Longevity

Longevity Briefs: Can Meditation Improve Gut Health?

Posted on 20 January 2023

Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: The microorganisms living in the gut release signals that affect the health of the central nervous system. In turn, the central nervous system can affect gut microbes by controlling gut function and the immune system. This relationship is known to scientists as the gut-brain axis, and scientists are increasingly looking for ways to target it as a means to improve many aspects of human health. Studies suggest that meditation practices can reduce risk of depression and dementia, improve cognitive function and perhaps even slow some aspects of the ageing process. What if the benefits of meditation also translated to the gut via the gut-brain axis?

What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers studied and compared bacteria from the guts of Tibetan Buddhist monks and control subjects. The 37 included monks had been performing meditation practices for two hours a day for 3-30 years. For the control group, the researchers selected only people who lived close to the temples, were of similar age, had comparable cardiovascular health metrics and who had the same dietary structure as the monks. This resulted in a small control group of 19 people. The researchers also excluded all participants who ate yoghurt or who took any kind of probiotics, prebiotics or antibiotics/antifungal medications. They then used genetic sequencing techniques to study the composition and activity of bacteria in participants’ faeces.

Key takeaway(s) from this research:

  • Gut bacteria composition differed significantly between the meditation group and controls.
  • Prevotella, Bacteroides, Megamonas and Faecalibacterium genuses of bacteria were more abundant in the meditation group.
  • Previous studies have linked these bacteria to reduced incidence of mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.
  • The meditation group had increased bacterial synthesis of certain beneficial signalling molecules, such as glycans (which may lower inflammation).

This seems to be the first study to look at the long term effects of meditation on the gut microbiome. Meditation is a free, non-physical activity that anyone can do, so the idea that it might benefit the gut microbiome is enticing and could help explain some of the already established benefits of meditation. With that being said, the participants of this study have little in common with most of the global population. They spend hours of their day meditating and some also live at high altitudes. While researchers tried to match the monks to the members of the control group as closely as possible, the lifestyle of a monk must surely differ in many other ways besides meditation.

We need larger studies to look at whether less dedicated meditators in the general population receive similar benefits. Better yet, we need more clinical trials of meditation practices to start looking at the gut microbiome.


References

Alteration of faecal microbiota balance related to long-term deep meditation: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/gpsych-2022-100893

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