Follow your gut: The connection between digestive processes and meditation - study

Meditation can do far more than just help you change your mood; it can help your gut health reach where it needs to be.

 Tibetan Buddhist monks attend a lecture at Sera monastery in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China November 19, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS/DAMIR SAGOLJ/FILE PHOTO)
Tibetan Buddhist monks attend a lecture at Sera monastery in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China November 19, 2015

When practiced long-term and over a period of years, deep meditation as a habit can help control the gut microbiome and even possibly lower physical and mental health risks.

A new comparative peer-reviewed study released in General Psychiatry showed that after monitoring a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks had substantially different gut microbes than that of their non-religious neighbors. They have also been linked to significantly lower rates of anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

Research shows a healthy gut microbiome can affect mental health aspects like mood and behavior through what is called the gut-brain axis. The body’s immune response is included in this, in part with hormonal signals, stress responses, and the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for overseeing a series of crucial body functions.

These monks, who spend all of their time deep in thought, serve as examples of just how deep meditation can take you. Tibetan monks themselves created a smaller sample size because of their isolated location.

Woman meditating meditation 390 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)Woman meditating meditation 390 (credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Meditation as treatment for something greater

Meditation is a tool that has been used time and again to treat various mental health disorders. Among these include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, traumatic stress, and chronic pain.

However, it is still unclear if the internal composition of the gut microbiome will physically be connected to meditative practices.

To further analyze, researchers took stool and blood samples from 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks from three different temples, as well as 19 secular residents from surrounding areas.

“Tibetan Buddhist meditation originates from the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda and is a form of psychological training. The monks in this study had been practicing it for at least 2 hours a day for between 3 and 30 years,” researchers said.

Enriched bacteria 'associated with alleviation of mental illness'

Comparison of the samples led researchers to some important answers.

“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,” researchers said.

After applying analytical processes to better understand the chemical processes related, one finding stood out more than others. Several protective anti-inflammation pathways and metabolic processes were impacted.

The general consensus? People who meditated frequently, like the monks, had better conversion of food into energy at higher rates.

Researchers signed off with one key takeaway: meditation helps far more than just your mind. “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.”