With stress levels on the rise, more people than ever are turning to yoga, meditation, and other mind-body practices with the aim of improving mental health and well-being. In a new study, researchers have uncovered a molecular explanation for the stress-relieving effects of such practices.
Study leader Ivana Buric, of the Centre for Psychology at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, and colleagues found that mind-body interventions (MBIs) "reverse" changes in our DNA that cause stress.
The researchers recently reported their findings in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the use of MBIs in the United States is on the rise. Yoga is the most common MBI; figures show that since 2002, the number of U.S. adults aged 18 to 44 who practice yoga has almost doubled.
One of the main reasons why people practice yoga, meditation, and other MBIs is to help alleviate stress, and an overwhelming number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of MBIs for stress relief.
But what are the mechanisms that underlie this association? Previous research has primarily focused on how MBIs affect the brain in order to relieve stress, but Buric and colleagues wanted to find out whether or not there is a molecular explanation.
For their study, the researchers looked at whether MBIs influence gene expression, the process by which genes create proteins and other molecules that affect cellular function.
The team reviewed 18 studies that had investigated the effects of numerous MBIs - including yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and mindfulness - on gene expression.
The studies included a total of 846 participants, who were followed up for an average of 11 years.
MBIs reduce production of pro-inflammatory molecules
From their analysis, the researchers found that people who practice MBIs experience reduced production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which is known to regulate gene expression.
The researchers explain that stressful events trigger activity in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response.
This SNS activity leads to the production of NF-kB, which produces molecules called cytokines that promote cellular inflammation. If this molecular reaction is persistent, it can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, such as depression and cancer.
The study suggests that MBIs, however, lower the production of NF-kB and cytokines. This not only helps to alleviate stress, but it also helps to stave off the associated health conditions.
"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," says Buric.
"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 well-being."
The team says that future studies should explore how the molecular effects of MBIs on stress compare with other interventions, such as exercise and diet.
"But this is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities," Buric concludes.