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Mindfulness and meditation dampen down inflammation genes

Mind-body practices like yoga relieve stress, but do they also make you healthier? An analysis of 18 trials suggest they might, through changes in gene activity

Meditation and tai chi don’t just calm the mind – they seem to affect our DNA too. There’s evidence that such “mind-body practices” dampen the activity of genes associated with inflammation – essentially reversing molecular damage caused by stress.

Mind-body practices such as mindfulness meditation are widely claimed to protect against stress-related diseases from arthritis to dementia. But although there’s plenty of evidence that they can relieve stress, the scientific case for physical health benefits has not yet been proven.

Recent advances mean it’s now easier to study patterns of gene activity inside cells, and there has been growing interest in using this approach to investigate how nurturing inner peace might influence the immune system and disease risk.

Ivana Buric, a psychologist at the Coventry University’s Brain, Belief and Behaviour lab, and her colleagues have now conducted the first systematic review of such studies. The team analysed 18 trials including 846 participants, ranging from a 2005 study of Qigong to a 2014 trial that tested whether tai chi influenced gene activity in people with insomnia.

Although the quality of studies was mixed and the results were complex, Buric says an overall pattern emerged. Genes related to inflammation became less active in people practicing mind-body interventions. Genes controlled by a key protein that acts as an inflammation “on-switch” – called NF-ĸB – seem to be particularly affected.

Inflammation is the body’s first line of defence against infection and injury, but it can damage the body if switched on long term. It is thought to be an important way in which psychological stress can increase a person’s risk of developing disease. Chronic inflammation is associated with increased risk for psychiatric disorders, autoimmune conditions such as asthma and arthritis, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and some types of cancer.

But the results of the analysis suggest mind-body interventions might help reduce the risk for inflammation-related disorders, says Buric. “And not just psychological ones, but even the physical ones like asthma or arthritis.”

Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on several of the studies included in the analysis, describes Buric’s conclusions as “spot on”. But he says rigorous clinical trials are still needed to show whether the changes in gene expression really do result in improved physical health.

There’s also a need for more studies comparing the effects of mind-body therapies with other lifestyle interventions, such as diet or exercise.

So far, the results suggest that different mind-body interventions may well all be working in a similar way. If your main purpose is to reduce inflammation to improve health, says Buric, “it seems it really doesn’t matter which one you choose”.

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