Long-term meditation might change your poop, hinting at effects on the gut–brain axis

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Tibetan monks engaged in long-term meditation practices have a distinctly different composition of gut bacteria present in fecal samples compared to their non-meditating neighbors, according to new research published in General Psychiatry. This finding not only adds a new layer to our understanding of the mind-gut connection but also hints at the profound ways in which our mental activities, such as meditation, can influence our physical well-being.

The inspiration for this study came from a growing body of evidence highlighting the benefits of meditation on mental health, including its ability to combat depression, anxiety, and stress. Meditation, a practice rooted in ancient traditions, is known for its ability to focus the mind and foster a state of peace.

Recognizing the intricate relationship between the gut and the brain, researchers were keen to explore how meditation might impact the gut microbiota, the trillions of microorganisms residing in our intestines that play a crucial role in our overall health. This interest was sparked by the possibility that meditation could offer a novel approach to improving health by influencing the makeup of our gut bacteria.

A team of researchers led by Ying Sun of Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine embarked on an ambitious journey to the remote monasteries of Tibet, where they collected fecal samples from 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks and compared them with samples from 19 neighboring non-meditating residents. The monks, who had been practicing meditation for an average of nearly 19 years, offered a unique population to examine the long-term effects of meditation on the gut microbiota.

To ensure the study’s accuracy, participants who had taken antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics, or antifungal medications in the three months prior to sample collection were excluded, leaving 56 eligible samples for analysis.

The researchers employed advanced techniques to analyze the bacterial DNA from the fecal samples, focusing on the 16S ribosomal RNA gene, a common target for identifying and comparing bacteria present in the samples. This method allowed them to determine the diversity and abundance of different bacteria in the gut. Additionally, they measured various biochemical indices in the participants’ blood to explore potential health implications of the differences in gut microbiota.

The analysis revealed differences between the monks and their non-meditating counterparts. Specifically, the monks’ gut bacteria were less diverse but had a higher prevalence of certain bacteria associated with positive health outcomes, such as Prevotella and Bacteroides.

Notably, the genus Prevotella was much more abundant in the monks, constituting 42.35% of their gut bacteria, compared to 29.15% in the non-meditating controls. Bacteroides also showed a differential abundance, making up 6.21% of the microbiome in monks, as opposed to 4.07% in the control group. These bacteria are of particular interest due to their associations with positive health outcomes.

For instance, higher levels of Prevotella have been linked to reduced risks of major depressive disorders, while certain strains of Bacteroides have been implicated in influencing the brain’s reward responses, which could affect behaviors such as binge eating and anxiety.

Further analysis into the functional capabilities of the gut microbiota unveiled significant differences in metabolic pathways between the groups. Meditation was associated with enrichment in pathways involved in glycan biosynthesis and metabolism, as well as lipopolysaccharide biosynthesis. These pathways are crucial for maintaining the integrity of the gut barrier and modulating immune responses, suggesting that meditation could enhance anti-inflammatory processes and bolster immune function.

Biochemical indices provided additional insights into the health implications of these microbiota differences. Monks showed lower levels of total cholesterol and apolipoprotein B compared to their non-meditating counterparts. These findings suggest a potential protective effect of meditation against cardiovascular diseases, a significant health benefit given the roles of cholesterol and apolipoprotein B in heart disease risk.

Despite its intriguing findings, the study acknowledges several limitations. One major challenge was the difficulty in recruiting a balanced number of participants from the control group, given the unique lifestyle and diet of the Tibetan monks. The unique living conditions and diet at high altitudes, combined with the specific lifestyle of Tibetan monks, mean that these results might not be universally applicable.

Additionally, the study’s reliance on 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing provides a broad overview of the gut microbiota but lacks the depth needed to understand the functional changes these bacterial communities undergo.

Looking ahead, researchers are eager to dive deeper into the mind-gut connection through metagenomic sequencing, a more detailed method that can unravel the functional capabilities of the gut microbiota. This future research could provide clearer insights into how meditation and other mental practices can be harnessed to enhance our physical health, paving the way for meditation to become an integral part of treatments for a range of psychosomatic disorders.

The study, “Alteration of faecal microbiota balance related to long-term deep meditation“, was authored by Ying Sun, Peijun Ju, Ting Xue, Usman Ali1, Donghong Cui1, and Jinghong Chen.

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