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Meditation and yoga can 'reverse' the damage of stress
Researchers from the University of Coventry, UK and Radboud University, the Netherlands, analyzed over a decade of studies contrasting behavior and gene responses to find how MBIs, including mindfulness and yoga, reduce stress.
Experts from both universities conclude from the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — a pattern of molecular changes happening in the body as a result of MBIs, and how they benefit our mental and physical health.
Their results are published in the journal, Frontiers in Immunology
The researchers focused on gene expression, or how genes are activated to produce proteins. Specific to stress, the proteins influencing our immune system.
A stressful event triggers our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is responsible for the 'fight-or-flight' response. It increases production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how genes function in response to stress.
NF-kB activates genes which produce cytokines and cytokines cause inflammation at the cellular level. Inflammation is useful when the fight-or-flight reaction is needed as when a peripheral nerve is injured. Macrophages and Schwann cells gather around the injured site of the nerve to secrete cytokines and specific growth factors required for nerve regeneration. But, if that reaction persists for too long, it leads to higher risk for cancer, accelerated aging and psychiatric disorders like depression.
According to the studies reviewed, however, people who practice MBIs exhibit the opposite effect — namely a decrease in production of NF-kB and cytokines.
The study's authors say the inflammatory effect of the fight-or-flight response — which also serves to temporarily bolster the immune system — plays an important role in hunter-gatherer societies, where there is a higher risk of infection from wounds.
In modernized societies, however, stress is increasingly psychological and often longer-term. Pro-inflammatory gene expression can be persistent and therefore more likely to cause psychiatric and medical problems.
Lead investigator Ivana Buric, post doctoral candidate in the Centre for Psychology at Coventry University, explains:
"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 realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business. 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, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.
"More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth, for example how they compare with other healthy 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."
From the published article
There is considerable evidence for the effectiveness of mind–body interventions (MBIs) in improving mental and physical health, but the molecular mechanisms of these benefits remain poorly understood. One hypothesis is that MBIs reverse expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions that are induced by stress. This systematic review was conducted to examine changes in gene expression that occur after MBIs and to explore how these molecular changes are related to health. We searched PubMed throughout September 2016 to look for studies that have used gene expression analysis in MBIs (i.e., mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation). Due to the limited quantity of studies, we included both clinical and non-clinical samples with any type of research design. Eighteen relevant studies were retrieved and analyzed. Overall, the studies indicate that these practices are associated with a downregulation of nuclear factor kappa B pathway; this is the opposite of the effects of chronic stress on gene expression and suggests that MBI practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases. However, it is unclear how the effects of MBIs compare to other healthy interventions such as exercise or nutrition due to the small number of available studies. More research is required to be able to understand the effects of MBIs at the molecular level.
CONCLUSSION: The results of 18 studies that used gene expression analysis in research on meditation and related MBIs have overall found downregulation of NF-?B-targeted genes, which can be understood as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress. Even though the study designs, the population, and the types of MBI used in the studies included in this review vary, it indicates that some of the psychological and physical benefits of MBIs are underpinned by biological changes in NF-?B genes. These results need to be replicated in larger samples and with stronger research designs that control for non-specific effects of these practices and for as confounding lifestyle factors, such as sleep, diet, and exercise. 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.
Authors: Ivana Buric1, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil
IBu was supported by a doctoral award from Coventry University. IBr was supported by a NWO VENI (451-15-014) grant. MF was supported by Pump Prime Grant from Coventry University.
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
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Exposure to stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggering production of the kappa B (NF-kB) molecule which triggers production of cytokines causing inflammation. However, people who practise MBIs decrease production of NF-kB and cytokines, reversing the pro-inflammatory response and reducing the risk of inflammation-related diseases.