Mindfulness and Genetic health

For centuries, we have been fascinated by the possibility of reversing the ravages of time and disease on the physical body. The idea of something material restoring youth and vitality is certainly an attractive one (which intuitively leads to the idea of immortality), but what if the secret of youth was within, instead of without?

Earlier this year, this article caught my eye, where breast cancer survivors did 90 minutes of yoga a week for 12 weeks, ultimately showing a lower level of fatigue and an increased level of vitality as compared to the control group. The novel bit though, was that this effect was observable at the molecular level – there was a decrease of inflammation markers in the blood of the group doing yoga, and after only 12 weeks!?

A search on the keyword “Yoga” on the website of the journal that published the study above, revealed 44 publications, all showing benefit of exercise and yoga for cancer patients, and their general well-being, as shown by standardized questionnaires. Looking further, I saw that that there have been other studies done which show an effect of meditation, yoga and other techniques on gene expression, as reviewed here, so this is not a new idea at all.

And then this paper was published, which just blew this concept into a whole new dimension. The study showed that on average, there was a significant difference between the length of telomeres of breast cancer survivors that engaged in the mindfulness sessions – the control group’s telomere lengths decreased, while they were maintained in the active group. In spite of the authors cautioning that their sample sizes needed to be larger for larger significance, this initial paper contributing to the concept that mindfulness could affect cellular and genetic health to this extent is very exciting. Could yoga and meditation be the ultimate fountain of youth?

Doing another quick and dirty search, I came up with articles showing the effect of yoga on white matter change, chronic pain, psychological health, stress levels, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular health. OMG, so. We should all be doing yoga! But it also makes me wonder what is it about the whole mindfulness concept that results in such discernible differences down to our DNA. The devil’s advocate in me asks if it is a simple placebo effect, that is, the mind being tricked into thinking that all is better with the body without anything actually medicinal. But if in the end the net result *is* feeling better, is the placebo effect actually effective?

I find it ironic that the ancient Asian practices of yoga and other mindfulness techniques are under modern scrutiny, especially after being dismissed for the many years in between. I guess our ancestors knew their benefits without molecular and other scientific techniques, and perhaps we, in the fast paced world of today, should learn to slow down once in a while to explore the apparently inherent power of healing within ourselves.

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