A new study published in the American Journal of Medicine has discovered the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation induces pain relief through the endogenous opioid pathway; the same opioid pathway involved in pain relief when taking drugs like morphine
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting with eyes closed, cross-legged, with a straight back, focusing on one’s awareness of the breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils. The practice of mindfulness meditation is not new what-so-ever; this idea of focusing on the self at the present time has been a part of ancient Buddhist and Hindu religion. What is changing is its acceptance in modern psychology and its use as a reliable therapy for pain.
Recent studies have reported on the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation on pain, but none are able to describe the underlying neural mechanisms. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase cognitive control and emotion regulation. Nonetheless, little is known about mindfulness meditation’s effect on the brain, and how it is able to reduce both acute and chronic pain.
A new study from the American Journal of Medicine has determined that mindfulness meditation is able to induce analgesia (the inability to feel pain) by working with the body’s endogenous (internally-originating) opioid pathway. The body’s endogenous opioid pathway is responsible for pain relief and is activated when opioids bind to opioid receptors. Opioids can be endogenous, like endorphins and endomorphins, or can be exogenous (externally-originating), like the opium drugs morphine, codeine, and oxycodone.
Researchers tested the effect of mindfulness meditation on the opioid pathway by using an opioid blocker, Naloxone. Naloxone is a drug that interferes with the opioid pathway by binding to opioid receptors and inhibiting the body’s ability to relieve pain. 15 healthy experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners participated in this double-blind study. Participants submerged their hands in water (a pain stimulus) and asked to rate their pain level. They then participated in a mindfulness meditation session. Following the session, participants were then asked to submerge their hands again, and score their pain levels. Next, participants were administered an IV containing either Naloxone or saline (as a placebo). Participants were they asked to undergo another mindfulness meditation, and then submerge their hands and rate the level of pain once more.
The results show that pain scores were significantly reduced after the first mindfulness meditation session and after the second mindfulness meditation session when given saline. Participants who were administered Naloxone prior to the second mindfulness meditation session rated their level of pain much higher in the final pain evaluation.
Interestingly, pain scores for the placebo group following the second mindfulness meditation were significantly higher than the pain scores following the first mindfulness meditation, indicating the strong placebo effect on suggestion. Researchers also noted that suggestion to placebo was not as strong in more experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners. These findings suggest that initial mindfulness meditation results in successful analgesia through suggestion, but with more practice, mindfulness meditation works by influencing the endogenous opioid pathway.
This study shows, for the first time, that mindfulness meditation involves the endogenous opioid pathway. Researchers hope the results of this study can be used for therapeutic implications; by linking mindfulness meditation and the body’s endogenous opioid pathway, this study proves that mindfulness meditation can have a great impact on acute and chronic pain patients.
Want to reap benefits of mindfulness meditation? Follow the link to learn how to mindfully meditate:
Written By: Alexandra Lostun, BSc