By Alice G. Walton
Most people are aware of the fact that meditation, in its many forms, can tweak the brain and body in a number of beneficial ways. It’s been shown to increase volume in certain brain regions, to reduce anxiety and depression, and even to improve immunity. Of course, exactly how meditation is doing all these things isn’t totally understood. But a new study, in the journal Translational Psychiatry, helps suss out the molecular mechanisms behind meditation’s effects on the immune system. And it turns out that the effects are more than from just the relaxation element – there seems to be something intrinsic about meditation itself that can shift gene expression and even boost mood over time.
In the new study, the team of researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, University of California at San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School had 94 women come to the Chopra Center for Well Being in California. Half of the women went in for a six-day vacation retreat, the half for a six-day meditation retreat. Neither of these groups of women had any experience with meditation – but a third group, made up of 30 experienced meditators also visiting the Center, were also studied. The team took blood samples from the participants, so they could analyze what genes were expressed, before the retreat, directly after it, one month, and 10 months later.
And there were some interesting changes in the 20,000 genes studied. All the groups showed shifts in the expression of genes related to stress, inflammation and wound healing. The experienced meditators had particular shifts in genes related to fighting viral infection. They also had increases in telomerase activity – an enzyme that builds telomeres, the sections at the ends of chromosomes that help keep them from “unraveling.” Telomeres shorten over time naturally, and shorter length is linked a number of chronic illnesses, so increasing telomere length is thought to indicate healthier aging.
Another shift that occurred was in the ratio of two kinds of amyloid-beta proteins, which is known to be linked to dementia and depression. The novice meditator group had shifts toward a better ratio of the proteins. The experienced meditators, interestingly, started out with better levels, and this didn’t change over the course of the study, which suggests that meditation has both short- and long-term effects on levels of this brain compound.
Finally, everyone experienced a subjective change from their retreat — a boost in mood — which, for some, lingered long after the retreat ended. And it was most pronounced in the novice meditators, who reported significant decreases in depressive symptoms, even at the 10-month mark.
By Alice G. Walton
“The American Psychological Association conducted a national survey in 2014 focused on stress in adolescents ages 13-17. In this survey teens reported 31% of the time that their stress levels have increased from the previous year. Of greater concern, is that 42% said they were doing very little about it.
Participants in a recently released study in the Journal of Adolescence went to a five day mindfulness retreat aimed not only at teaching relaxation and mindfulness skills, but also coupled that with lessons on gratitude, compassion and…‘loving kindness’. The teens that participated in the study showed both short term and long-term benefits after the retreat.”
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” – Old Zen Proverb
One form of self-care that has been shown not only to reduce stress and anxiety, but to actually help you become more productive, is meditation. Studies have found that meditation can increase gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory as well as decrease gray matter in the amygdala, the area associated with stress and anxiety. Furthermore, meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase attention span. So yes, while meditation may take time out of your day, it can ultimately save you time in the long run if you are able to complete your work with greater focus and efficiency.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to beginning and maintaining a meditation practice is time. Many people claim that their days are already so jam packed with obligations that they cannot imagine trying to squeeze in another activity “just to sit there” when they could be checking off items on their to-do list or spending time with family instead. However, as expert consultant Alan Weiss notes, time is a not a resource issue, it is a priority issue. In a world in which technology easily keeps you connected to others, this connection can also create an overwhelming sense of urgency to respond and a higher demand for productivity than in the past. It is important to remember that making time to take care of yourself can not only help you to better manage your obligations, but it can help you to create better relationships with others. As they say, you need to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
One of the most recent, and most exciting, research studies published on meditation was led by Dr. David Creswell, director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. Creswell’s study recruited 25 unemployed men and women seeking work and experiencing high levels of stress. The researchers drew blood from the participants and gave them brain scans prior to the start of the study. Half of the subjects were trained in mindfulness meditation, while the other half were taught a fake form of mindfulness meditation which focused on relaxation and distracting the self. The mindfulness meditation group was taught to focus on inner bodily sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant, while the sham group was encouraged to talk amongst themselves and ignore their bodies, focusing attention outward. This training took place over a period of three days and all participants reported feeling better able to cope with the stress of unemployment. However, the participants’ brain scans and blood results after the intervention told a different story.
The brains of those whom completed the real mindfulness meditation training showed an increase in functional connectivity between resting state default mode network and areas important for attention and executive control, namely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In other words, when the brain was in a resting state (not focused on a specific task), there was increase communication between the “resting” part of the brain and areas related to executive control and attention. Improved executive control can help your brain to manage stress and in turn, help reduce inflammation, a common reaction to stress. Perhaps the most incredible part of the study is that 4 months later, blood levels of a marker of unhealthy inflammation (interleukin-6) were much lower in the mindfulness meditation group than in the fake group, despite the fact that few of them were still meditating. So, what does this mean for you? Prioritizing time for a self-care practice, such as meditation, can produce long-term benefits to help you focus, deal with stress more effectively, and improve overall health.
Bergman, P. (2012, October 12). If you’re too busy to meditate, read this. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/10/if-youre-too-busy-to-meditate.html
Bhanoo, S.N. (2011, January 28). How meditation may change the brain. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/how-meditation-may-change-the-brain/
Creswell, D.J. et al (2016). Alterations in resting-state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: A randomized controlled trial. Biological Psychiatry, 80 (1) doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.008
Rabin, R.C. (2015, November 10). Ask well: The health benefits of meditation. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/ask-well-the-health-benefits-of-meditation/
Weiss, A. (2009). Getting started in consulting. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.