Practitioners have been attesting to it for years, and now medical science is waking up to the idea that meditation really does have health benefits. A new study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, has discovered specific molecular changes in the body after a period of mindful meditation.
Meditation is not new - with its roots in prehistory, it almost certainly predates the science that now endorses it. History shows that its practice was adopted by Eastern cultures thousands of years ago, with ancient Indian scriptures dating from 5,000 years ago detailing techniques. But it is a relative newcomer to the West.
For the study, researchers compared the effects of a day of intensive mindful-meditation in a group of experienced meditators with a group of untrained subjects who enjoyed a day of quiet, non-meditative activities.
After 8 hours, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes. This correlates with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, believe this is the first study to find a relationship between meditation and gene expression.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, explains:
"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."
Mindfulness practice affected certain regulatory pathways
Molecular analysis showed that the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 were affected, together with several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which control the activity of other genes by removing a chemical tag.
Moreover, the results showed that the extent to which some of the genes were down-regulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test, where participants were challenged to make an impromptu speech or complete mental calculations in front of an audience.
The researchers point out that there were no differences in the tested genes at the start of the study and that the observed effects were only seen in the meditators following mindfulness practice.
The authors also note that several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that mindfulness practice affected only certain regulatory pathways.
Perla Kaliman, researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona and first author of the study, says:
"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."
The authors claim that the genetic changes experienced by the meditators prove that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.
Dr. Davidson concludes:
"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."