There have been many meditation studies done to document the changes to the brain, but a new study is the first to document gene changes.
“It’s not New Age nonsense,” said Herbert Benson of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He and his colleagues analyzed the gene profiles of 26 volunteers – none of whom regularly meditate – before teaching them a relaxation routine, which included reciting words and breathing exercises, and lasted between 10 and 20 minutes.
After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the gene profile of each volunteer was analyzed again, and researchers found clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so, according to a report in the New Scientist.
The boosted genes had three main beneficial effects: improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells; boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar; and preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable and so prevent cells wearing out and ageing, the report stated.
The clusters of genes that became less active were those governed by a master gene called NF-kappaB, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers.
Additionally, by taking blood immediately before and after performing the technique on a single day, researchers also showed the gene changes happened within minutes.
For comparison, the researchers also took samples from 26 volunteers who practiced relaxation techniques for at least three years, and they had beneficial gene profiles even before performing their routines in the lab. This suggested the techniques resulted in long term changes to their genes.
“It seems fitting that you should see these responses after just 15 to 20 minutes just as, conversely, short periods of stress elevate stress hormones and other physiological effects that are harmful in the long term,” says Julie Brefczynski-Lewis of West Virginia University in Morgantown, who studies the physiological effects of meditation techniques. “I hope to see these results replicated by other groups.”
“We found that the more you do it, the more profound the genomic expression changes,” says Benson. He and his colleagues are now investigating how gene profiles are altered and whether these techniques could ease symptoms in people with high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer.