increase in brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) with yoga & meditation compared to control group.7 BDNF promotes the survival of nerve cells. Decreased levels of BDNF are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease & Alzheimer’s to type 2 diabetes, depression and schizophrenia. Thus, yoga and meditation can be considered as a therapeutic intervention in MDD management.

  1. Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1373(1):13–24. doi:10.1111/nyas.12998
  2. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, et al. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003;65(4):564–570. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3
  3. Robinson FP, Mathews HL, Witek-Janusek L. Psycho-endocrine-immune response to mindfulness-based stress reducton in individuals infected with the human immunodeficiency virus: a quasiexperimental study. J Altern Complement Med. 2003;9(5):683–694. doi:10.1089/107555303322524535
  4. Gotink RA, Meijboom R, Vernooij MW, Smits M, Hunink MG. 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review. Brain Cogn. 2016;108:32–41. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2016.07.001
  5. Pokorski M, Suchorzynska A. Psychobehavioral Effects of Meditation. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2018;1023:85–91. doi:10.1007/5584_2017_52
  6. Househam AM, Peterson CT, Mills PJ, Chopra D. The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics. Adv Mind Body Med. 2017;31(4):10–25.
  7. Tolahunase MR, Sagar R, Faiq M, Dada R. Yoga- and meditation-based lifestyle intervention increases neuroplasticity and reduces severity of major depressive disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Restor Neurol Neurosci. 2018;36(3):423–442. doi:10.3233/RNN-170810



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