No one likes being sick. Washing your hands, getting enough sleep, exercising and taking vitamin C can help prevent the common cold, flu and pneumonia. Meditation may also boost your immunity and keep you from getting sick.
Research published in PLOS One followed 413 participants to determine whether meditation could help reduce the chance of being diagnosed with the flu. Those who participated in an eight-week, mindfulness-based, stress-reduction program reduced the incidence of getting the flu (and the frequency and severity of symptoms among those who were diagnosed with influenza) up to 25% compared to the control group. Exercisers experienced similar benefits.
Stress and Sickness
While the impact of meditation on immunity is clear — research has linked it to lower concentrations of C-reactive protein that triggers inflammation and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol — researcher Dr. Bruce Barrett, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison admits how it works is unclear.
“Meditation doesn’t seem to reduce the production of antibodies [that cause the flu] but it might change the stress-based inflammatory response,” Barrett says. “Reducing your stress levels enhances your general health and increases your ability to not get sick if you are exposed to viruses.”
A 2018 study suggests yoga and meditation help decrease levels of dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), a hormone that helps enhance the immune system; additional research found mindfulness meditation reduced the production of cytokines, molecules that regulate the immune system, which helped the body cope with stressors, including viruses.
To Skip or Not to Skip the Flu Shot?
Meditation might even be more effective than the flu shot. During the 2018-19 flu season, vaccine effectiveness was estimated to be 46%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Barrett notes that the vaccine has no impact on other illnesses, including the common cold, making meditation an even more appealing option to ward off sickness.
“Meditation might be more effective than the flu shot but it’s also a lot more work,” he says. “You don’t just roll up your sleeve and get a shot, you have to make time to practice [meditation].”
A regular meditation practice could pay off.
One study found a positive mood could make the flu vaccine more effective. Researcher Kieran Ayling, PhD, senior research fellow at the University of Notthingham, looked at studies measuring the effectiveness of participating in mindfulness meditation, expressive writing and cognitive behavioral therapy and found modest evidence that all helped enhance the response to vaccines.
Meditation As Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
“One explanation is that those people who report being in a more positive mood are also more likely to have healthier lifestyles and better health more generally, both of which, in turn, are related to better responses to vaccination,” he says. “Another explanation is that the biological effects of experiencing positive mood could impact the immune environment in such a way that improves how robustly the body responds to the vaccine … but this continues to be an active area of research.”
While Ayling believes the research is too new to make recommendations about meditating before receiving a vaccine, he admits the practice has no adverse effects and, if it makes you happy, you should consider it.
Vaccine effects aside, Barrett believes both meditation and exercise are important for health, and says, “Both improve health and prevent acute illnesses; there are associations with viruses like colds and the flu, depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease and chronic pain and we should consider them part of a healthy lifestyle.”