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Yes, Yoga Alters Your DNA. Here's Why That's Important

Leigh Weingus
June 21, 2017
Leigh Weingus
By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.
Photo by Christine Hewitt
June 21, 2017

It’s International Yoga Day! As 180 countries across the globe celebrate with asanas, restorative poses, and meditation, join us as we take this moment to appreciate all the joy and peace yoga brings to our lives every day. 

If you practice yoga regularly, you're familiar with the transformative effects of an hour spent syncing your movement with your breath. You walk into class with tight muscles, a bad attitude, and a headache, and you leave an hour later feeling calm, loose, and ready to take on the day.

Yes, yoga zens you out—and according to a new review published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, decades of a studies point to the conclusion that mind-body interventions like yoga, meditation, and tai chi actually alter our DNA. But what does that mean, exactly?

“In 2003, for the first time, the sequence of our DNA code was published," Doctor Joel Kahn, founder of the Kahn Center for Longevity and mbg class instructor, says. "And it was predicted that humans would have the most complex chromosomal count and DNA code. As it turns out, we have less genetic material than an earthworm. It’s kind of humbling. And out of that discovery came the appreciation that we have the most complex control over a relatively limited number of genes."

In other words, genetics are hardly the be-all end-all. We actually have a lot of control over whether or not our bodies make inflammatory proteins, which is why many doctors recommend staying away from inflammatory foods like sugar, dairy, and gluten; getting enough sleep; and avoiding smoking. And now, scientists have concluded that a regular yoga and meditation practice can reverse the molecular reactions in our DNA that lead to depression, anxiety, cancer, and other health problems.

More specifically, yoga helps control a molecule called NF-kB. Here's what you need to know about it.

Your body on NF-kB

You know that terrible feeling that takes over your body when you're particularly stressed out? Even when it's just psychological stress, that's your body's fight-or-flight response kicking in. Evolutionarily, this response is a helpful one—it increases adrenaline production in our bodies, helping us move quickly when danger is near.

But in the modern world, this response simply increases the production of NF-kB in our bodies, regulating how our genes are expressed. NF-kB causes inflammation on a cellular level, leading to serious health problems over time like depression, anxiety, and cancer. "Inflammation is no good when it comes to your health, and NF-kB is a particularly bad kind of inflammation," says William Cole, a functional medicine expert and mbg class instructor. "This study review is linking mindfulness-based practices like yoga with the ability to calm down NF-kB. That's pretty awesome."

Controlling inflammation through yoga

Now that you know the bad news—that inflammation causes serious health problems, and most of us have far too much of it—here's the good news: this study review implies that yoga and meditation, practices many of us are already doing, can nip inflammation in the bud thanks to epigenetics, or the power we have over our DNA.

"Whether a gene that facilitates inflammation is actually making inflammatory proteins, which can be caused by poor diet, lack of sleep, smoking, and stress—that's epigenetics. And now, there's evidence that the stress reduction and mindfulness that comes out of yoga reduces those inflammatory proteins," Dr. Kahn says, while Dr. Cole adds, "Instead of seeing your yoga practice as simple movements, recognize it for what it truly is: A divine dance to awaken your healing power."

While more research should be conducted on this topic, this review of decades of studies makes it pretty clear that the stress-busting benefits of yoga are extremely powerful.

"Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation," says lead study author Ivana Buric of the Brain, Belief, and Behavior Lab at Coventry University in the U.K. "But what they perhaps don't realize is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business ... put simply, [mind-body interventions] cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our well-being."

Want to take your yoga practice to the next level? Get the scoop on the most underrated exercise you're probably not doing, and find out how this athlete's body changed when he finally started doing yoga.

Leigh Weingus author page.
Leigh Weingus

Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist and former Senior Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen where she analyzed new research on human behavior, looked at the intersection of wellness and women's empowerment, and took deep dives into the latest sex and relationship trends. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis. She has written for HuffPost, Glamour, and NBC News, among others, and is a certified yoga instructor.