Meditation for a healthy immune system – plain language summary

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Here’s a cool study to wrap the year up: evidence of changes in gene expression following an intense meditation retreat. Published in quite a prestigious journal no less.

Remember, gene expression means that our body’s machinery is activated to produce whatever it is that the particular genes code for. This could be proteins, for instance those that promote inflammation (called pro-inflammatory cytokines). If we are blocking gene expression, by contrast, the machinery will stop those genes from producing what they code for.

In this particular study, they found changes in the expression of immune system genes immediately after the meditation retreat. Some of these changes were maintained 3 months later, indicating a more long-term effect. The products of these genes are part of the same immune system pathway, specifically the interferon pathway.

Exciting, for me, is the fact that the changes in gene expression are not the same as the ones observed after exercise, which is more evidence that yoga practices are not just Indian gymnastics (with the caution that theoretically the study looked at meditation and not postural yoga, although see caveats below).

So what?

There are diseases where this pathway doesn’t work properly or ones that could do with this pathway working better. Meditation could be a good support for patients with such diseases to help keep their condition in check. As ever, I highlight the word support, ie not replacing other medication!

Severe COVID-19 is one such example; patients with severe COVID-19 do not express high levels of these same genes, whereas those with mild COVID-19 do. Specifically, the study found that 97% of the genes are expressed in high levels after meditation, 76% in patients with mild disease and just 31% in patients with severe disease. (and just from a COVID-19 research perspective it’s interesting to see that the immune response of mild vs severe is very different, which contributes to the severity of the disease itself)

But, some considerations

The big thing to consider is what this meditation retreat was. I would call it fairly extreme, but you tell me what you think:

  • Participants had to prepare for the retreat 2 months before it started, including adopting a vegan diet and eliminating various food groups (including, shock horror, coffee)
  • In this preparatory phase they also had to adopt a daily practice of yoga, kriyas (cleansing practices), meditation and pranayama (breathing practices). Plus something I’d never heard of before called ardha siddhasana, which apparently is meant to have some sort of supernatural properties but looks like a meditation seat
  • They were experienced meditators and yoga practitioners (at least 1 year)
  • The retreat itself involved around 10 hours of meditation a day (I have friends who have done vipassana retreats and rave about them but I don’t think I could survive one)

So – not exactly practical! If this is what it takes to change the immune gene expression profile, then I don’t think they will be very successful in getting more people to adopt this as a holistic treatment. It’s a challenge to get people to commit to 10 minutes of meditation a day (myself included).

It’s also way too complicated, so it’s impossible to know what part of this regime drives the changes (is it the meditation itself? the pranayama? the yoga practice? is it doing next to nothing for 8 days?). Some additional analysis excluded the vegan diet and strict sleep–wake schedule of the retreat, but there’s still too many variables.

Regardless, I think it’s cool to see more research on this, and the snob in me was very happy to see where this was published. As a next step though, I would love to see research with a more practical regime that can be adopted widely.

What do you think? Would you adopt this meditation regime to support your immune system?

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