Meditation, yoga and Tai Chi can ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression, according to a study by the UK universities of Coventry and Radboud. The research published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviewed over a decade of studies analyzing how the behavior of our genes is affected by different mind-body interventions (MBIs) including mindfulness and yoga.
Researchers from the universities conclude that, when examined together, the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — reveal a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.
The researchers focused on how gene expression is affected – the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, the brain and the immune system.
When a person is exposed to a stressful event, their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — the system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — is triggered, in turn increasing production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how our genes are expressed.
NF-kB translates stress by activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at cellular level — a reaction that is useful as a short-lived fight-or-flight reaction, but if persistent leads to a higher risk of cancer, accelerated aging and psychiatric disorders like depression.
According to the study, however, people who practice MBIs exhibit the opposite effect — namely a decrease in production of NF-kB and cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern and a reduction in the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.
Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement said: “Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realize is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.
“These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our well being.”
In 2013 researchers at Oxford University ran a prison study in 7 British prisons, where prisoners were randomly allocated to either a 10-week yoga program or a control group. They found that yoga can improve the mood and mental well being of prisoners and may help improve impulsive behavior.
Prisoners in the yoga program—two women and 43 men—became less aggressive toward their fellow inmates and felt less stress, as measured by standard questionnaires. The yogis also performed better on a computerized test of executive control, suggesting they had become more attentive to their surroundings and more thoughtful about their actions. The study led to an increase in the number of yoga classes offered in British prisons.