Article on Meditation found in SRF Magazine (Fall 2008)
“Can Meditation Affect Your Health at the Genetic Level?”
“It turns out peaceful thoughts really can influence our bodies, right down to the instructions we receive from our DNA, according to a new study,” reported ABC News recently. And The Washington Post reports that researchers involved in the study say they’ve taken a significant stride forward in understanding how relaxation techniques such as meditation, prayer, and yoga improve health: by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress.”*
The collaborative investigation by members of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was published in the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE.**
Scientists have long known that there are particular genes that predispose a person to specific diseases and health disorders – but that merely carrying a breast – cancer gene, for example, does not guarantee the onset of that condition. Genes can be turned on or off by various factors, which means they may or may not express the instructions carried in the DNA.
“Now we’ve found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented,” states Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson, M.D., co-senior author of the PloS ONE report. “The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes.”
Towia Libermann, Ph.D., director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Genomics Center and the report’s co-senior author, adds, “This is the first comprehensive study of how the mind can affect gene expression, linking what has been looked on as a ‘soft’ science with the ‘hard’ science of genomics,”
Min-body practices that elicit the relaxation response (such as meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.) have been used worldwide for millennia to prevent and treat disease,” the research report said. “This study provides the first compelling evidence that the relaxation response elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners.”
The study indicated that the relaxation response alter the expression of genes involved with processes such as inflammation, programmed cell death (which can keep genetically impaired cells from turning into cancers), and how the body handles free radicals – molecules produced by normal metabolism that , if not appropriately neutralized, can damage cells and tissues.
According to the ABC News summary: “Researchers for the study took blood samples from a group of nineteen people who habitually meditated or prayed for years, and nineteen others who never meditated. The researchers ran genomic analyses of the blood and found that the mediating group suppressed more than twice the number of stress-related genes – about 1,000 of them - than the non meditating group. The more these stress related genes are expressed, the more the body will have a stress response like high blood pressure or inflammation. Over long periods of time, these stress responses can worsen high blood pressure, pain syndromes, and other conditions.
The non-meditating group then spent ten minutes a day for eight weeks training in relaxation techniques that involved repeating a prayer, thought, sound, phrase, or movement. By the end of the training, the novice meditating group was also suppressing stress – related genes, although at lower levels than those of the long – term meditating people.”
In their Public Library of Science report, the researchers stated: “It is becoming increasingly clear that psycho-social stress can manifest as system-wide perturbations of cellular processes…. Chronic psychosocial stress has been associated with accelerated aging at the cellular level….and with increased vulnerability to a variety of disease states. Our results suggest that consistent and constitutive changes in gene expression resulting from the relaxation response may relate to long-term physiological effects.”
Commenting on these results, the noted science columnist Sharon Begley of Newsweek observed: “The genes in our cell don’t matter one iota if they’re not turned on, and there are many things in life that can turn off bad genes such as those that raise the risk of disease such as breast cancer…. It really is time to stop thinking of our DNA as immutable. Even thinking can change it.”
”Say Om: Doctors Find Meditation Affects Your Body,” by Lauren Cox, ABC News, July 02, 2008.
“Meditation, *Yoga, Might Switch Off Stress Genes,” by Amanda Gardner, The Washington Post July 02, 2008.
**Dusek, J.A. , Out, H.H., Wohlhueter, A.L., Bhasin. M., Zerbini, L.F., et al. (2008) “Genomic Counter-Stess Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response” PloS ONE 3(7).