National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Can Meditation Affect Your Genes?

By Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor   |   December 10, 2013 03:32pm ET

There’s a large and growing body of evidence that psychological stress — the kind experienced by war orphans, caretakers of people with dementia, and men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — can cause genetic damage.

But if psychological stress can cause genetic damage, can stress-relieving activities such as meditation and mindfulness training help reduce genetic damage?

Perhaps: A recent study seems to suggest that a period of meditation might alter the expression of genes that are linked to inflammation and promote a faster recovery from a stressful situation.

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

The role of inflammation

There was no significant difference in genetic markers between the two groups at the start of the eight-hour test period. However, 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.

These findings are important because of the role inflammation plays in the progress and treatment of disease. Recent research has found that chronic inflammation may be at the core of diseases such asrheumatoid arthritis, asthma, heart disease, lupus, cancer, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

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

Improved stress management

In a stress test, the volunteers were forced into 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-2 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,” study co-author Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in the statement.

Lifestyle and genetics

This recent study supports other research that seems to indicate there’s real, measurable benefit to lifestyle modifications like stress reduction.

A 2013 study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), found that men who ate a better diet, exercised moderately and led a less-stressful lifestyle for a few years had an increase in the length of their telomeres — the caps at the ends of chromosomes that protect them from deterioration.

And a study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that adults with shorter telomeres were at an increased risk of catching thecommon cold compared with people with longer telomeres.

Though some may find the proposed link between meditation and genetics a bit far-fetched, a growing number of experts believe the association is real. “It is well established that chronic stress and acute stress are associated with both greater inflammatory proteins as well as gene expression of inflammatory pathways,” said Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF.

“Inflammation is thought of as ‘inflam-aging,’ since it is a major factor regulating cellular aging and many chronic diseases,” Epel said. “It’s crucial to find behavioral factors that can prevent the rising tide of inflammation as we age. Meditation and mindfulness training in daily life should be high on the list of promising anti-aging interventions.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison study was funded by grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation and an anonymous donor.

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New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM

We are planning a series of blog posts to highlight some exciting work from our research portfolio. Research we support has led to more than 3,000 peer-reviewed papers; hundreds are published each year. We plan to highlight a few here, choosing examples that illustrate both the promise and the challenges of research on complementary health practices.

Currently one intriguing area is the effect of meditation on the brain. Meditation can be viewed as a kind of ‘mental exercise.’ NCCAM has supported a fair amount of research on its potential health benefits. We still do not have all the answers, but a number of studies support the notion that this ‘mental exercise’ helps regulate attention and emotion and improves the sense of well being. New insights are coming from incorporation of brain-imaging studies into meditation research. In particular, studies suggest that meditation is accompanied by changes in activation of select regions in the brain, particularly the amygdala, a region associated with processing of emotion.

A new NCCAM study, by Desbordes and colleagues, goes further and concludes that the changes in brain function in the amygdala seen during meditation are persistent, enduring even outside meditation sessions. Results were published this month in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. You can read more about how the study was conducted in our research spotlight. This is a small, single study that fits into the larger body of evidence. I would agree with the authors who noted the need for further research, but I do think the findings provide additional insight into the effects of meditation on the brain—insights that may help to understand the determinants of mental states and the role of traditional practices like meditation in health.

via New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM.