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Rapid Cellular Changes Triggered by Yoga

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Rapid Cellular Changes Triggered by Yoga

Grasses in the Rain by Melina Meza

Time and again, we have highlighted on our blog the benefits of yoga for both physical and mental health based on our collective experience and, in several cases, backed by empirical evidence. Evidence-based studies that we referred to in this blog included mechanistic understanding, anatomical changes, structural and functional studies, and molecular changes. But the answer to one question kept eluding researchers for long: How rapid are the yoga-associated changes at the cellular level? Do cellular changes occur over the short term or do these changes happen gradually? To understand this, let’s revisit certain sections of my earlier post on inflammation Chronic Inflammation and Yoga. 

Our body’s defense system aka immune system detects and protects the body from a wide variety of foreign agents, including bacteria, viruses, worms, and toxins. Multiple defense mechanisms involving various kinds of cells, chemicals, and proteins exist that recognize and neutralize these pathogens. Inflammation is the immune system’s “rapid response unit team” that is characterized by:

  • the presence of specialized chemicals that create a suitable environment for the body’s defense molecules to act
  • the release of an entire arsenal of specialized molecules/cells that fight the invaders
These special molecules include leukocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, mast cells, bradykinin, histamine, and TNF, among others. The inflammatory process is a rapid process that occurs just as it should, releasing defense/pro-inflammatory molecules when needed and then turning them off when the threat has been sufficiently addressed. From the moment that the immune cell recognizes the presence of an invader and until it neutralizes the invader, several molecular and gene changes occur within the immune cell to facilitate the release of pro-inflammatory molecules to ward off the aggressor. Due to the rapidity with which these cells respond, scientists love to work with immune cells to understand multifarious effects.

If yoga were to trigger any rapid changes, obviously the immune cells would be the most attractive target to study. This is the approach taken by a group of researchers to understand changes happening at the cellular level through a yoga regimen (see Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yoga program). In a small study involving 10 participants, the researchers observed yoga’s impact on the immune system. The 10 participants, who also served as their own controls, practiced yoga (asanas, pranayama, and meditation) on days 1 and 2. Days 3 and 4 involved walking coupled with relaxing music. All the activities were performed at the same time of the day (6.30 am–8.30 am). Twenty ml of blood was drawn from each individual right before and after each activity. Blood cells were immediately isolated, and gene expression studies was conducted.Music and walking changed the expression of only 38 genes. In contrast, just a two-day, 90 minutes yoga regimen changed the expression of 111 genes. Interestingly, 14 genes were commonly affected by yoga/music and walking, suggesting that these two regimens affected similar biochemical pathways to some degree. Since the work mostly involved understanding gene expression changes, the authors only identified two sets of genes and their roles. Yoga increased the expression of genes that were involved in blunting the stress response (not surprisingly), and yoga also increased the expression of genes involved in blood cell production and maturation (now we know why we feel energized after a one-hour yoga class). Though the number of participants was small and the study period was of a short duration, what impressed me about this study is:

  1. the participants served as their own control, thus minimizing a lot of systemic errors
  2. since participants served as their own control, it was possible to compare two different regimens within the same population
  3. the rapid changes triggered by yoga 
Despite being a rapid practice (two hours) of a short duration (two days), the gene expression changes were significant and impressive, suggesting that yoga triggers changes at the molecular level that are initiated immediately during the practice. While walking/music and yoga may have overlapping benefits through the common set of genes, a yoga program may trigger additional effects over music/walking in inducing far greater health benefits. An ongoing practice of yoga may further sustain those changes, forming the basis for the long-term desirable effect. That’s one more reason to roll out the mat and do a yoga practice!

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