Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Improves Symptoms of Gulf War Illness

Veterans randomized to mindfulness-based stress reduction reported greater reductions in pain, fatigue, and memory/concentration problems.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction may provide significant benefits to symptoms associated with Gulf War Illness in veterans, according to research published in The American Journal of Medicine.

Mindfulness has been defined as the awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose and without judgment to unfolding experiences in the present moment. Mindfulness-based interventions, usually developed through daily meditation and informal mindfulness practices, are therefore theorized to promote cognitive and behavioral changes by fostering the ability to attend to thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations with an attitude of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.

Although previous research has found mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to be associated with small to modest improvements in pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and memory problems, until now MBSR has not been studied specifically for its effectiveness in treating Gulf War Illness, which can include symptoms similar to those listed above, including pain, fatigue, and memory/concentration problems. Many veterans with Gulf War Illness also have either post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as well.

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To test whether MBSR would be an effective treatment for Gulf War Illness, David Kearney, MD from the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and Department of Medicine in Seattle, Washington and colleagues randomly assigned 55 veterans with Gulf War Illness to either usual treatment alone or to MBSR plus usual treatment. MBSR was administered in 2.5 hour-long sessions once a week for 8 weeks, with an additional single 7 hour-long weekend session.

The researchers found that at 6 month follow-up, veterans randomized to MBSR plus the usual treatment reported greater reductions in pain (f=0.33; P=0.049), fatigue (f=0.32; P=0.027) and lapses in memory or concentration (f=0.40; P=0.050). Symptoms of depression also showed a greater decline following MBSR (f=0.22; P=0.050) and at 6 months (f=0.27; P=0.031) compared with the group receiving only the usual treatment. PTSD symptoms also lessened significantly following MBSR (f=0.44; P=0.005) but not at 6 month follow-up (f=0.31; P=0.082).

Although this was a small pilot study, the researchers conclude that MBSR is associated with significant improvements in symptoms related to Gulf War Illness. “We think that the findings provide

initial support for offering MBSR to veterans with Gulf War Illness, and warrant larger randomized controlled trials of MBSR for Gulf War Illness,” the authors wrote.


  1. Kearney DJ, Simpson TL, Malte CA, et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Addition to Usual Care is Associated with Improvements in Pain, Fatigue and Cognitive Failures Among Veterans with Gulf War Illness. Am J Med. 2015; doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2015.09.015.