Feeling a little run-down? Try chanting, yoga or meditation. These techniques can boost the activity of genes involved in several processes beneficial to health, and they only take a few minutes each day to show results. Previous studies have reported changes to the brain while people practise these activities, but a new study shows for the first time that gene activity changes too. This could explain the reported beneficial effects of meditation, yoga and prayer.
“It’s not New Age nonsense,” says Herbert Benson of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He and his colleagues analysed the gene profiles of 26 volunteers – none of whom regularly meditate – before teaching them a relaxation routine lasting 10 to 20 minutes. It included reciting words, breathing exercises and attempts to exclude everyday thought.
After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the volunteers gene profile was analysed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so.
The boosted genes had three main beneficial effects: improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells; boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar; and preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable and so prevent cells wearing out and ageing.
Clusters of genes that became less active were those 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. By taking blood immediately before and after performing the technique (the meditation, yoga or prayer) on a single day, researchers showed that the gene changes happened within minutes.
For comparison, the researchers also took samples from 26 volunteers who had practised relaxation techniques for at least three years. They had beneficial gene profiles even before performing their routines in the lab, suggesting that the techniques had resulted in long term changes to their genes.
“It seems fitting that you should see these responses after just 15 to 20 minutes just as, conversely, short periods of stress elevate stress hormones and other physiological effects that are harmful in the long term,” says Julie Brefczynski-Lewis of West Virginia University in Morgantown, who studies the physiological effects of meditation techniques. “I hope to see these results replicated by other groups.”
“We found that the more you do it, the more profound the genomic expression changes,” says Benson. He and his colleagues are now investigating how gene profiles are altered and whether these techniques could ease symptoms in people with high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer.
Benson stresses that the relaxation techniques should only be an adjunct to conventional medicine and surgery, not a replacement. (With thanks to the newscientist.com.)