Meditation has been a common practice in Asia for centuries. But it wasn’t widespread in the western world until the 1960s, when maharajas and meditation gurus became all the rage among young hippies, “flower children,” and the “new age.”
Since then, we’ve seen meditation become more mainstream. Many people are taking breaks and spending time with their thoughts. Or they’re finding a virtual instructor to guide them.
Of course, there has been a growing number of studies on meditation’s positive health effects over the years, too.
It’s well known that meditation can help alleviate stress and anxiety. But there’s also evidence it can affect physical health as well. This includes reducing your risks of cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and insomnia.
Understanding exactly how meditation does all this remains somewhat mysterious. Not much is really known about its effects on biological processes at the cellular level. That’s why a new study analyzing how meditation influences genes involved in the immune response caught my eye.
The study involved 106 men and women who participated in an eight-day meditation retreat in Tennessee.1 The participants silently meditated for 10 hours daily and followed a regular sleep schedule.
(They also ate a restrictive, vegan diet. But, not surprising, the researchers attributed the study results to the meditation practice rather than the diet.)
Researchers took blood samples from the participants five to eight weeks before the retreat, just before the retreat began, and three months after it ended. Those samples showed that 220 genes involved in regulating the immune system were more active after participants completed the meditation retreat.
Among those 220 genes, 68 have a role in signaling interferon—which has been found in other studies to help the body fight cancer, multiple sclerosis, and viruses…including COVID-19.
The researchers said this is the first study showing how meditation can boost interferon signaling, and thus influence the immune system.
How you can meditate without going on a retreat
Of course, as you were reading about this study, you probably noticed the proverbial elephant in the room…the participants meditated 10 hours a day, for eight days.
Let’s face it: That’s excessive and unachievable for most people.
The good news is, the researchers think less extensive daily meditation programs, carried out over a longer period of time, could have similar benefits on genetic regulation of the immune system.
More research is needed, but in the meantime, you really can’t go wrong with incorporating short meditation sessions into your daily lifestyle. It’s actually quite simple to do—here’s what I recommend…
Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take in a few deep breaths.
Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold onto that thought and repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy (or happy, or peaceful, etc.)”
Repeat the same practice, except this time, picture someone you care about. Next, imagine someone you don’t have any feelings about or connections to. Then, think of someone you don’t have positive feelings toward. And finally, direct the wish toward the whole world.
Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you in all that you do.
For more details on how to incorporate meditation into your daily life, please see my book with Don McCown: “New World Mindfulness.” You can order yourself a copy from the “books” tab on my website, www.DrMicozzi.com.
“Large-scale genomic study reveals robust activation of the immune system following advanced Inner Engineering meditation retreat.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Dec 21;118(51):e2110455118.