Meditation Boosts Immunity
We tend to not give much thought to our immune systems until they stop working properly. Yet, the immune system is constantly active, neutralizing threats before we’re even alerted to their presence.
Not only can meditation have significant therapeutic effects on the human mind-body at a macroscopic, physiological level, it can effect positive changes at the microscopic, cellular — even molecular — level. And immunity begins at the molecular level. Recent studies shed light on how meditation can influence the immune system and the stressors that threaten it…
Meditation boosts antibody production.
One study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness (MBSR or mindfulness-based stress reduction) meditation produced 5 to 25 percent more antibodies in people who had received an influenza flu vaccine.
Researchers also found that a significantly increased left-sided, anterior brain activation (pattern indicating positive emotions) in meditators (compared to non-meditating controls) and that this activity was associated with the rise in antibodies (Davidson et al, 2003).
Meditation reduces oxidative stress.
One of the mechanisms through which meditation may help prevent illness is by reducing the level of oxidative stress in our bodies. Several studies have found that oxidative stress and oxidative damage is significantly lower among those who practice meditation (Kim et al, 2005; Van Wijk et al, 2008; Sharma et al, 2008). Two 2013 clinical studies found that Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on oxidative stress, endothelial function, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and heart rate variability (HRV). HRV and endothelial function improved and blood cortisol levels significantly decreased, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels in long-term Sahaja meditators, compared to the non-meditating control population (Rai et al, 2013).
Meditation regulates pro-inflammatory genes.
Studies have shown that meditation may even operate at the genetic level by regulating the expression of certain genes that play a role in causing inflammation. One study found that meditation significantly reduced the pro-inflammatory gene expression and blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation (Creswell et al, 2012). Meditation’s ability to reduce inflammation is important because inflammation plays a significant role in driving the disease process for a host of serious illnesses, including cancer, cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, arthritis and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Meditation stops immune cell death.
A study published by UCLA researchers in Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that meditation can stop the decline of CD4 T-cells in HIV-positive patients suffering from stress, slowing the progression of the disease (Creswell et al, 2009). CD4+ T lymphocytes, or CD4 T cells, are the “brains” of the immune system that coordinate its activity when the body comes under attack. They’re also the cells that are attacked by HIV, the devastating virus that causes AIDS.
Meditation slows cellular aging and protects chromosomes.
Meditation may promote mitotic cell longevity (cell division) both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere (Epel, 2009).
Meditation may provide psychoneuroimmunologic protection throughout the life span.
A review of Indo-Tibetan meditative and yogic practices suggests that these practices may have a profound impact on the body’s protective and regulatory systems. Specifically, the study highlighted the impact of their anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, and antioxidant effects, as well as their impact in enhancing the production of endogenous (natural) substances that possess general regenerative properties and enhance longevity. Meditation was found to help protect allostasis and guard against neuronal loss, the latter of which has implications for improving cognitive function (Olivio, 2009).
Meditation promotes accurate appraisals of stressors, facilitating effective coping.
Stressful situations in which there’s the possibility of control usually call for behaviorally active, problem-focused coping strategies, whereas situations in which nothing can be done usually call for strategies that help us accept the reality and regulate our emotional response to it. Stress impedes our ability to accurately appraise stressors, but accurate appraisals are necessary for effective coping. An appraisal mismatch, for example, could cause us to attempt to exert control over an uncontrollable situation, which only results in more distress. Emotions based on reason and analysis tend to drive meaningful behavior, but stress cognitions based on false, distorted projections or fear-based beliefs can lead to chronic stress and an overworked immune system, which endangers cellular longevity.
Meditation acts as a stress-buffer.
In increasing our awareness of present moment experience, meditation increases positive thoughts and feelings, gives us a sense of control (and a decreased need to control), increases acceptance of our emotional experience, and enhances our ability to accurately appraise stressful situations. Thus, meditation can help reduce the likelihood of rumination, exaggerated threat appraisals, and distress about distress. Increasing positive emotional states and decreasing stress cognitions may, in turn, slow the rate of cellular aging (Epel et al, 2004).
A persistent trend of overestimating the significance of negative events has long been known to excessive emotional reactivity and to wear-and-tear of our visceral systems. One 2014 study of long-term Sahaja practitioners found that the practice of Sahaja mediation exerts top-down emotional regulation and allows flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). The emotional stability of Sahaja meditators was found to be more than a general flattening of the emotional responses to external events; rather it results from the ability to prevent intense, full-scale, potentially harmful, physiological reactions in response to strong adverse conditions. Through the practice of Sahaja meditation, the process of appraising an event’s motivational significance undergoes a change which allows us to control emerging emotions, and over time, this change can gradually become automatic.
Meditation facilitates psychological thriving.
Under chronic stress, some of us engage in positive coping, while others tend to remain fixed in their thinking. Meditation helps us develop cognitive shifts that reorganize our outlook on life, which improves our ability to appraise more situations as challenges rather than threats, and facilitates positive coping (Epel, 2009). But these shifts are more than just coping strategies or acute stressor appraisals. They’re not tied to specific situations; rather, they serve as meta-cognitions about our lives. They stay with us, perhaps becoming ingrained schemas that affect all our future appraisals.
This shift is sometimes referred to as psychological thriving. Psychological thriving includes a wide range of positive appraisals, such as greater appreciation of life, self growth, greater self-confidence and self-esteem, a sense of empowerment, and an ability to effectively mobilize resources.
Psychological thriving promotes physical thriving, in part, by enhancing allostasis. Allostasis is the body’s ability to adapt and respond to constantly changing environments or stressors in order to regain homeostasis or physiological equilibrium. It is a state of lower stress arousal, more efficient reactivity, quicker recovery, and metabolic functioning after stress (Bower et al, 2008; Epel et al, 1998).
Meditation boosts immune function in people with cancer.
Meditation has been found to boost T-cell function in women with breast cancer (Walker, 1999; Carlson et al, 2003), reduce stress symptoms, and change depressive immune patterns in men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer to a healthier immune profile (Carlson et al, 2003).
Good coping skills can increase natural killer T cell activity.
A healthy immune system can manufacture more T cells, those natural killer cells that have the ability to spontaneously recognize and selectively target certain tumor cells and virus-infected cells. Researchers have measured how T cell activity correlates with the interaction between high stress and coping skills. One Harvard Medical School study found that the natural killer T-cell activity of people with high levels of daily stress but fewer symptoms of distress was three times higher than that of people with high levels of stress but more symptoms of distress. In other words, people with high stress but good coping skills had stronger immune systems than people with low stress levels and poor coping skills (Locke et al, 1984).
Poor coping was found to decrease the activity of natural killer cells, whereas good coping skills (experiencing few symptoms in the face of considerable stress) produced the highest T cell activity. The implication is that since decreased natural killer T cells increases the risk of illness, the way we manage stress directly affects our health.
Meditation increases telomerase activity.
A cellular enzyme within cells called telomerase keeps immune cells young by preserving their telomere length and their ability to continue dividing. Telomerase counteracts telomere shortening. Telomerase activity is a predictor of long-term cellular viability, and telomerase activity is diminished by chronic psychological distress.
A study funded, in part, by NCCAM (the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) found that certain lifestyle modifications may significantly increase telomerase levels in men with prostate cancer (Ornish et al, 2008). The program included:
- moderate aerobic exercise
- stress management strategies (yoga, breathing, meditation, imagery, and progressive relaxation techniques)
- improved nutrition (low-fat diet supplemented with soy, fish oil, selenium, and vitamins C and E)
- increased social support
After 3 months, participants’ telomerase levels had increased 29.8 percent. This increase in telomerase activity was also found to be associated with decreased psychological distress and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Meditation facilitates positive psychological change that increase telomerase activity
Another study found that a 3-month meditation retreat significantly increased telomerase activity in meditators (compared to controls) and effected changes in two major contributors to the experience of stress: Perceived Control and Neuroticism. Stress is known to decrease when we perceive that we have control over outcomes; neuroticism is heavily associated with increased perceived distress. The study also examined two qualities developed by meditative practice — increased Mindfulness and Purpose in Life, both of which influenced improvements in Perceived Control and Neuroticism (Jacobs et al, 2011).
Meditation was found to increase Perceived Control, decrease Neuroticism, and directly influence both Mindfulness and Purpose in Life. Increases in Perceived Control and decreases in negative emotions were found to increase telomerase activity, which helps preserve telomere length and increase immune cell longevity. An increase in Purpose in Life directly increased telomerase activity, though an increase in Mindfulness was not found to have an influence. And not surprisingly, increases in Purpose in Life also decreased negative emotions.
Sahaja meditation increases gray matter volume.
A 2016 Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume (GMV) across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique (Hernández et al, 2016). In addition, GMV was found to be especially enlarged in left and right hemispheric regions associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, monitoring of autonomic functions and feelings of empathy and compassion.
Grey matter plays an important role in both our mental and physical health. Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and includes brain regions involved in memory, emotions, speech, decision making, self-control, muscle control, and sensory perception modalities such as sight and hearing. Thus, increased gray matter in a particular region increases neuronal activation, which improves corresponding functions and capabilities. Inversely, however, evidence consistently shows that gray matter volume abnormalities are associated with reduced functioning.
GMV is known to increase in childhood, peak in adolescence and decrease progressively with age across adulthood. Thus, Sahaja meditation’s ability to promote gray matter neuroplasticity in adults may help diminish the normal age-related decline in GMV and promote a younger brain structure pattern overall.
While meditation cannot magically remove all stressors from our lives, it can significantly effect how our minds and bodies respond to them.
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