Mind-body exercises may work at molecular level

A woman doing yoga.
Can yoga really affect gene expression? Take it with a grain of chai.
Credit: Hero Images / Getty

Yoga, meditation and tai chi might affect certain gene functions, according to research published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.

The study – a review of 18 clinical and non-clinical studies into the effects of mind-body interventions – aims to identify how activities such as yoga actually work.

The review was led by Ivana Buric, from Coventry University in England, who felt the standard explanation of benefits from mind-body interventions (MBI) – that they are useful because they are relaxing – did not go far enough.

She and her colleagues suggest practices such as tai chi effect change on a molecular level, altering levels of gene expression.

The mechanism for this, the scientists suggest, is a protein complex called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB).

NF-kB controls gene transcription – the transfer of information from DNA to RNA – and is strongly associated with boosting immune response. It is also known to be a key driver of the body’s flight-or-fight response, kicking the system up into a high – and stressful – state of readiness.

Buric’s team say the literature review points to mind-body interventions playing an active role in damping down the transcription activity – and that it might be protective.

“Overall, the studies indicate that these practices are associated with a down-regulation of nuclear factor kappa B pathway,” the report concludes.

“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.”

The review comes with a substantial caveat, however. The team reports that the available literature was scarce, and that “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”.

Please login to favourite this article.