The first time I ever tried yoga, I was genuinely surprised at how good I felt afterward. It was a feeling of calmness and self-centeredness that I don’t come across on a regular basis, if at all. And it’s not just me. There’s a range of scientific studies that have catalogued the numerous mental and physical benefits that accompany the practice.
Now, I’ve never really been instructed in the workings of meditation, but I’d have to assume that the effects feel much the same. And just like yoga, science has shown there can be both mental and physical benefits to those who understand how to practice it.
But how’s it work?
For the first time, researchers have discovered at least a couple of the biological mechanisms that appear to underpin the documented health benefits. In a study from the University of Wisconsin, along with international collaborators from Spain and France, it is shown that a period of mindful meditation by experienced individuals can change the way your body functions on a molecular level.
Everyone knows that DNA is the instruction booklet for how to build a human. Biological molecular mechanisms are hard at work every microsecond of every day building proteins and other blocks to put together our remarkable bodies.
But DNA certainly can’t act alone. To get those instructions from the blueprints out to the workers assembling the structures, nature relies on messenger RNA, which transcribes the orders and takes them out into the factories. These strands of RNA don’t always act the same, however. Based on circumstances ranging from environment to illness to plain mistakes, some pieces of DNA get covered up or turned off. Or sometimes RNA transcribes the orders in a slightly different fashion. It’s a delicate circus act that is changing moment to moment.
And meditation, according to the study, can affect the way our DNA’s orders are read and carried out.
In the study, researchers had a group of experienced meditators do their thing for the better part of an afternoon. At the same time, they had a group of inexperienced meditators conduct quiet activities that, while relaxing, certainly weren’t meditation. After the sessions, they took blood samples to determine if there were any differences between the two groups.
The meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.
I find all of this fascinating. Even though we on an individual basis have no real appreciation for or control over the basic molecular workings of our bodies, we can still alter and affect ourselves on the most basic of levels by doing nothing more than thinking.
Now that’s cool.
The study, “Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inﬂammatory gene expression in expert meditators,” was published in Science Direct by Richard Davidson, Antoine Lutz, and Melissa Rosenkranz of the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior along with Colleagues in Spain.