Two new studies suggest that doing yoga regularly can slow physical aging and the harmful impact of stress at the cellular and DNA level. Many conditions are associated with accelerated cellular aging, such as depression, infertility, and heart disease. These studies contribute to growing evidence that suggests that yoga can slow down and even reverse the harmful effects of accelerated aging and stress on the body and mind.

The main markers of cellular aging in the body are DNA damage, telomere shortening, and oxidative stress. Telomeres are caps at the end of our chromosomes which protect them from deteriorating, much like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Oxidative stress is a process in the body that causes DNA damage and shortens telomeres as well, creating DNA instability.

Another process that is harmful to the body is chronic inflammation. Scientists refer to chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body as “inflammaging.” Inflammaging has been found in conditions like infertility, obesity, and depression can weaken the immune system.

In a study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, researchers found that 12 weeks of yoga slowed cellular aging. The program consisted of 90 minutes of yoga that included physical postures, breathing, and meditation for five days a week over 12 weeks. Researchers measured biomarkers of cellular aging and stress before and after the 12-week yoga program and found that yoga slowed down markers of cellular aging and lowered measures of inflammation in the body. These researchers are also working on ongoing studies that suggest that yoga can reverse the harmful effects of depression on the body.

There are many different types of biomarkers in the blood that can be used to measure the level of inflammaging in the body. Cortisol varies throughout the day based on the circadian rhythm and higher baseline levels is one indicator of high chronic stress. When people are chronically stressed, cortisol becomes less variable throughout the day, signaling an overactive fight-or-flight or sympathetic nervous system. Another important biomarker is brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which regulates neuroplasticity and promotes brain development. Levels of BDNF are lower in people with depression, anxiety or have Alzheimer’s disease.

In a new study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers found that a three month yoga retreat reduced inflammation and stress in the body. The yoga retreat incorporated physical postures, controlled breathing practices, and seated meditations. The program included approximately two hours of sitting meditation, one to two hours of moving practice, and one hour of chanting daily. Levels of BDNF, the biomarker that is significantly lower in people with depression and anxiety, tripled after the yoga retreat. Levels of protective anti-inflammatory markers increased after the retreat, while harmful pro-inflammatory markers decreased. Participants also felt less depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms after the yoga retreat. 

These two studies contribute on the growing biological evidence suggesting that yoga can slow down and even reverse the harmful effects of accelerated aging or stress at the physical level. While the yoga retreat program may be too time intensive for many people, even two to three hours of yoga week can improve your health.

References

Madhuri Tolahunase, Rajesh Sagar, and Rima Dada. Impact of Yoga and Meditation on Cellular Aging in Apparently Healthy Individuals: A Prospective, Open-Label Single-Arm Exploratory Study. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017; 2017: 7928981.

B. Rael Cahn, Matthew S. Goodman, Christine T. Peterson, Raj Maturi, and Paul J. Mills. Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017; 11: 315.

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