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Yoga teachers love to remind students that yoga isn’t just a physical practice on the mat; it’s a deep mind-body experience that follows you off of the mat, into the rest of your life. That might seem like an out-there concept, but new research is proving it a scientific fact. The latest is a study published June 16 in the scientific journal Frontiers, showing that mind-body practices like yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and others, don’t just relax their practitioners in the moment, but have the potential to reverse stress reactions at the molecular level. In other words, these practices can physically alter the way our DNA interacts with stress.
The study is titled “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” It analyzed 18 prior studies that used gene expression analysis in their research. These were studies looking at various mind-body interventions (MBIs), including yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, mindfulness, relaxation response, and breath regulation.
“We searched PubMed throughout September 2016 to look for studies that have used gene expression analysis in MBI,” the study report explains. “Due to the limited quantity of studies, we included both clinical and non-clinical samples with any type of research design.”
The analysis concludes that the stress reaction appears to reverse, at the molecular level, due to mind-body practices—but much more research is needed to better quantify this trend.
“Although most genes showed small or moderate effect sizes individually, a general pattern emerges: pro-inflammatory genes and pathways get downregulated,” the study explains.
In layman’s terms, we know that when a person experiences something stressful, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered. This leads to physical reaction all the way down to the genes, which begin to produce cytokines—a type of protein that cause inflammation at the cellular level. Over long periods of time, this genetic inflammatory reaction can lead to mental and physical health issues like cancer, depression, immune system issues accelerated signs of aging and others.
According to this study, it appears that mindfulness practices trend toward reducing that inflammatory reaction. The study’s authors note that this is an area with limited prior research, so additional research is necessary to determine exactly how these practices might influence the genes. A large portion of the report is dedicated to listing the shortcomings in this area of research, pointing to considerable variation across the types of interventions and gene expression assessments each study employed.
Ultimately, the researchers conclude chronic stress indicators do appear to reverse, all the way down to the DNA, with mindfulness practices.
“The results of 18 studies that used gene expression analysis in research on meditation and related MBIs have overall found downregulation of NF-κB-targeted genes, which can be understood as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress,” the study conclusion states. “These results need to be replicated in larger samples and with stronger research designs that control for non-specific effects of these practices and for as confounding lifestyle factors, such as sleep, diet, and exercise. This research opens the doors to the development and testing of a multi-level theory of MBIs, which integrates the biological, psychological, and environmental levels.”
You can read the complete study here.