Transcendental meditation and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning: a pilot, randomized controlled trial with young adults

Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, Li Shen Chong, Ali Samikoglu, Michelle Thai, Palistha Amatya, Kathryn R Cullen, Kelvin O Lim
Stress: the International Journal on the Biology of Stress 2020, 23 (1): 105-115
Transcendental meditation (TM) is effective in alleviating stress and anxiety and promoting well-being. While the underlying biological mechanisms of TM are not yet fully explored, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis represents an index providing important clues embodying the stress system cascade. In this pilot study, young adults were randomly assigned to TM training followed by 8 weeks of meditation practice or a wait-list control condition. TM was conducted over 8 weeks. Thirty-four young adult participants were randomized; 27 participants completed the HPA outcome assessments (41% male). To assess HPA axis functioning, salivary samples to assess cortisol awakening response (CAR) that were collected in the morning, both at baseline and at week-4. Salivary cortisol in the context of a social stressor using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) was collected at week-8. The results indicate that participants who were randomly assigned to TM had lower awakening salivary cortisol levels and a greater drop in CAR from baseline to week-4 than the control group. There were no significant differences in HPA axis functioning in the context of the TSST. Primary limitations of this randomized controlled trial were the small sample size, the use of a wait-list as opposed to an active control, and the limited scope of HPA axis assessments. The results of this pilot study provide tentative evidence that TM may impact biological stress system functioning and suggests that this may be a worthwhile avenue to continue to examine. It will also be useful to extend these findings to a broader array of meditative and mindful practices, particularly for those who are experiencing more distress.

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