WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Meditation may slow the worsening of AIDS in just a few weeks, perhaps by affecting the immune system, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday.
If the findings are borne out in larger studies, it could offer a cheap and pleasant way to help people battle the incurable and often fatal condition, the team at the University of California Los Angeles said.
They tested a stress-lowering program called mindfulness meditation, defined as practicing an open and receptive awareness of the present moment, avoiding thinking of the past or worrying about the future.
The more often the volunteers meditated, the higher their CD4 T-cell counts — a standard measure of how well the immune system is fighting the AIDS virus. The CD4 counts were measured before and after the two-month program.
“This study provides the first indication that mindfulness meditation stress-management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression,” David Creswell, who led the study, said in a statement.
His team tested 67 HIV-positive adults from the Los Angeles area, 48 of whom did some or all of the meditation. Most were likely to have highly stressful lives, Creswell said.
“The average participant in the study was male, African American, homosexual, unemployed and not on ARV (antiretroviral) medication,” they wrote in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
The meditation classes included eight weekly two-hour sessions, a day-long retreat and daily home practice. “The people that were in this class really responded and just really enjoyed the program,” Creswell said.
“The mindfulness program is a group-based and low-cost treatment, and if this initial finding is replicated in larger samples, it’s possible that such training can be used as a powerful complementary treatment for HIV disease, alongside medications,” he added.
About 30 percent of the volunteers were taking HIV drug cocktails, which can help suppress the virus.
“Even when we controlled for ARV use, we still saw these effects. Whether you are on or off the drugs you are going to see these benefits,” Creswell said in a telephone interview.
Creswell said it was unclear how the stress-reducing effects of meditation work. It may directly boost CD4 T-cell levels, or suppress the virus, he said.
“We know that stress has direct effects on viral load,” he said.
Creswell said he believes the program can help people infected with a variety of viruses and from all walks of life. HIV patients are especially highly stressed, he noted.
“These marginalized folks typically are experiencing the highest stress levels,” he said.
But middle-class workers also experience stress. “Most people do report a lot of daily stress,” Creswell said.
And for AIDS patients, HIV drug cocktails are known to have a variety of side effects, from weight gain to nausea.
“One of the main side-effects of this particular treatment was an increase in their quality of life,” Creswell said.
Editing by Eric Beech