In the early stages of research regarding human genetics, it was believed that our DNA was a clearly written blueprint that defined how our bodies developed. After the surprisingly quick completion of the Human Genome Project, experts soon realized that our bodies are far more complex. Some genes are expressed more than others, and what determines gene expression is influenced by the life experience and habits of both parent and child. This system of gene expression is known as epigenetics. Since genes have such profound impacts on our bodies, it is extremely important to understand how we can be kind to our body, so that we promote healthy gene expression. Doing so will not only help maintain our own bodies health, but promote health in our children as well.
Most meditation practices center around relaxing the body and mind. Doing so can have a multitude of positive effects on the body’s stress and anxiety levels. (Rubia, 2009; Gamaiunova et al., 2019). Recent research has also shown that meditation can alter our epigenetics. For example, meditating regularly has been shown to cause epigenetic changes in gene expression related to stress and pro-inflammatory systems (Dusek et al., 2008; Kaliman et al., 2014). Not only that, but research has also shown that a daily routine for multiple years can begin to decrease the rate of epigenetic aging, which is a strong indicator for how quickly our bodies age (Kaliman, 2019).
Our gut microbiome is also greatly influenced by the effect meditation has on our epigenetics. The microbiome plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and vice versa. A healthy gut wall selectively allows healthy molecules such as nutrients to enter our body, while keeping more harmful pathogens out (Househam et al., 2017). The more permeable the gut wall is, due to unhealthy microbiota content, the more susceptible our immune system is to infection and disease. Stress can greatly reduce microbiota diversity and function, leading to an unhealthy gut wall. Therefore, because meditation can reduce stress, it can also increase the health of the gut. The mechanism at which this change occurs happens at the epigenetic level. For example, Mucin is a protein that forms a gel like layer that traps pathogens and promotes gut-barrier function. An increase in parasympathetic activity (the body’s relaxed state) increases the expression of mucin generating genes (Househam et al., 2017). Alternatively, high stress can cause an imbalance of microbial population, which causes the microbes to undergo DNA mutation. As the body adapts to this change, inflammatory microbes begin replacing beneficial ones (Househam et al., 2017). Mechanisms such as these illustrate the complex interactions the gut microbiome has with our epigenetic expression, and how regulating stress can influence both. This understanding has lead researchers to study the positive benefits of meditation on those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, as the microbial population of the gut plays an important role in such disorders (Schoultz et al., 2015). Evidently, meditation can influence gut health and epigenetics through the relaxation of the body.
No one part of the body is isolated from the rest. The mind, body, gut, and genome all interact with each other in a complex dance. When the gut is healthy, the epigenome will generate habits that promote and maintain such health. When the gut is unhealthy, the epigenome imprints in our gene patterns that are useful for managing the inflammation. The two constantly interact, and not only determine our own fate, but can affect the fate of our children. In this modern age, it is important to remember that our body and mind require constant love and care as protection against the stresses of the modern era. Meditation, along with eating healthy foods are mechanisms that can promote a health gut microbiome. In appreciation for providing our bodies with a healthy gut, it will in turn change the epigenome and attempt to provide us with a healthy future.
Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, Joseph MG, Benson H & Libermann TA (2008). Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response ed. Awadalla P. PLoS One3,e2576.
Gamaiunova L, Brandt P-Y, Bondolfi G & Kliegel M (2019). Exploration of psychological mechanisms of the reduced stress response in long-term meditation practitioners.Psychoneuroendocrinology104,143–151.
Househam AM, Christine ;, Peterson T, Mills PJ & Chopra D (2017). The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics.
Kaliman P (2019). Epigenetics and meditation. Curr Opin Psychol28,76–80.
Kaliman P, Álvarez-López MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A & Davidson RJ (2014). Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology40,96–107.
Rubia K (2009). The neurobiology of Meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biol Psychol82,1–11.
Schoultz M, Atherton I & Watson A (2015). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for inflammatory bowel disease patients: Findings from an exploratory pilot randomised controlled trial. Trials; DOI: 10.1186/s13063-015-0909-5.