Meditation or exercise may lower the rate, length and severity of the flu or common cold, according to preliminary findings of a study conducted in Wisconsin.
The randomized controlled trial suggests preventing the common cold may not just be limited to practices such as frequent hand washing or covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing .
“The bottom line is both the mental health and physical health matter in helping improve (the) flu and cold,” said physician Bruce Barrett, author of the study and associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison medical school’s department of family medicine.
He said in addition to taking precautions to prevent colds, regular exercise and meditation may help.
“If it turns out to be true, it’s a bigger deal than flu shots,” Barrett said.
The study was published in July in the Annals of Family Medicine.
Studying 149 individuals split into three groups, participants meditating on a regular basis reported 257 days of the common cold or flu, people who exercised regularly reported 241 days of illness, and the control group had the highest number of days in which they had cold and flu symptoms, 453.
The groups were studied from September 2009 to May 2010 by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.
Missed days due to the flu or common cold were the lowest in the meditating group at 16, followed by the exercise group at 32. Those in the control group missed 67 days.
The common cold is the leading cause of doctor visits and missed days of school and work, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
While many studies point to exercise to improve immune function and fight off infection, using meditation to improve immune function remains inconclusive, Barrett said.
Episodes of illness were self-reported following a scale where participants had to have two of the following symptoms: a runny nose, a plugged nose, sneezing or a scratchy throat. The meditation group reported 27 illness episodes, the exercise group had 26 episodes and the control group reported 40 episodes of an illness.
The severity of the illness was assessed through a daily survey, which documents symptoms such as headaches, body aches and fever. With each illness, nasal wash was collected; there were no statistical differences between each group.
David Shapiro, an expert on integrative medicine and Eastern therapies and an internist at Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee, said the study showed something certainly changed after one group engaged in a fairly intense meditation program.
“Some of the interesting things was that some people were infected the same amount yet they had less severe symptoms in terms of global severity and days of illness,” said Shapiro, who was not part of the study. “It’s pretty striking for (the) meditation group in terms of the decreased number of days of illness.”
Besides the control group, one group spent eight weeks doing mindfulness meditation and another did moderate-intensity exercise. Those in the meditation group focused on becoming aware of their senses, thoughts and emotions during a 45-minute daily at-home practice and weekly 21/2-hour group sessions. Those exercising walked briskly and jogged in a daily 45-minute session as well as in their 21/2-hour weekly workouts, which included moderately intensive exercise on stationary bicycles and treadmills.