Harvard scientists have come up with evidence that the mere act of clearing your mind for 15 minutes each day actually alters how your genes operate.
A new study indicates that people who meditated over an eight-week period had a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that, in turn, was linked to a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.
The study is small, and it didn’t include a comparison group of non-meditators. So it doesn’t count as absolute proof that meditation lowers blood pressure by altering gene expression. But its authors hope it will be seen as a milestone on the long road to convincing skeptics of the power of meditation to promote health and reverse disease.
“This is a major step to overcome the innate bias that has developed in medicine over the last hundred years or so,” says Dr. Herbert Benson, who started promoting what he called “the relaxation response” more than four decades ago. “Going back to penicillin in the 1920s, we have been inexorably dependent on medication, surgery and procedures.”
In the face of often-withering criticism from his Harvard colleagues, Benson has insisted that the mind plays a critical role in the body’s health and disease states. He says that a simple intervention aimed at emptying the mind of the constant barrage of intrusive thoughts can achieve major benefits for the body.
“Breaking the train of everyday thought,” the 82-year-old Benson says, “has a medical application that has to be integrated with our marvelous drugs and surgeries.”
His goal is to establish the relaxation response and other techniques that calm the brain — yoga, t’ai chi, breathing exercises, repetitive prayer and other meditative practices -- as a “third leg” of medical treatment, along with medication and surgical procedures.
The time may be right to push this idea forward. Last fall, the American Psychological Association declared the nation has reached a new high point in the nation’s stress quotient. The APA’s “Stress in America” survey found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are stressed out over the nation’s future, and more than half are distressed by the divisiveness that dominates our public life.
Around the same time, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association expanded the definition of high blood pressure, raising the number of people considered hypertensive from 72 million to 103 million -- nearly half of all adults.
While the new treatment guidelines are controversial, under either the old or new definition, tens of millions of Americans are at risk of heart attacks, strokes, organ damage and premature death because their blood pressure is too high.
“With the new guidelines, patients and physicians alike are going to be more and more interested in non-drug therapies that might control blood pressure or potentially augment their medications,” says Dr. Randall Zusman, a Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist and co-author of the new study, which is in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
“This adds to our toolbox for patients who are willing to do the relaxation response technique,” he says.
There are as many as 200 anti-hypertension medications and drug combinations, but many carry troublesome side effects that make it hard for patients to take their pills faithfully. Meditation, on the other hand, is trouble-free, other than the daily time commitment it takes.
High blood pressure lends itself to study of the relaxation response because it’s clearly defined by what doctors call a "clinical read-out" -- a set of numbers that determines whether a patient has the disorder, and whether the disorder responds to a given treatment.
Previous studies of other diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, have suggested improvement after meditation. But, "this is the first study where we have a nice, clean, clinical read-out," says Towia Libermann, a study coauthor who specializes in the genetic markers of disease at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The new study involved 24 people with high blood pressure who underwent eight weeks of training in how to achieve the relaxation response — weekly sessions with an experienced trainer and a 20-minute CD they could play at home. The technique is fairly simple, involving deep breathing, muscle relaxation and concentration on a one-word mantra while passively ignoring intrusive thoughts.
Researchers measured whether patients’ blood pressure dropped by at least 10 points (the systolic or higher value, when the heart contracts) and 5 points (the diastolic or between-beats value), and whether their blood pressure was within a desirable range of 140-over-90.
A little over half the patients achieved these criteria and were called “responders.” It’s not clear whether the other 11 “non-responders” failed to learn the relaxation response -- not everyone can do it successfully -- or whether they had a different type of hypertension that doesn’t respond to meditation.
Blood samples from both groups revealed a clearly different genetic “signature” among the responders. That is, 172 different genes associated with inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism were either switched on or switched off in ways that were different from the non-responders.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to identify gene expression changes specifically associated with the impact of a mind-body intervention on hypertension,” Libermann says.
It makes sense that high blood pressure is involved with genes that regulate inflammation, Libermann says, because it’s well-known that blood vessels are sensitive to inflammation and also release “all kinds of pro- and anti-inflammatory molecules.” In addition, immune cells play prominent roles in triggering inflammation or damping it down.
Inflammation is involved in a wide variety of disorders, including heart disease, liver disease, cancer and auto-immune disorders. So if this study is borne out, mind-body therapies may be useful for many patients.
Another blood pressure study is under way that involves a control group, seen by scientists as necessary to determine if a treatment works. Libermann says the group would like to mount a large study of up to 500 patients with hypertension followed over five years “to see whether we get similar responses.”
Meanwhile, Benson says there is no harm if patients with high blood pressure want to try the relaxation response, “providing you and your physician are on the same page and agree.”
He says meditation is already routine in the MGH’s rehabilitation programs for people who have had heart attacks, even though genomic proof is currently lacking. In one case, he says a patient who used the relaxation response achieved unexpected healing of his damaged heart – possibly because of the anti-inflammatory effect suggested by the new blood pressure study.
“What we’ve been able to do,” Benson says, “slowly, over the years, is change the whole paradigm that the mind and the body were separate.”