Epigenetics and yoga

Epigenetics=above genetics, that which controls the organism beyond genetics


DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid if you prefer, is the carrier of genetic information and along with certain proteins it forms our chromosomes, which we get from our parents – one set from mum, and one set from dad.  Our DNA is housed in the nuclei of our cells and it is responsible for things like our hair and eye colour and other physical characteristics.  

Scientific research into DNA is a fairly recent development, starting in the 1950’s it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the first nearly full (90%) human genome sequencing was completed, giving scientists information about the precise order of nucleotides in our DNA.  Why is this important?  Well it gave scientists an insight into evolutionary biology, genetic changes and mutations – some of which produced a stronger organism, and some which were (and still are) believed to weaken the organism.  This lead to such developments as DNA profiling, which is essentially the review of a person’s DNA and the categorisation of key characteristics and variations; this profiling allows for things such as paternity testing and evidence in criminal investigations.  It is also being used more and more for individual health assessments where genetic scientists (geneticists) look for aberrant genes and mutations that are thought to increase the likelihood of developing certain diseases.[i]   


This last point is the one I’m particularly interested in for a number of reasons, including that I have a genetic mutation (BRCA1) that I’m told significantly increases my risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  But as a naturopath, I don’t believe that it’s that straight forward.  Cancer is a multi-factorial disease, meaning lots of things are associated with cancer development, which is why I think finding a cure that suits every type of cancer and every person is almost impossible….there are simply too many other factors at play, which is where epigenetics comes into the picture.


Statistics show that if you have a known genetic mutation (such as BRCA1) then your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer increases – from 12% in the general population to 60% for breast cancer and 1.4% to 39% for ovarian cancer.[ii]  It’s scary but it is not definitive.  Some people with the genetic mutation don’t develop cancer, and some without the mutation do.  Why is that?


Well, it’s in part because our genes do not control our health.  They sit there like a blueprint but it is other factors that send signals to the cell and instruct which parts of our DNA are expressed and replicated - of course with a genetic mutation there is a higher risk of the aberrant gene being expressed.  These other factors include things like our diet, exercise, exposure to environmental toxins, stress, emotions, hormones and our thoughts -  all factors that generate a chemical action in the body that then trigger our cells to have a reaction.[iii] 


Dr. Bruce Lipton is a big proponent of the “change your environment change your genetic expression” belief.  Dr. Lipton is a cell biologist who discovered that it is actually our cell membranes, not the DNA in the cell nucleus that is responsible for instructing our cellular and genetic behaviour.  You can listen to one of his many presentations about this on YouTube – this one cuts straight to the part about epigenetics


Stress, or to be more precise, our response to stressors and our perception and beliefs we have about our lot in life also play a big part in our health.  If we constantly live with the belief that we don’t have enough, that our life is unfair, that we are victims and not masters of our destiny, then our brain will produce neurotransmitters, chemicals and hormones (including cortisol, norepinephrine, cytokines and histamine) that essentially signal to our cells that we are not living in a safe environment and our biology will respond by shutting down healthy DNA replication.[iv] [v] A positive mind set is as essential to the healthy expression of our genes as a good diet, regular exercise and reducing our exposure to toxins, though it is a little harder to grasp, change and study mind set compared to diet and lifestyle changes.


So just what research is out there to support this?  More and more actually, like this one: A small pilot study of men with low-risk prostate cancer who opted for surveillance rather than immediate conventional treatment (surgery, hormone therapy or radiation) and underwent intensive diet and lifestyle changes, including 30 minutes of exercise and an hour of yoga or meditation every day and increased social support found that these interventions caused changes in the expression of their cancer genes.  They effectively modulated the expression of the genes in their prostate.[vi]  The men in this study were followed up after two years, only 5% of the participants went on to receive conventional treatment – compared to 27% in the control group indicating that in this scenario of men with early stage prostate cancer, diet, lifestyle and social interventions could either delay or avoid the need for conventional treatment.[vii]   There are more studies too; I’ve highlighted this one because to me it is very holistic.


There are also a number of studies that show the impacts of yoga and meditation on our genetic expression.  One study this year found that yoga, meditation and mindfulness helped women who had survived breast cancer to maintain the length of their telomeres (associated with ageing and the number of times DNA can be replicated), this is compared to the control group whose telomeres shortened.[viii]  Another recent study in female breast cancer survivors found that 12 weeks of yoga reduced inflammation-related gene expression.[ix]  Even more beneficial than walking and listening to relaxing music, yoga and meditation with their powerful mind-body connection and increased awareness can produce rapid (i.e. within the first session) alterations in gene expression[x] [xi]  What this means is that yoga not only makes us feel relaxed and limber, but it also alters areas of the brain that improve our response to stress, improve our immune system and even influence factors associated with slowing down the aging process.[xii]


This is really cool not only for our own health, but for the health that we pre-load our children and even our grandchildren with[xiii].  Remember, as parents-to-be what you do now will influence your genetic replication – you pass this on to any children you have – this is why natural fertility specialists get pretty hot and bothered about pre-conception planning.  Yes your children will then have the responsibility of making better health choices to influence their genetic expression, but setting them up with a good foundation will certainly help.


I’m no genetic expert and I’ve certainly simplified this discussion when it really is a very complex matter.  Certian genetic mutations including BRCA1 not only increase disease risk, but they tend to be associated with particularly aggressive forms of the disease - so you should know all of your options around surveillance, prophylactic surgery as well as diet, lifestyle and mindset changes.


Hopefully this article has given you a little insight into the factors that influence your health and that you now understand that it is so much more than simply our genes that are responsible, which of course means you have more control than you’ve been led to believe.




[i] National Human Genome Research Institute, Available: www.genome.gov

[ii] ‘BRCA1 and BRCA2: Cancer Risk and Genetic Testing’ National Cancer Institute, Available: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/genetics/brca-fact-sheet

[iii] Balduff S ‘Epigenetics Finds That Our Genes Are Not the Whole Story’, Available: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/managing-your-healthcare/research/articles/2010/01/08/epigenetics-finds-that-our-genes-are-not-the-whole-story?page=3

[iv] Dr Bruce Lipton seminar ‘Live your purpose’ March 17, 2015 Auckland, New Zealand

[v] Srinivasan T ‘Genetics, epigenetics, and pregenetics’ International Journal of Yoga, 2011, Jul-Dec; 4(2):47-48

[vi] Ornish D, Magbanua MJ, Weidner G, Weinberg V, Kemp C, Green C, Mattie MD, Marlin R, Simko J, Shinohara K, Haqq CM, Carroll PR. ‘Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2008, June 17; 105(24):8369-74

[vii] Frattaroli J1, Weidner G, Dnistrian AM, Kemp C, Daubenmier JJ, Marlin RO, Crutchfield L, Yglecias L, Carroll PR, Ornish D. ‘Clinical events in prostate cancer lifestyle trial: results from two years of follow-up.’ Urology, 2008 December; 72(6):1319-23

[viii] Carlson LE1, Beattie TL, Giese-Davis J, Faris P, Tamagawa R, Fick LJ, Degelman ES, Speca M. ‘Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors.’ Cancer, 2015 February 1; 121(3):476-84

[ix] Bower JE, Greendale G, Crosswell AD, Garet D, Sternlieb B, Ganz PA, Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Arevalo J, Cole SW ‘Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial.’ Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014 May; 43:20-9

[x] Qu S, Olafsrud SM, Meza-Zepeda LA, Saatcioglu F. ‘Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yogaprogram.’ PLoS One, 2013 April 17; 8(4):e61910

[xi] Saatcioglu F. ‘Regulation of gene expression by yoga, meditation and related practices: a review of recent studies’ Asian Journal of Psychiatry’ 2013 February; 6(1):74-7

[xii] ‘Yoga Allows You To Hack Gene Expression: Improve Stress, Longevity’, 2013 December 7, Available: http://tv.greenmedinfo.com/yoga-body-hacking-tweaks-stress-aging-genes-positively/

[xiii] McIlroy A ‘Code 2’ 2006 March 1, Available: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/code-2/article965662/?page=all


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