Most people believe that their genetic inheritance is a ‘blueprint’ that determines their lifetime risk of pathologies like coronary artery disease and breast cancer. Commercial companies are cashing in on this belief, offering genetic screening tests.
But the new science of epigenetics shows that gene expression is highly modifiable. Lifestyle changes can alter your gene expression and halt or even reverse the progression of chronic disease or cancer.
What this new study shows is that the content of your thoughts can change gene expression in a number of hours. This finding has huge implications for compassionate caring. When health professionals offer empathy, understanding, compassion and concern they change the belief of their patients. The ensuing healing response may indeed alter the patient’s gene expression.
Previous research showing changes in genetic expression followed many months of lifestyle change that included a good diet, moderate exercise, relaxation – such as meditation – and social support. The researchers in this study honed down on mental influences, by studying a brief period of mindfulness meditation.
“A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.
The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.”
In a therapeutic relationship, it’s almost as if there is a broadband network connection between the nervous system of the health professional and that of the patient. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the practitioner rapidly influence the patient’s physiology and mental state. When we bring mindfulness to our practice, we help our patients achieve that too. Patients often tell stories of the one day they met a truly compassionate doctor, nurse or therapist. The memory lasts for a lifetime. Maybe the patient’s gene expression changes forever too?
Image: ‘Meditation‘ by M Dolly under CC licence