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Gut health – do Buddhist monks have the answer?

Posted on the 19th January 2023

Budhist Monks Meditation

A new study involving Buddhist monks has shed further light on its ability to boost the body’s immune system and reduce the risk of anxiety, depression and heart disease.

In a small study of Buddhist monks, researchers found that deep meditation could help regulate the gut microbiome and lower the risk of physical and mental ill health.

Published in the journal General Psychiatry, research found that the microbiota enriched in the monks was associated with a reduced risk of anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease, and enhanced immune function. The study concluded that meditation plays a positive role in psychosomatic conditions and wellbeing.

While meditation is increasingly used to help treat substance abuse, traumatic stress, eating disorders and chronic pain, until now it has not been clear if it could also be able to alter the composition of the gut microbiome.

In a bid to find out, researchers led by the Shanghai Mental Health Centre at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine analysed the stool and blood samples of 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks from three temples and 19 secular residents in the neighbouring areas.

The monks in the study had practised meditation for at least two hours a day for between three and 30 years.

None of those involved in the study had used agents that can alter the volume and diversity of gut microbes - such as antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics, and antifungal drugs - in the previous three months.

Both groups were then matched for age, blood pressure, heart rate and diet. Stool sample analysis revealed significant differences in the diversity and volume of microbes between the monks and their neighbours.

The researchers applied an advanced analytical technique to predict which chemical processes the microbes might be influencing. This indicated that several protective anti-inflammatory pathways, in addition to metabolism, were enhanced in the monks practising meditation.

The findings also indicate meditation may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, the researchers said.

Blood sample analysis revealed levels of agents associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease were significantly lower in the monks than in their secular neighbours.

The researchers cautioned that the study was observational and the number participating was small, all male and living at high altitude, making it difficult to draw any firm or general conclusions. The potential health implications could only be inferred from previously published research, they added.

However, based on their findings, the researchers said the role of meditation in helping to prevent or treat mental and physical illness merits further research.

Related: Plant-based diet could cut bowel cancer

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