Epigenetics: The Nature of Nurturing Health
Jul 30, 2014 07:54AM
● By Jonina Turzi
Until recently, neuroscientists believed there was a critical developmental period for human learning and before adulthood, human beings would have already established the maximum brain potential they would have throughout their lifetime. Now, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Development, scientists agree that at any age and stage of life, people can grow new brain cells, alter behavior and reflex patterns and create new neural pathways.
Similarly, gene scientists once thought of our DNA as an inherited code that would map out our future lives and determine our potential health. However, the science of epigenetics, which means “above” or “on top of” genes, provides a bigger story. This scientific study of changes in gene expression (molecular production), rather than alteration of the genetic code itself, reveals how people can change the way DNA behaves.
Using simple practices like meditation, yoga and mindfulness, individuals can change the expression of genes involved in critical processes that include immune function, energy metabolism and insulin production, according to scientists such as Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.
“It’s not New-Age nonsense,” Benson remarks. After doing decades of research on mind-body interventions and the relaxation response to stress, he and his colleagues published a study in 2013 on the epigenetics of meditation. They compared the gene profiles of people that do and don’t regularly practice meditation and found that meditators showed marked improvement in the function of the mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells) and decreased chronic inflammation, two factors associated with preventing chronic diseases. In the experienced meditators, just one session of meditation significantly changed their cellular activity.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and the founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, reported similar findings in a study published this year. During a single day of mindfulness practices such as focused movements and breath awareness, the suppression of inflammatory response genes among the meditating group was significantly greater than it was among the control group, which engaged in quiet, non-meditative activities.
“Interestingly, these changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” notes Perla Kaliman, researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research, at the University of Barcelona, in Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted.
This growing body of research indicates that working with one’s state of mind can profoundly impact the underlying state of health, including chronic conditions. For thousands of years, humans have engaged in meditation to enhance their well-being. For decades, research has confirmed that such practices improve health and resilience to stress. Now the process occurring on the molecular level inside the cell’s nuclear genome is being revealed, just as the brain’s lifelong growth potential was acknowledged a few years ago.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression, and these findings suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” affirms Davidson.
Dr. Jonina Turzi is a doctor of physical therapy, a functional manual therapist and a yoga instructor who owns West End Yoga studio, located at 221 W. Walnut St., in Lancaster. Connect with her at JoninaTurzi.com.