Researchers in the UK recently conducted a systematic review of over a decade's worth of clinical studies on the benefits of mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as various types of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and Qigong. This analysis, "What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices," was published June 16 in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.
The Coventry University review of 18 international studies conducted over 11 years found that a wide range of MBIs have the power to downregulate the genetic expression of inflammatory cytokines and NF-κB-targeted genes. According to the researchers, the benefits of MBIs can be interpreted as reversing the molecular signature caused by the effects of chronic stress, which is correlated with a higher risk of inflammation-related diseases, accelerated biological aging, and early mortality.
Mind-body interventions include any type of drug-free integrative medicine rooted in a psychophysiology-based system of belief that your mind influences the well-being of your physical body and vice versa—as part of a positive feedback loop. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) defines mind-body interventions as practices that "employ a variety of techniques designed to facilitate the mind's capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms.”
"Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don't realize is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business. 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. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing."
Long before medical experts could trace the genetic expression of someone’s DNA, Eastern cultures intuitively adopted mind-body interventions into their everyday life. As an example, Hatha yoga texts found in India trace the origins of yogic practices to the 11th century. Millennia ago, the classic Greeks were also well aware of the mind-body link as summed up in the timeless phrase mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). In the 17th century, the French dramatist Molière even noted: "The mind has great influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there."
It took modern “Western medicine” much longer than expected to acknowledge the physical and mental health benefits of conscious diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and other MBIs. Fortunately, the pioneering efforts of mind-body thought leaders such as Herbert Benson—who began popularizing the “relaxation response” in the 1970s as a universally accessible way to tap into the feedback loop of a healthy mind in a healthy body—opened the door for mind-body practices to become more widely prescribed by mainstream health care providers in the United States.
Are you feeling more stressed out, anxious, and "uncertain about the future" in 2017 than in past years? If so, the latest statistics indicate that you are not alone.
For the past decade, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been conducting an annual survey to gauge society-wide stress levels across the United States. Earlier this year, the APA published the January 2017 “Stress in America: Coping With Change” poll results. The statistical analysis of this data unearthed an alarming uptick in our nationwide stress levels for the first time since the survey was conducted in 2007. Interestingly, the report also found that two-thirds of respondents said they were "uncertain about the future."
From a psychophysiological perspective, the panicky feelings caused by uncertainty about your future or any type of anxiety can trigger fight-or-flight responses which cause your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to initiate the production of neuromodulators such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and stress hormones like cortisol.
Fight-or-flight responses are commonly discussed as part of a survival mechanism that most likely evolved to provide a surge of energy and strength that allowed our human ancestors to engage in physical battle, hunt voraciously, or flee a man-eating predator.
Less commonly discussed is the hypothesis of some evolutionary experts and immunologists that pro-inflammatory gene expressions triggered by fight-or-flight also provided a short-term boost in immune responses and protection for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who were at a much higher risk of bacterial infections from everyday cuts and physical injuries than we are today. Theoretically, this inflammatory-related immune response was necessary for the frequency of wounds caused by the scabrous aspects of hunting and scavenging for every meal.
In modern society, most of us spend our days "safe and sound" in an OSHA approved work environment, sitting behind some type of computer screen, and shop for groceries at a supermarket or bodega. Thankfully, most of us don't get banged up physically or experience puncture wounds on a regular basis. Nevertheless, many of us feel constantly threatened. Psychological fear and perpetually existing in a red-alert state of free-floating anxiety sounds the alarm within your autonomic nervous system that you are in danger.
The good news is that the latest systematic review of MBIs reaffirms that mind-body interventions are an inexpensive and drug-free way to curtail seemingly hard-wired stress responses rooted in the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system that are within the locus of your control.
Hopefully, knowing that MBIs can reduce chronic stress as well as your personal molecular signature of pro-inflammatory cytokines and NF-κB-targeted genes will inspire you to make some type of mind-body practice a part of your daily routine.
There is a growing body of empirical evidence which shows that activating the calming parasympathetic response of your vagus nerve—either through mind-body interventions, electrical vagus nerve stimulation, or other vagal maneuvers—can trigger a chain reaction that counterbalances unbridled fight-or-flight responses and downregulates inflammation-related genes.
Based on the latest review by Buric and colleagues, one could speculate that various MBIs assist the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) by signaling the vagus nerve to produce the inhibitory neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Although Buric's review doesn't focus on vagal tone (VT), other studies have found that stimulating the vagus nerve inhibits potentially damaging inflammatory-related cytokine responses via a complex process involving acetylcholine.
In 1921, when Nobel Prize-winning German physiologist, Otto Loewi, first discovered acetylcholine, he coined this vagus-produced tranquilizer vagusstuff (German for "vagus substance"). Loewi's groundbreaking laboratory experiments illuminated that whenever the vagus secreted vagusstuff, heart rate slowed and the body relaxed. In the early 21st century, acetylcholine was identified as a key building block for a complex anti-inflammation reflex linked to the vagus nerve.
In 2016, an international team of researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that stimulating the vagus nerve with a small implanted device significantly reduced inflammation and improved outcomes for patients with rheumatoid arthritis by inhibiting cytokine production. The neuroscientists and immunology experts involved in this study mapped the neural circuitry that regulates inflammation and found that action potentials transmitted in the vagus inhibited the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Vagus nerve stimulation could provide a potent and highly effective drug-free alternative for treating debilitating inflammation. Co-author of this study, Kevin J. Tracey, is president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. He also discovered and coined the term "The Inflammatory Reflex." In a statement, Tracey said:
"This is a real breakthrough in our ability to help people suffering from inflammatory diseases. While we've previously studied animal models of inflammation, until now we had no proof that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can indeed inhibit cytokine production and reduce disease severity in humans. I believe this study will change the way we see modern medicine, helping us understand that our nerves can, with a little help, make the drugs that we need to help our body heal itself."
The growing body of research on using integrative medicine tools and mind-body interventions to minimize stress responses and downregulate the genetic expression of inflammatory cytokines offers tremendous promise. Nonetheless, continued funding and more research are necessary to pinpoint and fine-tune best practices.
That being said, if you'd like to read about a variety of holistic ways to reduce your fight-or-flight urges and inflammatory responses, check out my nine-part Psychology Today series "A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide." Also, stay tuned for future discoveries and more actionable advice on how MBIs can be tailored to fit your lifestyle and erase your molecular signature of chronic stress.
Ivana Buric, Miguel Farias, Jonathan Jong, Christopher Mee, Inti A. Brazil. 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, 2017; 8 DOI: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670
Frieda A. Koopman, Sangeeta S. Chavan, Sanda Miljko, Simeon Grazio, Sekib Sokolovic, P. Richard Schuurman, Ashesh D. Mehta, Yaakov A. Levine, Michael Faltys, Ralph Zitnik, Kevin J. Tracey, and Paul P. Tak. Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis. PNAS, July 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1605635113