If you’re still skeptical about the power of yoga, a new study might just change your perspective.
The piece, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, looks back over a number of previous studies on the effects of the different practices on gene expression. The findings show that all forms of yoga seem to have a beneficial effect on the expression of a slew of different genes — with the most affected genes pertaining to stress and inflammation.
The team searched for studies that measured the effects of mind-body interventions including mindfulness, meditation, yoga, the relaxation response, Tai Chi and Qigong on gene expression.
After reviewing several hundred studies, they found that only 18 met the criteria for the current analysis.
It turned out that all of the practices had some sort of effect on gene expression, either increasing or decreasing the expression of individual genes that were most often related to stress and inflammation. Namely, NF-κB, a compound that’s activated during times of stress and controls the expression of inflammation-related genes, was reduced across multiple studies.
Across all the different practices, gene expression generally changed in the direction of reducing the stress and inflammatory responses, which, in terms of long-term health, is generally a good thing.
“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 realize is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business,” said study author Ivana Buric in a statement.
“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, [mind-body interventions] cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.”
As with any study, there are a bunch of caveats of course. One of the most prominent being that there weren’t always control groups in the studies, which reduces their power. Additionally, the studies used different types of intervention and different ways of measuring outcomes, making it harder to formulate 100% positive conclusions. And, though it’s interesting that mind-body methods alter gene expression, it’s not clear how this translates into health in general. Although we know from other studies that chronic stress and inflammation are linked to disease, looking at the physical health outcomes of people who do these practices over the long-term might also be telling.
“More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth,” says Buric, “for example how they compare with other health interventions like exercise or nutrition. But this is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities.”
This isn’t the first study to suggest that these practices alter our immune systems. Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at UMass, showed that people’s immune systems responded better to the flu vaccine after people did an eight-week course of MBSR. More recent work has generally confirmed the connection. But what was interesting about the current study was that the inflammatory benefits seem to stretch across different methods, from MBSR to yoga to pranayama to Qigong.
For those of you yoga enthusiasts, we hope this inspires you to stay the course. For the rest of you — namaste.