Meditation shown to increase disease-fighting genes

Spring 2013, Living Well magazine

There has been solid scientific research supporting the mental and physical benefits of meditation. A 2013 Harvard study (1) has shown these extend to an increase in disease fighting genes and a lessening of activity by a cluster of genes which trigger some cancers.

The abstract from the study reported “Our results for the first time indicate that RR (relaxation response) elicitation, particularly after long-term practice, may evoke its downstream health benefits by improving mitochondrial energy production and utilization and thus promoting mitochondrial resiliency through upregulation of ATPase and insulin function. Mitochondrial resiliency might also be promoted by RR-induced down regulation of NF-KB-associated upstream and downstream targets that mitigates stress.”

Still with us? In non-scientist-speak, what researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered is that, in long-term practitioners of relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation, far more “disease-fighting genes’’ were active, compared to those who practised no form of relaxation. Joint research by Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University in 2012 backs this up.

“It’s not New Age nonsense,” said Herbert Benson of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to the New Scientist magazine. He and his colleagues analysed the gene profiles of 26 volunteers – none of whom regularly meditate. They then taught them a 10 to 20 minute relaxation routine including reciting words (mantra), breathing exercises and attempts to exclude everyday thought (mindfulness meditation).

The volunteers performed this technique daily for eight weeks before their gene profile was analysed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so.

Three main beneficial effects of genes boosted by meditation:

  • improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells;
  • boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar;
  • preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable, preventing cells from wearing out and ageing.

Clusters of genes governed by a master gene called NF-kappaB, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers, became less active.

With regular meditation being a major component of our ethos and programs for 30 years, we are pleased to see that the scientific evidence is stacking up. Meditation is becoming a ‘no-brainer’ tool for use in supporting good health and wellbeing, throughout the cancer journey and beyond.