New Delhi: Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School used a rigorous study design to assess the biological impact of meditation compared to vacation.
They examined the effect of meditation on gene expression patterns in both novice and regular meditators. Researchers found that a resort vacation provides a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune pathways, in addition to short-term improvements in well-being, as measured by feelings of vitality and distress.
A meditation retreat, for those who already used meditation regularly, was associated with molecular networks characterized by antiviral activity. The molecular signature of long-term meditators was distinct from the non-meditating vacationers.
The study involved 94 healthy women, aged 30-60. Sixty-four women were recruited who were not regular meditators. Participants stayed at the same resort in California for six days, and randomized so that half were simply on vacation while the other half joined a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being.
For greater insight into the long-term effects of what scientists dubbed the “meditation effect” compared to the “vacation effect,” the team also studied a group of 30 experienced meditators who were already enrolled in the retreat that week. Researchers collected blood samples, and surveys, from all participants immediately before and after their stay, as well as surveys one month and ten months later.
The research team examined the changes in 20,000 genes to determine which types of genes were changing before and after the resort experience. Scientists performed an integrative transcriptomic analysis, comparing gene expression networks across all three groups of participants and finding unique molecular profiles and pathway enrichment patterns.
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Study results show that all groups – novice meditators, experienced meditators, and vacationers – had significant changes in molecular network patterns after the week at the resort, with a clear signature distinguishing baseline from post-vacation biology. The most notable changes in gene activity were related to stress response and immune function.
Researchers assessed self-reported measures of well being. While all groups showed improvements up to one month later, the novice meditators had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress much longer than the non-meditating vacationers. The psychological effects appear to be enduring and it is unknown how much of this longer lasting benefit may be due to continued practice or lasting changes in how people view events in their lives.