The Therapeutic Power of Mind-Body Interventions Reaches the Genes

Mind-body interventions are gaining popularity as adjunct or alternative therapies that help manage numerous conditions and increase subjective well-being. Some of these practices are thought to amount to little more than pseudoscience while others have empirically shown benefits to its practitioners.

While it is known that the mind can affect the body in significant ways, little did scientists suspect of the sheer power that the mind truly possesses according to a recent collaborative research effort between the universities of Radboud (Netherlands) and Coventry (UK). The discovery turned out almost unthinkable: scientists have surprisingly found that practices such as Tai Chi or meditation can positively affect the genetic predisposition of an individual. The study has been published in Frontiers of Immunology, a peer-reviewed publication.

Relaxing to heal

Scientists reviewed 18 studies involving 846 participants to evaluate a potential link between MBIs (mind-body interventions) and genetics. The data spanned 11 years. Focusing their attention on how MBIs influence gene expression, they discovered that mind-body interventions help reduce the expression of genes responsible for the synthesis of cytokines – proteins produced by the organism during stressful situations. This happens because the relaxing effect of MBIs on the body helps regulate the production of the nuclear factor kappa B molecule (NF-kB), which is responsible for triggering the genes that ultimately synthesize cytokines.

To deal with stressful situations, cytokines boost the immune system, but they also increase cellular inflammation, which is a strongly contributing factor to the onset of numerous diseases and symptoms of aging. Therefore, reducing the production of these proteins imparts beneficial health effects because DNA molecules can stem potentially persistent damage (especially in highly-neurotic or stressful individuals) and previous damage may be repaired more efficiently.

The hidden power of the mind

In other words, activities such as yoga and meditation offer benefits not only in the subjective well-being of an individual but also in their genes. According to Ivana Buric who led the study, these findings show that the therapeutic value of MBIs is fully justified in an age where the prevalence of psychological stress on a daily basis seems to be growing.

Mind-body interventions could become part of people’s daily lives as a powerful preventive measure against psychological pathologies, cancer, or cardiovascular diseases, for example. The new findings highlight the potential of humans being able to affect, in an ingenious way, their own gene expression. The findings are promising, but researchers caution that more work is necessary to gauge how much of a benefit MBIs offer in addition to proper physical activity and nutrition.