We all know that Qigong and Taijiquan make us feel good, but could these practices actually change genetic expression, the process by which instructions inherent in our DNA convert into a functional product? A few decades ago many scientists would have laughed at the notion.
Science’s early understanding of the role of genes in development was that DNA dictated developmental processes, and that disease and dysfunction were largely the result of defective or inferior genetics. For decades, this position of genetic predeterminism reinforced many forms of disparity and discrimination in the US and led people to believe that issues as wide ranging as poverty, educational performance and health were inborn and inevitable.
Groundbreaking work in the 1960's and 70’s turned this perspective firmly on its head as research demonstrated that the most prevalent problems in health and development were caused by inequities in physical, social and psychological environments, such as malnutrition, discrimination and violence. Since this time considerations of gene-environment interaction have become a cornerstone of scientific research, leading to discovery of the mechanisms in cellular environments that can actually turn genes on and off.
While early research in this area was focused on external environmental factors brought into our bodies directly, such as toxins in food, air and water, scientists are now looking at ways that thoughts, beliefs and emotions can also cause changes in our cellular environment through the release of hormones that effect gene expression. Chief among the endogenous sources of cellular dysfunction are the hormones released with chronic stress and prolonged or frequent negative emotional states, especially anxiety, hostility and depression.
In just the past decade breakthroughs in the scientific understanding and ability to research the mind-body connection have enabled scientists to pose questions about the potential effects of mind-body interventions (MBI), such as meditation, yoga, Taijiquan and qigong, on gene expression. The basic hypothesis is if these practices help people to manage stress and achieve positive emotional states, then there should also be evidence of changes at the molecular and genetic level. A recent review of scientific studies looking for such evidence was published this year (2017) in Frontiers in Immunology.
The purpose of the review was to explore the underlying biological mechanisms associated with the beneficial effects of MBIs. It included 18 studies of diverse MBIs ranging from meditation & yogic breathing, to asana training, Taiji and qigong. Although each of these diverse practices may be associated with unique benefits, they all share a mindfulness core thought to be responsible for a range of common psychological and physiological outcomes.
The studies included in this review provide preliminary confirmation of the basic hypothesis. They found significant reduction of stress-induced effects on immune system function and downregulation (decrease in gene expression) of inflammation-related genes in 81% of the studies. Although variation existed in many outcomes of these studies, it seems that some of the psychological and physiological benefits of MBIs may be driven by common biological changes in gene expression. Moreover, in some cases positive changes in gene expression began after a few days or weeks of intensive training.
With only a handful of studies published, research in this area is fledgling, but promising. Although many reported and measurable benefits of MBIs have been well documented, the quest to understand their biological mechanisms has only just begun. The promise of this line of research not only adds more certainty about the benefits to community practitioners, but also strengthens the evidence base needed for medical practitioners to prescribe MBIs in the prevention and treatment of specific disorders, especially those associated with dysregulated genetic expression.
Thus science has come a long way in the past few decades from the perspective that our health is determined by our genes to a growing awareness that resonates with traditional Chinese medicine: health and disease are caused by interactions between our genetic endowments, our physical environments, our attitudes and our health behaviors. Although it may take a while for the science to make its rounds, as it does people may realize that MBIs can afford them far more control over their healthy longevity than they ever imagined possible.
Author Matthrew Komelski