As the coronavirus pandemic has shut billions around the world under lockdown- two things have become key. The first of course, is to stay hygienic and avoid catching the virus until treatments are widely available. The second contributes to the first: how to boost the immune system in the meantime. And it is to this end that millenia of practice and modern academic studies alike have found that meditation is a great way to jumpstart this process.
Although not necessarily a simple fix (proper practice can take years to hone), studies have shown that even after just a few days of practice, one may be able to reap its benefits. One study for example, tracked the immune response of 94 women before, directly after and 10 months after either a 6-day meditation or vacation retreat. As none of the women had experience in meditation, the researchers also tracked 30 experienced meditators also visiting the center.
In the end, they found that the experienced meditators had shifts in their gene expression related to fighting viral infection. They also had notable increases in telomerase activity- something thought to reduce risk for chronic illness, and thus indicate healthier aging. Meanwhile, the researchers also noticed that the novice meditators saw shifts towards better ratios of amyloid-beta proteins, known to be linked to dementia and depression. For those in the experienced group, levels of these proteins started out and were maintained throughout the study, suggesting that the positive immuno-effects of meditation may be long-lasting.
Rudolph Tanzi, one of the study’s authors said, “Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging."
Although interesting findings, the researchers nevertheless caution that their results are based on correlation, as the potential causational mechanisms behind them are still unknown. This comes alongside similar cautions from a systematic review of several studies investigating the impact of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. There too, although a correlation was generally found to exist, further research is needed to understand its exact mechanisms.