Mind/Body Practices and Genetic Expression

November 26, 2018 Joe Brady

A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation in Tai Chi and Related Practices

The ancient Taoist masters stated that “in perfect harmony of mind and body, the golden elixir is found.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine the “prior to heaven Jing” refers to the DNA itself. “Post-heaven Jing” refers to how those genes are expressed (genetic expression). Our Jing or genetic material must be conserved and not wasted and the way to restoring the post-heaven Jing is by diet, exercise and profound meditation. Once again modern science is confirming their insight. There is a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of Tai Chi, Qigong, and other mind-body interventions (MBIs) in improving both mental and physical health and scientists are beginning to understand exactly why. It seems these practices affect us at the core of our being, the DNA expression itself. 

A systematic review of a total of 18 studies with 846 participants was included in this review. The studies looked at changes in gene expression that occur after meditation to try and understand why these practices have so many mental and physical benefits and are associated with better health outcomes.  Researchers looked at several different types of meditation such as mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, relaxation response, and breath regulation. 

Mind/Body practices may reverse the negative effects of stress

These studies indicate that these practices are associated with a down-regulation of pro-inflammatory genes and the harmful effects of chronic stress on gene expression and suggest that meditation practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases. The examined studies indicate that Mind/Body practices may reverse the negative effects of stress

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.

  • the reduction of perceived stress
  • the alleviation of depression 
  • decreases in anxiety
  • help in coping with a chronic medical diseas [e.g., Ref. (4)]. 

For More See:

Front. Immunol., 16 June 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

Buric I, Farias M, Jong J, Mee C and Brazil IA (2017) What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind-Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Front. Immunol. 8:670. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

Added Benefits with Physical Activity

Meditations such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong, have a strong physical activity component and are likely to provide many more benefits than meditation alone Meditation and mindfulness, breathing techniques, and the relaxation response (RR) are mainly sedentary but still seem to produce various psychological benefits on healthy and clinical populations. 


Stress and Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA)

Modern stress is long-term, constant stress. Sometimes it is difficult to catch a break. CTRA is considered to be a molecular signature of chronic stress and may precipitate a health risk when stress is severe or it occurs over a long period of time without relief.  This chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation which can increase your risk for some types of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, and psychiatric disorders (e.g., depression and posttraumatic stress disorder).  This response to chronic stress (CTRA) also leads to a downregulation of antiviral and antibody-related genes, which is associated with susceptibility to viral infections, such as herpes simplex viruses, HIV-1, Epstein–Barr virus, cytomegalovirus, and the Kaposi’s sarcoma. Taking a mind/body break from stress may be what’s needed to reboot the genes towards healthier expression.

Studies reviewed included studies of:

  • Genomic Profiling of Asian Qigong  
  • Gene Expression Profiling in Practitioners of Sudarshan Kriya (SK)
  • The Effect of Pranayama on Gene Expression in Leukemia Patients and Rapid Interpretation of Gene Expression
  •  (the results showed that 4,428 genes (out of 28,000 analyzed) were upregulated up to twofold in leukemia patients who practiced breathing techniques.)
  • Mindfulness Reduces Loneliness and Pro-inflammatory Gene Expression in Older Adults
  • Meditation Reverses NF-κB and IRF-Related Transcriptome Dynamics in Leukocytes of Family Dementia Caregivers
  • Tai Chi, Cellular Inflammation, and Transcriptome Dynamics in Breast Cancer
  • Yoga Reduces Inflammatory Signaling in Fatigued Breast Cancer Survivors
  • Mindfulness Meditation for Younger Breast Cancer Survivors
  • Effects of Lifestyle Modification on Telomerase Gene Expression 
  • CBT and Tai Chi Reverse Cellular and Genomic Markers of Inflammation in Late Life Insomnia
  • Genomic and Clinical Effects Associated with a RR MBI in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Biomarkers of Resilience in Stress Reduction for Caregivers of Alzheimer’s Patients
  • Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program
  • Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the RR
  • RR Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin 
  • Secretion, and Inflammatory Pathways
  • Rapid Changes in Histone Deacetylases and Inflammatory Gene Expression in Expert Meditators

Practice makes perfect: experienced practitioners show

Genome-Wide Expression Changes while in the Higher State of Consciousness

Meditation is a skill related activity. Experienced practitioners who practice regularly. Genes that changed expression for 30% or more after entering into higher consciousness were considered significant. For one participant, 1,688 genes changed expression (1,559 downregulated and 109 upregulated) and 608 for the other (338 upregulated and 270 downregulated). 

Healthy Diets also affect gene expression

Unhealthy diets loaded with saturated fats, sugars, and refined food products are associated with pro-inflammatory gene expression particularly in obese people (56). Healthy diets might reduce inflammatory gene expression, e.g., drinking blueberry and grape juice daily for 4 weeks changes the expression of the genes related to apoptosis, immune response, cell adhesion, and lipid metabolism (57). Similarly, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, and unsaturated fats is associated with anti-inflammatory gene profile.

Similar changes have been observed in older adults after just one Mediterranean diet meal (59) or in healthy adults after consuming 250 ml of red wine (60) or 50 ml of olive oil (61). However, only two of the studies controlled for other lifestyle factors that may have explained gene expression changes.

Make a Bigger Brain

And if that’s not enough, meditation has also been shown to make your brain bigger and a lot of people these days definitely need to get themselves a bigger brain. Neuroimaging studies suggest that mind/body practices increase gray matter in the brain regions related to emotion regulation, learning, memory, self-referential processes, and perspective taking. All necessary skills for living in a stressful world.