Gene expression, Genetics, Genomics, Integrative Medicine, Meditation, MInd-Body, Telomerase, Telomeres

Can Meditation Change Your Genes?


It really does sound like an infomercial, doesn’t it? Another gimmicky health ad from Ms. HydroxyCut or Mr. 5-Hour-Energy.  But before you roll your eyes, consider this.

It might be true.

Emerging research suggests a relationship between the practice of meditation and genetic changes.  Let’s consider the evidence.  

Exhibit A:

In 2009, researchers at UCSF began thinking about the link between meditation and our genes.  They focused on the genetic area called telomeres.  Found at the ends of our DNA, telomeres serve as a bumper for our genetic cargo.  The longer your telomeres, the better-protected your DNA is from the occasional biologic fender-bender, and the longer the cell can survive.  Telomeres are the marker of cellular longevity.  Not surprisingly, they adapt to environmental stimuli.  The researchers wondered aloud: If chronic stress, depression and other negative psychological states can shorten telomeres, could something proven to improve mood, like meditation, help keep telomeres long and healthy?


Exhibit B:

In 2010, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues published the first study on the effects of meditation on genetic activity.  They looked at enzyme levels of telomerase, which manages telomere length.  Enzyme activity was higher in the group of 30 meditators compared to the 30 non-meditators, and the researchers concluded that meditation may increase enzyme activity, thereby protecting telomere length.

Exhibit C:

In April 2013, Elizabeth Hoge and her colleagues at Harvard took the research a step farther by studying actual telomere length and meditation.  They compared the telomere length of 15 experienced meditators to 22 non-meditators, and found that meditators had longer telomeres.  Their takeaway was that meditation offers the intriguing possibility of altering telomere length, and consequently, a cell’s longevity.

Exhibit D:

The most recent study on genetic changes with meditation was published last week by the Benson-Henry Institute.  They compared the big-picture genetic profiles of 26 first-time meditators to 26 experienced meditators, and found that different sets of genes were expressed.  And in experienced meditators, just one session of meditation changed cellular activity.  The researchers concluded that meditation may change big-picture genetic profiles and cellular activity.


The Verdict:

Meditation does change your genes.  Its no gimmick.  The field of mind-body genomics offers fascinating discoveries and much promise.  But what do these genetic changes mean clinically? And how do they impact disease prevention and treatment?

On that, the jury is still deliberating….



The Biology of a Tweet

In the Twitterverse yesterday, Deepak Chopra shared this:


…which got me thinking about the biology of a tweet. 

Science has definitively shown us that our inner landscape is shaped by our outer experience.  There’s an entire realm of research devoted to studying how our neural pathways respond and change based on our actions: its called neuroplasticity. And countless studies on jugglers, piano players, athletes and meditators, have shown neuroplasticity at work.   

As we tweet, post, like, share, and pin…are our brains registering our digital frenzy and shapeshifting accordingly?  Preliminary research suggests yes.  We also know that our digital life can alter our processing of thoughts.  Psychologists have come up with the phrase “popcorn brain” to describe this phenomenon.  Its that rapid-fire succession of thoughts we have when we’re in our digital mode, which for some, can make life offline seem unbearably mundane by comparison.  In more extreme cases, like internet addiction, studies have found actual changes on brain scans, though what these changes mean clinically is not yet known.

So how can we, however temporarily, cut the digital cord?  New York Times columnist Jenna Wortham found the “charm of a life less connected” at the pool.  For others, their unplug-drug-du-jour is running, walking, or even the simple act of pondering, so classically embodied and captured in this moment:


Unfortunately, pondering is becoming a lost art, crowded out by our inevitably digitized ways.  During our spacious moments these days, we’re less apt to gaze off and get lost in our own thoughts.  Instead, as we wait for the bus, our dry cleaning, or our doctor… we keep our nose firmly pointed to the digital stone.  Some might say this is a new kind of pondering- a collective thinking out loud, rather than a quiet, inward reflection.  I’m not so sure.   

Social media is undoubtedly a thing of beauty, but how it affects our biology is still a big question.  As Jasper Blake so eloquently stated in the Twitterverse, “How do we play in social media, without it playing with us?”

Now that’s worth a ponder.