While it might seem that your body and brain aren’t doing much when you’re on break, relaxing triggers a flurry of genetic activity that is responsible for some important health benefits.
When you really relax — using any type of meditative technique such as deep breathing, yoga or prayer — the genes in your body switch to a different mode. Genes that counteract the chemical effects of stress kick in, while those responsible for driving more anxious and alert states take a backseat. And a new study shows that long-term practice of relaxation techniques can significantly enhance these genetic benefits.
Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, first defined the relaxation response in the early 1970s and led the latest genetic investigation published in the journal PLOS One.
“We have within us an innate, inborn capacity that counters the harmful effects of stress,” says Benson. “And this study has shown its genomic basis: namely that specific hubs of genes are changed when people evoke this relaxation response.”
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“It’s fantastic,” says Dr. Mladen Golubic, medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, who was not associated with the study. While other studies have linked the relaxation response to lower stress levels and reduced blood pressure, the current trail details the physiological pathways responsible for producing these benefits. The findings confirm and expand on work Benson’s group published in 2008 in which they showed that people who meditated over a long period of time showed altered expression of the genes involved in the stress response.
In the current study, Benson and his colleagues studied 52 people, half of whom had meditated for four to 20 years using relaxation techniques and half of whom were novices. Both groups had their blood taken and analyzed before and after a 20-minute relaxation session in which they used a CD for guidance. The new meditators agreed to participate in two relaxation sessions; in the first, they listened to a CD that provided general health information unrelated to stress, which served as a control. That way, the researchers could compare any molecular changes captured in their blood after they learned deep breathing, mindfulness and mantra practice, which involved focusing their mind on a single repeated word while ignoring distractions.
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After these sessions, the scientists identified four sets of changes in the way genes were expressed; these alterations only occurred after the participants used relaxation techniques. The first involved genes related to mitochondria, the batteries that power the cell. “These changes lead to [mitochondria] being more stable and more controlled,” Benson says. “The word we use in the paper to describe the mitochondrial changes is that they are more resilient.”
That makes sense, says Golubic, since “we know that people engaged in meditation report better moods, more energy and that they sleep better.”
Genes linked to insulin production were also affected, with the relaxation response boosting levels of the hormone that is also involved in energy metabolism. “Insulin facilitates the entrance of glucose into cells and into the mitochondria,” says Golubic.
And it wasn’t just individual genes that Benson’s group identified, but also suites of genes that were likely connected in a pathway. That strengthened the findings, since the changes appeared consistently and therefore were unlikely to be linked simply by chance. “What really matters is if you find genetic changes in hundreds of genes in the same pathway. When you find whole pathways that show change, that’s impressive,” says Golubic.
Meditation also affected genes related to telomeres, which cap off the ends of chromosomes to protect and extend the lives of cells. “The shorter the telomere, the more the aging process is manifest,” Benson says. “What the relaxation response is consistent with is stabilizing the telomeres and making them less likely to break down.” An earlier study found that experienced meditators had about 30% more activity in the enzyme that repairs telomeres following an intensive meditation retreat.
The researchers also saw less activity in genes related to inflammation; in other studies, these genes were overexpressed in patients with hypertension, heart disease and cancer. The data suggest that meditation, or regular relaxation, can downplay the activity of these genes and potentially counteract some of the physiologic processes that drive them.
All of these changes were seen to a much greater extent in the experienced meditators than in the novices. But those new to the practice also showed differences after only two months of training. “The longer you evoke the relaxation response over time — years as opposed to weeks as opposed to once or twice — the more profound the changes,” Benson says.
And there is no right or best way of achieving relaxation, say Benson and Golubic. Each individual can find whatever method works best; the benefits, according to the research so far, are the same.
“The relaxation response is best understood as the opposite of stress or the fight-or-flight response,” says Benson. “There are two steps generally used in evoking it: One is repetition — the repetition can be of a word, sound, prayer, phrase or movement. The other is that when other thoughts come to mind, you disregard them and go back to the repetition.”
Benson recommends practicing the technique for 10 to 20 minutes, at least once a day. “It should be a daily habit,” he says, adding, “People have been doing it for millennia. Now we have a scientific basis to prove its worth. It’s wonderful to be alive to see it.”