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How meditation can influence gene activity

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that mindful-based therapies, such as meditation, can lower psychological stress and boost both mental and physical health. Now findings recently published in PLoS One suggest that such practices may also change gene activity.

In the small study, researchers recruited individuals who had no prior meditation experience and examined participants' genetic profile prior to their adoption of a basic daily relaxation practice. The 10- to 20-minute routine included reciting words, breathing exercises and attempts to exclude everyday thought. The New Scientist reports:

After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the volunteers gene profile was analysed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so.

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.

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.

Even more interesting was that researchers found evidence to suggest that such changes can occur quickly and that regularly meditating can have lasting health effects:

By taking blood immediately after before and after performing the technique on a single day, researchers also showed that the gene changes happened within minutes.

For comparison, the researchers also took samples from 26 volunteers who had practised relaxation techniques for at least three years. They had beneficial gene profiles even before performing their routines in the lab, suggesting that the techniques had resulted in long term changes to their genes.

Previously: How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health, Study offers insights into how yoga eases stress, Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain and Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders
Photo by Georgie Sharp

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