Meditation Linked to Faster Stress Recovery

Meditation may alter the expression of genes linked to inflammation and promote a faster recovery from a stressful situation, according to a new study published in the journal, “Psychoneuroendocrinology.”

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took blood samples from 40 volunteers — 19 were longterm meditators — before and after an eight-hour session. The group of experienced meditators spent the session in guided and unguided meditation, while the other group watched documentaries, read and played computer games.

While there was no significant difference in genetic markers between the two groups at the start of the eight-hour test period, at the end of the day, researchers found reduced expression of certain histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes and of the genes RIPK2 and COX2 — all of which are linked to inflammation, the report stated.

“The changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic [pain-relief] drugs,” said Perla Kaliman, lead author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain.

In a stress test, the volunteers performed an impromptu public-speaking role involving mental arithmetic performed in front of two judges and a video camera. Levels of cortisol — a hormone associated with high stress levels — were measured before and after the stress test. Among both groups of volunteers, those participants with the lowest levels of RIPK2 and HDAC genes had the quickest return to normal, pre-stress test levels of cortisol.

“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,” said study co-author Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the statement.

Additionally, 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.


Transcendental Meditation Technique Shown to Reduce Anxiety, Study Shows

Transcendental Meditation technique (TM) has been shown to have a large effect on reducing trait anxiety for people with high anxiety. Trait anxiety is a measure of how anxious a person usually is as opposed to state anxiety, which is how anxious a person is at the moment – according to a new meta-analysis published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

The meta-analysis covered 16 randomized-controlled trials, the gold standard in medical research, and included 1,295 subjects from various walks of life, age groups and life situations. TM was compared with various control groups, including treatment-as-usual, individual and group psychotherapy, and various relaxation techniques.

Studies on high stress groups, such as veterans suffering from PTSD and prison inmates, showed dramatic reductions in anxiety from TM practice, whereas studies of groups with only moderately elevated anxiety levels, such as normal adults and college students, showed more modest changes.

“It makes sense that if you are not anxious to begin with, that TM practice is not going to reduce your anxiety that much,” said lead author of the meta-analysis, Dr. David Orme-Johnson, an independent research consultant. “Groups with elevated anxiety received significant relief from TM, and that reduction occurred rapidly in the first few weeks of practice.”

Additionally, TM was found to produce significant improvements in other areas worsened by anxiety, such as blood pressure, insomnia, emotional numbness, family problems, employment status, and drug and alcohol abuse.

“Control groups who received usual treatment did not show dramatic reductions in anxiety. In fact, control groups that were highly anxious to begin with, if anything, tended to become more anxious over time,” co-author Dr. Vernon Barnes of the Georgia Prevention Center, Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Ga. Explained. “However, progressive muscle relaxation was also effective in reducing anxiety. But, it did not have the other side benefits of TM, such as increasing overall mental health, and increasing the rate of recovery of the physiology from stressors.”


Meditation May Help Curb Smoking Habits, New Study Shows

Smokers actually smoked less and had increased brain activity in regions associated with self-control after a few hours of meditation, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an article in the LA Times reported. And many didn’t even realize their behavior had changed!

Researchers from a number of institutions recruited 60 college students, including 27 smokers. Half learned a form of meditation called integrative body-mind training, or IBMT, and practiced for five hours over a two-week period. This method of meditation involves relaxing the whole body and remaining “crisply focused on the present moment,” said University of Oregon psychologist Michael Posner, who is a coauthor of the study.

The remaining participants followed the same schedule, but practiced relaxation therapy rather then meditation. This involved periodically concentrating on different parts of the body, the LA Times stated.

The Results
Since cigarette smoke contains high levels of carbon monoxide, scientists measured how much carbon monoxide subjects exhaled to determine how much they smoked before and after the two-week training session.

Smokers in the meditation group smoked 60 percent less at the end of the training, compared to the smoking habits of the relaxation therapy group, which showed little change, the report stated.

Additionally, study participants answered a questionnaire gauging their craving levels, and responses revealed a significant decrease in craving for the meditation group, but not in the relaxation therapy group, according to the report.


Study Shows the Brain Can Be Trained in Compassion with Meditation

Researchers at the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion, according to a Business Standard report.

In the study published in Psychological Science, the investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering, by envisioning a time when someone suffered and then practicing wishing his or her suffering was relieved, according to the report.

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, then moving to themselves and then a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate, the report stated.

“It’s kind of like weight training. Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help,” Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology said in the report.

Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng said.

The study measured changes in brain responses using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training, and researchers found those who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering.

Specifically, they found activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others, as well as increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens – brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.