How Meditation Can Alter Your Genes: Unbelievable But True

Meditation Can Alter Your Genes
Meditation can change the body's gene response to stress, say scientists.
WellnessKeen Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
By Anastacia Mott Austin

We've known for years that meditation can help with stress. It clears the mind and calms the body. We've also known that stressful, bad habits can prompt negative gene changes, which can contribute to disease and other debilitative states.

"It's sort of like reverse thinking," says Dr. Gerry Leisman, director of the F.R. Carrick Institute at Leeds University in England. "If you can wreak havoc on yourself with lifestyle choices, for example, it causes expression of latent genetic manifestations in the negative, then the reverse should hold true."

Added Dr. Leisman, "Biology is not entirely our destiny, so while there are things that give us risk factors, there's a lot of 'wiggle' in this."

Researchers have taken it a step further and have proven that a regular meditative practice can actually change genetic responses in the body. Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, led a team of scientists in carrying out an experiment on gene response to stress, published in a recent issue of PLoS One.

Dr. Benson and his colleagues studied three different groups of subjects and their gene responses. The team looked at 19 long-term practitioners of some type of meditation, a control group of 19 subjects who had never meditated, and 20 subjects who were given an 8-week training session of relaxation response.

The researchers found more than 2,200 different gene responses from the long-term meditators and the control group. There were also differences between the two groups in how cells responded to inflammation, programmed cell death, free radicals, cellular metabolism, and oxidative stress.

In the group that had received the 8-week relaxation training, the subjects shared 433 of the gene responses with the long-term practitioners that neither group had in common with the subjects who did not meditate.

"For hundreds of years Western medicine has looked at mind and body as totally separate entities, to the point where saying something 'is all in your head' implied that it was imaginary," said Dr. Benson to reporters. "Now we've found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented."

Benson and his team have been studying the mind/body connection for decades, and the most recent study is significant because it is the first one in which gene reactions were mapped in the bodies of healthy individuals, and not just those already negatively affected by gene changes.

In addition, the research will help scientists study how individuals can consciously affect their own gene responses to stress conditions, possibly changing them through meditation to avoid harmful effects.

Says Dr. Benson, "Now we need to see if similar changes occur in patients who use the relaxation response to help treat stress-related disorders, and those studies are underway now."