The ancient practice of yoga has given generations of practitioners many tangible health benefits including improved cellular immunity, decreased rates of depression, and better sleep. Science has only recently begun uncovering many of the secrets behind the transformational power of yoga, tai chi, and other meditative mind-body interventions.
Scientists have known for decades that the DNA in our chromosomes is transcribed in coding blocks called genes. RNA messengers then translate the codes to amino-acid micro-factories called ribosomes for protein printing. In 2003, when the DNA sequencing of the human genome was finally completed, we were shocked to find that most of our DNA do NOT code for proteins. In fact, we couldn’t figure out what it does. While the purpose of these long stretches of “dark” DNA remains mysterious, we do know that some sequences may help modify the shape of the chromosome and the ways genes are expressed. In fact, chromosomes are continually changing their shape and orientation. This morphing is the result of a dynamic chemical process called methylation that starts before birth and continues throughout life. As the chromosomes change, so do the proteins they produce. Researchers have also discovered many proteins also attach themselves to our chromosomes to block, unblock, or even alter genes. This effervescent process of DNA molding is called epigenetics, and it is susceptible to environmental stresses and challenges.
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Some proteins have even more powerful effects on chromosomes. Every time our cells divide, our DNA unzips in order to be copied. It is a violent act. Unfortunately, our chromosomes aren’t that good at quality control, and we wind up making thousands of DNA copying errors every day. Error costs energy and this is a recipe for genetic damage. To protect our fragile chromosomes, the body has evolved special repetitive DNA sequences to clad its ends called telomeres. They work like shoelace caps to guard the chromosomal tips but gradually wear away with each cell division. Like a candle wick, the telomeres eventually burn out and allow the chromosome to unravel. Scientists call this melting point the Hayflick Limit (named after its discoverer). Enzymatic proteins called telomerase can attach to the ends of chromosomes to slow the process down and maintain telomeric length within an optimal “Goldilocks” zone. Good proteins. However, many inflammatory enzymes speed up the process of telomeric shortening, eventually leading to chromosomal damage and premature cell death. Bad proteins.
Recent genetic studies of patients with cancer and other high-stress conditions have begun to unlock the physical connection between mind and body. New data has shown that yoga and other meditative practices lead to thousands of changes in DNA methylation patterns. The net effect of these DNA mods is that our genes produce far less of the caustic inflammatory enzymes induced by stress and disease. In addition, yoga, tai chi, and meditation stimulate enzymes that help protect our precious telomeres and shepherd our chromosomes safely through cell division. By combining these mind-body interventions with other tactics like regular exercise and a healthy diet, even chronic cellular damage may slowly be healed.
New research is now focused on discovering more about these fascinating connections between mind and body. Practicing yoga or meditation for even a few weeks has shown subtle, but lasting changes in hormone and immunologic patterns. Improved inflammatory profiles have been seen even in chronic disease conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, which defies many standard medical therapies.
Even how well we age may be altered positively by practicing yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Scientists now approach aging as a metabolic question. Controlling inflammation is one of the most important hallmarks of healthier aging. Despite this new knowledge, we still have much to learn. The body has begun to yield many of the secrets that link mind and body, but many more mysteries remain.
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