The Power of Healthy Habits: Yoga Changes Gene Expression Linked to Chronic Inflammation

Everyone has experienced inflammation as a temporary phenomenon in response to injuries or other challenges that activate the immune system. This is a useful response that is part of the body’s natural defense system.

When inflammation becomes chronic, however, it’s a different story. Stress can trigger chronic inflammation in the body, and chronic inflammation, in turn, has been linked to numerous diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, obesity, depression, anxiety, and more.

A recent study finds that yoga can help reduce chronic inflammation by changing gene expression in the body.  Instead of stress-activating genes that cause inflammation, yoga reverses the expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions caused by stress, preventing chronic inflammation from arising.

What is Inflammation?

Chronic Inflammation is curbed by yoga practice and therefore is healthy for the aging brain.

Inflammation is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it is our body’s natural mechanism to protect against infection and injury. When there is a perceived threat, the brain regions associated with pain will start a chain reaction that results in the production of molecules that bind to and activate pro-inflammatory genes. These genes produce proteins called cytokines that trigger the inflammatory response to fight pathogens.

Unfortunately, our bodies do not distinguish between physical, emotional, or psychological threats. While a defensive, inflammatory response will aid in survival when we have an open wound, the same does not apply when it is an emotional wound. In that case- or the countless other stressful situations we face daily, the inflammation actually hinders us by wasting our energy and resources and telling our bodies that we are in a constant state of being under attack.

This is chronic inflammation and, over time, impairs both our physical and mental health. Chronic inflammation is linked with an increased risk of cancer, accelerated aging, depression, and anxiety.

Scientific Review on How Yoga Changes Gene Expression of Inflammation

In their paper published in Frontiers in Immunology, British researchers noted, “There is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of mind-body interventions in improving mental and physical health, but the molecular mechanisms of these benefits remain poorly understood.”  They hypothesized that mind-body interventions reverse the expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions caused by stress. So, they conducted a systematic review of 18 different studies that used gene expression analysis in mind-body interventions.

A diagram showing how yoga affects gene expression and chronic inflammation

Mind-Body Interventions that May Affect Gene Expression

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong
  • Relaxation response
  • Breath Regulation

Yoga Affects Gene Expression for Inflammation

yoga to curb chronic Inflammation

By conducting a meta-analysis, an analysis of previously conducted studies, the researchers were able to compare results from a variety of studies and discern larger trends across studies. The results of comparing studies on yoga, mindfulness, TaiChi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation showed what these activities all had in common–they all affected gene expression in the opposite way that chronic stress does.

Lifestyle and environment can affect which genes are turned on and off, and this analysis suggests that mind-body practices like yoga can turn off the genes that are normally activated by stress–the genes that induce inflammation. The implication of these findings is that yoga and other mind-body practices may reduce the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions causing physical and psychological harm.

In her correspondence with TIME, lead author Ivana Buric emphasized that inherited genes are not static and that things within our control can influence DNA activity. “By choosing healthy habits every day, we can create a gene activity pattern that is more beneficial for our health,” she says. “Even just 15 minutes of practicing mindfulness seems to do the trick.”

This exciting new study helps us understand why practicing yoga feels good and the mechanics of how, on a genetic level, yoga is linked with reducing anxiety, depression, and other diseases and conditions associated with chronic stress. Hopefully, this study will open the door for further research into the effects of mind-body interventions at the molecular level.

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