Meditation & Health No 16 - Table of Contents



                                  By Zhu Yu & Metta Yeo

          In recent years, the idea of meditation enhancing one’s body, mind and spiritual wellbeing has been gaining popularity. Research has resulted in an abundance of scientific literature on the benefits of meditation: reduces stress, alleviates fatigue, improves one’s mood, and enhances brain function and the development of the nervous system. Current research exploring the use of meditation to improve genes has yielded exciting results.

         We inherit genes from our parents and ancestors which have the potential to manifest certain illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, liver disease, and epilepsy. If we are able to alter gene expression, we may be able to eliminate potential hereditary illnesses. Therefore, when scientists proved through research that meditation can alter gene expression, it was the first exciting step in a sea change in the way we deal with diseases.



What Is Gene Expression?


         A gene is a small piece of genetic material and is commonly known as “DNA” (deoxyribonucleic acid). Human conception occurs when one sperm penetrates an egg, combining their genetic material. The sperm and egg each contain 23 chromosomes holding all the information of the parents. Thus each of us has 46 chromosomes that determine our genetic makeup.   

        Genes on their own cannot be used by an organism. Instead they must be turned into a gene product. Gene expression is the process by which the information contained within a gene becomes a useful product. 

         Although in principle every cell in the human body carries all the gene products, it would not be possible for a cell to express every gene all the time. For example, the liver cells are different from the skin cells.

         Cells are alternately active or passive during the differentiation process. This creates different protein molecules, resulting in the cells having different functions. Cells carry out their duties in vivo and are complementary to one another. If there are changes to gene expression, the functions displayed by cells would also be changed. Hence, what exactly are the changes in gene expression brought about by meditation that science has discovered? 


Relaxation Training Changes Gene Expression


          In 2013, the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital collaborated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on a research study. The study revealed that relaxation exercises such as visualization, yoga, deep breathing, and prayer will guide one into the depths of a physiological state of rest. This state of deep rest allows the gene expression of the immune system, metabolism and production of insulin secretion to undergo changes. This research was published on PLOS ONE.

         The study divided the participants into two groups. One group consisted of 26 healthy participants who had no prior relaxation response-eliciting experience. They underwent eight weeks of relaxation response-eliciting training. They listened to a 20-minute health-education CD. Blood samples for gene expression profiling were collected immediately before, immediately after, and 15 minutes after listening to the 20-minute CD. After the eight weeks of training, they continued to listen to the 20-minute CD daily.

          The other group of 25 participants consisted of meditation practitioners who had significant prior experience of at least four years of regular relaxation response-eliciting practice. The most experienced meditation practitioner had 25 years of practice. This group listened to the same health-education CD and gave blood samples.



          The analyses of the blood samples showed that there were significant changes to a few important gene expressions immediately before, immediately after, and 15 minutes after going through the relaxation response-eliciting training. These changes were particularly evident in the meditation practitioners who had significant prior experience.

          Research showed that after going through a relaxation response-eliciting exercise, the functions of the biological pathways responsible for cellular metabolism within the human body improved significantly, especially the function of the mitochondria. Mitochondria have been described as “the powerhouses of the cell” because they transform the nutrients absorbed by the body into the cell’s energy, known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Research also discovered that the protein biological pathways capable of activating inflammation, stress, trauma, and cancer were significantly inhibited. The biological pathways of insulin secretion also underwent positive changes. 


Scientific Research on Meditation’s Anti-Inflammatory Effect


       Another scientific experiment also proved that meditation had the effect of changing gene expression. The research findings were published in February 2014’s issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology, volume 40, pages 96 to 107.

       This research explored the impact of a day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation in experienced meditators vis-à-vis the impact of a day of leisure activities in a control group of participants with no meditation experience. Findings showed that after eight hours of meditation, certain gene-regulating machinery in the experienced meditators underwent changes. The pro-inflammatory gene expressions showed a decline. There were no such changes in the control group.

       Dr. Perla Kaliman from the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona commented that the genes that had undergone changes were the genes that anti-inflammatory drugs and analgesics are designed to target.



         Prior to this, clinical studies proved that mindfulness meditation had anti-inflammatory effects. The American Heart Association has adopted mindfulness meditation as an effective intervention. The research findings published in Psychoneuroendocrinology on the anti-inflammatory effects of mindfulness meditation provided support regarding meditation’s impact on biological mechanisms.

         Interestingly, at the same time, researchers discovered that the greater the degree of decline in inflammatory-related gene expression, the faster the rate of return to normalcy in the secretion of cortisol.

         Cortisol is used to help the human body adjust to sudden surges in stress and to control excessive inflammation in the body when under pressure. As it causes the body to be in a state of emergency, it is also known as the “stress hormone.” High levels of cortisol over a prolonged period will adversely affect the body and metabolism. The body will become prone to fatigue, have higher glucose levels, gain weight, and lose libido. The fast rate at which cortisol secretion can return to normal shows that the body has the ability to self-regulate under stressful conditions with meditation.

         The most critical part of the research study was the evidence that there were changes in gene expression in the experienced meditators while there were no such changes experienced by the control-group participants. Richard J. Davidson, who is the author of the report, believes that the meditators’ peaceful state influenced gene expression. The research lays the foundation for further study of the role of meditation methods in eliminating chronic inflammation.




          At this point, some readers may ask why meditation was able to change gene expression. There is no conclusive answer to this question. However, let’s look at Dr. Bruce Lipton’s view on this.

          Dr. Lipton is hailed as the leader of new biology. He is a cell biologist and a recipient of the Goi Peace Award. His bestselling book The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles is award-winning. He advocates that it is neither genes nor environment that change gene expression, but rather our perception of the environment that changes gene expression. 

         The issue here is what we perceive is the real external environment, our subjective perception of the environment. Dr. Lipton believes that there exists a filtering layer that is sandwiched between the real external environment and our perception. This filtering layer, commonly known as our faith, determines whether our gene expression will benefit us or otherwise.

         It is during meditation, when one is focused on the process of breathing and on posture and thoughts, that one gets peacefulness and wisdom. Grandmaster JinBodhi has said, “When we are visualizing a pure action coupled with healthy and compassionate thoughts, we will receive health and happiness. Through the visualization of pure, compassionate action, complex and harmful energies are moderated.” How does the moderation take place? Perhaps it is generated by the belief “I am healthy, I am happy.” It is possible that the gene expression within the body acts in harmony with this belief, prompting the body to grow and develop in the direction of “I’m really healthy, I’m really happy.”

         Science will continue to unlock the wisdom of meditation that practitioners have experienced for millennia. The sun has risen on an exciting, groundbreaking new frontier of the coming together of scientific discipline and the exploration of consciousness. 



Meditation & Health No 16 - Table of Contents