Can yoga influence the gene expression of your DNA?
I believe so as I personally dove into all of the mind-body interventions yoga had to offer to prevent one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of mortality. Both of my parents were diagnosed with hypertension, with my mother getting the diagnosis in her 30s, and both went on to develop cardiovascular disease that is managed by multiple prescription medications. When I turned 40, my physician informed me that I was pre-hypertensive, which sent me on a journey that not only reversed this diagnosis, but changed my life in so many other ways! Different life experiences can influence your genes and cause subconscious behavioral patterns that are passed on over generations, including trauma. And now we might be discovering how yoga and all of its contemplative practices can change and perhaps undo the damage of such life experiences.
There is a newer focus of research that is digging deeper into how the contemplative, mind-body practices of yoga impact our genes, especially in relation to the stress response and inflammation. This body of research is looking at the autonomic nervous system’s response to stressful events, specifically the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern. The human body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When presented with signals and sensations, the autonomic nervous system responds and takes one of three pathways through these two main branches to keep us safe. The oldest route from an evolutionary development perspective leads to immobilization (think freeze/faint) through the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nerve branch. The next pathway to develop led to the mobilization response (think fight/flight) through the sympathetic nervous system branch. The final one to evolve led to social engagement (think safe and social) through the parasympathetic ventral vagal nerve branch, which is unique to mammals.
When danger is sensed, the human body’s autonomic nervous system travels backwards through the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response and then perhaps, if we feel trapped, to the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nervous system’s freeze/faint response. When the body arrives in the space of immobilization for survival, it can be a long and painful journey back to the space of feeling safe and social. So anything that might make this journey shorter and less painful is welcome! That is where understanding how yoga can support such intentions is vital.
Without going too deep into the science (click on the button below to read more if interested in a deeper dive), when the human body encounters stress and triggers the sympathetic nervous system, it increases production of chemicals that regulate how genes are expressed, activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation. When these higher levels of cytokines persist over time, the human body is put at a higher risk of a whole range of diseases, including cancer and psychiatric disorders. This newer research is finding that people who practice mind-body interventions such as mindfulness meditations, yoga or Tai Chi, actually reflect the opposite effect, namely a decrease in the production of cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern. One of the more recent studies considered one of these mind-body interventions, specifically meditation, an emotional and attentional regulatory activity that supports a state of inner quiet. From this inner quiet grows increased self-awareness which has the power to reduce stress-related symptoms.
To read more about the growing evidence that stress can cause changes in gene expression and how intentionally engaging in mind-body practices can transform the genetic effects of stress, click below:
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