Meditating each day activates genes that fight off cancer and viruses like COVID-19

Extreme meditation retreat, where participants practice for 10 hours daily, leads to significant changes to 220 genes linked to immune system.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. —Meditating for a few minutes each day may be the first step in helping the body fight off cancer and viruses like COVID-19, a new study reveals. A team from the University of Florida found that meditation and yoga programs, or Inner Engineering practices, dramatically boost the body’s immune system.

Their worked focused on patients practicing these techniques intensely — meditating for over 10 hours a day — for over a week. Meditation retreats have become increasingly popular over the past few years as more people look to take a break from their busy schedule and spend time alone with their thoughts.

While the positive effects of meditation are well documented, far less is known about how it affects biological processes at the molecular level. Now, scientists found spending a week in silent meditation appears to hold genetic benefits that help combat life-threatening diseases.

Researchers add these participants also followed a vegan diet and a regular sleep schedule during the retreat, but those healthy practices did not have the same effect as meditation. Study author Dr. Vijayendran Chandran began practicing meditation for 21 minutes a day after his wife suggested he give it a chance.

“I was just trying to be open-minded. I tried it and it worked really well. My clarity and focus were improved. I just felt great,” Chandran recalls in a university release.

10 hours of meditation activates disease-fighting genes

The study involved 106 people embarking on a meditation retreat at the Isha Institute of Inner-Sciences in Tennessee, in 2018. During the tightly controlled retreat, participants remained in silence for eight days, meditated over 10 hours a day, ate only vegan meals, and maintained a healthy amount of sleep each night.

Researchers collected blood samples five to eight weeks beforehand, immediately before and after the retreat, and three months later. They discovered genetic differences between samples taken before and after the intense meditation retreat. Specifically, 220 genes linked to the body’s immune system were more active after participants attended the Inner Engineering meditation retreat. This included 68 genes that have a connection to interferon signaling, which helps the body combat viruses and cancer.

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“What we found was that multiple genes related to the immune system were activated — dramatically — when you do Inner Engineering practices,” Dr. Chandran reports. “This is the first time anyone has shown that meditation can boost your interferon signaling. It demonstrates a way to voluntarily influence the immune system without pharmaceuticals.”

Could meditation help boost COVID defenses?

Recent studies have also found interferon signaling imbalances in patients with severe cases of COVID-19 and multiple sclerosis (MS). The researchers compared participants’ interferon gene activity with COVID patients and found stark differences. Mediation activated 97 percent of the virus fighting interferon genes, compared to 76 percent in mild COVID patients and 31 percent in severe cases.

Likewise, meditation proved to be more beneficial than traditional interferon treatments for MS patients.

Dr. Chandran notes that, taken together, the findings support using meditation to potentially improve multiple health conditions. Study authors add they need conduct more studies on this and hope to determine if less intense meditation regimens over a longer term might produce similar beneficial immune system effects.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.