Mind-Body Practices Reduce Inflammation
In a new paper published in Frontiers in Immunology, British researchers analyzed the findings from 18 previously published studies on the biological effects of meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, qi gong, and tai chi. Together, the authors say, the studies show that these mind-body practices appear to suppress the expression of genes and genetic pathways that promote inflammation. They can actually reverse stress-related changes in genes linked to poor health and depression.
Inflammation can be protective against infection and injury, but in today’s society, in which stress is primarily psychological, the body’s inflammatory response can become chronic and can impair both physical and mental health. Stressful events, for example, can activate the fight-or-flight response and trigger a chain reaction of stress-related changes in the body—including activating specific genes involved in making proteins that produce inflammation. Researchers found that people who practiced yoga and meditation regularly had fewer signs of inflammation, including a decrease in their production of inflammatory proteins. This signals ‘the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress,’ they wrote, which may translate to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.
Lead author Ivana Buric, a PhD student in Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in England, says her team was surprised to see that different types of mind-body techniques had such similar effects at the genetic level. ‘Sitting meditation is quite different than yoga or tai chi,’ she said, ‘yet all of these activities—when practiced regularly—seem to decrease the activity of genes involved in inflammation.’ Buric says the existing studies suggest that mind-body interventions ‘cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our well being.’
Environment and lifestyle can both affect which genes are turned on and off, and that can have real effects on disease risk, longevity, and even which traits get passed on to future generations. Buric emphasizes that inherited genes are not static and that DNA activity can depend on things people can control. ‘By choosing healthy habits every day, we can create a gene activity pattern that is more beneficial for our health,’ she says. ‘Even just 15 minutes of practicing mindfulness seems to do the trick.’
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