Change Gene Expression to Lessen the Effects of Chronic Stress with Mind-Body Practices
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“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.” – Ivana Buric
There is an accumulating volume of research findings to demonstrate that Mind-body practices have highly beneficial effects on the health and well-being of humans. These include meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises. Because of their proven benefits the application of these practices to relieving human suffering has skyrocketed.
It is clear that Mind-body practices affect the physiology. In other words, the mind can alter the body. In turn, the genes can affect our minds. In fact, the genes have been shown to affect an individual’s inherent level of mindfulness. These interactions are well documented. The mechanisms by which they occur, however, are not well understood. It has been shown that contemplative practices help create balance in the inflammatory response which is very beneficial for health. But, the mechanism through which contemplative practices affect the immune system is not known. The genes dictate all of the chemical processes in our bodies including immune and inflammatory responses. So, it would seem reasonable to investigate whether alterations in gene expressions might be the intermediary between mind-body therapies and health.
The immune system is designed to protect the body from threats like stress, infection, injury, and toxic chemicals. One of its tools is the Inflammatory response. Its primary effect is to increase blood circulation around the infected area, dilating the blood vessels around the site of inflammation. It also produces gaps in the cell walls surrounding the infected area, allowing the larger immune cells, to pass. It also tends to increase body temperature to further fight infection. This response works quite well for short-term infections and injuries and as such is an important defense mechanism for the body. But when inflammation is protracted and becomes chronic, it can itself become a threat to health, producing autoimmune diseases such as colitis, Chron’s disease, arthritis, heart disease, increased cancer risk, lung disease, sleep disruption, gum disease, decreased bone health, psoriasis, and depression.
Mind-body practices appear to relax the physical systems of the body including the immune system, reducing inflammation. Mind-body techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi and meditation have been shown to adaptively reduce the inflammatory response. Hence, it makes sense to investigate the effects of mind-body practices on gene expressions that underlie the immune and inflammatory responses. In today’s Research News article “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5472657/, Buric and colleagues review and summarize the published research literature on the effects of mind-body practices on gene expressions.
They found 18 published research articles. These articles, in general, report that following engaging in mind-body practices there is a reduction in the expression of genes that are involved in the inflammatory response resultant from chronic stress, particularly downregulation of NF-κB-targeted genes. It has been well established that mind-body practices reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. The published research on the effects of mind-body practices on gene expressions provide a mechanism by which these practices affect the stress response. They do so by affecting the physiology on the molecular level altering the genes that underlie the chemical processes involved in the inflammatory responses to stress.
These findings suggest that Mind-body practices can improve the health and well-being of the practitioner. One of the premiere mechanisms by which this is accomplished is by reducing the individual’s responses to the debilitating effects of chronic stress. Many of the difficulties produced by chronic stress are caused by producing a chronic inflammatory response damaging tissues. It appears that mind-body practices improve health by altering the genes that underlie these processes.
So, change gene expression to lessen the effects of chronic stress with mind-body practices.
“doing yoga or meditating may lead to a decrease in cyctokine production, and a reversal of the inflammatory gene, which ultimately lowers the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.” – Brianna Steinhilber
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Buric, I., Farias, M., Jong, J., Mee, C., & Brazil, I. A. (2017). What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Frontiers in Immunology, 8, 670. http://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670
There is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of mind–body interventions (MBIs) in improving mental and physical health, but the molecular mechanisms of these benefits remain poorly understood. One hypothesis is that MBIs reverse expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions that are induced by stress. This systematic review was conducted to examine changes in gene expression that occur after MBIs and to explore how these molecular changes are related to health. We searched PubMed throughout September 2016 to look for studies that have used gene expression analysis in MBIs (i.e., mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation). Due to the limited quantity of studies, we included both clinical and non-clinical samples with any type of research design. Eighteen relevant studies were retrieved and analyzed. Overall, the studies indicate that these practices are associated with a downregulation of nuclear factor kappa B pathway; this is the opposite of the effects of chronic stress on gene expression and suggests that MBI practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases. However, it is unclear how the effects of MBIs compare to other healthy interventions such as exercise or nutrition due to the small number of available studies. More research is required to be able to understand the effects of MBIs at the molecular level.