The Effects of Stress and Meditation on the Immune System, Human Microbiota, and Epigenetics

Adv Mind Body Med. 2017;31(4):10-25.


Context • Globally, more than 25% of individuals are affected by anxiety and depression disorders. Meditation is gaining popularity in clinical settings and its treatment efficacy is being studied for a wide array of psychological and physiological ailments. An exploration of stress physiology is an essential precursor to delineation of the mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of meditation practices. Objective • The review outlines a model of interconnected physiological processes that might support the continued inclusion and expansion of meditation in the treatment of diverse medical conditions and to investigate the role that gut microbiota may play in realizing well-being through meditation. Design • The authors conducted a scientific literature database search with the goal of reviewing the link between stress management techniques and human microbiota. Their goal was also to identify the extent of underlying epigenetic reactions in these processes. The review was completed in approximately 2 y. Databases searched included Medline via PubMed and Ovid, PsycINFO via Ovid, Spinet, ProQuest Central, SAGE Research Methods Online, CINAHL Plus with Full Text, Science Direct, Springer Link, and Wiley Online Library. Keywords searched included, but were not limited to, stress, meditation, mindfulness, immune system, HPA axis, sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic nervous system, microbiota, microbiome, gut-barrier function, leaky gut, vagus nerve, psychoneuroimmunology, epigenetic, and NF-κB. Setting • The study took place at New York University (New York, NY, USA), the University of California, San Diego (La Jolla, CA, USA), and the Chopra Foundation (Carlsbad, CA, USA). Results • Psychological stress typically triggers a fight-or-flight response, prompting corticotropin-releasing hormone and catecholamine production in various parts of the body, which ultimately disturbs the microbiota. In the absence of stress, a healthy microbiota produces short-chain fatty acids that exert anti-inflammatory and antitumor effects. During stress, an altered gut microbial population affects the regulation of neurotransmitters mediated by the microbiome and gut barrier function. Meditation helps regulate the stress response, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation states and maintaining a healthy gut-barrier function. Conclusions • The current research team recommends the integration of meditation into conventional health care and wellness models. Concurrently, studies to explore the effects of meditation on human microbiota are warranted.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epigenesis, Genetic / immunology*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology*
  • Meditation / methods*
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy*