You are your gene expression: why it’s not surprising that meditation changes epigenetics
A study came out that was a rather nice demonstration of some molecular changes that actually drive the benefits of mindfulness meditation, and the response to it was all out of proportion. Which, I suppose, is where I come in. Because headlines like “Scientists finally find how meditating can CHANGE YOUR GENOME!” give me hives.
What They Did: Teasing Out the Molecular Pathways of Calmness
The central finding of this study is very simple: a certain gene, called HDAC9, is less prevalent in blood after a day of meditation than it is after a day of just hanging out. HDAC9 is so-called because of its function; Histone De-ACetylase 9 removes certain chemical groups from certain histones, which changes expression of nearby genes. After meditation, the researchers found slightly more histone acetylation and slightly less histone methylation (these two chemical marks, in this case, are mutually exclusive) overall. They also found lowered levels of certain stress-related genes after meditation.
That’s about it.
Why It’s Cool: Alternative Drug Discovery
One of the most interesting things to me in reading this study was the angle that the authors took in the discussion section, in part because it reveals their bias. This study is located in an interesting nexus of a lot of woo: alternative medicine, mindfulness practice, and a healthy dose of “The Secret”-esque “Meditate your disease away”. The authors have to do a lot of work to specify exactly what they are studying, what they are not studying, and the limitations to their discoveries. A huge portion of this paper is building credibility for the idea that mindfulness meditation could maybe have a therapeutic role in some situations.
I think that’s largely BECAUSE of woo. If there weren’t people out there blithely insisting that meditation can CURE ALL ILLS, I don’t think that skeptics and scientists would have such a gut reaction against the idea that meditation can help reduce chronic physiological stress, on a molecular level. Which, in a way, means that woo practitioners are essentially shooting themselves in the foot here: the fact that there is so much woo out there in this field means that even a decent, modest study showing a potentially fruitful, although slight, correlation is a lot harder to defend and a lot harder to publish.
Why It Won’t Change Medicine As We Know It: Controls and Patient Cooperation
The reason you probably won’t see this in hospitals any time soon, really, isn’t that it doesn’t work ever. No one would necessarily argue that trained practitioners of meditation can enact physiological changes in their bodies seemingly at will that those of us who don’t spend every day mostly meditating — or who don’t even meditate, ever — can’t. But that’s the point. Those of us who don’t spend every day mostly meditating — or who don’t even meditate, ever — can’t effect these rapid physiological changes.
It’s an efficiency thing, as much as anything. It is hard enough to get people to take a full course of antibiotics, or take birth control every day at the same time — and taking a pill is a very easy thing for most adults to do. Meditating is a very difficult thing that takes a lot of training for most people, and while it may be true that in the long run it also has an anti-inflammatory and stress-relieving effect (I find that plausible), it’s not appropriate for acute illnesses if the patient hasn’t already trained fairly extensively in mindfulness. Doctors would be introducing a huge amount of user error if they sent people with chronic diseases home with a pamphlet on meditation instead of an anti-inflammatory drug.
Why It’s Not A Huge Breakthrough: We Were Always Physical Feedback Loops
Now on to the biggest portion of hype. Namely, that it should be somehow impressive to discover that meditation — known to have a calming effect — changes expression of a handful of genes.
I hate to break it to you, woo-verse, but just about any noticeable behavioral change will probably change expression of a handful of genes. When you wake up changes expression of a handful of genes. Going out and spending a half-hour outside changes expression of a handful of genes. Eating a donut changes expression of a handful of genes. Being too cold or too warm changes expression of a handful of genes.
The difference, I imagine a vaguely scarecrow-like interlocutor insisting, is that meditation isn’t a physical thing like going outside or eating a donut or waking up. It’s purely mental.
And that, right there, is why I wrote this article to begin with. Because that dualism — between physicalities like food or temperature and mental states — is one of the things that frustrates me the most right now. We are our physical bodies; we think with our guts as much as our neurons; and everything in nature and genetics seems to be built on the kind of complex feedback loops that mean things like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have a chance at working. Feedback loops between sensation and thought and emotion and physicality — you are your chemicals, and you can think about your chemicals, and you can change your thoughts and so with enough practice and enough work you can sometimes change your chemicals. Not a lot, but enough to carve out a little bit more happiness and a little bit less stress.
That’s all this study says, and it wouldn’t be a shock at all if it weren’t for the fact that we were stuck as a society on the idea that we are beings of pure energy, temporarily inhabiting and often hamstrung by a piece of meat.
Featured image is cropped from Cornelia Kopp (Flickr: meditation) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons