Relaxation Response

MeditationIn 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!

adhiwus Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Control Your Lifestyle, Control Your Genes

Dear Mark: Gene Expression

Gotta Love that Genome

Gene Expression: Location, Location, Location

What is The Primal Blueprint?

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15 thoughts on “Relaxation Response”

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  1. RR has truly made such a difference in my life. The thing that really helped me is to focus on being in the moment or “be here now”. Try it. It’s insane at the thoughts that run through our minds every single minute. Try stopping the insanity for even 1 minute and you’ll see it’s not very easily done. It takes practice but the more you do it, the longer you can be present without any other thoughts entering in. I take this time to look at things like I’ve never seen them before. I take in every detail, every color, every smell… it’s truly an amazing and relaxing experience.

    1. Well put Cynthia! Do you read Eckhart Tolle? I would highly recommend his books for anyone who wants to learn to live in the now.

  2. I’ve never been able to “force” myself to relax or meditate. Ironically, it stresses me out by thinking such thoughts as “What a waste of time! I should be doing laundry, or dishes, or…”

    I’d rather just sit on the couch with a book, and then zone-out naturally when I get to a boring part.

    1. Have you tried Reiki for stress reduction? It’s very effective. But then again, you would have to allow yourself to be still for an hour. Add a little aromatherapy and perhaps some relaxing music? Your bodies relaxation response will love you, “long time.”

  3. I totally agree, a meditation room in the office sounds like a great idea. Mark?

  4. I love this post. I’m one of those people who has to schedule relaxation. And I find that my life really suffers if I miss my yoga or meditation times. I’m high strung and know I’m a cortisol factory. Thanks for the timely reminder!

  5. Thanks for this information. I think this might be the missing piece for me, so I’m going to add it to my challenge. . .I truly believe in meditation/yoga, but rarely do it.

    Thanks also for the emails with links–it’s great to have those resources pointed out without plowing through the archives.

  6. Just looking at the changes we get in our body from first inviting ourselves to “relax” and then to invite ourselves to… “rest”. Even meditation has become a “to do” for many and just this simple change in focus can let the mind/body let go.
    Give it a try…”rest”.

  7. I never really understood that cake saying. Is it supposed to imply that a person wants more than what they should want? Why would a person have a cake and not eat it?

  8. This is the real thing. I read Benson’s “The Relaxation Response” 15 years ago and was hooked. Don’t doubt it before you try it.

  9. I’ve practiced the relaxation techniques from the book Psycho Cybernetics for about a year now. You have a lot more self control when you’re relaxed as well. 20 minutes a day is all it takes and you’ll start feeling it within a week or two. I can relax whenever I want now and it feels great. Freedom.

  10. It basically means that contradictions can’t exist in reality. If you eat your cake, you no longer “have it”.