The mind and the body are a power couple, and like all couples that were meant to be together, the direction of influence goes both ways. The mind can influence the body, and the body can influence the mind – and new research has found that together they can change our DNA.
Fascinating new research has found that by strengthening both the mind and the body through mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi, we can influence our physiology at a genetic level. Specifically, we can reverse the molecular reactions in our DNA that cause stress, illness, anxiety and depression.
‘These [mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation] 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.’ Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement.
Let’s talk about the research.
The research involved an analysis of over a decade of studies that explored the effect of MBIs such as mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga, on the behaviour of our genes. They also looked at how those changes affected mental and physical health. The researchers specifically looked at the way the genes activated to produce proteins that influence the biology of our body, brain and immune system. Here’s what they found …
During stress, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered. This is the system that initiates the fight or flight response. When this system switches on, it increases the production of a molecule (NF-kB) which is involved in producing proteins (cytokines) that cause cellular inflammation. Cytokines help recovery and immunity by directing cells towards infection and injury.
It’s the duration of stress, rather than the intensity, that causes problems. When the stress response is short-lived, it’s healthy and helpful. Inflammation is designed to help us heal by boosting our immune system. Often though, the stress we are confronted with is psychological, which is just as real and valid as physical stress, and potentially at least as damaging.
Psychological stress is not a threat to our physical bodies, but it can become one. Under any form of stress, physical or psychological, our bodies continue to produce immune-boosting, inflammatory cytokines, but this inflammation response was only ever meant to switch on briefly and in response to a threat to our physical selves. When the assault from stress is more long-lasting and relentless, as much modern stress is (think work stress, relationship stress, family stress, financial stress), inflammation triggered by the stress response becomes chronic and can cause damage to cells. This is when we become vulnerable to a host of conditions, including physical illnesses such as asthma, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, as well as anxiety or depression.
According to the research, MBIs seem to reverse the response to stress by decreasing the production of NF-kB and cellular-inflammation-causing cytokines. This counteracts the effects of stress on the immune system, which reduces the risk of inflammation-related diseases and illnesses.
Okay, so that’s the science, but how does it work?
It’s clear that MBIs can have a significant physiological effect on our DNA activity, but the exact mechanism remains unclear. One of the ways they might work is by building our capacity to limit stress-inducing mind-wandering.
The human brain is magnificent. It’s efficient, powerful, and hardworking, but sometimes it has to deal with an overload of information coming in from the environment. When there is too much to process, the brain uses its attention system to direct its resources. Wherever attention is steered, the brain’s resources will follow. Think of attention like an amplifier. It enlarges the target and makes it clearer, so the brain can more effectively apply its resources.
Sometimes, our attention steers us towards things that cause us prolonged psychological stress. Our minds are exquisite wanderers. In fact, research from Harvard has found that our minds wander about 50% of our waking time. Of course they wander into happy places, but they also wander into the future (where they worry), past (regrets), or to reliving emotional memories that breathe life into negative emotion. All of these are potentially sources of great psychological stress.
The Harvard research also found that 4.6% of a person’s happiness was attributable to the activity they were doing, and 10.8% was attributable to their mind-wandering. The researchers found that mind-wandering was generally the cause of unhappiness, not the consequence of it.
‘Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.’ A. Killingsworth, Harvard.
Our minds are powerful, for better and worse. MBIs put us in charge of the machine. There is nothing wrong with letting our minds wander – minds love it. There is also nothing wrong with letting our minds wander to places that stir stress or negative emotion, provided that we are able to pull ourselves back from that when we need to. Too often though, our mind-wandering becomes automatic, and without any deliberate intent. This is when the trouble happens.
When our minds switch to auto-pilot and start wandering, it can be easy for them to end up somewhere that amplifies negative thoughts and feelings and breathes fire into stress. Our thoughts become worries and they grow. Our memories become reworked or replayed, and rather than reflecting or learning, we become stuck and overwhelmed. This is when stress can become chronic, and we know what happens then … the sympathetic nervous system stays on, the production of NF-kB increases, cytokines are produced and ‘hello’ cellular inflammation.
MBIs have great capacity to boost our mental and physical health, and to cause changes in our DNA that reverse the effects of chronic stress. MBIs can build our capacity to become aware of our thoughts, feelings and sensations, without letting them become a source of distress. They can also strengthen our capacity to reverse from the stress response once it’s initiated. However MBIs work, it’s clear that mind-body interventions are a powerful way to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of psychological stress, and to potentially reverse the effects once they’ve taken hold.
Hi Karen. I would like to pursue MBI’s. I don’t know where to start though. I suffer from depression and ruminate. I’ve tried what could be described as MBI as suggested by my doctors but I can’t clear my mind. It’s always going at a million miles and hour. I must always be doing something. I’m in Australia. Do you have any suggestions on where I might be able to get help to clear my mind as I assume you do when meditating? Based on this article I may be able to benefit from giving my mind a rest. Thanks, Rob
Rob I think a great place to start might be with an app. The Smiling Mind app is free to download and has guided meditations. I like it because of the research that continues to go into it. Having a guided meditation can make things easier because you have something to focus on. Another way to get started is with breath counting. As you breathe in and out slowly, count your breaths. So in (count 1), out (count 1), in (count 2), out (count 2) etc. This can help to still your mind because of the focus on your breath. Meditation can take a little while to get used to, so it doesn’t matter if your mind tends to be a little reluctant to be still. Remember mindfulness emphasises kindness and compassion to yourself, so if your mind wanders, gently bring it back without feeling as though you haven’t done ‘properly’. The brain is like any muscle – it will strengthen with training.
Thank you Karen,
time I went back to yoga and mindfulness…
Loved your explanations, Karen, especially about the positive or negative effects of mind-wandering.
I will share this article with my social media sites.
Thanks so much Jean.
I’m wondering about the effects on existential depression. The feeling of hopelessness that has always been there. Not belonging, feeling lost and confused. Not able to find even moments of joy but just waiting for life to be over. That seems like it would be different than stress or depression about something in particular (work, relationship, etc).
Depression doesn’t always have to be about something. That’s one of the confusing, awful things about it. Many people with depression will say that, ‘on paper’ their lives are fine. Depression is about feeling a sense of numbness or hopelessness. It’s physical and although circumstances can add to it, it can certainly happen for no reason at all and life circumstances, environment etc can have no bearing at all. There is a lot of research suggesting that cellular inflammation and an imbalance of neurochemicals contribute to depression. What you are describing sounds like depression. If you haven’t already, it may be helpful for you to speak with a doctor or counsellor to find a way to find relief. There are many articles on this link that will hopefully help you towards finding relief from your symptoms https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/depression/. The hopelessness that comes with depression can be very convincing, and can make you believe that nothing will make a difference, but that is a symptom of depression, and not necessarily the way it is.
This was such an excellent article.
So very helpful.
Thanks Pati. I’m so pleased it was helpful.
Is there a class or therapist I can be a part of?
Anthony this would depend on where you live. Try looking online for a class that is near you, but make sure the instructor or therapist is accredited.
I found the book “the power of now” really helpful in understanding links between the mind, emotions, and body, also provided some practical techniques to manage anxiety.
Anthony, look up Psychology Today on google. They have an excellent search tool for finding therapists that allows you to be very specific about what you’re looking for.
Search your city and state, and look for someone who uses MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). Most of the therapists you will find will either be able to help you or be able to point you in the right direction. Good luck!
Thanks for that info!!
Hey Sigmund. You know this article was interesting but actually affected me in a negative way. I struggle with depression (although not lately). I’ve tried these methods but I can’t stop my mind thinking, straying to the negative. I can’t seem to make meditation (for instance) work for me. So this re-enforces the darkness of my future. I’d love to stop my mind, clear my mind. I believe my mind/brain needs a rest and don’t know how to do it. Any suggestions? Thanks Rob
Rob I completely understand what you are saying. Your mind is strong and powerful, and it might take some time to ‘retrain’ it out of its tendency to stray to negative thoughts. Meditation can be difficult when there are so many negative thoughts making too much noise. Have you tried using guided meditations? The Smiling Mind app is brilliant and it contains different programs of guided meditations. The good things about this, is that you can focus on the voice and the words of the person talking, making it harder for your mind to become distracted by negative thinking. Start with 7 minutes at first and work up from there. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go to plan. Everything you do will be strengthening your brain. Meditation is like anything – it can take practice. Every time you give your mind the opportunity to be still, you are giving it what it needs, regardless of whether or not it is able to spend the entire time still. If 7 minutes is difficult, start with five then work up from there. Remember that you’re retraining your brain, and like retraining your body, it can take time. Don’t lose hope though. Think of it like drops in a bucket. The first few (perhaps the first many) drops might not be noticeable, but eventually, the drops add up and you start noticing the difference. This will happen for you – just don’t give up on it too soon.