Mindfulness Meditation: An Unlikely Flu Treatment

A lot of us dread the onset of flu season . . .

. . . because nothing really helps when you’ve got the flu. There’s no magic pill – just bed rest and plenty of fluids . . .

But here’s a provocative thought: Could mindfulness meditation actually prevent influenza (and other acute respiratory infections)?

Mindfulness Meditation and the Flu

Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD and researchers from the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin had a hunch that improving general health – both mental and physical – would mean reduced susceptibility to acute respiratory infections.

So, they ran a randomized, controlled experiment to find out.

154 adults over the age of 50 were randomly assigned to one of three interventions. To study mental health, they gave one group a mindfulness-based stress reduction course. To look at physical health, they gave a second group an exercise regimen.

A third group served as an observation-only control group.

Both the mindfulness course and the exercise regimen lasted for 8 weeks, and the observation period lasted from September through May.

They monitored participants with bi-weekly phone calls. When someone answered “yes” to the question “Do you think you are coming down with a cold?” researchers took a nasal wash and participants began recording their symptoms.

People in each group also recorded their visits to health care facilities and their missed days of work or school.

All together, participants in the mindfulness group experienced significantly shorter durations of illness. They also reported significantly lower mean illness severity scores as measured by the Wisconsin Upper Respiratory Symptom Survey.

For the exercise group, only the duration of illness was significantly shorter.

Beyond that, the meditation group had a 76% lower rate of respiratory-related absenteeism compared with the control group.

There is no proven strategy for preventing acute respiratory illness (other than hand washing).

That’s why, according to Dr. Barrett, these results are so interesting. Mindfulness meditation might indeed play a role in solving a health problem that nothing else can touch.

You can read the full study in The Annals of Family Medicine.

Please share your thoughts. Could mindfulness be a useful illness prevention strategy?

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10 Comments

  1. I will be interested as well as considering what you are talking about here.

  2. Marlena says:

    Accidentally I missed my flu shot last year. Well, so I start meditation center on my health and no respondrespite

  3. Diane Fowler says:

    This is not a surprise. My family use herbal immune boosters to great effect, but I have also used meridian tapping (EFT) to relieve symptoms of a cold, with immediate or near-immediate improvement that lasted for some hours. I also meditate and do tai chi several times a week, so this may also have had a bearing. However, I have tapped on family members with colds and have helped them, especially my infant grandson when he had the flu. This is such a boon! I have felt that being at peace within myself allows my body (and my immune system) to work as it is made to do.

  4. sb MA, LMHC says:

    Makes sense! Also, Oscillococcinum by Boiron, homeopathic and readily available, even at “regular” drugstores, at first!!! feeling of flu symptoms—can turn them around on a dime–Must be felt to be believed. Wow.

  5. This sequence says so much to me: the immune system shuts down as one of the preparatory shifts that occurs in the physiology when we’re kicked into the threat response; not understanding or knowing how to downshift the dysregulated state can lend itself to a chronically held state of immune system imbalance; vulnerability to illness ensues.

    Teaching a practice that helps to maintain a regulated nervous system helps the immune system do it’s hard-wired function. The body can work more as it was designed to do.

    Makes tremendous sense!

  6. Marie says:

    Fascinating!! I don’t doubt it. I also wonder if part of the reason for shorter sickness periods is that mindfulness teaches the art of acceptance without judgment (so no catastrophizing about symptoms, dramaticizing about how awful it is, which may prolong the “suffering” – bracing against something usually makes that thing stronger or take more time than embracing it). There may also be a bit of the here-and-now focus that might be helpful – being present with the sickness as opposed to fighting it and pretending to be well (and not taking time for rest and self-care – perhaps more likely to happen with mindful acceptance and ability to be present with it).

    • Nye Ffarrabas says:

      I am struck by the correspondence between mindfulness/being present in the moment (which are two aspects of the same thing), and Asian martial arts teachings. Although I do not speak the language, I am told that “jiu jitsu” means “the art of gently falling away.” What better way to express the immediacy, awareness, readiness, and non-judgmentality of mind, whether in meditation or in a combat situation? To live one’s life in such a way that the ‘attacker’ – be it a thought, an assailant, or a virus – is turned aside, using the violence of the attacker against itself, rather than forcefully resisting (participating in it), is somehow very much akin to homeopathic philosophy as I understand it…. That is powerful medicine indeed.

      • Lazarus says:

        Do you have any information on where or the sucescs of administering this concept within the public school system? I have a MSW degree and I am presently a certified teacher. I feel that there is a dire need for meditation within the school days. This groundedness is exactly what the students/children of today are lacking. Do you know of any grants or means of exploring this as a possibility? Thank you, Debby

  7. Leena Nortamo says:

    Since stress affects your immune system very negatively, it sure is a good way. Makes you even mentaly stronger. When stressfull situations accur the stress peak becomes lower.

    • Dianne Johnston says:

      I have found nothing more effective than a herbal immune booster Echinaeforce. At the first sign of a cold or flu symptom just drink a few drops and do so every four hours – it’s the most amazing prevention. If you can get this medicine in Sweden please always have some in your home. The make is Vogel. Regards from S.A. –

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