How Mindfulness Can Affect Our Genes
Mindfulness is all the hype lately, with many positive claims being made regarding its effects on stress management and mental health. But did you know that science has shown that it can even modify our gene expression?
Mindfulness is defined as the state of awareness that emerges by way of paying purposeful and non-judgmental attention to the present and the unfolding of experience moment by moment. While mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways, or simply become a new way of living and being, meditation is often used as a core part of it. Maybe you've heard about studies that looked into brain activity during meditation, or at the changes in brain patterns in long-term meditators.
Within the recent decade, several studies have assessed the effects of mindfulness meditation on gene expression in immune cells, with a particular focus on stress-related inflammatory markers and associated biological pathways. According to the review by Black et al. , the results of several randomized controlled trials share several common features, including a significant reduction in the activity of NF-kB (a protein complex that plays a key role in regulating the immune response to infection) among samples of community adults, breast cancer survivors, and long-term meditators. In addition to NF-kB, investigators have assessed other biomarkers of inflammation and have found increased activity of anti-inflammatory glucocorticoid receptor and Type I interferon anti-viral genes, following a mindfulness intervention. And even though most of these genomic studies have reported results on inflammatory gene expression, investigations on pathways involved in depression, stress, and common diseases are bringing additional insight into how mindfulness exerts changes at the genomic level. One of the explanations comes from the fact that our perception of a stimulus as a threat can activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), leading to the activation of a whole pathway that ultimately regulates gene expression. The effects of mindfulness on brain-mediated attention and awareness serve as a detection filter for the cognitive evaluation of a threat associated with the stimulus, arising either from an actual challenge in the environment or from one mentally imagined. Incredible, isn't it?
And the effects on our genes don't happen only during or right after mindfulness practices: long-term meditation has been shown to produce lasting epigenetic changes. Findings in long-term meditators outside periods of formal practice support the hypothesis of underlying long-lasting epigenetic changes acquired through prolonged training .
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), first introduced by Kabat-Zinn in 1982, is a well-defined, curriculum-based, and replicable 8-week group intervention that has been successfully used as a treatment alternative for different conditions, including psychiatric conditions, eating disorders, sleep disorders, cancer care, pain management, and others. In terms of epigenetics research, it has also been increasingly studied. Bishop et al.  have investigated the application of MBSR as a non-pharmacologic treatment for veterans with PTSD, seeking to identify potential biomarkers for treatment response. Their preliminary findings suggest that DNA methylation signatures within FKBP5 are potential indicators of response to meditation treatment in PTSD. Those findings still require validation in larger cohorts but are encouraging results.
An increased understanding of these techniques and their molecular and epigenetic bases is expected to bring the possibility of introducing them as non-pharmacological approaches to stress-related diseases and psychological disorders.
How exciting - instead of popping pills full of side effects we may instead just learn to simply pay more attention to life and to our thoughts, and with that be able to turn off disease-related genes. That's true healing starting in the mind.
How we can help
At mind∙body∙food∙pain, we use mindfulness interventions for several applications, including chronic pain, stress management, disordered eating, and mental health. To learn more, get in touch with us.
 Black, D. S., Christodoulou, G., & Cole, S. (2019). Mindfulness meditation and gene expression: A hypothesis-generating framework. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 302–306.
 Dusek, J. A., Otu, H. H., Wohlhueter, A. L., Bhasin, M., Zerbini, L. F., Joseph, M. G., Benson, H., & Libermann, T. A. (2008). Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation
response. PLOS one, 3(7), e2576. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002576
 Bishop, J. R., Lee, A. M., Mills, L. J., Thuras, P. D., Eum, S., Clancy, D., Erbes, C. R., Polusny, M. A., Lamberty, G. J., & Lim, K. O. (2018). Methylation of FKBP5 and SLC6A4 in relation to treatment response to mindfulness based stress reduction for posttraumatic stress disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 418. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00418