Meditation does something sneaky that we never knew

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
What happens to our genes and molecules when we meditate discovered
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Meditation is known to have a beneficial effect on health. But now researchers have evidence that practicing meditation actually changes gene expression that could help prevent a variety of diseases. And it happens in a sneaky way.

How meditation changes molecules

A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France shows for the first time that meditation changes molecules in the body.

Who knew that while we sit quietly our body is transforming?

When the researchers compared experienced meditators to a control group performing quiet daily activities, they found significant difference in their genes and molecules.

The meditators had altered levels of pro-inflammatory genes that correlate with fast recovery from stress.

And the changes happened just after eight hours of mindful meditation practice.

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," says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Meditation acts like drugs

Even more profound is that the effect of meditation is akin to some analgesic and anti-inflammatory pain medications, said Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS).

Specifically, meditation removes a chemical tag to down-regulate genes. Epigenetic changes of affected genes included RIPK2 and COX2 that are pro-inflammatory as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes that influence the activity of even more genes.

The resultant gene regulation from meditation was also found to help with faster cortisol; recovery from social stress.

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Why practice meditation?

Meditation is endorsed by the American Heart Association and many experts including Dean Ornish, MD and Deepak Chopra as a way to better health.

Stress has major adverse effects on health that can sometimes take years to manifest, in addition to immediate ill effects including high blood pressure, narrowing of the blood vessels that can be harmful to the heart and organs and even impaired memory.

Until now, the molecular mechanism of why meditation is so good for us was unknown. At the beginning of the study, researchers say the study participant’s genes were the same - but meditation changed that.

DNA that was affected was specific. Meditation only affected certain gene regulatory pathways.

"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," Davidson says.

Past studies

The study builds on past evidence that meditation associated with practicing yoga also calms harmful cytokines in the body to reduce inflammation and protect us from disease.

The study authors note their investigation did not show the long-term effects of meditation. The key point is there were gene changes between those who meditated that were not found among non-meditators in the study.

How to get started

There are many forms of meditation that can be easily learned and initiated for daily practice if you are not already experienced.

  • Prayer is a form of meditation. Patricia Carrington, Ph.D, author of “The Book of Meditation” tells us prayer helps us look inward and closely resembles the practice. Perhaps the best example of prayer as a means of meditation is the repetitive prayers of saying the rosary. Carrington writes on her blog: “Used as a form of silent inner communion, or coupled with a mantra-like repetition of religious words, prayer can be seen to blend imperceptibly into meditation.”
  • Mindfulness, also called ‘Vipassana” is the most popular form of meditation that is a Buddhist tradition. The idea is to let go of random thoughts while you’re paying attention to, though not changing your breathing. The goal is to just observe the breath, which provides focus and being in the moment. You can either sit cross legged on the floor, use a meditation chair, a pillow or just lie quietly on the sofa or in the bed to practice mindful meditation. Just make sure you are warm and comfortable.
  • Transcendental meditation is a tradition form of practice that uses the cross-legged “Lotus” posture with a straight back. It is more involved than mindful meditation and would be best learned in a group or one on one from an experienced practitioner – in my opinion.

Mindfulness was the type of meditation used in the University of Wisconsin study. Here is a video showing how easy it is to learn the practice that researchers have now discovered changes our genes and molecules.

Practicing meditation changes us and it’s for the good. You might not feel it, but now you can visualize how your genes are changing, thanks to the new research finding. There are sneaky things going on the body when we meditate that we never knew.

Updated November 21, 2015

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Comments

I have been practicing T.M. since i was 15....Great stuff.
Thanks Tracy! I enjoy walking meditation, yoga, music and sitting focused on the breath. I have not advanced to TM and wish I could develop that level of focus. Yoga is by far my favorite.
I most enjoy walking meditation. I have never tried TM but have found tai chi to be meditative.