The primary health benefit from meditation practices appears to be a general shift in the autonomic nervous system that decreases sympathetic tone (fight or flight response) and increases parasympathetic tone (rest, digest, relaxation). As the parasympathetic system (relaxation) is stimulated, heart rate and breathing slow, stress hormones decrease, blood vessels dilate, and digestion is facilitated.
Some of the best-studied areas in which mindfulness has been found to be effective include (NCCAM 2011):
The development and progression of coronary artery disease,
Pain management—particularly in arthritis
Headache and low back pain
Coping with cancer in terms of quality of life
Coping and symptom management or amelioration
Susceptibility to infection—especially respiratory illnesses
Preparation and convalescence of surgery
Research on the detrimental effects of chronic stress, whether due to psychosocial stress or associated with illness, reinforces the need for effective management tools. This is especially important in high stress exposure groups such as health care providers. It is well recognized that chronic stress promotes a highly pro-inflammatory state (Gouin, 2011), and recent research demonstrates the ability of the cascade of certain pro-inflammatory cytokines to reach the brain through humoral, neural, and cellular pathways.