Hacking our DNA code with meditation

14/08/2020

There is extensive reporting on the mental benefits of meditation, such as mood improvement and anxiety reduction, but how much deeper beneath the psychological level might its advantages go? Research has suggested meditation can influence our epigenome and hack into the very code determining our existence and, by doing so, combats detrimental cellular factors underlying a host of diseases.

All cells in the body have the same genetic code but why is a heart cell so different to the retinal ganglion cells in the eye? Our DNA is a winding ladder consisting of four letters, A, T, C and G, and the combination of letters creates an instruction manual for all the proteins that make up our entire being. The code is read by RNA molecules that transfer the instructions to other molecules called ribosomes, and together these molecules synthesise the appropriate proteins. Chemical tags, called the epigenome are attached to the DNA code and make it either more accessible or less accessible for the RNA. Imagine you are trying to reach into the cupboard to get the ingredients for a certain recipe. The epigenetic tags are what make it either easier or harder to open the cupboard door. This means the epigenome controls the amount of different DNA genetic recipes cooked into proteins. The repertoire of proteins made in each cell is therefore determined by the epigenome and this controls cellular function and characteristics, giving rise to diversity. On a larger scale, epigenetic modification to protein expression can affect things like our disease-susceptibility and even our psychology. By controlling our epigenetics, we can control our biological programme.

Meditative practice has rapidly bloomed throughout the Western world in the past decade, with yoga studios, mindfulness classes and meditation retreats popping up in abundance. Meditation is an umbrella term for a variety of practices revolving around cultivating awareness, many of which involve focusing on a specific thing, such as the breath or physical body sensations. Through focus, the meditator fosters a calm state which the flight-or-flight response mediated by stress. Our stress responses are often overactivated by our hectic 21st century lifestyles, and chronic stress has been implicated in a variety diseases and disorders. Could meditation therefore serve as an antidote? Previous studies have reported that meditation elicits a variety of psychological benefits including decreased stress, improved mood and sleep and better focus. Brain imaging studies have also highlighted how practice can alter the balance of activity between different brain regions. Now, research is showing that meditation can have effects beneath the level of nerve cells in the brain, deep into DNA.

Stress is a regulator of the epigenome and has notably been shown to upregulate expression of genes involved in inflammation, the body's biochemical response to foreign invaders. Inflammation plays a useful biological role. However when chronic, inflammation is detrimental and becomes the basis for many disorders including Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pain, and depression. To investigate whether meditation can oppose the effects stress has on gene regulation, researchers conducted a study on a group of subjects, where half of the subjects were long-term experienced meditators and the other half not. Over the course of one day, the experienced meditators engaged in various mindfulness practices and the meditation-naïve subjects engaged in leisurely activities. Blood samples were collected both before and after the day's activities. Analysis showed that, prior to meditation or leisure activities, both subject groups had similar levels of enzyme proteins involved in epigenetic regulation and similar levels of genes involved in inflammatory responses. However, post intervention, there was a significant increase in the levels of epigenome-regulatory enzymes and a decreased expression of inflammatory genes for meditators, as compared to the leisure activity control group. Not only does this demonstrate how meditation is an epigenetic regulator but it also highlights the potential therapeutic value of mindfulness-based exercises for diseases characterised by inflammation and the harmful effects of stress.

Do these study findings suggest meditation may help reduce symptoms associated with inflammation-associated diseases? Or perhaps that meditation may even work as a preventative measure? It is difficult to tell when a small group of healthy patients are being tested. However, research looking into the effects of meditation on characterised diseases have shown promising results. For example, one study investigated the effects of eight weeks of regular meditation in patients with mild cognitive impairment, which is a distinct symptom predisposing Alzheimer's disease. Following the intervention, brain imaging analysis showed patients had an increased number of functional connections between the hippocampus and the posterior cingulate cortex,  brain area involved in memory. Furthermore, analysis showed patients reduced cell death had occurred in the hippocampus, which is a common pathology in Alzheimer's. Another study investigated the effects of meditation on a group of patients with inflammatory bowel disease. The researchers found that, after 26 weeks, patients had improved symptoms as well as decreased anxiety and depression, which are common side effects of the disease, and patients furthermore showed a decrease in levels of the molecule CRP, which is characteristic of inflammation.

Perhaps meditation isn't the antidote to all of life's ailments, but it definitely seems to have a powerful effect. Furthermore, as a therapy it, doesn't possess detriments associated with current pharmaceutical treatments such as unwanted side-effects and withdrawal symptoms. By hacking into the epigenome with simple deep breathing and cultivation of awareness, meditation can tackle the harmful effects of stress, and by combining a good diet, exercise and meditation, lifestyle changes have a marked capability of improving well-being, health, and longevity. Although taking that five minutes of the day to close your eyes and tune in may seem pointless in the beginning, know that through such conscious control you can change your own physiology right down to the genetic level, hacking your cells and hacking your health.