Mindfulness Helps Cancer Patients And Changes Gene Expression
March 17, 2014

Mindfulness Helps Cancer Patients And Changes Gene Expression

Mindfulness and meditation take many forms. Some use these techniques simply as aids to relaxation, while others claim that advanced meditation has helped them attain transcendental states and experiences. They even form a core part of various psychological therapies including CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. New research has now given evidence that mindfulness can even cause beneficial chemical and genetic changes.

In books like the excellent Full Catastrophe Living, John Kabat-Zinn describes the work of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in using mindfulness as a therapy for those who have suffered serious setbacks in life. In one class of around thirty there is a 34-year-old insurance executive with AIDS, a 47-year-old businessman who, after one heart attack, wants to de-stress to avoid further attacks, and a lady who has suffered a cerebral aneurysm. There is a migraine sufferer who gets panic attacks, an insomniac, a wrestler prone to violence outside the ring as well as inside it, and others with physical and mental health problems, all together in one place because it is hoped that mindfulness will be like a broad spectrum panacea for dealing with their problems without further drugs or medical interventions. The results, as detailed in the book, are impressive, but is there a scientific basis for the technique?

Joint research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Institute of Biomedical Research in Barcelona published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (yes, really) has discovered that specific molecular changes take place in the body after 8-hour periods of mindful meditation. Testing a group of experienced meditators after an intensive day of meditation, they found a range of genetic and molecular adaptations including a reduction in the production of pro-inflammatory genes like RIPK2 and COX2 and histone deacetylase (HDAC), suggesting a response in the subjects that correlates with faster potential to recover from stressful situations. Indeed it was found that the meditators actually performed better in stress tests after meditation. Interestingly, none of the adaptations were found before the tests. The experienced meditators had not undergone permanent genetic changes but only exhibited these after a session of intense practice.

In another study by the University of Montreal, research suggests that mindful meditation could help improve mood and sleep patterns for teenage cancer sufferers. Uncertainty, anxiety, and the stress of physical and emotion pain caused by their illness as well as some of  their treatments only make the whole experience worse. After eight 90-minute weekly mindfulness sessions the patients reported improved quality of life as well as better sleep and mood. Their depression scores were also lower than a similar group who did not attend the meditation sessions. It is possible, the study’s authors point out, that some of these benefits could have resulted from the support the patients were receiving but the results, when considered in conjunction with the gene study above at least give some scientific credibility to the practice of mindfulness. Disregarding the obvious commercial exploitation of mindfulness, which has seen the growth of a massive mindfulness industry, I am not surprised by these findings as my personal experience of meditation and mindfulness has been extremely positive.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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