Recent research showed that yoga is able to change the expression of genes involved in immune functioning, and now a new study shows that relaxation in general can have a similar effect.
The “relaxation response,” a term coined by Harvard Medical School Professor and Body Mind Medical Institute founder Herbert Benson, M.D, is defined as a physiologic state of deep rest that alters the physical and emotional response to stress. The relaxation response is the opposite of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to stress, and can be achieved by centering practices like yoga, prayer, meditation and deep breathing exercises.
Previous studies have shown that the relaxation response can alleviate anxiety and lower the heart rate, among other health benefits. And in this new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers are able to actually measure bodily changes induced by the relaxation response by examining alterations in gene expression.
“Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging,” study researcher Dr. Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute, said in a statement. “Now for the first time we’ve identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.”
The study included 26 adults who had never done a relaxation response practice before. At the start of the study, researchers had these people take a blood test before and after doing a “control” session where they listened to a a health information CD for 20 minutes. Then, they had the participants take an eight-week relaxation response training course. After this course, the participants took a blood test before and after listening to a relaxation CD for 20 minutes.
To really see the effects of relaxation on the body, researchers also took blood tests before and after listening to the relaxation CD from people who were considered “long-term” relaxers — that is, 25 other people who had been doing relaxation practices for four to 25 years.
Researchers found differences in gene expression from the blood samples taken before the relaxation course, and the blood samples from after the relaxation course and the “long-term” relaxers. Specifically, they found that changes in gene expression of the energy metabolism, insulin and stress-related pathways.
“People have been engaging in these practices for thousands of years, and our finding of this unity of function on a basic-science, genomic level gives greater credibililty to what some have called ‘new age medicine,’ ” Benson said in the statement.
This is hardly the first study to show that relaxing has actual benefits for the physical body. A Georgetown University study published in March pinpointed how acupuncture, for instance, is able to effectively relieve stress by blocking the stress-induced elevation of certain hormones in certain brain pathways.
And another relaxation-inducing practice, mindfulness meditation, has been shown to lower stress levels, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescents, and improve emotional stability and sleep quality.
Click here for a video guide to simple relaxation response techniques.