It's widely accepted that yoga, meditation and other practices that involve conscious relaxation can reduce stress and enhance a person's general well-being. But for many, notions of "mindfulness" and "wellness" still come off as a tad New Age-y and amorphous.
So here, for skeptics, is a molecular-level reality check: Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center report that the relaxation response – a state of deep rest attained through breathing, meditation, yoga and other practices — triggers changes in gene expression that can affect the body's immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. The new research — the first to look at rapid, gene-level changes following the relaxation practice — is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Herbert Benson, a senior author of the new study, first described the "relaxation response" — what he calls the physiologic opposite of fight-or-flight — nearly 40 years ago. He's now the director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Insitute for Mind-Body Medicine at MGH, where the technique is used to help patients manage a wide variety of medical conditions from anxiety and chronic pain to cancer.
Benson says the new research should give a credibility boost to his endeavors (which, by the way, non-Westerners have been practicing in various forms for thousands of years). "There's now a scientific basis for these mind-body approaches that work," Benson said. "For the mainstream, every little bit of evidence helps."
Benson's collaborator, Towia Libermann, PhD, director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Center and co-senior author of the study, says the evidence clearly links the relaxation response to rapid changes in gene expression. "There is a relatively small subset of biological pathways affected by relaxation response," he said. For instance, a pathway involved in immune disturbances and inflammation was repressed after the relaxation technique while another set of pathways involved in mitochondrial function and energy production were enhanced.
The study involved 52 people — 26 were long-time practitioners of the relaxation response, 26 had never done it, but were trained in the technique. The subjects had blood drawn before, immediately after they practiced, and 15 minutes later, and then researchers used advanced gene expression profiling and systems biology analysis to determine any changes in gene expression. These changes, Libermann said, occurred in both groups but were more pronounced among the long-time relaxers.
Libermann, who has been working with Benson for 10 years, says he was drawn to this research "to convince myself that there's really something going on here, and it's not just a placebo effect." Now, he says: "I'm pretty convinced." He and Benson are currently investigating whether the relaxation response triggers molecular-level changes in people with hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other diseases.
Here's more from MGH:
In 2008, Benson and Libermann led a study finding that long-term practice of the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with the body's response to stress. The current study examined changes produced during a single session of relaxation response practice, as well as those taking place over longer periods of time.
The study enrolled a group of 26 healthy adults with no experience in relaxation response practice, who then completed an 8-week relaxation response training course. Prior to starting their training, the participants went through what was essentially a control group session – blood samples were taken before and immediately after they listened to a 20-minute health education CD and again 15 minutes later. After completing the training course, a similar set of blood tests was taken before and after participants listened to a 20-minute CD used to elicit the relaxation response as part of daily practice.
The sets of blood tests taken before the training program were designated "novice," and those taken after training completion were categorized as from "short-term practitioners." For further comparison a similar set of blood samples was taken from a group of 25 individuals with 4 to 25 years experience regularly eliciting the relaxation response through many different techniques before and after they listened to the same relaxation response CD. Blood samples from all participants were analyzed to determine the expression of more than 22,000 genes at the different time points.
The results revealed significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes between the novice samples and those from both the short- and long-term sets, with even more pronounced changes in the long-term practitioners. A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB – known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer – were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.
Benson says it's important to recognize that "health and well-being is more than drugs and surgeries. It's like a three-legged stool, drugs, surgery and self-care. People are recognizing the importance of nutrition and exercise, but the whole mind-body connection — people haven't grasped that enough."
Moreover, he says, the relaxation technique he's advocating is so very simple and "cheap." "It's just 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day," says Benson, who still does it himself, every day.
This program aired on May 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.