Relaxation practices can do much more than make you feel refreshed and rejuvenated: They can also elicit a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation and deep breathing. This state, known as the relaxation response, has now been shown to change how certain genes are expressed.
“Many studies have found that mind–body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress, enhance wellness in healthy individuals, and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes, and aging,” says Herbert Benson ’61, an HMS professor of medicine and founder of what is now the Benson–Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Now for the first time we’ve identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.” Benson is co-senior author of the study, which was published in May in PLoS ONE.
Benson’s team 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 26 healthy adults with no experience in relaxation response practice, who then completed an eight-week relaxation-response training course. Prior to the training, blood samples were taken before and immediately after the participants listened to a 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 CD used to elicit the relaxation response as part of daily practice.
Comparisons of results from pre- and post-training samples revealed significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes, including those involved in inflammation, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion.
“People have been engaging in these practices for thousands of years,” says Benson, “and our finding of this unity of function on a basic-science, genomic level gives greater credibility to what some have called ‘new-age medicine.’ ”