Perhaps the most impressive of all of the findings on the mechanisms of action of meditation on the systems of the body is the potential for meditation to alter our genes and gene expression. Coinciding with recent advances and interest in epigenetics, researchers have been exploring the effects of mindfulness practices on genes and the bodily functions regulated by these genes.
It is often assumed that if something is genetic, that it is a mandatory, unavoidable trait of the organism. Another common misunderstanding is that a trait or characteristic is either caused by our genes or caused by our environment. Indeed, most traits are both. A more accurate perspective is that our genes provide a predisposition for a trait. Often referred to as the blueprint for life, our genes give us the potential to develop or to function in a certain way. Just as a blueprint provides a specific layout for a building, the actual materials used in the building will make a significant difference in the final appearance and functions of the building. In this same way, the environment works on our genetic disposition to influence the outcome. Many genes do not exert their influence unless they are activated by specific environmental influences. Some environmental stimuli turn on genes, and others may turn genes off. It is not until a gene is turned on (expressed), that its potential is activated and its disposition becomes apparent; and the instructions that are encoded by the gene are carried out.
When a gene is turned on, it tells your other cells what to do. For example, some gene products are used to terminate the life of a cell, as with apoptosis of cancer cells. Some genes activate while others suppress tumor growth and the development of cancer. Others activate regeneration of healthy new cell growth.
Normal, healthy function requires the capability of all of our genes to operate when they are called upon. One of the ways in which we define the aging process is when genes begin to fail to operate as they programmed. A specific indicator of aging is when chromosomes begin to deteriorate, and gene regulation is impaired. As chromosomes deteriorate, the ends of the DNA strands, referred to as telomeres, literally break off, resulting in shorter and functionally impaired chromosomes. In healthy cells, chromosomal length and function are maintained by an enzyme referred to as telomerase. Telomerase literally puts the telomeres back on the ends of the chromosomes maintaining their structure and function. As telomerase levels decline, chromosomes start to fall apart and become shorter. Low levels of telomerase are associated with cardiovascular disease, obesity, high levels of stress and stress hormones, inflammation, and anemia. Fortunately, if and when telomerase levels increase, shortened chromosomes can be repaired, and normal function can be reinstated.
One of the more profound discoveries of the effects of meditation on genes is that meditation increases telomerase levels. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomerase, and her colleagues, have explored the effects of meditation on telomerase activity. Their results showed that meditation has significant effects, activating a 43% increase in telomerase levels in those who meditated for just eight weeks. This study and others have shown that telomerase activity clearly increases more dramatically with meditation than from any telomerase supplement or drug ever sold. Meditation is the most effective treatment that has ever been found to increase telomerase enzyme activity. Further research will likely continue to explore the logical assumption that by restoring telomerase levels, to some extent mindfulness meditation actually reverses the aging process.
Lavretsky H, Epel ES, Siddarth P, Nazarian N, Cyr NS, Khalsa DS, Lin J, Blackburn E, Irwin MR, A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013, Jan, 28(1):57-65.