Meditation is becoming more and more popular as research continues to validate its role in supporting various aspects related to heath. For example, many are familiar with its popularity for mitigating stress and I’ve written previously on how stress and emotion can impact our physical body. However, more recent evidence is proving even more intriguing with evidence of the effects of the power of meditation that many ancient gurus knew for centuries.
Just recently, in a 2015 article in Nature Reviews researchers reviewed the evidence of how meditation may cause neuroplastic changes in the brain in regions that are involved in the regulation of emotions, attention, and self-awareness. The abstract reads:
Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation – practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health – exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects. However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.
Furthermore, a previous meta-analysis of 21 studies reported that eight brain regions were consistently altered in mediators, though bias may exist, the results were compelling:
To address these questions, we reviewed and meta-analyzed 123 brain morphology differences from 21 neuroimaging studies examining ~300 meditation practitioners. Anatomical likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis found eight brain regions consistently altered in meditators, including areas key to meta-awareness (frontopolar cortex/BA 10), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortices and insula), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior and mid cingulate; orbitofrontal cortex), and intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum). Effect size meta-analysis (calculating 132 effect sizes from 16 studies) suggests a global ‘medium’ effect size (Cohen’s d¯=0.46; r¯=.19). Publication bias and methodological limitations are strong concerns, however. Further research using rigorous methods is required to definitively link meditation practice to altered brain morphology.
The Newest Study on the Block
Recently, a randomized-controlled trial that took into account some of the previous research methodological issues, such as setting and environmental effects, found amazing results in regards to meditation. Specifically, the researchers were able to demonstrate that not only did meditation effect well-being measures, but also gene expression in markers related to stress, immune function, aging markers (telomerase), and amyloid beta (AB) metabolism (a protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease). Differences were found among randomized vacationers and novice meditators and a comparison group of regular meditators. Interestingly, vacation in the retreat also had positive benefits alone, but meditation practiced by novices, showed additional benefits. The abstract states:
Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation may improve cellular health; however, studies have not separated out effects of meditation from vacation-like effects in a residential randomized controlled trial. We recruited healthy women non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days and randomized to either meditation retreat or relaxing on-site, with both groups compared with ‘regular meditators’ already enrolled in the retreat. Blood drawn at baseline and post intervention was assessed for transcriptome-wide expression patterns and aging-related biomarkers. Highly significant gene expression changes were detected across all groups (the ‘vacation effect’) that could accurately predict (96% accuracy) between baseline and post-intervention states and were characterized by improved regulation of stress response, immune function and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism. Although a smaller set of genes was affected, regular meditators showed post-intervention differences in a gene network characterized by lower regulation of protein synthesis and viral genome activity. Changes in well-being were assessed post intervention relative to baseline, as well as 1 and 10 months later. All groups showed equivalently large immediate post-intervention improvements in well-being, but novice meditators showed greater maintenance of lower distress over time compared with those in the vacation arm. Regular meditators showed a trend toward increased telomerase activity compared with randomized women, who showed increased plasma Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) levels. This highly controlled residential study showed large salutary changes in gene expression networks due to the vacation effect, common to all groups. For those already trained in the practice of meditation, a retreat appears to provide additional benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect.
Now that summer is over, you may need some support in taking another respite. The results provided scientific proof to your boss that vacation is good for your health, and regular meditators may further benefit from a retreat- a win-win!
The Alternative Daily. Survey Says: Yoga and Meditation are Growing in Popularity. http://www.thealternativedaily.com/survey-says-yoga-and-meditation-are-growing-in-popularity/
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National Health Statistics Reports from the National Health Interview Survey. No. 79. Trends in the Use of Complementary Health Approaches Among Adults: United States, 2002-2012 . 16 pp. (PHS) 2015-1250. February 10, 2015. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis/nhis_nhsr.htm
Tang YY, Hölzel BK, Posner MI. The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015 Apr;16(4):213-25. doi: 10.1038/nrn3916. Epub 2015 Mar 18.
McKay S. The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation. Chopra Center Website. Available at: http://www.chopra.com/articles/the-neuroscience-of-mindfulness-meditation
FoxKC, et al. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners.Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jun;43:48-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016. Epub 2014 Apr 3.
Epel ES, et al. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry (2016) 6, e880; doi:10.1038/tp.2016.164