Meditation and Tai Chi don’t just calm the mind – they seem to affect our DNA too. Evidence has emerged that these ‘mind-body practices’ reduce the activity of genes associated with inflammation – essentially reversing molecular damage caused by stress.
It has been found that genes related to inflammation become less active in people practising mind-body interventions. This was the result of the first systematic review of studies on the effect of mind-body practices on gene activity, conducted by Ivana Buric, a psychologist at the Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab.
The team analysed 18 trials including 846 participants, ranging from a 2005 study of Qigong to a 2014 trial that tested whether tai chi influenced gene activity in people with insomnia. Though the quality of the studies was mixed and results complex, Buric says the reduction in inflammation as a result of practice emerged as a pattern, with genes controlled by a protein that acts as an inflammation ‘on-switch’ particulalry responsive to meditation, qi gong and tai chi.
The results suggest that mind-body interventions might help reduce the risk for inflammation-related disorders, she explained, “And not just psychological ones, but even the physical ones like asthma or arthritis.” It doesn’t seem to matter which practice you choose, advocates Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on several of the studies included in the analysis, and describes Buric’s conclusions as “spot on”. But he says rigorous clinical trials are still needed to show whether the changes in gene expression really do result in improved physical health.
This is an exciting development for both the fields of mind-body practice and genetics: inflammation is the body’s first line of defence against infection and injury but it can damage the body if overactive, or active long-term. The implications for all of medicine are also not to be underestimated, for inflammation is thought to be an instrumental way in which psychological stress can increase a person’s risk of developing disease. Chronic inflammation is also associated with increased risk for psychiatric disorders, autoimmune conditions such as asthma and arthritis, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and some kinds of cancer.
Whilst these conditions and the genetics behind them are also likely to be influenced by other factors such as diet and exercise, and more studies are required to explore this, the evidence for the effects of mind-body practices is resoundingly positive.
Read more at The New Scientist.