Meditation and holidays are good for you; so what?
It’s not uncommon for us to critique the media for inflating research stories, but this time I’d like to give credit for the non-reporting of a story that had all the ingredients for creative headlines. I am referring to a recent study published in the journal Translation Psychiatry, led by a research team at the University of California and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
The aim of the study was to identify how activities known to have beneficial effects on an individuals stress level might directly lead to molecular changes in the organism. Women enrolled on a retreat programme at a resort centre were assigned to one of three different groups:
1) regular meditators;
2) new to meditation; and
3) simply on vacation without taking part to meditation activities.
The molecular comparisons were carried out by assessing gene expression profiling in blood samples taken at the beginning and at the end of the vacation. In other words, the study aimed to identify particular sets of genes that might be activated or repressed during a prolonged period of relaxation.
It was reported that all three groups displayed similar gene expression patterns which could be interpreted as a molecular signature for a relaxed status. This signature is represented by a group of 390 genes that showed consistent changes, but the signature was larger and included more genes in the group of established meditators. These genes are implicated in pathways that get activated during for example defence response, wounding and inflammation.
The data might therefore indicate quantifiable effects on health as a result of meditation. The authors describe the study as highly controlled and have strong credentials. Among the authors we found Eric Schadt, the lead author who is a computational biologist with more than 200 publications (Schadt was also involved in the Genetic Superheroes study I discussed recently) and Liz Blackburn, a Nobel Laureate no less.
In spite of the topic and the high profile scientists involved, the media profile of the study was much less visible. Of course there was Systems biology research study reveals benefits of vacation and New Clues Into How Meditation May Boost The Immune System, but it could have been worse, and the content of the articles was not far off from what reported in the original study.
I actually came across this study not through a media piece but by following a Twitter thread initiated by Kevin Mitchell, who I have interviewed recently in this blog. Mitchell criticised how the concept of epigenetics is being misinterpreted and quoted the view of Deepak Chopra, a very popular advocate for alternative medicine who pointed to this study to support his theory stating that the power of the mind can control our genes.
While Chopra was not among the authors of the study, it appeared from the Acknowledgement statement that he funded this work. Moreover the participants were actually recruited at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, adding to a strong conflict of interest.
The Twitter discussion moved quickly from critics of how epigenetics is misinterpreted to a direct critique of this meditation study, and was soon joined by other scientists (you can follow the discussion from the Twitter thread and read more about the epigenetics controversy on Mitchell’s blog). The study received significant attention on Twitter with almost 300 postings divided across outraged scientists versus supporters of Chopra or meditation more broadly.
While I won’t go into the finer details of those discussions, I prefer to look at the positive side which is the little interest received by this story from the mainstream media (at least at the time of writing). It would have been so easy and so damaging to make the extra step and claim that meditation can treat diseases and give us longer life as indeed was the case for one piece: Taking Your Vacation Days And Learning To Meditate Could Actually Save Your Life.
However, this was an isolated case and the main UK news outlets mainly ignored the story and its original press release. Regardless of the merit of this study, confirming or not the molecular changes that could result from relaxing experiences, we should still enjoy whatever makes us feel better: call it vacation, meditation, yoga, jogging, shopping or a meal out with friends. It is possible that meditation might have positive effects on our health and wellbeing, but what worries me is the idea that such practices could replace more proven medical understanding.
Unfortunately, we are already witnessing this attitude; only a couple of weeks ago two young women in Italy lost their life because they decided to treat cancer with alternative methods rather than with chemotherapy. The basis of their choice was the theory that cancer is the result of a psychological conflict. It is easy to imagine how the results of Schadt’s study could be used to bolster related theories. This is why I’m happy we didn’t see much of this story in the media, whether it was because of responsible journalism or not.
Elissa S. Epel, et al. Meditation and vacation effects impact disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/tp.2016.164