Yoga Studies: Genes In The Shavasana Pose

19. September 2017

Yoga and qigong are more popular than ever. Does the hype also bring health benefits with it? Whatever happens in the body on a molecular level has hardly been understood due to missing data. Studies now show proof of positive effects on inflammatory processes.

Patients with a diversity of symptoms benefit from meditation or relaxation, as many studies show. However, the studies have a great weakness: relaxation techniques are hardly able to be standardised. There are different schools of thought, and each school works with a different set of techniques. Given these circumstances, data bias is inevitable.

Genes in meditation mode

Ivana Buric, a researcher at Coventry University, chose a different path. Self-assessments obtained from the patient are not good enough in her view. Rather, she has searched out randomised controlled trials (RCTs) which explain the effects in terms of molecular biology. Buric’s starting point were studies carried out by Steven W. Cole from the UCLA School of Medicine, one of the pioneers of social genomics. This discipline examines the type of effect social factors have on gene expression. Social stress leads to increased expression of a range of genes in cells. Cole refers to “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” (CTRA). Among these one can recognise the typical profile of active genes in stress reactions. CTRA manifests as a common molecular pattern in instances of mourning, cancer diagnoses, trauma or low socioeconomic status.

Subsequently, proinflammatory signal paths, especially the NF-κB path, are activated. NF-κB in being a transcription factor fulfils many and varied tasks in the body. It regulates the immune response, as well as processes involved in apoptosis or cell proliferation. What type of role NF-κB plays in neuronal processes is the subject of current research projects.

This is precisely where Buric’s hypothesis comes in: do yoga, qi-gong, mindfulness or other techniques subdue the expression of genes in the NF-κB signaling pathway? In the course of her research, the scientist found 18 publications detailing in terms of molecular biology the impact of relaxation exercises. The following is an overview of the studies analysed by Buric and the central findings of her literature analysis.

Breast cancer: relaxation versus inflammation

Michael R. Irwin from the ULCA Semel Institute for Neuroscience in Los Angeles wanted to know which processes tai-chi trigger in the body of former breast cancer patients. For his study he recruited 90 participants who from an oncological viewpoint had recovered but were suffering from insomnia. Three months of tai-chi improved the ailment. At the same time, several genes which are associated with inflammatory processes were downregulated in their expression.

While the CRP level did not change through the interventions, the amount of signal substances IL-6 and TNF were, respectively, slightly and significantly reduced, suggesting that cellular inflammatory responses had receded. Analyses showed a nine percent decrease in the expression of 19 proinflammatory genes and an increase in the expression of a total of 68 genes. Of these, 34 are known to be active against viruses or tumours. Bioinformaticists found out that through tai-chi in particular less of the transcription factor NF-κB arises.

Breast cancer survivors are also the subject of study of Julienne E. Bower from the UCLA Department of Psychology in Los Angeles. 31 women who were from an oncological perspective healthy however suffered from fatigue took part in her randomised controlled trial. They were assigned either to an intervention group using yoga, or a control group given general health information.

After twelve weeks, women who practised yoga regularly experienced significant changes in gene expression. A total of 282 genes were upregulated and a further 153 were downregulated. There was a drop in the activity of the inflammatory transcription factors NF-κB and CREB (cAMP response element-binding protein). At the same time, more glucocorticoid receptors with anti-inflammatory effects were expressed.

Stress during care

David S. Black, ULCA Semel Institute for Neuroscience in Los Angeles, examined what kind of effects are seen in people who care for sick relatives. Carers tend to have poorer physical and mental health than control groups, probably due to stress-induced upregulation of proinflammatory genes and downregulation of genes whose transcripts express antiviral activities.

Black randomly assigned 45 carers to a Kirtan Kriya Meditation (KKM) intervention group or to a control group involving relaxing meditation. With KKM, depressive symptoms decreased significantly. At the same time, 49 genes were downregulated and another 19 were upregulated. Detailed analyses confirmed the hypothesis that there was a decrease in the proinflammatory gene expression (with reference to NF-κB) and an increase in antiviral gene expression (IRF-1).

Loneliness makes you sick

People with age-related loneliness are the subject of studies by David Creswell. He is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Creswell found expression rates of genes associated with NF-κB to be elevated in all 40 subjects (55 to 85 years of age) at the beginning of the study.

He randomly assigned all participants to either of two groups. They were given either courses on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or general consultations. With MBSR the expression of proinflammatory genes were actually downregulated. The levels of CRP and IL-6 did not change.

Which is better, yoga or tai-chi?

A lot of data, one question: What does Ivana Buric’s publication offer the medical clinic? She sees her analysis of the literature as an opportunity to understand what is happening biochemically in the body during meditation or relaxation exercises. However, the data is not suitable for making comparisons of the individual methods.

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