A number of studies have suggested that yoga and meditation – along with other mind/body activities – can reduce inflammation as well as influence some immunological markers of stress. The latest findings come from A University of Southern California study of 38 men and women who took part in a three-month residential yoga retreat. All the participants had extensive experience with yoga prior to joining the study – they averaged about two hours of yoga practice daily for about 4.5 years.
During their first six weeks at the retreat, all the participants took part in a daily breath-focused meditation practice for 30 to 50 minutes, a conscious “non-doing/no thought” meditation practice for 30 minutes daily, plus one to two hours of Hatha yoga and an hour of chanting.
For the second six weeks they practiced linga sanchalana, a focused-attention meditation practice, for approximately one hour twice a day, plus one to two hours of Hatha yoga and one hour of chanting.
They also provided salivary and blood samples, which the researchers used to measure markers of inflammation and stress. These revealed decreases in stress and reductions in inflammatory processes over the three-month course of the retreat. The participants themselves reported decreases in anxiety and depression as well as improvement in mindfulness. Of course, they did a lot of intense practice.
Research elsewhere has shown that in addition to yoga and meditation, other mind-body exercises including qigong and tai chi seem to suppress the expression of genes that promote inflammation. A British analysis of the findings of 18 earlier studies involving 846 people found that those who regularly practiced yoga and other mind-body activities had fewer signs of inflammation, including a decreased production of inflammatory proteins.
Lead researcher, Ivana Buric of Coventry University, explained that “these activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed.”
We know that stress triggers the “fight or flight” response that increases production of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), a molecule that regulates gene expression. The British study found that in people who practice mind-body exercises, production of NF-kB and cytokines (proteins that cause inflammation at the cellular level) decreases, leading to a reversal of pro-inflammatory gene expression and a reduction in the risk of diseases related to inflammation. The fact that many of the mind-body exercises included in the studies are quite different from one another didn’t seem to affect their impact on the activity of genes that led to these positive changes. Ms. Buric also suggests that we could derive similar benefit from other lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating and exercise, and that “even just 15 minutes of practicing mindfulness seems to do the trick.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Barauch Rael Cahn et al, “Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 26, 2017, DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00315
Ivana Buric et al, “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” Frontiers in Immunology, June 16, 2017, doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670