Resources for Recovering Resilience: Meditation Changes Gene Expression

New research by scientists in Wisconsin, Spain and France indicates that even eight hours of intensive mindfulness practice by experienced meditators can reduce the activation of pro-inflammatory genes, which is turn correlates with faster physical recovery from stressful situations.

Here’s the link to the study:

http://www.news.wisc.edu/22370.  I’ve also included the entire article below.

This week’s resource for recovering resilience is basic instructions for sitting meditation developed by James Baraz, Insight Meditation Community, Berkeley, CA; the same form of meditation as used in the research study.  James is also the developer of the Awakening Joy course a wonderful exploration of ten steps – including mindfulness meditation – that reliably lead to deepening and steady sense of joy, contentment, and inner peace.

Instructions for Sitting Meditation

Sitting cross-legged on a zafu (cushion) that rests on a zabuton (mat) is a traditional meditation posture, but sitting on a chair is more comfortable for many of us. You can choose what works for you.

Take a pose that is erect and dignified without being rigid, balanced between earth and sky. Place your hands where they are most comfortable for you, perhaps in your lap or on your thighs. Keep your head balanced at the top of your spine.

Sit in a posture that allows you to be comfortable and relatively still but not so relaxed that you fall asleep. You want to be both alert and at ease.

Mindfulness meditation practice typically begins with focusing on the breath, but then the attention is turned to whatever else is happening in the body and mind.

Begin with paying attention to your breath. How do you know you’re breathing? Where in your body do you feel it most clearly? You might notice the breath coming into your nostrils and passing out again. You might instead feel the rising and falling of your abdomen. Or you might simply be

aware of your whole body sitting and breathing. Each time your mind wanders, gently return to the breath. Paying attention to breathing helps focus and calm your mind so that it can more easily stay present in the moment.

In addition to the breath, you can be mindful of other experiences inside you as they call your attention – various sensations in your body, your moods, your thoughts as they come and go. One moment you might notice a breath,

the next you’re aware of an itching in your back or arm, then a sound, then a thought, then the breath again. The key to being mindful is remaining aware of any of these experiences as they arise, without getting lost in the story or thoughts connected with any of them.

Some meditators find it most useful to keep a focused concentration on the breath, acknowledging the other experiences and then returning to it. Others prefer a more open and choiceless awareness, being fully with whatever

presents itself. It can also be helpful to begin the meditation period by being with the breath until the mind settles down, and then open the space of mindfulness to all the other experiences as they arise of their own accord.

Most people find that soon after they begin to pay attention to their breath or to some sensation in their body, without even knowing it, they’re gone, lost in their thoughts. This is not bad. It’s just the way it is. The eye sees. The ear hears. The mind thinks. Thoughts are not the enemy, and the mind can be trained.

How we respond when we realize the mind has been wandering is critical to the process of developing mindfulness. If you get lost in a thought, patiently

bring your attention back to the moment, remembering that you’re sitting and breathing. It’s important to do this with kindness, because reacting with frustration or annoyance only strengthens those qualities. You’re in the process of training your mind, and just like training a puppy, patient

repetition works better than punishment. Rather than feeling aggravated because you’ve been lost, you can appreciate that you’ve woken up from the dream.

Each time you return your attention with patience and kindness to the moment, you strengthen those qualities as well as your ability to remain present. Over time you will find negative patterns naturally unwinding and wholesome attitudes increasing.

This meditation practice is not aiming at any particular state of mind and heart. Whatever you experienced during the session was perfectly fine. It is impossible to fail at meditation. Each moment of mindfulness is a step toward peace.

* * * * *

Study reveals gene expression changes with meditation Dec. 4, 2013by Jill Sakai

With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body.

A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.

The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.

Richard J. Davidson

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.

The study was published in the journal  Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.

The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice.”

Richard J. Davidson

Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.

However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice. Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities – an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.

Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.

“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.

“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”

Study funding came from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (grant number P01-AT004952) and grants from the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and an anonymous donor to Davidson. The study was conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.