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Meditating and Genetics
Is it possible that the long list of health benefits linked to meditation or prayer is attributed to a positive epigenetic effect these practices have been found to elicit on one’s genetic code?
Numerous studies are suggesting that meditation does positively alter the expression of our genes, and these alterations may be responsible for the many health benefits linked to yoga, meditation, prayer and breathing exercises. (1, 2)
Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in May 2018 showed that after eight weeks of practicing a meditation technique called the relaxation response, there was a positive effect on the expression of 1,771 genes linked to regulation of the immune system, blood sugar and metabolic pathways, cardiovascular function, and circadian rhythm. (1)
While the benefits of meditation are well established, the exact mechanism for these health benefits has remained unclear until now.
A growing body of evidence is suggesting that when we still the mind and calm the body, there is a powerful epigenetic effect that triggers an internal healing and repair response from the level of our deepest healing—our genes. (1, 2)
We acquire all of our genes after thousands of years of repetitive behaviors in order to accommodate and adapt to the ever-changing environment.
For example, early humans acquired a gene to make the starch-digesting enzyme, amylase, at least 800,000 years ago. This suggests that we have been eating starch as a significant part of our diet for almost a million years now. (3)
If meditation can up- or down-regulate more than 2000 genes (1, 2), are the meditation-induced positive effects cited above based on a response to some meditation-like, repetitive behavior that early humans experienced?
It does not seem plausible to link the positive genetic response to meditation on the notion that we have all been meditating for thousands of years.
Yes, in India, meditation was practiced for thousands of years, but there is no evidence that this was happening globally, and this positive impact on our genes from meditation is not limited to those only of Indian descent.
For the research on meditation to show a positive alteration on so many genes—nearly 2000—the meditation-like, repetitive behavior would have had to be pervasive, global, and practiced for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
So, what evolutionary, global, repetitive, meditation-like practice could be responsible for this epigenetic response to meditation?
What we do know is that humans evolved in a world that was much more silent, still, peaceful, and connected to nature than the world we live in today.
Could the inner peace and calm experienced in meditation be triggering the same genetic response and influencing the same genes that we acquired over millions of years in response to living in harmony with the most peaceful, calm, and serene rhythms of nature?
Is meditation just a 20-minute hack that was designed by Vedic seers to replicate the peace, calm, and serenity of nature that was lost when civilizations moved away from nature and into more urban, more densely populated environments?
If we were to filter out the wars and violence that seem to have plagued humankind, we would find a history of early hominids, hunter-gatherers, and humans that were living very close to nature and intimately in tune with its circadian rhythms.
The over-ruling day-to-day experience was one in sync with and at peace with nature. Even today, farmers live a more peaceful, serene life than those living in urban areas.
That same feeling of peace, calm, serenity, and rejuvenation that regularly draws people to the wilderness to hike, backpack, camp or experience nature may—like a meditation—be up-regulating and triggering the same genes we acquired millions of years ago that positively affect our health and well-being.
For something to change the expression of nearly 2000 genes, it has to be working on an extremely deep level. When I read these studies on meditation, I thought, if meditation is so powerful it can alter our genetic code, why is it so hard for folks to stick with it?
I have been treating patients with meditation practices my entire professional life, and find only very few who can stay regular in their daily practice. There are well-documented and impressive benefits to meditating regularly, so why is it so difficult for folks to keep up?
Here are my thoughts on the answer to that question:
Only recently have we become civilized and traded a wilderness-based experience of life for one in high-density, fast-paced communities.
Could it be that the wilderness-based silence, peace and calm that we all evolved from triggers the same positive gene expressions that we find from a meditation practice? Could meditation be a bio-hack that somehow simulates the same genetic repair response we gleaned from living as one with nature for millions of years?
Could the meditation bio-hack have an even more effective super-charged epigenetic effect than being in nature does? After all, the benefits only take a few minutes!
Did the Vedic texts originally introduce meditation techniques to bring the silence of nature into one’s home, city and lifestyle because of its critical importance to health and because the dangers of losing access to our inner silence would be catastrophic?
Is meditation a bio-hack for our genetic need to be connected with nature in order to thrive?
Ayurveda has long recommended that regularly being in nature would build ojas and boost immunity, vitality, and virility.
There are many studies documenting the numerous health benefits gleaned from simply being in nature.
Japan uses the term, forest bathing, to describe the health benefits of being in the wilderness or on a trail. There are over 60 forests in Japan that are certified as therapeutic forest bathing sites! (4)
Just being in these forests has been shown to boost mental, physical, and emotional health.
If you find it difficult to regularly pray, meditate, or practice meditative restorative yoga, look to nature to feed this genetic need to rejuvenate. A simple walk in the park or hike in the woods could be greatly beneficial to you!
Have We Traded in Silence for Stimulation?
Our culture is rampantly becoming more and more fascinated by the bells and whistles of technology, social media, conveniences, comforts, and various forms of entertainment.
Meditation and prayer are known resources accessible to people of all ages, but in my practice, I find that more and more people are trading in a desire to still the mind and body for more creative ways to stimulate them.
As I mentioned above, fewer and fewer are able to keep up a regular meditation practice. Even yoga has become faster and more stimulating.
With this new understanding that meditation can literally change the expression of your genetic code in a positive way, my hope is that you will begin viewing meditation as a most-needed resource in these over-stimulating times to stay healthy and sane.
To help all of us glean the benefits of meditation, I created a One Minute Meditation practice that absolutely everyone has time for.
If positively changing the negative expressions of your genetic code is not motivation enough to meditate or pray once a day for 1-20 minutes, maybe this list of additional documented health benefits will.
Additional Benefits of Meditation (2)
- Stress reduction
- Support for anxiety
- Support for depression
- Support for pain
- Better memory
- Support for blood pressure
- Lower heart rate
- Increased efficiency
- Healthy cortisol levels
- Supports oxygen utilization
- Supports healthy metabolism
- Supports blood sugar levels
- Increased melatonin
- Boosts cerebral blood flow to the brain
- Supports carbon dioxide removal during breathing
- Supports healthy breathing patterns
- Supports cognitive function
- Supports executive function
- Lengthens telomeres
- Supports cardiovascular health
- Supports longevity
- Enhances coordination
- Supports brain wave coherence
- Supports slower and more calm alpha brain wave activity