New research has shown that mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation can change our stress response at the body’s deepest level – our DNA. We know of course that a good session will leave us feeling calmer, more centred, more stable in our responses to the world. But this research demonstrates that with continued practice, something much more profound happens. Of course we can also experience this ourselves but it’s interesting to read research that both verifies it and goes some way to explaining what is happening.
When we are exposed to external or internal stress, the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) branch of our autonomic nervous system is triggered. This causes physical reactions throughout the body – right down to the level of the genes. They start to produce cytokines – proteins that cause inflammation within the cells. Prolonged inflammation of this kind can lead to a wide range of chronic mental, emotional and physical diseases – as well as to premature ageing.
The new study (which analysed 18 previous individual studies) appears to show that mindfulness practices reduce this inflammatory reaction.
More precisely (and scientifically) the authors say “The results of 18 studies that used gene expression analysis in research on meditation and related mind-body interventions have overall found downregulation of NF-κB-targeted genes, which can be understood as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress.”
The full study is available here