Meditation Improves Gene Expression

June 19, 2017 Joe Brady

A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation in Tai Chi and Related Practices

The ancient Taoist masters stated that “in perfect harmony of mind and body, the golden elixir is found.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine the way to influence “prior to heaven Jing (genetic expression) is by profound meditation. Once again modern science is confirming their insight. There is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of Tai Chi, Qigong and other mind–body interventions (MBIs) in improving mental and physical health. To understand some of the underlying genetic changes involved with the mental and physical benefits of of meditation a systematic review study looked at changes in gene expression that occur after meditation and to explore how these molecular changes are related to health. Looking at several different types of meditation such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation. These studies indicate that these practices are associated with a downregulation of the harmful effects of chronic stress on gene expression and suggests that meditation practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases.

Strong Mind in a Strong Body

Meditations such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong, have a strong physical activity component and are likely to provide many more benefits than meditation alone, others like meditation and mindfulness, breath regulation techniques, and the relaxation response (RR) are mainly sedentary but still seem to produce various psychological benefits such as:

  • reduction of perceived stress
  • the alleviation of depression
  • decreases in anxiety
  • help in coping with a chronic medical disease

Meditation makes the Brain bigger


Neuroimaging studies suggest that Meditation increase gray matter in the brain regions related to emotion regulation, learning, memory, self-referential processes, and perspective taking.

Review of the Evidence

Scientist have now conducted a systematic review of the evidence for the effects of meditation on gene expression, and what changes in gene expression underpin the psychological benefits of MBIs.

Stress and Response to Adversity

Stress and Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA)

CTRA is considered to be a molecular signature of chronic stress and may precipitate a health risk when stress is severe or it occurs over a long period of time without relief. The resulting chronic inflammation is associated with increased risk for some types of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric disorders like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Another characteristic of CTRA is the downregulation of antiviral and antibody-related genes, which is associated with susceptibility to viral infections, such as herpes simplex viruses , HIV-1), Epstein–Barr virus, cytomegalovirus), and the Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Studies reviewed included studies of:

  • Genomic Profiling of Asian Qigong
  • Gene Expression Profiling in Practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya (SK)
  • The Effect of Pranayama on Gene Expression in Leukemia Patients and Rapid Interpretation of Gene Expression
  • Mindfulness Reduces Loneliness and Pro-inflammatory Gene Expression in Older Adults
  • Meditation Reverses NF-κB and IRF-Related Transcriptome Dynamics in Leukocytes of Family Dementia Caregivers
  • Tai Chi, Cellular Inflammation, and Transcriptome Dynamics in Breast Cancer
  • Yoga Reduces Inflammatory Signaling in Fatigued Breast Cancer Survivors
  • Mindfulness Meditation for Younger Breast Cancer Survivors
  • Effects of Lifestyle Modification on Telomerase Gene Expression
  • CBT and Tai Chi Reverse Cellular and Genomic Markers of Inflammation in Late Life Insomnia
  • Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated with a RR MBI in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Biomarkers of Resilience in Stress Reduction for Caregivers of Alzheimer’s Patients
  • Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program
  • Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the RR
    RR Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion, and Inflammatory Pathways
  • Rapid Changes in Histone Deacetylases and Inflammatory Gene Expression in Expert Meditators
  • Meditation and Vacation Effects Have an Impact on Disease-Associate Molecular Phenotypes

They also assessed other biological outcomes, including telomerase (an enzyme that can stabilize or lengthen telomeres), TNF alpha, and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism associated with lower risk of dementia, depression,, and mortality).

Practice makes perfect: experienced practitioners show
Genome-Wide Expression Changes while in a Higher State of Consciousness

The effects of meditation depend to a great extent on the amount of regular practice. Electroencephalography showed almost identical patterns in meditators: increased theta and alpha frequency range. Genes that changed expression for 30% or more after entering into higher consciousness were considered significant. For one participant, 1,688 genes changed expression (1,559 downregulated and 109 upregulated) and 608 for the other (338 upregulated and 270 downregulated).

Meditation Can Reverse the Effects of Stress

The results of 18 studies that used gene expression analysis in research on meditation found downregulation of pro-inflammatory genes and pathways, which reverses the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress.

The results of one study showed a large scale effect on  4,428 genes that were upregulated up to twofold in leukemia patients who practiced breathing techniques.

These results opens the possibility of the development and testing of a multi-level theory of meditation, which integrates the biological, psychological, and environmental levels.

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