Can Meditation Make You Sick?

Can practicing meditation cause sickness? Is there an explanation behind this phenomenon? Drawing on his personal experience and what we know about the autonomic nervous system, Zachary Phillips offers an answer to this question.
Zachary Phillips is a poet, author, mental health advocate & coach.
can meditation make you sick
Zachary Phillips is a poet, author, mental health advocate & coach.

There’s a common phenomenon that happens when people start meditating. They sit down, they start meditating and they’re establishing a consistent daily practice. Typically, about 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, they are sitting in silence, meditating properly. That means they’re actively focused on the practice and either following a master or a spiritual tradition or a guideline, or they’re just focused. What I is they’re not doing it casually. They’re getting into mediation a little bit more seriously.

Then, within a week or a month or a couple of months, they start getting feelings of sickness. It could be feelings of physically wanting to vomit or actually vomiting. It could be tiredness or fatigue. It could be the need to sleep a lot. It could be headaches. The only change in their life, however, is that they’ve added meditation into their daily routine. Then they wonder, “Well, is meditation making me sick? What’s going on?”

I can certainly relate to this phenomenon on a personal level. I’ve recently upped my meditation amount, and for the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a significant amount of fatigue. I’ve been needing to take day naps, which for me is quite abnormal.

There are a couple of responses to the question if mediation can make you sick. The first is if you’re feeling sick, see a doctor. Make sure that you are not actually physically ill. You could have the flu, you could be hungry, thirsty, all of those sort of things. Check off the physical potential problems. But beyond that, what could meditation be doing to cause this feeling of sickness?

When you get into a proper meditation practice, you’re causing the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger, the system that calms you down after excitement. Traditionally, if, an animal is chasing you or you are in a fight or something similar, your sympathetic nervous system triggers and a whole variety of things happen within your body to get it ready to fight or flight, as in run away or deal with the conflict as it’s occurring.

Then, the parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to trigger, which causes you to return back to a state of homeostasis. Your body will start recovering itself. The fight-or-flight hormones balance out.

Unfortunately, particularly among our society, there’s this continuos level of minor stress: chronic stress, which causes the sympathetic nervous system to never quite regulate you back to homeostasis.

When you start meditating and sitting in silence for prolonged periods of time, you’re letting your body rest and recover. It’s like when you stretching your muscles. Stretching it for 10, 20 seconds doesn’t work. You need to be in that stretch for minutes before your body knows that it’s safe to loosen up those muscles. In mediation, your parasympathetic nervous system gets trigged and you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to recover. I’m going to heal. I’m going to calm down. I’m going to deal with the stuff that I’ve been putting off.” Because remember, parasympathetic nervous system’s job is to get you back to normal bodily functioning. But it could feasibly have been months or years before you’ve let your body recover to such an extent. That could be the cause of the fatigue that you’re now feeling. It’s sort of like when you were in school or if your work has consistent holidays, people typically get sick on those holidays because they’re finally allowing their body to rest and recover and just deal with whatever it’s been putting off.

The other side of things, if you don’t deal with them intermittently, if you don’t give yourself the chance to rest and recover, you may break. To go back to the exercise analogy, if you just push and push and push your muscles and never give them a chance to rest, eventually they may snap. The ligaments might break. There’ll be tears.

If you find yourself starting a meditation practice quite seriously, and you start feeling fatigue or sickness, get yourself checked out to make sure it’s not an actual condition. And then just realize, “Okay, this is actually necessary. I do need to recover and heal and rest and grow, because that’s what my body is needing.” And after the week, after however long it takes, you’ll be back to normal, but you’ll be in a more calmer, controlled, clear, rested, normal. Happy meditating.

Meditation. Free.