Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More
Meditation is commonly recommended for dealing with the symptoms of stress. Regularly used throughout history in Eastern traditions, meditation and mindfulness are being recommended by medical professionals from a western tradition more and more often.
While meditation has gained greater acceptance in the west as a useful and effective tool for decreasing symptoms of stress, such as high blood pressure or anxiety, the mechanisms that cause these clinical benefits remain unclear.
Meditation, which can include a wide variety of practices including gentle yoga, bringing the mind into the present and focusing on only one thing, (such as a word, phrase or repetitive prayer) have been used for centuries to induce relaxation. Scientists consider this relaxation response as a counter to the stress response. As a counter to stress, inducing the relaxation response can improve clinical symptoms of a wide range of stress related disorders including hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and even aging.
So how does meditation produce these positive changes? Can we understand the effects of meditation from clinical research, as well as from intuition and experience?
Inducing this relaxation response has long been known to have positive effects on the body. It’s associated with decreased oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide elimination and lowered blood pressure and respiratory rate.
Research conducted by Richard Davidson, a renowned neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices, such as meditation, on the brain, has found that the use of mindfulness practice can have a wide range of effects including reducing inflammation in the body, changing our experience of pain, and impacting social and emotional behavior with positive life results, such as improvements in academic success.
Now a new Massachusetts General Hospital study conducted by Manoj Bhasin and colleagues (2013) has discovered that meditation has a powerful impact on our genes, those all important components of our cells that carry instructions that affect the way our bodies work.
Meditation, it found, can impact gene expression (which genes are turned on or off).
What does this mean? Using blood samples taken from subjects over time as they practiced meditation, the researchers investigated biological changes.
“These genes have been linked to pathways responsible for energy metabolism, electron transport chain, biological oxidation and insulin secretion. These pathways play central roles in mitochondrial energy mechanics, oxidative phosphorylation and cell aging.”
The researchers have hypothesized that these changes may reduce oxidative stress, the physical imbalance in the body, caused by stress that is thought to be involved in the development of cancer, alzheimer’s disease, heart failure, chronic fatigue syndrome and others.
Meditation, therefore, ‘turns on’ genes that improve our body’s resiliency and reduce our vulnerability to disease.
Although long term practitioners had more pronounced results, changes were evident after even one session.
The links between meditation, stress reduction, physical health and brain and body functioning, continue to be an area of investigation and development. This new research begins to provide a framework for understanding those connections and will hopefully lead to further research on the topic.
Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B-H, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, et al. (2013) Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817