"Change your genes! Through meditation!"
It really does sound like an infomercial, doesn't it? Another gimmicky health ad from Ms. HydroxyCut or Mr. 5-Hour Energy. But before you roll your eyes, consider this.
It might be true.
Emerging research suggests a relationship between the practice of meditation and genetic changes. Let's consider the evidence.
In 2009, researchers at UCSF began thinking about the link between meditation and our genes. They focused on the genetic area called telomeres. Found at the ends of our DNA, telomeres serve as a bumper for our genetic cargo. The longer your telomeres, the better-protected your DNA is from the occasional biologic fender-bender, and the longer the cell can survive. Telomeres are the marker of cellular longevity. Not surprisingly, they adapt to environmental stimuli. The researchers wondered aloud: If chronic stress, depression and other negative psychological states can shorten telomeres, could something proven to improve mood, like meditation, help keep telomeres long and healthy?
In 2010, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues published the first study on the effects of meditation on genetic activity. They looked at enzyme levels of telomerase, which manages telomere length. Enzyme activity was higher in the group of 30 meditators compared to the 30 non-meditators, and the researchers concluded that meditation may increase enzyme activity, thereby protecting telomere length.
In April 2013, Elizabeth Hoge and her colleagues at Harvard took the research a step farther by studying actual telomere length and meditation. They compared the telomere length of 15 experienced meditators to 22 non-meditators and found that meditators had longer telomeres. Their takeaway was that meditation offers the intriguing possibility of altering telomere length, and consequently a cell's longevity.
The most recent study on genetic changes with meditation was published last week by the Benson-Henry Institute. They compared the big-picture genetic profiles of 26 first-time meditators to 26 experienced meditators and found that different sets of genes were expressed. And in experienced meditators, just one session of meditation changed cellular activity. The researchers concluded that meditation may change big-picture genetic profiles and cellular activity.
Meditation may change your genes. Its no gimmick. The field of mind-body genomics offers fascinating discoveries and much promise. But what do these genetic changes mean clinically? And how do they impact disease prevention and treatment?
On that, the jury is still deliberating.
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