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Gene Expression in Meditative and Yogic Practices

This is a guest post from freelance writer Susanne Cardwell with Fahri Saatcioglu. He is a professor in the Department of Biosciences at the University of Oslo.

Susanne: Fahri, you compiled research on gene expression by yoga, meditation and related practices in one of your publications. What sparked your interest in yogic and meditative practices and gene expression?

Fahri: Yes, I started practicing yoga and meditation some time ago right after high school. I felt very positive effects from these practices and the people around me, those who experimented with these practices, did also. So, that was the start of my interest with yoga, breathing, and meditation, which became an important part of my daily routine from then on.

During my studies, I got interested in molecular mechanisms of gene expression, so that's what I did starting with my undergraduate project, which became a master's project, and then a PhD project, and from then on, became my chosen field of research, especially as it relates to cancer.

Some years ago--of course, I've been following the research on meditative practices for some time--I thought there was not much happening in this area of gene expression, especially rapid effects of these practices. In other words, what happens when you do a practice--are there some changes in gene expression that happens immediately?
That's how I started to do research in this area, and then I compiled the review article that you read.

Susanne: Do you find that yogic, deep-breathing, and meditative practices make a difference in your own well-being?

Fahri: This is one of the reasons I wished to do research in this regards in the first place. It has become an important part of my daily routine. It rejuvenates me and gives me a lot of energy. Many of the positive aspects of my well-being I can definitely link to the yogic meditative practices.
Do you practice, by the way?

Susanne: Yes, I do. I meditate almost daily. For a while, I meditated for an hour a day. I could feel some constructive changes in my whole psyche, but now I meditate for only about ten to fifteen minutes a day.

Fahri, What is the newly emerging field of psychosocial genomics?

Fahri: This is a very new and exciting area. It has appeared in the last two decades, the beginning of the 2000's actually. Basically, it posits that the psychological, social, and cultural experiences one has can have important epigenetic effects. They can change gene expression.

There is a significant amount of independent research now. If you change your environment in a significant way, if you change your lifestyle in some way, if you, for instance, learn how to play an instrument--or some novelty in your experience--it gives rise to changes in gene expression in the cells in your body.

It is an important area for everyone to consider, first of all, as persons, because it shows that our experiences and our environment makes an important impact on our physiology, on our whole being, and, therefore, we should look for ways to enrich that. Second of all, this has consequences for the research that we do. One example of this is the enriched environment that is used in mouse studies. This is something I like to use in my presentations on wellness and health and yogic practices--one I gave just yesterday, actually, at a conference.

So, mice are used as model animals in research, including cancer research, so they are housed in these typical cages. They have bedding, water, and food.
Some years ago, investigators devised an enriched environment for the mice to live in. Basically, these cages were significantly larger, contained colorful structures where the mice could play and interact more with each other, which made them more active and have more social ties and so forth.

Studies were done in different settings--a number of the studies were done on cancer. If you take siblings, in other words almost genetically identical mice, and then put them in either the normal cages or enriched environment cages, and then challenge them with human cancer cells, which will grow tumors in these mice, given the same food and drink, but living in these two environments, there's a very large difference in the size of the tumors that will grow– dramatically smaller in the mice that are housed in the enriched environment cages compared with those in regular cages.
This has been done for a number of different cancers, so there will be as much as five-fold differences in the tumors that grow, so this is a very good example of how the environment, and therefore, our lifestyle and what we have around us can have such a large impact on our lives.

Susanne: What are some of the psychological and physiological benefits of yoga and meditation practices on mental health and well-being?

Fahri: There are really extensive effects which have been documented to date. Many studies have been published for the physiological, cognitive, and psychological effects. You can easily find some reviews in this regard. I can suggest some resources to you. I can name a few.
For physiological effects, a general theme is the effects on our autonomous nervous system. As you may know, there are two arms of this system: one is the sympathetic nervous system and the other one is the parasympathetic nervous system.

In our Western style modern living, the sympathetic nervous system is overactive and parasympathetic nervous system is inhibited. What these practices have been shown to do is that they reduce the sympathetic activity but increase the parasympathetic activity in general.

As a consequence, you get reduced blood pressure, for example. Resting heart rate is decreased. There are interesting changes in blood chemistry--for example, blood cholesterol is reduced, blood glucose levels are reduced, lipid profile is improved. There are decreases in inflammatory markers, such as several cytokines, for example. There are general effects, such as increased core stability and balance, improved lung function, improved immune system function, and so forth. Really, they are very extensive.
If you consider cognitive benefits, there is increased mental clarity, improved focus and concentration, all of which are very desirable traits.
Psychologically, the scenario which has probably been studied the most, relates to stress, anxiety, and depression. All of these are decreased in otherwise normal, healthy people, but also in clinical settings--mild, medium, and severe conditions.

There is also increased feeling of well-being--the subjective feeling of well-being is increased. Upon practice, people are able to cope better with difficulties.

Susanne: You indicate that gene expression can be complicated by pathological conditions. Would you please explain how pathological conditions can impact gene expression?

Fahri: Yes, sure, so this differential gene expression is at the basis of normal cells' ability to respond to the environment. The cues from the environment activate gene programs only when they are needed. Thus, when you eat something, say olive oil, there will be a special gene program that will be activated so that you will be able to digest it properly.

In addition to these roles in normal physiology, changes in gene expression occur in pathological conditions. For example, a cancer cell is able to respond to the cues in different ways. There are changes in genetics, epigenetics, and biochemical milieu of the cancer cell, which makes it respond to environmental cues in a different way.

This is the basis for studies worldwide to identify specific gene expression patterns that are associated with certain diseases and what functional consequences these have in the corresponding cells.
For example, gene expression signatures have been developed in trying to predict the prognosis of patients with breast and prostate cancer. These are being utilized in the clinic. There has been a keen interest in understanding how gene expression is regulated differently in disease states. This needs to be taken into consideration when one performs studies in people with certain disease conditions and the possible effects of yogic meditative practice on these people.

Susanne: In your analysis of research, you determined that crisis situations can alter gene expressions. Do you think it is equally likely that mindfulness practices such as Dalai Lama's Tibetan meditation could impact gene expression?

Fahri: At this point, various practices have been subject to gene expression analysis in the last few years. Our study was the first to show rapid effects on gene expression, and several studies have been published since then. Also, long term effects on gene expression have been published previously. So, these include Kriya yoga, mindfulness meditation practices, which may include forms of Tibetan meditation, relaxation response, and so forth.

All of these practices will have some effect on gene expression if they indeed work to support the mind/body system.
It is important to keep in mind that the effects you see at the level of gene expression may not have functional consequences. I think this is one of the important areas of research for the future.

Susanne: You outline in your research that yoga breathing based programs led to enhanced antioxidant enzyme production. Do you think that future research might examine how regular consumption of high quality teas, such as matcha tea, that increase antioxidant production could create changes to gene expression?

Fahri: Sure, I think this is very possible. I am not familiar with this particular product and what research has been done on it, but, for example, there is significant research that has been done with green tea. As for green tea polyphenols, as they are called epicathecins, there is one particular one that is studied a lot, called EGCG for short. If you search EGCG in the scientific literature databases, you will find lots of different studies. For many of them, gene expression changes are affected. Diet, what we eat and what we drink, will certainly change gene expression in a good or a bad way.

Susanne: What is the role of microarray technology in the study of physiological conditions as well as disease states?

Fahri: This relates to what happens with gene expression in pathological conditions. There are significant changes that occur in those conditions; therefore, we identify these changes globally through the microarray technology, which is slowly starting to get old and which is being replaced by next generation sequencing technologies where you can determine the global changes of gene expression in a deeper fashion.
This can make a difference both in diagnosis and prognosis of disease states. It is in some cases also for predicting drug responses

Susanne: What does research with microarray technology convey about gene expression in yogic meditative techniques, such as Qigong, vipassana or insight meditation, mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, breath focus, Kripalu or Kunadlini Yoga, and repetitive prayer?

Fahri: There are different patterns of gene expression changes in the peripheral mononuclear cells, our immune cells and circulation when you expose the persons to different meditative yogic practices. There are some common themes that are emerging.
Some of the common principles that can be mentioned is that the effects appear to be related to the processes of inflammation, for example ,apoptosis, programmed cell death, protein metabolism, telomere regulation.

Susanne: What is Sudarshan Kriya and how does it potentially impact gene expression?

Fahri: Sudarshan Kriya is a precise physiological procedure that uses distinct rhythms and patterns of breath. It is taught by the International Art of Living Foundation worldwide and large numbers of people (millions)have learned it, from different cultures and traditions. This is the system that we studied in our research.

Previous work have shown that Sudarshan Kriya and its related practices have a number of health benefits. However, at present it's not known at the cellular level how it brings out its effects, but, for example, as I mentioned, general effects of yogic practices could include changes in immune functioning, changes in hormonal functioning, etc..

Some of these changes are observed for Sudarshan Kriya. We can conjecture that, for example, lower levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, may affect the gene expression patterns in the immune cells that we have looked at.

At the cellular level, functional effects are by-and-large not known of these practices, and I hope that this wave of studies that have now been published over the past years on gene expression, looking at epigenetics, how the environmental factors affect gene expression, will pave the way for functional studies. This will in turn help us get firm answers about the mechanistic aspects of these practices at the molecular and cellular level.

Susanne: What new areas of research do you anticipate that gene expression profiling will have in psychosocial genomics?

Fahri: I think that gene expression profiling is a very powerful tool, but it needs to be combined with other -omics methods. This would need to include transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and so forth, which can give us a much more detailed view of what happens in the cell when these practices are experienced. For example, as I noted, there are indications of inflammatory pathway effects, so what one could do is that one could take the immune cells from the practitioners versus control subjects and then they could be compared in vitro for their inflammatory responses. These are the kinds of studies that I think would be very informative and help us take another step towards understanding the possible effects of these practices at the molecular and cell biological levels..

Susanne: Do you anticipate that future research might show that there are short-term and long-term effects of yogic and meditative practices on gene expression?

Fahri: Yes, in fact the available research already indicates this. What is not clear is how similar and how they stable these effects are: short- versus long-term. For example, if a certain gene expression signature occurs in short term practice, how much of that overlaps with the signature that is observed in long term practice? This is an important question and will need to be the subject of future studies.

Gene Expression in Meditative and Yogic Practices

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