Preventing Chronic Disease: Yoga May Alter Gene Expression Linked to Inflammation

By: 
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500

Chronic stress, and the resulting inflammatory response, is a known cause of numerous illnesses. Although yoga is found to reduce stress and increase wellbeing, we know little about the molecular mechanisms mediating these effects.  Now new research published in Translational Psychiatry suggests that 8 weeks of regular yoga practice may alter biomarkers associated with inflammation and psychological health, and even alter markers of gene expression linked to inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is linked to myriad conditions including poor cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal health, weakened immune system function, anxiety, depression, and even dementia and memory loss.  A growing body of research finds that yoga and other mind-body practices reduce stress, with limited biochemical evidence pointing to a reduced inflammatory response as a possible corollary of these effects. We still have much to learn about why and how this happens.

One potential explanation for a reduced inflammatory response is that regular yoga practice may alter gene expression and protein synthesis. Epigenetics refers to the study of these changes in gene expression or phenotype that do not involve alterations of an underlying DNA sequence, or genotype. Epigenetic changes occur naturally in living organisms, and are influenced by a number of factors including age, the environment, lifestyle and disease. DNA methylation is one of the most commonly studied characteristic of epigenetic modification.

In the study, researchers examined a subset of 28 women reporting high levels of psychological distress, who had originally been assigned to waitlist control group. Following the initial study, these women were offered an 8-week yoga intervention, and underwent a series of tests to assess several biomarkers of inflammation as well as their psychological wellbeing.

To be eligible for study inclusion participants were required to be Caucasian, female, between the ages of 35 and 50 years (mean age = 41.12 sd = 4.28 years), healthy, have a BMI of less than 30, be free from any illness that might confound interpretation of biological data (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood cancers, chronic inflammatory diseases, autoimmune disorders), and not be receiving treatment involving steroids, be menopausal, have a serious psychological illness, or have practiced yoga regular within the previous year.

Study participants completed online surveys of demographic and psychological variables (psychological distress, stress, and mood). This was followed by an in-person, baseline assessment during which they underwent body measurement, and blood tests. Data were collected again immediately at post-test, and at a 1-month follow-up.

The yoga intervention involved 8 weeks of twice weekly, hour-long yoga instruction. A minimum attendance of 8 classes was required to be considered as having completed the intervention.  Details of the intervention were not included in the original article.

Yoga May Be Associated With Biomarker Change

A number of key biomarkers associated with inflammation were examined. These included serum concentration of C-reactive protein (CRP), cytokine serum concentrations of interleukin 6 (IL6), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF). DNA methylation, a measure of genetic alteration in each of these biomarkers (CRP, IL6, and TNF) was also assessed.

 In general, results of the study showed than an 8-week yoga intervention was associated with some change in inflammatory biomarkers and DNA methylation. Specifically, participants had lower DNA methylation of the TNF following participation in the yoga program. Though not statistically significant, relationships were also found between positive changes in inflammatory biomarkers and improved self-reported stress and psychological distress.

This is the first prospective pilot study assessing the epidemiological effects of a yoga intervention on biomarkers of inflammation (CRP, IL6, and TNF) and DNA methylation patterns of the CRP, IL6 and TNF genes, and comparing changes in these biomarkers with self-reported stress, distress and mood in middle-aged women.  Results are important for several reasons.

First, as stress increases globally, a better understanding of the effects of stress on biological factors related to disease is needed.

Second, given that yoga and mindfulness practices are linked to reduced stress, it is essential that we enhance our knowledge of the biological and psychological mechanisms through which this stress reduction occurs. This will enhance our ability to design individually tailored practices to meet the unique needs of students and patients.

This exploratory study opens the door for additional research regarding the biomarkers of stress and resilience, and yoga’s potential benefits.

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B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, yoga and mindfulness expert and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and well-being and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is also the Founding Director and Principal Consultant of the International Science & Education Alliance, an organization devoted to exceptional research, program evaluation, assessment design, strategic planning and capacity building to support equity, programmatic diversity and scientific integrity, and promote effective leadership, decision-making and social change. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com.

Sources

Harkess, K.N., Ryan, J., Delgabbro, P.H. & Cohen-Woods, S. (2016). Preliminary indications of the effect of a brief yoga intervention on markers of inflammation and DNA methylation in chronically stressed women. Translational Psychiatry, 6, e965; doi:10.1038/tp.2016.234