A STUDY has found exercises such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi not only relax us but ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression.
Research by universities of Coventry and Radboud reviews over a decade of studies analysing how the behaviour of our genes is affected by mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as mindfulness and yoga.
Experts from the universities conducted a study of 846 people over 11 years to identify if MBIs create a pattern in the molecular changes and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.
The researchers focused on how gene expression is affected – this means the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, brain and 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. This increases the production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how our genes are expressed.
This molecule also produces proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at cellular level. This reaction 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.
Meanwhile, people who practice MBIs showed a decrease in the production of NF-kB and cytokines.
This reverses the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern and reduces the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.
The study’s author said the inflammatory effect of the fight-or-flight response would have played an important role in mankind’s hunter-gatherer prehistory, when there was a higher risk of infection from wounds.
But with stress now being increasingly psychological and often longer-term, the pro-inflammatory gene expression can be persistent and therefore more likely to cause psychiatric and medical problems.
Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab at Coventry University 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 realise 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 wellbeing.”
She added more needs to be done to understand these effects, for example, how they compare with other healthy interventions – but this research acts as an important foundation.
The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.