Can yogic poses like downward facing dog improve your health by adjusting tiny chemical tags on your DNA? A calmer, relaxed mind after an intense yoga session seems to go hand-in-hand with bolstered health and a reduced chance of disease. Epigenetics, or the study of biological changes that occur due to different chemical marks that alter the expression of our genes, is showing that the beneficial effects of yoga penetrate deep into our minds and bodies — and may even touch the very code of life that makes us who we are.
Yoga has long been associated with increasing well-being and reducing stress — but how? Previous research has found that this mind-body practice improves mood and helps with depression, diminishes stress, and could even reduce chronic pain. Although the molecular underpinnings still aren’t fully grasped, researchers are slowly uncovering the clues to why we may be not only loosening up our muscles during yoga, but also our genes.
In a preliminary study conducted by Australian researchers, women who had psychological distress participated in one-hour yoga classes twice a week over the course of 8 weeks. Compared to their counterparts who did not engage in this meditative movement therapy, they had measurable epigenetic changes to their DNA and an increase in a specific immune protein.
Since inflammation has been connected to stress and depression, engaging in physical activities which reduce inflammation and promote anti-inflammatory factors can be very beneficial. The researchers assessed three major protein markers of inflammation known as interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and C-reactive protein (CRP). Surprisingly, they found a noticeable increase in IL-6 in the women who practiced yoga.
“The moderate effect indicating higher IL-6 levels in the yoga group is interesting insofar as it has a well-known role in the pro-inflammatory processes, but is increasingly recognized in healing and regeneration activities,” the researchers noted. These results pose new questions and avenues for investigation because although IL-6 is associated with inflammation, the protein has also been shown to have a role in the neuroprotective effect of exercise on mood.
Yoga is not only great for healthy individuals looking to stave off disease and poor health, but also for those who have conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease, according to Melinda Ratini, DO, MS. It can give someone strength, flexibility, and mind-body awareness. If you have arthritis, yoga is a great way to stay strong and flexible without placing added stress on your joints.
In addition to the moderate increase in the inflammatory protein, the team also assessed a popular epigenetic mark known as DNA methylation. DNA methylation is an epigenetic mechanism known to suppress the expression of genes. It’s defined as the addition of a methyl group onto DNA, catalyzed by enzymes known as DNA methyltransferases. When methyl groups are not present, the genes are open to transcription and can be expressed freely.
The yoga group demonstrated lower DNA methylation of the TNF region as a whole. They also uncovered a moderate and significant correlation between global DNA marker LINE-1 methylation and the women’s self-reported perceived stress. However, the team cautions that the small sample size attributed to the reduced statistical power and notes that additional research is necessary.
This study, according to the researchers, was the first of its kind to investigate yoga and its epigenetic effects related to DNA methylation. Although just a pilot study, the results bring forth interesting insight into the molecular changes that may be occurring during and after this widespread and increasingly popular exercise activity.
With yoga studios popping up on every corner, it’s easy to see that many of us are already reaping the benefits of this ancient practice. With more research, we might one day be able to pinpoint the exact epigenetic mechanisms that are at play when we stretch deep into downward dog and shavasana our way to better health.
Source: Harkess, K.N. et al. (2016). Preliminary indications of the effect of a brief yoga intervention on markers of inflammation and DNA methylation in chronically stressed women. Transl Psychiatry, 6(11): e965.