“Mind-body” techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation yield proven health benefits.
Meditation induces the state of deep relaxation first described in the early 1970’s by Harvard professor Dr. Herbert Benson.
Dr. Benson found that what he calls the “relaxation response” can be elicited by various meditative techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, jogging … even knitting!
Most studies of the subject have examined the effects of so-called mindfulness meditation … for an explanation of this ancient practice, see our sidebar, “Mindfulness meditation: A primer”.
A study published in 2011 suggests that the focusing and refocusing inherent to mindful meditation increases brain connectivity.
Researchers at UCLA compared the brain activity of volunteers who’d completed eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction training with that of volunteers who didn’t do the training.
Functional MRI scans showed stronger connections in regions of the brain associated with attention and auditory and visual processing.
And last year, a clinical study showing that meditation yields lasting emotional resilience. Prior studies had seen calming effects among active meditators, but this one found that the results lasted for at least three weeks after meditation had ceased (see “Meditation Yields Lasting Calm”.)
Mindfulness meditation: A primer
Monks, nuns, and yogis have practiced meditation for millennia.
But what is meditation, exactly?
There are different kinds, but most fall under the heading “Mindfulness meditation”.
How does it work?
Start by focusing your attention on your breath, a sensation in the body, or a positive word or phrase.
Observe the thoughts, emotions, and background sounds that arise without analyzing or judging them.
If you drift into thoughts about the past or future, bring your attention back to the present by refocusing on your breathing or the chosen word/phrase.
Research suggests that a few minutes of daily mindfulness meditation can help alleviate high blood pressure, chronic pain, psoriasis, sleep trouble, anxiety, and depression, boost immune function, and stop binge eating.
In recent years, Dr. Benson and his colleagues have discovered that relaxation techniques such as meditation affect our “working” genes.
Growing evidence that meditation exerts genetic effects has led scientists to find how these cell-level changes may benefit the body.
Now, an exciting study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France adds even more incentive to make time for daily meditation.
Not only does it affirm the idea that meditation makes us calmer and more resilient, it confirms evidence that the technique changes our genes in ways that should enhance health.
More evidence that meditation changes the body
The new study yielded the first evidence of specific bodily changes in response to genetic changes following mindfulness meditation (Rosenkranz MA et al. 2013).
Its authors compared two groups:
Untrained subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities for one day.
Experienced meditators who engaged in intensive mindfulness practice for one day.
After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences.
These included altered levels of gene-regulating “machinery” and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
According to co-author Richard J. Davidson, “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.” (UWM 2013)
(Dr. Davidson is professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.)
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” added lead author Dr. Perla Kaliman of the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted (UWM 2013).
Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention.
Importantly, the new results provide a possible – and plausible – biological mechanism for meditation’s well-documented therapeutic effects.
The results show that meditation “down-regulates” genes implicated in the chronic, unnoticed inflammation that drives major degenerative disorders including heart disease.
The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several HDAC genes, which regulate the activity of other genes.
Significantly, the extent to which these genes were down-regulated was associated with faster recovery from a social stress test, involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.
Surprisingly, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study.
The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice affected specific gene-regulating pathways.
It’s important to stress that the study could not distinguish between any effects of long-term meditation training, versus the effects of a single day of practice.
Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities.
This outcome provides evidence that mindfulness practice can alter the human genome in ways known to bring anti-aging, disease-preventive, and psychological benefits.
Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic gene responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” said Dr. Davidson (UWM 2013).
As Dr. Kaliman said, “The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions. Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.” (UWM 2013)
If you’re like this writer, evidence that meditation calms the mind and enhances emotional resilience has made you want to try it … but you haven’t found (or made) the time.
The excuse of a busy schedules is a pretty weak one, since research finds that just 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a real difference.
Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, Fricchione GL, Benson H, Libermann TA. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS One. 2013 May 1;8(5):e62817. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062817. Print 2013.
Chang BH, Dusek JA, Benson H. Psychobiological changes from relaxation response elicitation: long-term practitioners vs. novices. Psychosomatics. 2011 Nov-Dec;52(6):550-9. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2011.05.001.
Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:292. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292. Epub 2012 Nov 1.
Lee TM, Leung MK, Hou WK, Tang JC, Yin J, So KF, Lee CF, Chan CC. Distinct neural activity associated with focused-attention meditation and loving-kindness meditation. PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e40054. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040054. Epub 2012 Aug 15.
Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PLoS One. 2008 Mar 26;3(3):e1897.
Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Meditation appears to produce enduring changes in emotional processing in the brain. November 12, 2012. Accessed at http://www.massgeneral.org/about/pressrelease.aspx?id=1520
Rosenkranz MA, Davidson RJ, Maccoon DG, Sheridan JF, Kalin NH, Lutz A. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013. Epub 2012 Oct 22.
- Taylor VA, Grant J, Daneault V, Scavone G, Breton E, Roffe-Vidal S, Courtemanche J, Lavarenne AS, Beauregard M. Impact of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional pictures in experienced and beginner meditators. Neuroimage. 2011 Aug 15;57(4):1524-33. Epub 2011 Jun 12.
University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM). Study reveals gene expression changes with meditation. December 4, 2013. Accessed at http://www.news.wisc.edu/22370