Meditation and Your Genes: Groundbreaking Study by Deepak Chopra & Top Scientists

Integrative medicine, the treatment of both the mind & body as a connected whole, has been an increasingly important area of scientific research.  In a major step forward, a recent in-depth study into the effects of meditation and relaxation brought together many of the greatest minds in the field.  The study, published in the prestigious scientific journal Springer Nature’s Translational Psychiatry, found scientific evidence for what many meditation practitioners have claimed for years: meditation can alter one’s body from the inside out.

The study examined the biological effects of a meditation program designed by Dr. Deepak Chopra, a long-time proponent of integrative medicine.  Though Dr. Chopra and the Chopra Foundation collaborated closely with the study, to ensure objectivity he was not involved in the data collection or analysis.  Female volunteers were brought to the Chopra Center and divided into two test groups, one underwent intensive meditation training for a week, the other simply relaxed in a vacation environment.  Another group of experienced meditators were also included for comparison.

Deepak Chopra, MD, architect of the meditation program analyzed in the study.
Deepak Chopra, MD, architect of the meditation program analyzed in the study.

Before and after Dr. Chopra’s program the volunteers’ blood was drawn and 20,000 genetic expressions recorded.  The data from these blood samples was analyzed by some of the most accomplished and brilliant minds in the world, including Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School.  They compared the genetic expressions of the new meditators with the vacationers and practiced meditators, looking for changes in how the volunteers’ genes functioned after the program.

<a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2009/blackburn-facts.html" target="_blank">Nobel Laureate
Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, one of the authors of the study.

Not long ago the very idea that behavior could have lasting effects on genetic expressions was nearly heretical in scientific circles, and was considered dangerously close to Lamarckism, the debunked idea that organisms pass on their personal accomplishments to their offspring.  Study coauthors Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel have done much in the past few years to blaze the trail concerning genetic expression and behavior.  Today science agrees that genes can be influenced, while meditation could potentially be one of the most powerful methods of doing so.  This study aimed to test that potential with some of the most rigorous methods ever attempted.

The findings did not disappoint.  

New meditators, vacationers, and experienced meditators all showed significant changes in gene expression after the program, primarily relating to stress response, immune function, and amyloid beta metabolism.  To put it simply, either vacationing or meditating is excellent for stress reduction and the immune system.

More profoundly, however, is the difference that emerged between the vacationers and the two set of meditators.  The benefits reported above lasted dramatically longer for the novice meditators than for the group that was simply relaxing, while the experienced meditators were found to have greater telomerase activity.  Telomerase affects telomeres, one of the primary causes of aging, suggesting a slowed rate of aging for experienced meditators.

"It's intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress, but it was still impressive to see the
"It's intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress, but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life, in a relaxing environment, in such a short period of time. These findings will have to be replicated to see if the changes are reliably invoked under the same circumstances, in future studies, and compared to an at-home control group,"  
Elissa S. Epel, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco and first author of the study.

The implications of the study are exciting, and its background impressive.  Deepak Chopra and his Foundation designed a health program worth investigating, and collaborated with the best scientists to ensure it was done properly.  There are few enough studies that combine innovation, rigor, and uncharted areas of medicine.  

Though Deepak Chopra recused himself from analysis of the data, his voice is heard in the evidence behind the findings.  They echo Deepak Chopra’s advice on healthy living in their conclusions:

  1. Relaxation from hectic lives is both psychologically and physically beneficial
  2. Meditation provides more profound mind-body benefits than relaxation alone, even for novices
  3. Long-term meditation has powerful biological benefits, including potentially slowing aging
"Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn't strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifia
"Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn't strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function... 
Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging."
Coauthor Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
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