While many attest to the positive effects yoga and meditation have on their overall well-being, is there any hard science to back up these claims?
According to a new study published in Frontiers in Immunology, the answer could be “Yes.”
Researchers examined 18 studies published over the past 11 years. These studies included information on 800 people.
The researchers concluded that mind-body interventions (MBIs) — activities such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi — actually affect the bodies’ genes. The positive benefits of these activities included a reduction of stress and related symptoms at the molecular level.
“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,” lead author Ivana Buric, a PhD student at Coventry University, said in a press release.
Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path that improves our well-being.
Specifically, MBIs are able to influence gene activity related to inflammation.
During an interview with Healthline, Buric said, “When we do yoga or meditation, we learn to perceive situations differently and consequently experience less stress, which then prevents the production of inflammatory proteins,” he explained.
Rather than simply making one feel calm, or relaxed, there are real changes occurring within the brain and nervous system.
The mind-body connection
Broadly, when we experience something stressful in our lives, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, increasing production of chemicals in the body that are commonly associated with feelings of fear, danger, or anxiety — commonly called the “fight-or-flight response.”
Of those chemicals, a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) is produced. It's responsible for causing genes to form proteins known as cytokines, which are responsible for cell inflammation.
In people who practice MBIs, the opposite seems to happen. A decrease in both NF-kB and cytokines leads to lower levels of inflammation in the body.
“The genes that we inherited can change their activity ... We are now beginning to understand what aspects of our environment affect the activity of which genes,” said Buric.
Putting the findings into practice
The impact of MBIs on inflammation has potentially far-reaching applications.
A range of psychological disorders, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety, as well as other medical conditions like asthma and arthritis, are all inflammation-related diseases.
However, Buric cautioned that there is no conclusive evidence that MBIs can treat these illnesses and that research is still lacking. “More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth, for example, how they compare with other healthy interventions like exercise or nutrition.”
While there has been a general sense of how MBIs affect human brains, this new study gives a deeper understanding of their impact on a molecular level. And highlighting a “hard science” approach might be more appealing to some skeptics.
MBIs occupy an increasingly important part of the health practices for people in the United States. A study in the journal Neurology in 2008 indicated that half of adults in the country “use complementary and alternative medicine with mind-body therapy being the most commonly used form.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also published its own survey of American usage of MBIs between 2002 and 2012, utilizing data from nearly 90,000 people. One of their key findings was yoga practice for individuals aged 18-44 nearly doubled, growing from approximately 5-10 percent.
At the same time, the American Psychological Association reported a continuing rise in stress level by generation — with millennials and Gen Xers indicating significantly higher levels of stress than their parents.
What is clear from all this data is that, without proper treatment, stress levels — particularly for younger and marginalized Americans — will continue to rise, possibly leading to deteriorating health.
As these groups seek out new treatments, pressure will mount on the medical community to research the potential benefits of these nontraditional treatments, including MBIs.
“This is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities.” said Buric.