The health benefits of meditation might seem unexpected, but they’ve been documented by a wealth of studies. Now, a meta-analysis (a study of studies) looked at evidence from 18 trials including 846 participants, finding clear benefits of “mind-body practices,” even more than we thought.
It’s important to note that “mind-body practice” is an umbrella term used for a large and diverse group of techniques which includes unproven practices such as acupuncture. This study specifically looked at Tai Chi and meditation. Research has already shown that meditation can work as a painkiller, sometimes with stunning efficiency.
Ivana Buric, a psychologist at the Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab, reports that despite complex results and despite a greatly varying quality of different studies, she found an overall pattern to previous research on meditation and Tai Chi. Basically, they work to reduce the activity of genes related to inflammation. It worked particularly well on genes controlled by a protein called NF-ĸB. NF-ĸB is found in almost all animal cell types and is involved in cellular responses to stimuli such as stress or pathogens. It plays a key role in dealing with infections, and improper functioning of the protein has been correlated to many conditions, such as cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Since inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defense, it’s not always a bad thing to have — after all, it’s technically a protective response. However, too much of it can cause massive damage in the body — especially in the long term. To make things even worse, as anyone suffering from chronic inflammation can tell you, it hurts really bad.
The bottom line is, no one enjoys living with inflammation. A wide variety of anti-inflammation treatments exist on the market, but meditation and Tai Chi have also emerged as unlikely aids. Of course, this is not a replacement for medical treatment, but a useful, healthy activity to complement it.
Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, worked on several of the studies Buric analyzed. He said that her conclusions are “spot on.” However, he also says that more rigorous research is required to solidify the conclusions. There’s also a need for research to see how such techniques work in a greater context, especially when taking into consideration other aspects such as nutrition or lifestyle.
If you’re wondering which technique you should focus on (yoga, meditation, tai chi), the answer is… it doesn’t really seem to matter — at least not in this sense. All of them work equally fine to improve the genetic activity.
This isn’t the first time unexpected benefits of mind-body practices were revealed. In 2014, researchers found positive cellular improvements of meditation and a year before that, a different team showed that even short yoga sessions can be very stimulating to the brain.
Jurnal Reference: Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil — What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670