A new review of the published research finds that mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga may alter gene expression linked to stress and inflammation.
We all know that persistent stress damages the body, mind and brain. In large part, this occurs because stress activates the immune system, mobilizing the body’s natural defenses.
Scientific evidence shows that prolonged stress is linked to changes in DNA responsible for inflammation and immune system burnout, increasing the risk for heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal distress, arthritis, depression, anxiety and more. A new review of the research finds that mindfulness may lead to genetic changes that increase stress resilience.
Although the overall goal of meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices is to observe how we respond to life, not avoid or repress the unpleasant, or live in an endless state of bliss, studies show that mindfulness does make us feel less stressed.
The downside of much of the existing research is that it relies on people’s reports of feeling better, which, although valid, opens up the potential for a bias toward positive results. To counter this problem, scientists started looking for physical changes in the brain and body including in DNA.
practitioners, it was difficult to make any firm conclusions about whether mindfulness-based interventions consistently alter DNA without more research.
Now, several years later, a new review of studies examining changes in genetic structure following meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and other mind-body interventions, supports the premise that mindfulness practice may alter the genes responsible for stress resilience.
The review included 18 trials published in English where mind-body interventions were offered to clinical and non-clinical samples of adults (total of 846 participants) with either an established mindfulness practice or no history of mindfulness instruction. Only studies that directly measured changes in genetic structure were included.
There was considerable variability in the types of people studied, ranging from healthy adults to those with cancer, dementia, heart disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Similarly, mindfulness practices ran the gamut from mindfulness and Kirtan Kriya meditation to Iyengar yoga, tai chi, Qigong, and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Interventions ranged from days to years in duration.
Mindfulness practices may have genetic, stress-reducing effects
The human genome is vast, consisting of roughly 3 billion paired strands of DNA residing on 23 pairs of chromosomes. These paired strands make up approximately 20,000-25,000 genes that carry instructions for making proteins.
To further complicate matters, in many instances, genes work together, making it impossible to attribute something like stress or a particular behavior to one gene.
Because we know that mindfulness practices tend to reduce stress and therefore inflammation, one of the primary targets for research is to look at gene expression related to inflammatory biomarkers. In their review of the published research, researchers found consistent (but not universal) evidence of a downregulation of genes related to inflammation.
Simply put, this suggests that, on average, mindfulness practitioners demonstrated less expression of genes related to inflammation with some exceptions.
This review also unveiled a mystery. The downstream result of these genetic changes, namely changes in inflammatory proteins such as interlukins and cortisol, were not significant in 76% of cases. What’s more, some studies found changes in some proteins, while others did not.
This suggests that changes in our DNA may be more sensitive to short-term mind-body interventions, but that it may take more time and practice to see a reduction in inflammatory proteins. Undoubtedly ongoing research will be needed to paint a clearer picture of how these genetic and biological mechanisms contribute to our health and wellbeing.