From I to We: The Role of Consciousness Transformation in Compassion and Altruism by Cassandra Vieten, Tina Amorok, and Sofia University’s chair of the PhD programs, Marilyn Schlitz
Integrative medicine practices, such as meditation and Ayurveda, are popular but their effects on human physiology are not yet fully understood. Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word that means the ‘Science of Life’ or the ‘Science of Perfect Health’, is the traditional system of personalized medicine from India that emphasizes disease prevention and health promotion.
Panchakarma, Ayurvedic medicine’s principle cleansing and rejuvenation protocols, incorporates various treatment modalities such as a vegetarian diet, Ayurvedic herbs, meditation, yoga, oil massage, heat therapies, and other specialized treatments that are thought to promote general health and well-being1.
While numerous studies have examined the health and well-being benefits of practices such as meditation, yoga, Ayurvedic herbs and diet, few studies have examined the effects of traditional medical protocols that employ several of these modalities concurrently in one program. To date, very few controlled studies on Panchakarma have been undertaken. Previous studies on Panchakarma have reported improved psychosocial outcomes in healthy subjects as well as improved psychological parameters in depressed patients2,3.
However, little evidence has been reported regarding the physiological and metabolic effects of such treatments. Thus, given interest in integrative therapies with the general public and medical community is steadily increasing, there is a burgeoning need for additional studies that investigate Ayurvedic medicine with modern scientific techniques to further elucidate the relevant biological effects and mechanisms related to these practices.
In a controlled clinical trial, participants in the Chopra Center’s six-day Ayurvedic immersion program, Perfect Health, that featured a vegetarian diet, meditation, yoga, herbs, and massages, experienced measurable decreases in a set of blood-based metabolites associated with inflammation, cardiovascular disease risk, and cholesterol regulation.
The findings, published in the September 9 issue of Scientific Reports, represent a rare attempt to use metabolic biomarkers to assess the reported health benefits of integrative medicine and holistic practices. Chopra Center co-founder Deepak Chopra, MD, was the senior author of the study. Dr. Chopra is also a clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and a noted proponent of integrative medicine.
“It appears that a one-week Panchakarma-based program can significantly alter the metabolic profile of the person undergoing it,” said Chopra. “As part of our strategy to create a framework for whole systems biology research, our next step will be to correlate these changes with both gene expression and psychological health.”
Panchakarma refers to an ancient and elegant mind-body cleansing system experienced by participants in the Perfect Health program, combining herbal therapies, massage, and other interventions.
To read the full study, click here.
To learn more about the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program and sign up for a workshop, click here.
by Global PhD student, Bryrony Shaw
The meditation program included in this study was designed by Deepak Chopra, MD, who did not participate in data collection or analysis. Dr. Chopra was recently appointed Professor of Consciousness Studies here at Sofia University. The study below was funded by the non-profit The Chopra Foundation, and Marc and Lynn Benioff.
Scientists from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School used a rigorous study design to assess the biological impact of meditation compared to vacation.
They examined the effect of meditation on gene expression patterns in both novice and regular mediators. The researchers found that a resort vacation provides a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune pathways, in addition to short-term improvements in well-being, as measured by feelings of vitality and distress.
A meditation retreat, for those who already used meditation regularly, was associated with molecular networks characterized by antiviral activity. The molecular signature of long-term meditators was distinct from the non-meditating vacationers. The study was published today in Springer Nature’s journal Translational Psychiatry.
The study involved 94 healthy women, aged 30-60. Sixty-four women were recruited who were not regular meditators. Participants stayed at the same resort in California for six days, and randomized so that half were simply on vacation while the other half joined a meditation training program run by the Chopra Center for Well Being.
For greater insight into the long-term effects of what scientists dubbed the “meditation effect” compared to the “vacation effect,” the team also studied a group of 30 experienced meditators who were already enrolled in the retreat that week. Researchers collected blood samples, and surveys, from all participants immediately before and after their stay, as well as surveys one month and ten months later.
“In the spirit of other research efforts we have pioneered with other groups, this work underscores the importance of studies focused on healthy people,” said Eric Schadt, PhD, senior author on the paper and the Jean C. and James W. Crystal Professor of Genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Founding Director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology. “By combining an interrogation of gene networks with advanced data analysis and statistics, we have generated clinically meaningful information about stress and aging that is relevant to the broader population.”
The research team examined the changes in 20,000 genes to determine which types of genes were changing before and after the resort experience. Scientists performed an integrative transcriptomic analysis, comparing gene expression networks across all three groups of participants and finding unique molecular profiles and pathway enrichment patterns.
Study results show that all groups — novice meditators, experienced meditators, and vacationers — had significant changes in molecular network patterns after the week at the resort, with a clear signature distinguishing baseline from post-vacation biology. The most notable changes in gene activity were related to stress response and immune function.
Researchers assessed self-reported measures of well being. While all groups showed improvements up to one month later, the novice meditators had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress much longer than the non-meditating vacationers. The psychological effects appear to be enduring and it is unknown how much of this longer lasting benefit may be due to continued practice or lasting changes in how people view events in their lives.
“It’s intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress, but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life, in a relaxing environment, in such a short period of time. These findings will have to be replicated to see if the changes are reliably invoked under the same circumstances, in future studies, and compared to an at-home control group,” said Elissa S. Epel, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco and first author of the study.
“Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn’t strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function,” said Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Meditation seems to provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging.”
About the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is an international leader in medical and scientific training, biomedical research, and patient care. It is the medical school for the Mount Sinai Health System, an integrated health care system which includes seven hospitals and an expanding ambulatory network serving approximately 4 million patients per year.
The School has more than 1,800 students in MD, PhD, and Master’s programs and post-doctoral fellowships; more than 5,600 faculty members; over 2,000 residents and fellows; and 23 clinical and research institutes and 34 academic departments. It is ranked among the highest in the nation in National Institutes of Health funding per principal investigator. The School was the first medical school in the country to create a progressive admissions approach for students who seek early assurance of admission through the FlexMed program.
The Graduate School of Biomedical Science trains PhD and MD/PhD students, and offers master’s-level programs in areas such as genetic counseling, clinical research, biomedical sciences, and public health, and an online master’s degree in health care delivery leadership. The seamless connections between our medical school, graduate school, and hospital campuses provide an extraordinary environment for translating scientific discoveries into clinical treatments.
Elissa S. Epel, et al. Meditation and vacation effects impact disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/tp.2016.164