The Science of Mindfulness for Cellular Health and Gene Expression

Monday December 21, 2015


Maintaining our health as we live our lives involves both investigation and action.  The proliferation of health related research and information is readily available and can often inform many of the choices we make to sustain our health.  The purpose of this article is to share 2 recent studies that caught my attention involving the effect of the practice of mindfulness on health and well-being – the first informs our understanding of maintaining cellular health; the second encompasses the impact of mindfulness meditation and reduced level of pro-inflammatory gene expression.

Mindfulness practice involves the cultivation of one’s awareness by intentionally paying attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience, non-judgmentally.  This tradition has been practiced in many cultures and contexts over thousands of years with a belief that the practice of mindfulness could improves health and wellbeing.  Research over the last 10 years is now providing growing evidence of this claim.

The human body is made up of trillions of cells.  In the nucleus of each cell, there are chromosomes that hold the DNA genetic information needed for cells to divide and remain healthy.  If you think of a chromosome as being in the shape of a shoelace, there is a special structure of DNA at the end of the lace that is called telomeric DNA and, as we age, it deteriorates and shortens.  In order for the cell to remain healthy, this telomeric DNA needs to stay intact.  

Two researchers from the University of California, Elissa Epel, and Elizabeth Blackburn, have conducted research that shows that high levels of stress, both real and perceived, increase the rate of telomeric DNA shortening which compromises the ability of a cell to divide and remain healthy.  Eventually the cell will no longer divide after there is sufficient shortening of the telomeric DNA. 

In 2015, the results of a study from researchers from the University of Calgary, Department of Oncology, reported significant findings related to how mindfulness practices or group support interventions helped to maintain the cellular health of breast cancer survivors through maintaining the length of the telomeric DNA.  

Here is a brief outline of the study and its findings.  The researchers measured the telomeric length pre and post program with 3 different groups.  One group took the MBCR (Mindfulness-based Cancer Recovery) program, which focused on training in mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha Yoga.  A second group took the SET (Supportive-Expressive Therapy) which focused on emotional expression and group support.  Both of these opportunities are considered major interventions that help reduce distress.  The third group, the randomized control, received a minimal intervention, a 1-day stress management seminar.

The researchers found that telomeric length was maintained in the two groups who received the major intervention, either MBCR or SET, while the telomeric length shortened in the control group and these findings were found to be statistically significant.  Telomeric length in the DNA has been associated with breast cancer prognosis previously. 

In the field of research that examines genetic responses to various stimuli, a research study reported that mindfulness meditation showed a “down-regulation” (less gene expression) of genes that are implicated in inflammation in the body.  This result was noted after only 8 hours of intensive practice in a group of experienced meditators compared to untrained control subjects.

The research was led by Richard J. Davidson, PhD, who is a renowned neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices, such as meditation, on the brain.  He says:  “Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression”.  According to Dr. Davidson, this is the first research that shows rapid changes in gene expression.

These two studies are part of the growing case for the practice of mindfulness to be considered as a pro-health choice to make in our lives.


Article by Doug MacLean, EdD, owner of Practical Wellbeing, a Calgary organization offering mindfulness-based educational programs.


L Carlson et al (2015) Mindfulness-based Cancer Recovery and Supportive-Expressive Therapy Maintain Telomere Length Relative to Controls in Distressed Breast Cancer Survivors, Cancer, Vol 121(3), pp. 476-484.

R. Davidson et al (2014) Rapid Changes in Histone Deacetylases and Inflammatory Gene Expression in Expert Meditators, Psychoneuroendocrinology, Vol 40, pp. 96-107.