There are lots of reasons to start practicing yoga and meditation. Yogis get to shop at Lululemon and tote around fancy rolled-up mats. Those who meditate attract admiring looks when they sit poised in lotus position in the middle of a crowded office building.
Okay, so we’re being a bit facetious. But, as it turns out, the om-and-down-dog crowd may be doing more than just jumping on the latest trend. Multiple studies released over the last few months provide solid evidence that yoga and meditation can undo the serious damage that stress wreaks on our bodies. At a time when many Americans report high levels of stress, these findings are a good reason for healthcare professionals to start recommending these techniques on a regular basis.
What’s the Deal?
In one recent study, researchers recruited a small group of newbie meditators and trained them for six weeks in the art of breathing deeply, repeating mantras, and ignoring intrusive thoughts. At the end of the training, researchers drew blood before and 15 minutes after participants listened to a 20-minute guided meditation CD. What they found was remarkable: All the blood samples showed positive changes in gene expression (the process by which certain genes are turned “on” or “off”).
Specifically, genes linked to energy metabolism, mitochondria function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were activated, while genes associated with stress and inflammation were deactivated. Researchers also ran the same experiment on a group of more experienced meditators, and found that the pros’ blood samples showed even more significant, positive changes in gene expression.
Other recent research has yielded similar findings. Scientists have found that yoga induces changes in the expression of genes related to the immune system (in other words, yoga may boost immunity), and that practicing yoga and meditation can help the body heal faster from disease Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program. Qu, S., Olafsrud, S.M., Meza-Zepeda, L.A., et al. Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. PLoS One 2013 April 17;8(4):e61910. Regulation of gene expression by yoga, meditation and related practices: a review of recent studies. Saatcioglu, F. Department of Molecular Biosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Asian Journal of Psychiatry 2013 Feb;6(1):74-7..
Why It Matters
At the same time that scientists have been finding that yoga and meditation can cause changes at the cellular level, other researchers have shown how chronic stress can cause long-term physiological and psychological damage. In studies, mice that have high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) also show weakened immune systems. (Presumably, these findings may apply to humans as well.) Chronic exposure to stress predisposes to higher autoimmune susceptibility in C57BL/6 mice: glucocorticoids as a double-edged sword. And people who report high levels of stress in their daily lives are more likely to experience chronic health conditions and/or psychological disorders down the line ((Affective reactivity to daily stressors and long-term risk of reporting a chronic physical health condition.
The implications of both these areas of research are huge. As many as 20 percent of Americans say they experience extreme stress and many don’t know where to turn for help. Yoga and meditation provide a scientifically-backed, highly practical way to help manage some of this stress before it does lasting damage to our minds and bodies. We’re not talking about a huge lifestyle change, either. In the most recent study, blood samples showed changes in gene expression after participants meditated for just 20 minutes (albeit after spending some time learning proper yoga and meditation techniques).
The good news is that it’s likely some of the most stressed people are already yogis and/or meditators. As of 2012, more than 20 million Americans practiced yoga, and more than half said they practice for stress relief. At the same time, in 2011, more than six million Americans were advised to practice alternative mind-body therapies by their healthcare provider ((When Conventional Providers Recommend Unconventional Medicine: Results of a National Study. Nerukar, A., Yeh, G., Davis, R.B., et al. Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies, Harvard Medical School. Archives of Internal Medicine 2012 May 9;171(9):862-864..
All this research provides convincing evidence for making yoga and meditation something healthcare professionals recommend on a regular basis. Other possibilities include workplace interventions that focus on teaching yoga and meditation techniques. With any luck, at some point these practices won’t even be considered “alternative” anymore.