How Your Meditation Routine Is Altering Your DNA

What if we knew that meditation could actually change our DNA in a good way? Would that motivate us to set aside time for it more often? – by Kaia Roman

Most people who meditate do it because it feels good or perhaps because they’ve heard it’s good for their health. Many people, myself included, have intentions to meditate regularly but often find that life gets in the way. But what if we knew that meditation could actually change our DNA in a good way? Would that motivate us to set aside time for it more often?

We’re all born with certain genes—the genetic material passed on to us from our parents. And you can often tell which genes you have just by looking in the mirror—blue eyes or brown hair, for example. But not every gene you carry will be “expressed,” or experienced by your body, even if your DNA carries its genetic code. Certain genes can turn on and off, like a light switch—and a multitude of factors determine when the switch gets flipped.

Epigenetics is the study of the outside factors that influence gene expression—the way our DNA shows up in our bodies. Scientists are still learning about all the things that affect DNA. They run the gamut from exposure to toxins to diet and exercise to—you guessed it—meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is a simple technique of bringing awareness to the present moment without judgment, often using the breath or a mantra as a focal point.

study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison confirmed genetic changes in test subjects following a day of mindfulness meditation. These meditators showed a range of genetic changes after eight hours, including reduced levels of inflammatory genes, indicating they had enhanced their ability to recover from physical stress.

The inflammatory genes that “switched off” in the test subjects are the same genes often targeted with anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs. The meditators also showed more rapidly declining cortisol levels following mentally stressful stimulation in comparison to the control group.

Another study, published in the journal Cancer, looked at breast cancer patients who practiced mindfulness meditation. These patients had longer telomeres (strands of DNA that protect chromosomes). Telomeres normally shorten with age, leaving chromosomes vulnerable to deterioration.

They’re shorter in people with chronic disease and high stress and longer in young, healthy people. So, long telomeres are a good thing and one that the researchers correlated with meditation.

Does this mean that meditation can prevent you from getting a disease if you carry the gene for it? Not necessarily. But knowing meditation is on the list of epigenetic factors we can control in our lives makes a significant difference.

Next time you start to feel like meditation is one thing too many to pack into an already busy day, consider this quote from Gandhi: “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” And think of your telomeres!

How To Practice Mindfulness Every Day 

Here are six ways you can tap into the power of the present moment every day:

1. Start your day with mindfulness.

The first few minutes of your morning set the tone for the rest of your day. Why not use them to center yourself before you tackle what lies ahead? When you wake up, before reaching for your phone to check your messages or the morning news, simply sit quietly for five to ten minutes, focus on your breath, and notice the thoughts rushing into your mind without responding to them.

2. Just breathe. 

Stress is bound to rear its head nearly every day. When it does, it causes your brain’s amygdala to tell your body to react with the primal instincts of fight, flight, or freeze. When the amygdala senses stress, it can’t tell the difference between real, physical danger and a tight deadline at work. In its effort to protect you, it blocks signals to the prefrontal cortex — the part of your brain that makes logical decisions.

Deep breaths send oxygen to the brain, which can calm the amygdala, reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and increase your ability to think clearly. When you feel stress start to take hold, pause and take 10 deep breaths — counting slowly to five with each inhale and exhale. You might want to post “Breathe” on a piece of paper at your desk, in your car, or on your bathroom mirror as a reminder.

3. Catch yourself on autopilot.

How many times have you gotten in the car, reached your destination, and never even realized you were driving? Or sat down at your desk in the morning only to notice at 2 p.m. that you haven’t taken a break yet? In our modern lives, we let too much go by without savoring the experience. But you can turn this habit around just by making an effort to be present to your body, your surroundings, and your feelings at regular intervals throughout the day. Choose a cue to help you remember to be present. This can be a reminder you set on your phone or a discreetly placed note card that you glance at throughout your day.

4. Focus on your senses.

If you are blessed to have all five senses in full working order, use them to your advantage by intentionally honing in on each one individually at least once a day. Look at a beautiful cloud formation, listen to a great piece of music, smell a fragrant flower, taste something delicious, and touch something soft. Really take the time to experience each sensation fully. Bringing your awareness to each individual sense will anchor you in the present moment and train your brain to focus.

5. Make mindful movements.

Those of us who work at desks all day can often become detached from our bodily sensations. To become present in your body, take frequent breaks throughout your day to jump up and down, shift from one foot to the other, or swing your arms. Pay attention to the way your body feels when you move and try to complement these frequent small movements with regular aerobic exercise that raises your heart rate.

6. Practice gratitude.

Frequent optimism lowers cortisol levels and trains your brain to choose positive thoughts and actions habitually. I suggest keeping a gratitude notebook with you at all times and setting aside a few minutes each day to jot down what you are thankful for.

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