Mindfulness meditation, a psychotherapy technique rooted in the teachings of Buddha, may do more than lead a person to enlightenment. New research from the University of Texas shows that meditation training can help people beat their cigarette addictions.

The study had 15 smokers — those who smoked at least 10 cigarettes per day — partake in integrative body-mind training (IBMT). A popular practice in China, IBMT focuses on whole body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness — a calm self-awareness of one's mood and feelings.

"The trainees concentrated on achieving a balanced state of body and mind guided by an IBMT coach and a compact disc," wrote the authors. Each session lasted about 30 minutes, which the trainees repeated every day for 10 straight nights.

Another 12 participants, who served as controls, were taught relaxation techniques, but not IBMT.

Two weeks of IBMT curtailed smoking habits by 60 percent, as observed by measuring the subjects' carbon monoxide before and after the train sessions began. No significant reduction was witnessed in the relaxation-only group.

A follow-up exam one month later revealed that five people in the IBMT group had successfully maintained their lower levels of cigarette consumption.

The researchers attributed this success to diminished cravings.

"We found that participants who received IBMT training also experienced a significant decrease in their craving for cigarettes," said co-author Dr. Yi-Yuan Tang, a psychologist at Texas Tech University.

"Because mindfulness meditation promotes personal control and has been shown to positively affect attention and an openness to internal and external experiences, we believe that meditation may be helpful for coping with symptoms of addiction."

Nicotine cravings represent a major barrier for those among the 44 million U.S. smokers who want to quit.

Better self-control may also be responsible for the changed habits, as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain imaging. Results from fMRI scans, prior to IBMT, revealed lower activity in brain regions implicated in self-control, including the anterior cingulate cortex and the left lateral prefrontal cortex. Two weeks of IBMT boosted brain activity in these areas. This pattern was not observed in the non-IBMT group.

The combination of heightened self-control and relaxation may explain why these smokers had lower cravings, although the authors noted that a larger study with more subjects is needed.

"We cannot say how long the effect of reduced smoking will last," concluded co-author Dr. Michael I. Posner, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon.

"This is an early finding, but an encouraging one. It may be that for the reduction or quitting to have a lasting effect, smokers will need to continue to practice meditation for a longer time period."

Source: Tang YY, Tang R, Posner MI. Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction. PNAS. 2013.