Meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer are all ways to evoke a physiologic state of deep rest known as the relaxation response. New research published in the journal PLOS ONE finds that eliciting this response triggers immediate changes in gene expression that can affect the body’s immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. The study was a joint effort between the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the MGH and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“The relaxation response is like the opposite of the fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s natural reaction to stress,” says Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and co-senior author of the report. “Previous studies have shown that people experience beneficial changes to their brain while eliciting the relaxation response. And now – for the first time – this study identifies key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.”
The study analyzed the gene profiles of 26 healthy adults who had no experience with the relaxation response. After being taught the relaxation response and following the routine for eight weeks, their profiles were analyzed again. Researchers found significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes within as little as one relaxation response session. They also found more pronounced changes in those who practiced the response over longer periods of time.
“When you elicit the relaxation response, your energy usage is lowered, your heart beats slower, your muscles relax and your blood pressure decreases. If practiced regularly, it can have lasting effects,” Benson says. “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 credibility to what some have called ‘new age medicine.’”
For more information about this study or about the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the MGH, visit massgeneral.org/BHI.