Learning a type of meditation technique might make it easier for smokers to cut down, at least on a short-term basis, new research suggests.
The finding is based on the experiences of just five smokers, and could be purely coincidental. Researchers found, however, that training other smokers how to relax had no effect on how much they smoked, a sign that there may indeed be something to the meditation approach.
So should smokers meditate if they want to smoke less?
“Sure, why not?” said study co-author Michael Posner, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s department of psychology. “[Still], I can’t say that all forms of meditation will produce these affects. It’s likely that it depends on the brain state that the person is in, and there may be other ways to get into it.”
Researchers have linked “mindfulness meditation” to a variety of health benefits. In just the past few years, it’s been associated with relief from cold, flu, hot flashes and irritable bowel syndrome. It also has been linked to healthy changes in the brain itself.
Mindfulness meditation is designed to help people to relax, focus on the current moment and, essentially, go with the flow of thoughts and sensations.
In the new study, researchers assigned 60 people — 27 cigarette smokers and 33 nonsmokers with an average age of 21 — to one of two groups. Each group went through five hours of training over two weeks in either mindfulness meditation or relaxation.
After the two weeks, the researchers gave breath tests to the smokers to see how much they’d been smoking. There was no change for those who learned to relax, but the measurement fell by 60 percent in those who learned how to meditate.
Five smokers who learned about meditation talked to researchers four weeks after the study and said they were still smoking less. However, “because the number was so small, we do not yet know exactly how long the reduction will last,” the researchers said.
Posner said there are caveats to the research. The study is small, he said, and the participants were all college students. On the other hand, he said, most participants didn’t know they were taking part in a smoking study.
If meditation is truly having an effect, what might be going on? Other research has suggested that meditation improves connections in the brain, he said. The new study found that the brains of the smokers who learned meditation techniques were more active in an area linked to self-control. Researchers also think reduction in stress may be an important reason meditation seems to provide medical relief.
Posner added that meditation, unlike drugs, doesn’t appear to have any major side effects. There could be an expense: It may cost a few bucks to take a meditation class or learn from a book or online.
The study was published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Alberto Chiesa, a psychiatrist and instructor in mindfulness-based interventions at the University of Bologna, in Italy, praised the study. He said this research, along with other findings, supports the idea of offering training in mindfulness meditation to smokers who want to quit. “[It is] a viable alternative to other treatment approaches such as nicotine replacement therapy and individual psychological treatments,” he said.