- Researchers who studied Tibetan monks report that regularly scheduled deep meditation can improve gut health by regulating the microbes found there.
- Experts say meditation can also help with food digestion, immune system response, and overall mental health.
- They also add that people who meditate tend to have more healthy diets.
A new study published in the journal General Psychiatry reports that regular deep meditation may help regulate the gut microbiome and lower the risks of physical and mental illness.
The relatively small study says the gut microbes found in a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks were substantially different than those of their secular neighbors and were linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.
The study authors said previous research shows the gut microbiome – bacteria, fungi, and viruses that break down food in the human digestive tract – can affect mood and behavior through the gut–brain axis (the two-way biochemical signaling connected through the vagus nerve, which oversees multiple crucial bodily functions).
The gut-brain axis includes the body’s immune response, hormonal signaling, and stress response.
The researchers pointed out meditation is increasingly being used to help treat mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, traumatic stress, and eating disorders as well as chronic pain.
They also said it’s not clear if meditation can alter the composition of the gut microbiome.
The study’s sample was small, researchers said, because the Tibetan monks live in a remote geographical location.
Funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the study reported that Tibetan Buddhist meditation originates from the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda, a form of psychological training.
The monks in this study have practiced their meditation for at least 2 hours a day for between 3 and 30 years.
The researchers analyzed blood samples and stools from 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks from three temples and 19 secular residents in the neighboring areas.
No participants used agents that can alter the volume and diversity of gut microbes such as antibiotics; probiotics, prebiotics, or antifungal drugs, in the preceding three months.
Both groups were matched for age, blood pressure, heart rate, and diet. Stool sample analysis revealed significant differences in the diversity and volume of microbes between the monks and their neighbors.
As expected, Bacteroidetes and Firmicutesspecies were dominant in both groups.
However, Bacteroidetes were significantly enriched in the monks’ stool samples (29% vs. 4%). The samples also contained abundant Prevotella (42% vs. 6%) and a high volume of Megamonas and Faecalibacterium.
“Collectively, several bacteria enriched in the meditation group (have been) associated with the alleviation of mental illness, suggesting that meditation can influence certain bacteria that may have a role in mental health,” the researchers wrote.
The team then applied an advanced analytical technique to predict which chemical processes the microbes might be influencing. This indicated several protective anti-inflammatory pathways, in addition to metabolism — the conversion of food into energy — were enhanced in those who meditated.
Blood samples showed levels of agents associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, including total cholesterol and apolipoprotein B, were significantly lower in the monks than their secular neighbors.
Experts say there’s a crucial relationship between the human body and the microorganisms that inhabit it.
“Microbiome plays a crucial role in the human brain development and in the development and functioning of the brain’s immune system, mainly microglia cells,” Dr. Teresa Poprawski, a neuropsychiatrist and chief medical officer of Relief Mental Health, told Healthline.
“Microorganisms in the gut biome are also involved in food digestion; they influence the immune system and keep invading pathogens at bay,” she added. “Microorganisms also produce vitamins essential for health, including vitamins B12 and K.”
Poprawski said alterations in the normal signaling in the gut-brain axis link have been connected to neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease as well as chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.
“Meditation has been found to reduce levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, all biological markers of stress,” Poprawski noted. “Meditation has also been shown to have an anti-aging effect by increasing telomere integrity and reducing levels of specific markers of inflammation. Meditation is also linked with improvement in the brain function and structure, mainly in areas associated with attention, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”
Andi Rainville is a registered nurse and scientific advisor for SNiP Nutrigenomics, and a nutritional counselor in Washington.
She told Healthline research has shown meditation can “modify the microbial composition in our gut, leaving it with a more beneficial balance of bacterial species.”
“Studies have uncovered an increase in Lactobacillus and Faecalibacterium – bacteria associated with improved digestive health – for those engaging regularly in mindfulness meditation practice over eight weeks,” Rainville explained.
“Additionally, stress, one of the main targets of mindfulness and other meditative practices, has been shown to have a negative impact on gut health and the microbiome, hence reducing stress with the help of meditation may have a positive impact on the gut. There is also preliminary research suggesting that meditation may have an impact on the pH of the gut … also known as the acidity or alkalinity of the gut,” she added.
Justine Dee, PhD, is the founder of the online microbiology resource Joyful Microbe. She told Healthline another factor could be the diet of people who are more likely to meditate.
The authors of the study involving the Tibetan Buddhist monks said it was difficult to draw firm conclusions, based on the small number of participants, all of whom live at high altitudes.
They also said potential health implications could only be inferred from previously published research.
But the study authors suggested the role of meditation in helping to prevent or treat psychosomatic illness merits further research.
“These results suggest that long-term deep meditation may have a beneficial effect on gut microbiota, enabling the body to maintain an optimal state of health,” they concluded.