Mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation that put the body in a state of deep rest, known as the relaxation response, can change how genes respond to stress, according to the findings of a new study by researchers at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The study appears online in the journal PLoS One.
The relaxation response is often seen by health experts as the counterpart to the “flight or fight” stress response that has been shown by previous studies to have a distinct pattern of gene expression changes. The present study examined the concept that the relaxation response also produces similar changes in gene expression.
The study recruited three groups of people. In the first group there were 19 individuals who were long-term practitioners of yoga, repetitive prayer and meditation (practices which produce the relaxation response.) The second group consisted of 19 people who were not daily practitioners. The third group consisted of 20 people who were not daily practitioners but participated in eight weeks of relaxation response training.
The researchers assessed the gene expression changes of the individuals in all three groups from blood samples. Both groups of long-term and short-term practitioners of the relaxation response exhibited similar gene expression and physiological changes.
“The study provides the first compelling evidence that the RR [relaxation response] elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners,” the researchers concluded. “Consistent and constitutive changes in gene expression resulting from RR may relate to long term physiological effects.”
“Now we’ve found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented,” said Dr Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and co-senior author of the study.
Study findings indicated that the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with inflammation, programmed cell death and the handling of free radicals. Free radicals are byproducts of metabolism that the body neutralizes in order to stop damage to cells and tissues.
“Changes in the activation of these same genes have previously been seen in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder; but the relaxation-response-associated changes were the opposite of stress-associated changes and were much more pronounced in the long-term practitioners,” said co-lead author Dr. Jeffrey Dusek.
The researchers found that it didn’t matter which mind-body technique was utilized. Meditation, yoga, breathing, and repetitive prayer all acted via the same underlying mechanism. The study findings will be applied to future studies to see if stress-related disorders can be treated with relaxation response practices.
For more information about yoga and meditation for health and wellness call Dr. Richard Browne, Acupuncture Physician, at (305) 595-9500.