I came across this 2017 paper recently:
What is the Molecular Signature of Mind Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.
Mind Body Interventions (MBIs) cover a broad category of disciplines like Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, Mindfulness, breathing practices, Relaxation Response.1,3
It’s reasonably clear that these all have positive effects on our physical and mental health. Often, however, we tend to look at these effects through the lens of obvious mechanisms like gross anatomy – changes to muscle and tissues – or psychology and neuroscience – changes to brain function or structure.
However the human body is much more than the sum of the parts, and one of the many areas of expanding knowledge in recent years has been genetics.
In this review paper the authors are looking at how Mind Body Interventions change our genetic coding, in particular how genes are expressed – that is to say which genetic traits are dominant and which suppressed. The genes themselves are inherited, but their expression or suppression is variable – as has been said “genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger”
There is a distinct genetic coding for chronic stress. In this context chronic equates to a long term stress response to adverse events – the authors define stress as “Stress can be regarded as a bodily response to events that are perceived as a threat or a challenge”. When we experience chronic stress our genes adapt to reflect this, especially promoting pro inflammatory genes, and downstream inflammation has a significant effect on our health and ageing – everything from arthritis to dementia via heart disease and digestive complaints have a inflammatory trait to them.5
Put simply our genes reinforce the stress, and state becomes a genetic trait. It’s an adaptive function of old which hasn’t kept place with modern life – when stress was life or death, such adaptations made sense; in modern times they are less useful, a ongoing spat on Facebook is unlikely to be life or death.4 Likewise when medicine and medical care was primitive, inflammation may have been the best medicine – not in the modern world.
This review paper looks at a cross section of research showing how MBIs potentially reverse these genetic changes and downrate these inflammatory genes. That in turn makes us less susceptible to the negative effects of inflammation.
Tentatively this suggests we can counter some of the stresses we face by our preferred MBI. As the authors say in conclusion “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” although rightly they also acknowledge that more research is necessary.
Alongside what we know about MBIs helping promote positive changes in brain and nervous system functionality and structure, and other factors like telomere2 length, we start to see a pattern regarding taking control of our health and well-being.
5 Although, paradoxically, not all inflammation is related to stress, and not all inflammation is bad. We demonise inflammation at our peril.