monk meditating

Meditation acts like a pain-killer, but doesn’t release opioids

Evidence suggests mindfulness meditation reduces both emotional and physical pain. Concerning the latter, we still don’t know the underlying mechanisms that cause meditation to have painkiller-like effects, but we’re getting there. We now know how it doesn’t work for instance after researchers found the effects of meditation do not involve opioids production in the body. This is good news for those with high tolerance for opioids, found both in illegal drugs like heroin but also in morphine, and just about any “serious” prescription painkiller.

monk meditating

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Researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center recruited 78 healthy and pain-free volunteers and divided them into four groups: meditation plus naloxone; non-meditation control plus naloxone; meditation plus saline placebo; or non-meditation control plus saline placebo. Naloxone is a substance that temporarily blocks the endogenous opioid system. Pain is good. It signals you to lay off a hot plate or stay away from pointy things. After the initial nudge, it’s this opioid system that floods the brain with opioids to shut down the pain.

Each day for four days, the volunteers went about their task (meditating or doing nothing) in 20-minute long sessions. At the end of the session, each participant was given a painful nudge using a thermal probe that heated a small area of the skin to 49 degrees Celsius. It’s painful enough for the body to start releasing opioids, the researchers said. To gauge pain, the volunteers used a sliding ruler to self-report it.

Those participants that meditated and were given the naloxone injection had a 24 percent reduction in pain from the baseline measurement. In the group that meditated, but were given a placebo injection, there was a 21 percent pain reduction. Those who didn’t meditate at all reported more pain regardless of whether they got the naloxone or placebo-saline injection.

“Our finding was surprising and could be important for the millions of chronic pain sufferers who are seeking a fast-acting, non-opiate-based therapy to alleviate their pain,” said  Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” Zeidan said. “And now this study shows that meditation doesn’t work through the body’s opioid system.

“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain. These findings are especially significant to those who have built up a tolerance to opiate-based drugs and are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce their pain.”

Pain-killer addiction has reached endemic proportions in the United States. In 2012, enough painkillers were prescribed to keep every single citizen medicated around the clock for a month – or once every 12 days for an entire year. Tens of thousands die each year from overdosing on painkillers — a lot more than from heroin. Meditation could be used in conjunction with prescription drugs or alone, preferably if the pain isn’t deafening. Those who are addicted and have a high tolerance for painkillers might find meditation a godsend.

Meditation might not be able to help everyone, though. Which is why Zeidan and colleagues plan on studying next how mindfulness meditation can affect a spectrum of chronic pain conditions.

Findings  appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience. 

One thought on “Meditation acts like a pain-killer, but doesn’t release opioids

  1. art marr

    The Zeiden article found that mindfulness mediates analgesia through a non-opiate pathway, but this article neglects to mention a separate article by Sharon et al. (2016) (linked below) that disputes this, and that mindfulness indeed produces endogenous opioids or endorphins that do reduce pain. These findings are also confirmed through the extensive literature on resting states, that consistently notes the production of endorphins in resting states, and resting or relaxation is a primary result of meditation.

    An elaboration of this argument is below, along with linked references.

    What Mindfulness Research Neglects

    Mindfulness is defined as non-judgmental or choice-less awareness. Choices in turn may be divided into non-perseverative choices (what to have for breakfast, what route to take to go home, or choices with no dilemmas) and perseverative choices (worries, distractions, and rumination, or mental dilemmas wherein every alternative is bad). All meditative procedures, including mindfulness, avoid both.

    The consistent avoidance of perseverative choice alone represents resting protocols, wherein the neuro-muscular activity is sharply reduced. In other words, when we want to be relaxed we isolate ourselves from distractive and worrisome events and thoughts. These states in turn correlate with increased levels of endogenous opioids or ‘endorphins’ in the brain. The benefits of this are manifest, as the sustained increase of endogenous opioids down regulates opioid receptors, and thus inhibits the salience or reward value of other substances (food, alcohol, drugs) that otherwise increase opioid levels, and therefore reduces cravings, as well as mitigating our sensitivity to pain. Profound relaxation also inhibits muscular tension and its concomitant discomfort. In this way, relaxation causes pleasure, enhances self-control, counteracts and inhibits stress, reduces pain, and provides for a feeling of satisfaction and equanimity that is the hallmark of the so-called meditative state.
    It may be deduced therefore that meditative states are primarily resting states, and that meditative procedures over-prescribe the cognitive operations that may be altered to provide its salutary benefits (that is, you just need to avoid perseverative choices, not all choices), and that meditation as a concept must be redefined.
    Finally, the objective measurement of neuro-muscular activity and its neuro-chemical correlates (long established in the academic literature on resting states) is in general ignored by the academic literature on mindfulness, which is primarily based upon self-reports and neurological measures (fMRI) that cannot account for these facts. The problem with mindfulness research is therefore not theoretical, but empirical, and until it clearly accounts for all relevant observables for brain and body, the concept will never be fully explained.

    More of this argument, including references, below including a link to the first study (published this year) that has discovered the presence of opioid activity due to mindfulness practice, as well as the 1988 Holmes paper which provided the most extensive argument to date that meditation was rest.

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