In the last few months we’ve been highlighting new research that illustrates the power of individuals to influence their genetic expression through basic lifestyle choices, whether through diet, exercise, or avoidance of pollution. The message, as always, is that we aren’t passive victims to aging or any propensities in our genetic heritage. How we live determines when and to what extent certain genes will be activated or turned off, genes that control our immune function and inflammatory response, genes that influence our aging process as well as our chances of developing or avoiding disease.
This groundbreaking area of research now includes evidence  that invoking the body’s natural relaxation response can substantially direct the expression of genes related to physiological stress response. It’s a premise that’s been at the heart of many traditional medicine philosophies for thousands of years, now illuminated by collaborative research at the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. As Herbert Benson, M.D. and one of the primary co-authors of the study explains , “For hundreds of years Western medicine has looked at mind and body as totally separate entities, to the point where saying something ‘is all in your head’ implied that it was imaginary. Now we’ve found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented.”
Stress, after all, can have a dramatic bearing on overall health. The stress response, the study’s authors explain , “can manifest as system-wide perturbations of cellular processes” and has been associated with “accelerated aging at the cellular level, shortened telomeres, low telomerase activity, decreased anti-oxidant capacity, increased oxidative stress” and “increased vulnerability to a variety of disease states.”
On the flip-side of this damaging physiological state is the relaxation response, the state of “deep rest” that is characterized by “decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress.” RR, as it’s commonly referred to, has been “clinically effective” in treating the symptoms of disorders as varied as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune dysfunction, inflammatory conditions, and chronic pain. According to the study  authors, any mind-body activity that elicits the relaxation response has the power to impact genetic expression. Their discussion includes more than the often studied transcendental meditation and Qi Gong practices but recommends methods such as “various forms of meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, [and] guided imagery.”
The study compared the gene expression patterns (as shown through blood transcription profiles) of 19 “healthy, long-term practitioners of daily RR practice” with 19 healthy control subjects. In a second phase of the study, the control group received eight weeks of RR training. The results were then validated by a second study following the same protocol in a smaller cohort.
The best news? Although long-time practitioners of RR activities showed the most pronounced physiological and genetic expression benefits, the subjects who received only eight weeks of RR training already exhibited changes in gene expression  patterns related to “inflammation, programmed cell death and how the body handles free radicals.”
Our response? As one of the study’s authors noted, this study is important “because of its focus on gene expression in healthy individuals rather than in disease states.” So often in the media we hear about the promise of epigenetic research for the purpose of treating those who suffer from disease. While we applaud that potential, we think the power of this research to help healthy individuals maintain/enhance their health over their lifetimes is no less significant. That just happens to be what this blog is all about, after all.
And we liked hearing that you don’t need to “do” a specific approach such as a particular form of meditation. We know we’re all drawn to different “relaxation” approaches. Some of can sit on a pillow and happily and easily delve into the quiet zone. Others of us prefer a more active, physical form of meditation like tai chi. Some of us find we’re best suited for a guided imagery approach. Still others gravitate toward a more spiritual mode. This study shows you don’t have to fit your square peg into a round hole to get the full mind-body benefit. To lightheartedly mix our metaphors, it’s nice to hear it confirmed that we can have our cake and eat it too. Cake? Well, you know what we mean.
Finally, while many of us follow the “Primal” practice in our diets and exercise programs, this study is a great reminder that it’s not only what we take on and take in but how we “turn off” that matters to our well-being. With that said, we’re thinking a meditation room sounds like a nice addition to the office? Mark?
How does this study make you think about a relaxation practice? Already a RR guru? A meditation newbie or interested sideliner? Send us your thoughts on what role RR plays in your health routine? And thanks for your thoughts!