With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body.

A new Dec 2013 study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice. “-Study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin

Benefits of Mindful Meditation

The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities.

After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.

“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.” -Study author Perla Kaliman, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain , where the molecular analyses were conducted.

The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.

There was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.

“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression.” – Richard J. Davidson

Sources: Study Reveals Gene Expression Changes with Meditation From the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The study was published in the Journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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