How Does Om Turn Into Wellbeing? Research Shows Intense Meditation Brings Robust Immune System Activation
How does meditation – sitting down in a quiet space, closing our eyes, and breathing slowly, regularly, and intentionally – result in long-term benefits to well-being and health?
New research from Chandran and colleagues shows that meditative practice enhances immune function without activating inflammatory signals. With just eight days of intense meditation, your body can robustly activate the immune system, University of Florida researchers and their colleagues have found. These results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences (PNAS), make meditation an effective behavioral intervention for supporting immune health.
Is There Evidence for Meditation as Medicine?
Yoga and meditation are holistic disciplines that integrate mental and physical methods to promote human well-being. These practices are growing in popularity worldwide, and according to a recent national health survey, 14% of the adult United States population used yoga or meditation within the previous year. While several studies have demonstrated multiple health benefits from meditation, our understanding of how these benefits occur is superficial at best.
These parameters are typically measured with self-reported surveys before and after meditation interventions, and such an approach may be prone to bias and subjectivity. However, several studies on meditative practices have shown changes in gene activation levels, demonstrating that these methods may benefit physiology at its most fundamental level. Together, several previous studies provide strong evidence for the beneficial effects of meditation by modulating the essential cellular pathways.
Supporting Immune Health with Meditation
Chandran’s interest in the molecular roots of meditation started with his wife's prodding — and a dose of healthy skepticism. His wife told him to just try it for 48 days, which he did for about 21 minutes a day. “I tried it, and it worked really well. I just felt great,” Chandran said. That also awoke his scientific curiosity: How exactly did meditation practices benefit the body?
To understand the meditative effect and to overcome these limitations, Chandran and colleagues looked at how gene activation changed throughout an intensive Samyama meditation, a program that roughly 20,000 individuals have attended to date. Specifically, the researchers obtained hundreds of samples from 106 individuals after a residential meditation retreat including a vegan diet at the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences (McMinnville, TN). Participants spent eight days in complete silence with more than 10 hours of meditation per day.
This research team found that several immune-related and other fundamental cellular pathways were altered after the meditation retreat. Specifically, Chandran and colleagues uncovered a network that included many previously identified genes known to regulate the immune system and related pathways, including interferon signaling. The interferon signaling pathway plays a critical role in immune function by triggering a complex regulatory system of innate and adaptive immune responses. Likely, countering a dysregulated immune system profile with meditation could theoretically improve health outcomes by enhancing immune defenses.
“What we found was that multiple genes related to the immune system were activated — dramatically — when you do Inner Engineering practices,” Chandran said. "This is the first time anyone has shown that meditation can boost your interferon signaling. It demonstrates a way to influence the immune system without pharmaceuticals voluntarily,” he said.
By integrating data on known protein-protein interactions, Chandran and colleagues characterized a core meditation-specific network highly enriched in critical pathways. From this core network analysis, they found three transcription factors — STAT1, STAT2, and TRIM22, which are differentially activated after meditation — regulate several genes enriched for gene sets related to interferon signaling. It is well known that interferons activate STAT complexes to activate immune responses by interacting with their specific receptors. These results support the proposal that meditation improves multiple health conditions by regulating various critical pathways directly related to immune function.
Chandran and colleagues also showed that the meditative practice enhanced immune function without activating inflammatory signals. This suggests that meditation, as a behavioral intervention, may be a practical component in supporting weakened immune systems that can be overpowered by inflammatory responsiveness.
Immune health is also commonly associated with brain health. Several recent studies have shown that the peripheral immune response may influence neuronal function, behavior such as spatial learning and memory, and normal brain function. Thus, targeting the immune system by meditation as an intervention may indicate a new era of developing behavioral therapies to maintain brain health.
This present proof-of-principle study demonstrated that non-pharmaceutical interventions like yoga and meditation can voluntarily influence the immune system. Future studies will be needed in healthy and diseased subjects to test these scenarios to examine the associations between meditation, immune function, and brain health.
Chandran V, Bermúdez ML, Koka M, et al. Large-scale genomic study reveals robust activation of the immune system following advanced Inner Engineering meditation retreat. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021;118(51):e2110455118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2110455118