If you took some time out during your hectic workday to close your eyes, relax and take deep breaths, a few things could happen:
- People stare at you
- You get written up for wasting company time
- You feel a little more relaxed and potentially healthier
The third option is the one most of us would hope for and is also what many practitioners of meditative activities like Yoga, Qigong, Sudarshan Kriya (and a few others) report long after sessions. What these practices generally have in common are periods of positive cognitive reinforcement, relaxation and deep breathing techniques. These components are thought to be responsible for the practices’ attenuating effects on aging, stress and disease development. Though the benefits have been continually noted anecdotally and in many studies for a long time, how someone’s body might actually generate some of these effects after such activities has been treated as a black box and relatively ignored.
Unsatisfied with the lack of answers in this area, a few investigators tried to find out what biological forces might be responsible for the effects of these practices.
Most of the research centers on meditative practitioners and their white blood cells. These are the cells in the body that make up an essential part of the immune system by helping to fight off invading infectious entities like bacteria or viruses. A particular type of white blood cell was focused on in particular and is known as a neutrophil. In a sense, this type of white blood cell acts like a patrol officer. By constantly making rounds in the body, these cells are able to respond quickly (within minutes) to the first reports of a trespassing foreign entity. Following leads and clues (in this case a trail of attractive molecules), they are able to track down the “crook”. After arriving at the crime scene however, these guys take no prisoners and instead of arresting, they engulf and “digest” the perpetrating agent.
One of the reasons why these cells are able to act as they do is because of what’s inside of them.
Within white blood cells (and most other cells that make up your body) are genes. Genes act as a biological blueprint, giving the cell “instructions” on what kinds of things it should make and potentially what tasks it can perform. Individual genes give their own particular set of instructions to the cell and are important for making sure a cell “acts” in a way appropriate to a specific situation. For example, if your body is being attacked by a virus, the white blood cell genes not involved in dealing with the foreign agent may give out less or the same number of instructions; while the genes important for this process (i.e. following cues that lead to the virus or arresting/engulfing the virus), give more instructions. Being under attack by foreign entities however, isn’t the only time when gene activity may change. Genetic activity can also be altered during other physical/mental states.
Could the state induced by Yoga, Qigong and other meditative practices be causing genetic changes that make practitioners healthier?
A few inquisitive researchers wondered if this was true, so they did some experiments to find out. Essentially, they looked at the same genes in meditative practitioners and lay people and compared the number of instructions these genes produced. Several different research teams performing (generally) the same experiment found that the genes responsible for allowing white blood cells to live longer and preventing the spread of viruses gave out more “instructions” in the meditative groups.
However, just because the gene gave instructions, doesn’t necessarily mean the cell will exhibit any changes in behavior. In a way, it’s kind of like talking to a three year old.
Knowing this, a group of researchers took the investigation one step further. They wanted to see if the genetic differences between the groups might translate into a functional difference in the cells of the groups. To do this, they took the white blood cells (neutrophils specifically) from people in the different groups, placed them in separate dishes and let them fight it out with bacteria. Using an indicator that measures bacteria destroying activity, they found that the white blood cells from the group of people that meditated seemed to be more effective at destroying bacteria than cells from non-meditative practitioners.
Unfortunately, many of the studies only had a small number of subjects to draw from. This essentially limits the ability of the findings to be applied to many different people. However, the fact that several unassociated groups generated similar results, along with the promising functional data produced in the formerly mentioned study, suggests that there may be a real consistent underlying change.
If you now believe in the (genetic) power of meditation, feel free to try it yourself. If you need help there is now of course an app for that which helps you monitor your brain waves during meditation, so you can monitor its effectiveness (or at least that’s what the makers claim). If you’ve got a couple of dollars to shell out for the accompanying headset, you can find it here at: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.personalneuro.transcend&hl=en
TL;DR White blood cells may help fight off infections better in people who meditate because of genetic differences; Scientists investigate this by getting into practitioners genes and by making bloods fight
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2. Sharma, H., Sen, S., Singh, A., Bhardwaj, N.K., Kochupillai, V., Singh, N., 2003. Sudarshan Kriya practitioners exhibit better antioxidant status and lower blood lactate levels. Biological Psychology 63, 281–291. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0301-0511(03)00071-1
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