Treatment for epilepsy is generally focused on controlling electrical misfires, such as medications that reduce the electrical excitability of the brain. While around two-thirds of people with epilepsy who take medication may remain seizure-free, for the rest, seizures cannot be controlled with medication and other solutions are necessary. Meditation may be one of those solutions.
Scientific evidence may shed light on how meditation affects brain function in ways that help control epilepsy, including:
- relieving mental health problems that may exacerbate epilepsy, such as anxiety and depression
- enhancing coping skills and resilience, which significantly reduces the negative effects of stress on mind and body
- regulating brain chemicals involved in inhibiting hyperexcitability in the brain
- repairing damage to brain structures, enhancing brain function and promoting plasticity
- regulating brain activity patterns and maintaining normal electrophysiology
The Scientific Evidence
Several small clinical trials have explored the specific effects of Sahaja meditation on epilepsy…
The effects of Sahaja meditation on chronic, drug-resistant (refractory) epilepsy.
A 12-week, twice-daily trial of Sahaja meditation on 20 subjects with chronic, drug-resistant (refractory) epilepsy found that meditation decreased frequency of seizures (Rajesh et al, 2006). All subjects had suffered at least 4 complex partial seizures (with or without secondary generalization) during the preceding 3 months. Followups occurred at 3, 6, and 12 months.
Nineteen of 20 subjects reported decreased frequency of seizures within 3 months; 6 of those 19 showed reductions of 50 percent or more.
(Subjects with ≥50 percent reduction in monthly seizure rate were classified as responders; those with <50 percent seizure reduction as nonresponders.) Fourteen of the 16 patients who continued the Sahaja program responded at 6 months; 6 of them were seizure-free for 3 months. Seizure reduction rate for all 8 patients who continued the meditation program beyond 6 months was 50 percent or more; three of them were seizure-free for 6 months.
The effects of Sahaja meditation on seizure control and EEG changes.
Thirty-two patients with primary idiopathic epilepsy who were on maintenance antiepileptic medication were divided into 3 groups: Group 1 practiced Sahaja meditation for 6 months; Group 2 practiced sham yoga/postural exercises mimicking Sahaja for 6 months; Group 3 was the control group.
The Sahaja group reported a 62 percent decrease in seizure frequency at 3 months, a further decrease of 86 percent at 6 months (Panjwani et al, 1996).
The effects of Sahaja meditation on electrophysiological brain activity.
Thirty-two patients with idiopathic epilepsy on maintenance antiepileptic medication were divided into 3 groups, as per the above study. Power spectral analysis of EEG at 3 months and 6 months for the meditation group showed significant improvements in Visual Contrast Sensitivity and Auditory Evoked Potentials (such as the Na-Pa amplitude of MLR). Auditory evoked potentials are known to be altered in people with epilepsy, as well as in people on antiepileptic medication. Researchers believed that the reduced level of stress following meditation made subjects more aware and responsive to specific stimuli.
No significant changes in any of the parameters were found in Groups 2 or 3, indicating that Sahaja meditation may bring about seizure reduction and modify brain rhythms common in people with epilepsy (Panjwani et al, 2000).
A 6-month study exploring the effects of Sahaja meditation on stress management in epilepsy.
Thirty-two people with epilepsy were divided into 3 groups, as per the two above studies: 1) Sahaja meditation, 2) sham yoga meditation, and 3) control group. At 3- and 6-month followups, significant changes were found in the Sahaja group, but none were observed in the other two groups. In the Sahaja meditation group, blood lactate and urinary vanillymandelic acid (VMA), which are stress and anxiety markers, were significantly reduced. Galvanic skin resistance (GSR) increased, indicating decreased sympathetic nervous system activity (greater relaxation). Researchers believed that reduction in stress derived from the practice of Sahaja meditation may have been responsible for these clinical improvements (Panjwani, Rai et al, 1995).
A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of Sahaja meditation on refractory, drug-resistant epilepsy.
Twenty adult subjects with refractory epilepsy who were on maintenance antiepileptic medication were studied for one year. The 9 controls remained “on the waiting list;” the other 11 were taught Sahaja meditation and practiced 20 minutes per day for one year. No significant changes were observed in the control group.
But after 6 months of practice, the 11 meditation subjects showed a significant reduction in seizure frequency and duration, and their EEGs normalized.
The slow wave spectrum, <7Hz, decreased and the mean intensity in the 8 – 12 Hz spectrum increased, indicating that continued practice of Sahaja meditation significantly helps improve the clinical EEG picture for people with drug-resistant epilepsy (Deepak et al, 1996).
Finally, at the Sahaja Yoga Research and Health Centre in India, Prof. U.C. Rai found that Sahaja meditation significantly reduced the rate and severity of epileptic seizures with regular practice over several months (Rai, 1993). While more clinical trials and larger patient populations are needed to conclusively determine the degree of influence that Sahaja meditation has on epilepsy, these earlier studies suggest that mediation may hold promise as, at the least, an adjunct therapy for reducing or eliminating seizures.
Meditation reduces oxidative stress.
One of the mechanisms through which meditation may help prevent illness is by reducing the level of oxidative stress in our bodies. Several studies have found that oxidative stress and oxidative damage is significantly lower among those who practice meditation (Rai et al, 2013; Kim et al, 2005; Van Wijk et al, 2008; Sharma et al, 2008). One large, randomized 2013 study found that Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on oxidative stress, endothelial function, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and heart rate variability (HRV). HRV and endothelial function improved and blood cortisol levels significantly decreased, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels in long-term Sahaja meditators, compared to the non-meditating control population (Rai et al, 2013).
Meditation increases GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) activity in the brain.
Meditation may help control seizure disorders by enhancing endogenous (natural) GABA availability. As discussed in Part 1, low levels of the amino acid GABA in the brain have been found to cause epilepsy and increase the risk for seizure (Bradford, 1995). GABA, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, has a calming, anti-anxiety, anticonvulsant effect on the brain. It slows electrical transmission between neurons and counterbalances neuronal excitation. GABA is also responsible for regulating the activity of other neurotransmitters (including serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine) that are heavily involved in mental health disorders that often co-occur with epilepsy, such as anxiety and depression.
The hormonal and neurotransmitter changes induced by meditation have been found to mimic the calming, inhibiting effects of GABA on the brain. In fact, several studies have demonstrated a measurable increase in serum GABA during meditation. One study found that meditation influenced hormone secretion by increasing GABAergic tone in the hypothalamus, which induced an anti-anxiety effect in the brain (Elias, Wilson, 2000). This meditation mechanism was found to be similar to the effects of benzodiazepine drugs commonly prescribed for epilepsy, which reduce anxiety by binding to GABA-A receptors.
A more recent study found that meditation induces GABAergic inhibition in the cerebral cortex. Researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to evaluate before and after changes in 35 participants who meditated and 35 control subjects who watched television for 60-minute sessions. They found that meditation significantly increased activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), stimulated an area of the thalamus that increases GABA production and delivery, and ultimately modulated excitability and plasticity of the cerebral cortex. These changes were not observed in the TV-watching controls (Guglietti et al, 2012).
Another small study compared the effects of a 1-hour relaxation yoga session (asana yoga) to a 1-hour reading session on GABA levels in the brain. GABA levels increased by an average of 27 percent in the yoga participants, compared to no change in the reading group, suggesting that even a low-key relaxation model of meditation may increase GABA levels (Streeter, C.C., 2007).
Meditation helps regulate other neurotransmitters and neurohormones that play key roles in maintaining mental and physical health. For details, see Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.
Meditation produces structural changes in the brain.
Chronic depression or anxiety can produce marked changes in critical brain structures that, coincidentally, play key roles in epilepsy, including the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. As discussed in Part 1, people with epilepsy, as well as mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression often have abnormalities in these brain areas, such as reduced density, reduced neuronal size and reduced cortical thickness.
Meditation has been shown to rewire neural circuitry and physically improve brain structures over time in ways that help ward off depression and anxiety, thus may also help reduce seizure activity.
For example, several studies have found that experienced meditators have significantly increased gray matter density in brain areas that are involved in emotional processing (specifically, the right hippocampus), which may help explain the enhanced ability of meditators to regulate emotional responses (Hölzel, B., Ott, U., et al, 2008).
Meditation strengthens our ability to inhibit negative emotional thought processes, which exacerbate stress, depression and anxiety. One study using spectral EEG found that Sahaja Meditators scored significantly lower than control subjects in depression and the personality traits of anxiety, neuroticism, and psychoticism. They scored higher in emotion recognition and expression, suggesting that regular practice of Sahaja meditation can lead to greater psychoemotional stability, emotional resilience and better emotional skills. The study participants were found to be better at identifying the emotions they were feeling, they had a wider spectrum of positive emotions, and they bounced back quicker after stressful events. Long-term practitioners showed greater positive affect (emotion) and stronger electrical “long-distance” connectivity and coherence (“orderliness”) between brain regions involved in experiencing positive emotions. The Sahaja meditator’s brain, in other words, is better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, and more efficient. (Aftanas, Golosheykin, 2005)
In a 2009 MRI study, UCLA researchers found that the brains of active meditators were larger and contained more gray matter than the brains of non-meditators. In 2011, UCLA diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue, which facilitates stronger, faster electrical connections between brain regions, was considerably reduced in active meditators; in fact, these white-matter fibers were more numerous, more dense and better insulated throughout the brains of meditators, compared to control subjects.
More scientific studies are needed to determine the specific effects that Sahaja meditation may have on epilepsy. For example, could the regular practice of meditation alter the expression of certain genes that contribute to causing epilepsy? Anecdotal evidence among Sahaja researchers and practitioners suggests that meditation is not likely to be a complete, one-shot cure for epilepsy, but people with epilepsy may find that, as part of a long-term lifestyle change, Sahaja Mediation is one of the safest, most effective, and most cost-effective (it’s free!) treatment options available. Meditation may provide hope to people with even drug-resistant epilepsy that non-pharmaceutical strategies may help reduce seizure frequency.
NOTE: There have been a few reports of other forms of meditation (e.g., Transcendental Meditation) generating brain activity resembling seizure-like abnormalities. While Sahaja meditation involves techniques that are markedly different from those in question and has no history of causing problems in people with epilepsy, it may be a good idea for anyone with epilepsy to consult a physician before beginning a meditative practice and to continue taking medications as prescribed.
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