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Researchers are unraveling an exciting connection between meditation and immunity

The rules were characteristic string: For eight days, participants in the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences advanced retreat in April 2018 were instructed to meditate for ten hours a day, eat a vegan diet, maintain consistent sleep and wake times, and remain completely still. But the structured environment provided researchers with the ideal framework for studying how meditation affects the brain - and what they found could help all of us maintain a robust and healthy immune system.

For Vijayendran Chandran, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida, the event at the Tennessee Mountain Retreat Center provided an excellent opportunity to investigate the effects of meditation at the molecular level in the body. Because participants' diet and sleep plans were closely monitored, he was able to compare before-and-after blood tests and know that these factors did not affect any changes.

"It's very well controlled," Chandran said Vise versa. "Everyone eats the same, everyone sleeps the same."

Meditation appeared to activate genes associated with the immune system. Specifically, Chandran and his co-authors found 220 genes known to be involved in generating an immune response that was effectively screwed up after the withdrawal.

So much the better, this happened without activating genes for inflammation, a component of a typical immune response, but one that can lead to a number of unwanted outcomes if the inflammatory response goes wrong.

The results of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, suggests that meditation can strengthen proper immune function without generating inflammation. This could be particularly useful as an additional, non-drug treatment of immune-related conditions such as multiple sclerosis and even Covid-19.

LENGTH HACKS is a regular series from Vise versa about the science-based strategies for living better, healthier and longer without medication. Get more in our Hacks index.

Science in action - The Isha Institute is conceived by an Indian yoga guru and spiritual teacher named Jagadish "Jaggi" Vasudev. It has centers in Coimbatore, India and McMinnville, Tennessee. According to the new study, about 20,000 people have taken its "advanced civil engineering program."

With permission from the Isha Institute, Chandran and collaborators contacted participants in the April 2018 session and asked if they would agree to be involved in the study. The researchers eventually used 106 participants from the retreat.

The new study included 106 dedicated meditation students. pilesasmiles / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

About two months before the intensive retreat, participants began a vegan diet with an emphasis on raw foods and eliminated coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco. The researchers took blood samples from the participants on four occasions: five to eight weeks before the retreat, the first day, immediately after and three months after the retreat ended.

Taking a blood sample before preparation helped the researchers eliminate any change in gene expression that would be caused by the change in diet. The researchers found that most changes in gene expression occurred between the second blood test (the one before the retreat and after a few weeks on a vegan diet) and the third test (immediately after the retreat).

When genes are activated, they create a ripple effect in the body, which ultimately dictates how our cells and bodies function. Researchers can often use unique biological signatures called biomarkers to determine which genes are being expressed.

After the meditation retreat, the researchers found that genes associated with a typical immune response were activated. Specifically, of the 220 they found, 68 of them were related to interferon signaling, an important part of antiviral and anti-inflammatory responses.

"If you [meditated] for 20 minutes at a lower intensity point, these genes would be activated. "

Significantly, in the final blood test, taken three months after withdrawal, some of these genes were still expressed. Also some new beneficial genes were too.

The study concludes:

Taken together, these results suggest that meditation has an immediate effect on immune cells and genes, which are transient in nature and followed by a dynamically altered effect observed 3 [months] after the meditation retreat.

How this affects longevity - Meditation seemed to prime the immune system. In addition, the systems brought online are "dysfunctional in multiple sclerosis and severe COVID-19 infection."

The researchers took a publicly available dataset of leukocytes (a type of white blood cell) from Covid-19 patients and looked for expression of IFN response genes, a group critical for antiviral response. 97 percent of IFN response genes were increased in expression in the mediation group, 76 percent in moderate Covid-19 patients, and only 31 percent in severe Covid-19 patients. In other words, the people who struggled the most with a Covid-19 infection had a very low supply of a virus-fighting resource that appeared to be increased through meditation.

According to the researchers, the same genes that were upregulated in the meditation group were missing in people who had the most severe cases of Covid-19.Shutterstock

Strengthening of IFN response genes is one of the primary treatments for multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease in which the immune system goes wrong and destroys the protective coating of nerves. The researchers looked at immune system activity biomarkers in untreated cases of MS versus treated cases, again from publicly available sources. An important difference was the increase in IFN response genes in the treated cases - meaning that the effects of meditation reflected some of the effects of MS treatment.

Again from the survey:

Together, these results support the hypothesis that meditation contributes to improving multiple health states by regulating various critical pathways directly related to disease pathogenesis.

Why it's a hack - A question left unanswered by the study: What does any of this benefit those of us who - shall we say - are not quite at the point on our spiritual paths where we would submit to an eight-day completely quiet, completely vegan meditation retreat on a mountain top? ? Do any of these benefits pass on to those of us who may only be able to spend a few minutes snaking into a rough approximation of the lotus position shortly before work?

"If I had to guess, if you [meditated] for 20 minutes at a lower intensity point, these genes would be activated, "says Chandran, who meditates himself," but we have not tested it yet. "He is in the process of designing a study that will test the gene expression response in more relaxed meditators.

The study is the first to suggest that meditation causes a gene expression response that could strengthen the immune system, whereas most previous studies of meditation and health mostly considered subjective reductions in stress and anxiety. And it really is something to be aware of.

Hack Score - Six out of ten battle-ready leukocytes 🧬🧬🧬🧬🧬🧬

The positive impact of meditation on human well-being is well documented, but its molecular mechanisms are incompletely understood. We applied a comprehensive systems biology approach that started with whole blood gene expression profiling combined with multi-level bioinformatics analysis to characterize co-expression, transcriptional, and protein-protein interaction networks to identify a meditation-specific core network following an advanced 8-d Inner Engineering retreat program. We found that the response to oxidative stress, detoxification, and cell cycle regulatory pathways was downregulated after meditation. Strikingly, 220 genes directly linked to immune response, including 68 genes related to interferon signaling, were upregulated without significant expression changes in the inflammatory genes. This robust meditation-specific immune response network is significantly dysregulated in multiple sclerosis and severe COVID-19 patients. The work provides a basis for understanding the effects of meditation and suggests that meditation as a behavioral intervention can voluntarily and non-pharmacologically improve the immune response to treat various conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation with a subdued immune system profile.

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