Meditation has been shown in numerous studies to be very beneficial for reducing stress, helping you lose weight, and improving your health. I am personally a big fan of mindfulness meditation and have seen numerous improvement since I began practicing. A recent study conducted in Massachussets and published in the journal PLOS ONE has identified the genetic pathways through which relaxation triggers these physiological responses in the body.
The study identified several genetic pathways important to health that were changed acutely during bouts of practicing the relaxation response and over an 8 week course. Participants practiced a relaxation response sequence that included diaphragmatic breathing, mantra repetition, and mindfulness meditation. Practicing the relaxation response increased expression of genes related to energy production, mitochondrial function, insulin sensitivity, and telomere length. Genes that were suppressed were genes involved in inflammation as well as the stress response(1). The 6 of you who read my blog may recall that mitochondrial dysfunction, inflammation, and oxidative stress are a large part of the generalized disease state that leads to diseases such as Cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease. Telomere length is thought to be a good biomarker of aging and is reduced by high levels of inflammation and oxidative stress.
In addition to the acute changes seen within individuals, people who are considered long time practitioners of the relaxation response had even greater improvement in these genetic pathways. People who practiced of yoga, meditation, and repetitive prayer for over 4 years were considered long time practitioners. This study builds on earlier findings of the same authors from 2008 that found over 2200 differentially expressed genes between long term practitioners of the relaxation response compared to non-practicing controls and over 1500 genes differentially expressed between people who underwent an 8 week relaxation response course compared to controls(2). The differentially expressed genetic pathways were similar between the 2 studies. The results of the newer study are more intriguing as they identify genetic pathways within individuals that change as a result of practicing the relaxation response rather than genetic changes between people who practice the relaxation response and those that don't.
Mindfulness meditation is a good way to begin the practice of mindfulness, a way to respond to situations and crises without activating the stress response. These studies indicate that practicing the relaxation response on a regular basis provides multiple benefits to your health. We live in a world that activates our stress response 24/7 with little time for relaxation. Taking 20 minutes per day to practice yoga, mindfulness meditation, or any other activity that initiates the relaxation response can prove to be very beneficial to your health and happiness by both preventing disease as well as reducing stress.