If you’re stuck at home for a little while due to social distancing, why not take up some new hobbies? Meditation is not only great for relaxation, but it turns out it’s also great for your immune system too.
Inflammation is not your friend — but meditation is
Chronic stress weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses, bacteria, and other nasty stuff. We all know that eating healthy and getting enough sleep can help to offset some of that, but meditation is linked to an increase in cytokines, which play an essential role in the immune system response.
One of the ways that the immune system responds to stress is through inflammation. Inflammation can be a helpful early response to injury or infection (think of the swelling that occurs when you get a cut). This inflammation is caused by proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines.
A little inflammation is good, but chronic inflammation, which comes from chronic stress, is bad. It weakens the immune system, leading to inflammatory illnesses like arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome, and increasing your risk for type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
Several studies have shown that participation in a mindfulness meditation program can reduce the number of anti-inflammatory cytokines. The brain-body link is clear. We know that meditation reduces stress, and now we see that it allows the body to heal itself and can potentially prevent infection.
Natural Born Killers
Natural Killer cells are white blood cells that serve as one of the first lines of defense in your immune system. They are the cells that target and kill abnormal cells like cancer and atypical cells like those infected by a virus.
Natural Killers are important for fighting the flu. In two studies, where participants actually volunteered to sniff live influenza, they were able to show that those participants with high baselines of Natural Killers were far better able to fight off the flu.
At least one small study has shown that meditation may be able to increase the number of Natural Killer cells. It was a small-scale study only looking at a handful of practitioners, but they measured NK cell numbers before and after practice and showed an increase. More research is undoubtedly needed, but it’s an intriguing result.
Telomerase activity and youthful DNA
Telomeres got a lot of attention in the media a few years ago when scientists started to show a link between telomere length and aging. Telomeres are caps on the ends of each chromosome, and they protect the cell against deterioration. As cells age, they become more damaged, and this is linked to mortality rates. Longer telomeres essentially mean younger DNA.
Telomere length is regulated by an enzyme called telomerase. Higher rates of telomerase activity lead to longer telomeres and greater protection of the cell. It’s been shown that poor diet, health, and stress can all lead to telomere deterioration. But some new research is showing that you can also do things to increase telomerase activity. One of those things? You guessed it, meditation.
Meditation decreases cortisol levels, and higher cortisol levels are linked with telomere damage. One study of a group of breast cancer survivors found an increase in telomerase activity after completing a meditation program. The control group, which did no meditation, showed no corresponding increase.
Antibodies, the flu, and meditation
When injected with the flu vaccine, your body starts to create antibodies. These antibodies are unique to the particular strain of the flu that the body is exposed to. The number of antibodies produced and the strength of the immune system response varies depending on the health of an individual.
In an impressive study of meditation and it’s effects on the immune system, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness showed that meditation has a dramatic impact on the immune system response to the flu vaccine.
Twenty-five participants went through a mindfulness meditation program. They were given brain scans before, after, and then four months after the completion of the program. Subjects were also given a flu vaccine at the end of the program.
What they found was fascinating. Not only did the meditators show increased brain activity in an area of the left hemisphere associated with positive emotions, but they also found an increase in antibodies in response to the flu vaccine.
In fact, they were able to show that the increase was “dose-dependent” meaning, the greater the increase in brain activity, the greater the increase in antibodies. Pretty cool, right? Once again demonstrating that close link between mind and body.
Practice makes perfect
All of these studies were looking at the effects of long-term meditation of at least eight weeks, a minimum of at least five days a week, and at least 20 -30 minutes of practice a day. But that’s how it is with lifestyle changes; you have to put in the work to see the results. The good news? Adding 20 minutes of meditation a day is relatively easy for most people, and there are virtually NO adverse side effects! The positive results, though? Pretty astounding.