Scientists are getting close to proving what yogis have held to be true for centuries — yoga and meditation can ward off stress and disease.
John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, is leading a five-year study on how the ancient practices affect genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed. His latest work follows a study he and others published earlier this year showing how so-called mind-body techniques can switch on and off some genes linked to stress and immune function.
While hundreds of studies have been conducted on the mental health benefits of yoga and meditation, they have tended to rely on blunt tools like participant questionnaires, as well as heart rate and blood pressure monitoring. Only recently have neuro-imaging and genomics technology used in Denninger’s latest studies allowed scientists to measure physiological changes in greater detail.
“There is a true biological effect,” said Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals. “The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”
The government-funded study may persuade more doctors to try an alternative route for tackling the source of a myriad of modern ailments. Stress-induced conditions can include everything from hypertension and infertility to depression and even the aging process. They account for 60 to 90 percent of doctor’s visits in the U.S., according to the Benson-Henry Institute. The World Health Organization estimates stress costs U.S. companies at least $300 billion a year through absenteeism, turn-over and low productivity.
The science is advancing alongside a budding “mindfulness” movement, which includes meditation devotees such as Bill George, board member of Goldman Sachs Group and Exxon Mobil Corp., and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently revealed on Twitter that he is giving meditation a try.
As a psychiatrist specializing in depression, Denninger said he was attracted to mind-body medicine, pioneered in the late 1960s by Harvard professor Herbert Benson, as a possible way to prevent the onset of depression through stress reduction. While treatment with pharmaceuticals is still essential, he sees yoga and meditation as useful additions to his medical arsenal.