Can Meditation Switch on Genes That Fight Disease?



Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found that deep relaxation seems to switch off 'disease causing' genes, while switching on genes that actively protect us from disorders such as high blood pressure to pain to infertility and even rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers attribute these changes to a phenomenon they call the 'Relaxation Effect' The researchers compared the genetic profile of individuals who were long-term practitioners of relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation to a control group of individuals who were not relaxation practitioners.

In the words of Dr Herbert Benson, who led the research group at the Harvard Medical School, 'We found a range of disease fighting genes that were active in the relaxation practitioners but not active in the control group.' Interestingly, in as little as two months after the control group began meditating, their genetic profile changed to resemble those of the relaxation practitioners.

In a separate study conducted by Dr Dean Ornish and co-workers, men diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer were asked to incorporate positive lifestyle changes as a potential treatment for their disease, as they had opted not to undergo conventional treatment. The researchers conducted two prostate biopsies on each individual, one before and one three months after incorporation of changes such as following a plant-based diet, exercise, stress management techniques such as meditation, and participating in a support group. They reported that the biopsy samples collected post-lifestyle change had a different gene expression pattern with various disease-promoting genes switched off, and various protective genes turned on.

It seemed that Drs Benson and Ornish had hit upon a treatment that came with huge benefits minus the usual side effects.

Meditation, What's that?

Meditation is a term coined to encompass a variety of practices that help you focus your attention and control your thoughts. The origins of meditation can be traced to the Eastern world, where people have been practising this art for thousands of years. Broadly, there are two types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation where the meditator focuses all attention on the flow of breath in and out of the body, and transcendental meditation which makes use of a repetitive word or sound to prevent thoughts from entering the mind, both ultimately leading to a state of relaxed alertness. Best of all, you can spend as little as 10 minutes meditating and still reap the benefits.

Research Findings

Several studies designed specifically to understand the beneficial effects of meditation have shown variously that meditation helps to reverse heart disease, reduce pain, lessen chronological ageing, reduce blood pressure, fight inflammation, decrease anxiety, and control asthma.

Researchers studying the effect of meditation on atherosclerosis (a condition that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease) in the African-American population reported that those who had practiced meditation for 6-9 months potentially had an 11% decrease in the risk of heart attacks and up to a 15% decrease in the risk of stroke. A separate study showed that cancer patients who practised meditation for as little as 7 weeks were significantly less depressed and anxious than their counterparts who did not meditate. Meditators also reported increased energy levels and lesser cardiac and gastrointestinal problems than nonmeditators.

It's tough to believe isn't it, that such a diverse range of diseases can be helped by a single technique? How can one explain it? Meditation has been shown to increase alpha waves (relaxed brain waves) and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. It appears that a lot of the positive physical changes associated with meditation have their roots in stress management.

Stress, the Culprit?

The effects of stress on heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption, immunity and brain activity are well documented. While short-term stress seems to boost immunity, prolonged increases in levels of cortisol can suppress your immune system and decrease the number of brain cells, impairing your memory. Stress can also increase your susceptibility to cardiac disease and stroke.

Evolutionarily, the 'fight or flight' stress response was designed to protect us from any dangers that we were faced with. When activated, the fight or flight response causes a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones to pump through our body, and helps us either flee from the danger we face, or fight it. However, a cumulative buildup of stress hormones is harmful. This buildup of hormones is responsible for various hormonal disorders like depression and anxiety, and immune disorders like infection and allergies. Meditation has been shown to benefit by helping to bring down levels of the stress hormones.

Conditions Affected by Meditation

  • Pain: There is a huge body of research work indicating that meditation can reduce chronic pain. One notable study conducted at the Texas Tech University found that meditation in conjunction with traditional medicine enhances the effectiveness of western medical treatment. In another study published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine, patients sufferring from backache, chronich migraine and tension headaches, were able to lessen or even stop their pain medication.

  • Anxiety and Depression: Since the early sixties, scientists have speculated that meditation improves mental functioning. Dr Benson reports that “meditation decreases oxygen consumption, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, and increases the intensity of alpha, theta, and delta brain waves "the opposite of the physiological changes that occur during the stress response."

  • Infertility: An Italian team of researchers found that increased levels of stress are associated with infertility. Meditation, by stimulating the pituitary gland that is responsible for regulating female reproductive hormones, was able to help with infertility issues.

  • Inflammation: Meditation has also been shown to slow the heart rate by sending signals through the vagus nerve. Those very signals, researchers speculate, can also dampen the immune response, helping individuals ease symptoms of inflammatory diseases like arthritis, asthma and eczema.

  • Diabetes: Meditation also aids in controlling blood sugar levels. Researchers at the University of Virginia have shown that following meditation, the reduced stress levels correlate with a decrease in blood glucose levels.

  • Hypertension: Besides its role as a stress buster, meditation also reduces blood pressure and contributes to the overall reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease.

Meditation is not just a way for us to get in touch with ourselves and calm a busy mind. It appears that meditation, by improving our spiritual and mental health, is also responsible for our physical and genetic health.

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4. Mind and Body by Priya D. Lal. Published by Gyan Books, 2002



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