People who frequently meditate have long touted the benefits, but new research claims to show the practice can cause a range of genetic and molecular differences that lead to better health.
The new study
, by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France, reports the first evidence that meditation appears to inhibit the production of proteins made by some genes that cause inflammation.
The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities.
After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed “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.”
"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 and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
‘Expressing” can be thought of a volume control for genes, said Jill Sakai of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
“When it is turned up, it is more active making its specific proteins, and when it is turned down it makes fewer of those proteins,” she said. “The mindfulness meditation practice had the effect of dialing down the volume knob for a set of genes thought to be involved in inflammation.”
The researchers say 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.
"Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs," says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain.
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. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.
Researchers make clear that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice.
Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic 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," Davidson says.