Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I'm one of those Type A people who's pretty much always stressed-out. My wife got me to try yoga about six months ago and I'll admit, I do feel better. Now our local TV station has reported that yoga and meditation might actually be changing my genes. How can that be?

Dear Reader: First, congratulations on trying something new (we know it's not always easy) to improve your quality of life. The day that you stretched and visualized and breathed deep for the first time, you joined a growing groundswell of interest into yoga and meditation as avenues to enhanced well-being.

A nationwide survey three years ago found that between 2002 and 2015, the number of adults who regularly practice yoga doubled to 21 million. With this level of interest, it's no surprise that biological effects of yoga and meditation would become the subjects of even wider scientific inquiry. What was unexpected, though, were the results of a recent study. According to British researchers, who parsed the data from a group of previously published studies, mind–body interventions like yoga and meditation can affect the body at the cellular level.

Curious about the molecular mechanisms behind the mounting anecdotal evidence about the benefits of mind-body interventions, the researchers chose 18 studies into the effects of yoga, mindfulness meditation, Tai Chi, Qigong and deep breathing. A total of 846 people took part in those studies, each of which analyzed gene expression in their participants. That is, they looked at how each person was affected at a cellular level. What they found was that each of the mind-body interventions appeared to put the brakes on the genes and the genetic pathways that promote inflammation. Although inflammation is a crucial part of the body's immune response, it's a double-edged sword. The inflammation response protects the body from foreign invaders and after an injury. But when inflammation continues unabated, it creates problems of its own. Conditions like arthritis, asthma, diabetes, many cancers, atherosclerosis and various types of dementia all have chronic inflammation in common.

When the researchers analyzed the data in the 18 studies, it turned out that each of the mind-body interventions decreased the activity of genes and gene pathways involved in inflammation. As you say in your question, news reports have said that yoga and meditation changed peoples' genes. But they didn't. What did happen is that these activities appeared to affect how those genes behaved. And what was particularly interesting was that, despite the differences in the various techniques, the outcome -- a lessening of inflammation -- remained consistent. Seated meditation is, obviously, almost exclusively stationary. Tai Chi, yoga and Qigong, meanwhile, involve varying degrees of physical exertion. Yet all yielded similar benefits.

Whether you're actively bending and stretching and deep breathing or simply taking 20 or 30 minutes to clear your mind, the study's authors concluded, the daily practice leaves a "molecular signature" on your cells. This, in turn, can reduce and even reverse how stress and anxiety affect the body at a cellular level. Not a bad return on the investment.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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