Woman practicing mindfulness meditation

Photo by KoolShooters

SHANGHAI, China — Deep breathing techniques are known to have a positive impact on stress levels, but scientists are reporting another significant benefit for the body.Trendy mindfulness practices, including deep meditation,  can boost good bacteria in the gut, a new study reveals.

A team from Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine say a study of Buddhist monks found that their microbes differed substantially from those of their non-meditating neighbors. A healthy balance of good gut bacteria has been linked to a lower risk of anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

Meditation helps people better manage their emotions and enhance their self-awareness. Scientists believe that taking in deep breaths helps dilate blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through them and lowering blood pressure.

“These results suggest that long-term deep meditation may have a beneficial effect on gut microbiota, enabling the body to maintain an optimal state of health,” the researchers write in a media release.

Over several years, meditating may help to regulate the gut microbiome and potentially lower the risks of physical and mental ill health, according to researchers. Bacteria can affect mood and behavior through the gut-brain axis. This includes the body’s immune response, hormonal signaling, stress response, and the vagus nerve — the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system which oversees an array of crucial bodily functions.

Deep-thinking Tibetan monks can serve as representatives of some deeper meditations. Although the number of participants is small, they are rare because of their geographical location.

Meditation is increasingly being used to help treat mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, traumatic stress, eating disorders, and chronic pain. Now, the analysis in the journal General Psychiatry suggests it also alters the composition of the community of trillions of organisms that live in our intestines.

Researchers collected stool and blood samples from 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks at three temples and 19 secular male peers. Tibetan Buddhist meditation originates from the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda and is a form of psychological training.

The monks had been practicing the technique for at least two hours a day for between three and 30 years. Participants had not used antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics, or antifungal drugs that can affect the microbes in the preceding three months.

Meditation influences gut bacteria linked to mental health

Stool sample analysis revealed significant differences in the diversity and volume of microbes between the monks and their neighbors. Age, blood pressure, heart rate, and diet were taken into account. Species known as Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes were dominant in both groups – as researchers expected.

However, Bacteroidetes and Prevotolla were enriched seven-fold in the monks. There was also a high volume of Megamonas and Faecalibacterium.

“Collectively, several bacteria enriched in the meditation group [have been] associated with the alleviation of mental illness, suggesting that meditation can influence certain bacteria that may have a role in mental health,” the researchers write.

Previous research shows these species include Prevotella, Bacteroidetes, Megamonas, and Faecalibacterium. Computer models indicated several protective anti-inflammatory pathways, in addition to metabolism – the conversion of food into energy – were enhanced in the monks.

Blood scans showed levels of agents linked with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, including cholesterol, were also significantly lower. The researchers suggest the role of meditation in helping to prevent or treat psychosomatic illness definitely merits further research.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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