Meditation in the time of COVID-19
The effect of meditation on anxiety, immunity and boredom
Continuing our three part series discussing the benefits of meditation in the time of COVID-19. This article will focus on the physiological impact of meditation on the immune system. I want to give fair warning in advance for some of the content I will be discussing in this article. Things are gonna get pretty "sciencey" but I'll do my best to explain as I go for those of us who didn't major in molecular biology.
As I mentioned last month meditation's effect on the mind (brain) can be measured. It has been shown to increase volume in certain regions of the brain, to reduce anxiety and depression. A new study in the journal Translational Psychiatry tries to figure out the exact molecular mechanisms behind meditation's effects on the immune system. You read that right, meditation can (and does) have an impact on the human immune system. It turns out that the effects are more than from just the relaxation element – there seems to be something intrinsic about meditation itself that can shift gene expression and even boost mood over time.
In a study conducted by a team of researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, University of California at San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School had 94 women come to the Chopra Center for Well Being in California. Half of the women went in for a six-day vacation retreat and the other half for a six-day meditation retreat. Neither of these groups of women had any experience with meditation – but a third group, made up of 30 experienced meditators also visiting the Center, were also studied. The team took blood samples from the participants, so they could analyze what genes were expressed, before the retreat, directly after it, one month, and 10 months later.
As it turned out there were some very interesting changes in the 20,000 genes studied. All the groups showed shifts in the expression of genes related to stress, inflammation and wound healing. The experienced meditators had particular shifts in genes related to fighting viral infection. They also had increases in telomerase activity – an enzyme that builds telomeres, the sections at the ends of chromosomes that help keep them from "unraveling." Telomeres shorten over time naturally, and shorter length is linked to a number of chronic illnesses, so increasing telomere length is thought to indicate healthier aging.
Another shift that occurred was in the ratio of two kinds of amyloid-beta proteins, which is known to be linked to dementia and depression. The novice meditator group had shifts toward a better ratio of the proteins. Based on the results found thus far in the study it was no surprise to find that the experienced meditators started out with better levels. More interestingly, this didn’t change over the course of the study, which suggests that meditation has both short- and long-term effects on levels of this brain compound.
"Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn't strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function," said Rudolph Tanzi, who holds positions both at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement. "Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging."
Do you see a theme developing here? Meditation can be a tool in the proverbial "toolbox" for enhancing the efficiency of our immune systems that must now be working at their most optimal level. Now that we have the proof it works, even if we don't know all the "Hows", it's a safe bet to think that it will work for you. Even if you want to try it for only a few minutes out of each day it can change how your mind and body function; from the noticeable differences in behavior and mood to the imperceptible, our genes.
Stay tuned for our third and final article in our three part series "Meditation in the time of COVID-19" where we will be discussing how meditation can help ease the burden of boredom.