by Erin Davis
Meditation isn’t just beneficial to the mind and spirit. Intense meditation helps activate the human immune system and positively affects multiple biological processes involved in disease development, a group of researchers from the USA –incuding Vijayendran Chandran, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida — stated in a study.
While several studies have highlighted the beneficial impact of yoga and meditation on mental and physical health, prior to this research, the potential molecular mechanisms and critical genes involved in this beneficial outcome had yet to be comprehensively elucidated.
After an eight-day meditation retreat, researchers saw molecular changes related to immunity when they tested the 106 participants through ‘before’ and ‘after’ blood samples. In other words, meditation appeared to activate genes associated with the immune system.
This wasn’t necessarily a wellness retreat for newbies. In fact, it was incredibly strict. For eight days, participants of the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences’ April 2018 advanced retreat were instructed to remain silent, meditate for ten hours a day, maintain a strict vegan diet, and adhere to strict sleep and wake-up times.
This controlled environment enabled researchers to compare pre and post-meditation blood samples and knew things like diet and sleep schedules weren’t influencing any of the changes observed. Furthermore, participants began a vegan diet about two months before the retreat, with an emphasis on raw foods, and eliminated coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco.
Blood samples were taken from participants on four occasions: five to eight weeks pre-retreat, on the first day, immediately following the retreat, and three months after it had ended. Tellingly, the researchers found that most of the changes in gene expression occurred between the second and third blood samples.
Researchers found 220 genes known to be involved in creating an immune response that was heightened after the retreat. What’s more, this took place without activating the genes for inflammation, which is an element of a typical immune response and can lead to harmful complications in some situations.
“Very importantly, we demonstrated that the meditative practice enhanced immune function without activating inflammatory signals,” reads the report “Together, these results make meditation an effective behavioral intervention for treating various conditions associated with a weakened immune system.” This could mean everything from multiple sclerosis to HIV and severe COVID-19.
Of course, the reality is that few people in everyday life are able to meditate for ten hours for eight days straight even if they had the will and the ability to do so.
Nonetheless, it’s still important research.
“The work provides a foundation for understanding the effect of meditation and suggests that meditation as a behavioral intervention can voluntarily and non-pharmacologically improve the immune response for treating various conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation with a dampened immune system profile,” reads the report.
In the meantime, Chandan and his team say research is being conducted on the impacts of meditation in less intense situations (i.e. for the at-home meditator).
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Erin Davis is a regular contributor to Travel to Wellness.