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A Buddhist monk meditates in Cambodia. (Gary Latham/Corbis)

Breathing Deeply May Actually Boost Your Body's Immune System

The power of the trained mind over the body is truly an amazing thing

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Researchers have previously shown the ability of some Buddhist monks to exert conscious control over seemingly involuntary bodily functions. Now, a small new study suggests that meditation and behavioral training have an even more surprising degree of power.

In the 1980s, Harvard researcher Herbert Benson showed that meditating monks could exert some control over the temperature of their skin, says the Harvard Gazette.

During visits to remote monasteries in the 1980s, Benson and his team studied monks living in the Himalayan Mountains who could, by g Tum-mo meditation, raise the temperatures of their fingers and toes by as much as 17 degrees. It has yet to be determined how the monks are able to generate such heat.

Other meditators, Benson found, could consciously control their metabolism:

They were astonished to find that these monks could lower their metabolism by 64 percent. "It was an astounding, breathtaking [no pun intended] result," Benson exclaims....

To put that decrease in perspective, metabolism, or oxygen consumption, drops only 10-15 percent in sleep and about 17 percent during simple meditation.

Now, a team of medical researchers from the Netherlands have just published a new study that seems to suggest that, with the right training, volunteers could be taught to actually control their body's sympathetic nervous system—the part that controls the fight-or-flight response—along with their immune response, to a limited extent.

The researchers took 24 volunteers and split them into two groups. One group of 12 studied meditation techniques under Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, says Nature. The training, the researchers say, included “third eye meditation,” a breathing technique that involved “cyclic hyperventilation followed by breath retention” and being dunked in ice water. 

Once the volunteers had been trained, the researchers exposed all 24 people to a toxin that causes flu-like symptoms.

Practicing their new meditation techniques, the 12 test subjects fared much better than their control-group counterparts. Nature:

On average, recruits who underwent training by Hof reported fewer flu-like symptoms than those who did not. Trained recruits also produced lower amounts of several proteins associated with inflammation, and higher levels of an inflammation-fighting protein called interleukin-10.

The power of the trained mind over the body is truly an amazing thing.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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