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How the Relaxation Response Affects Stress and Gene Expression

Woman making Yoga exercises in top of a stone wall
 

We have known for some time that chronic stress has significant negative effects on our minds and bodies. Approximately 40 years ago, Harvard physician Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term “relaxation response” to describe the induction of profound mental and physical calm that is the opposite of the stress response. Dr. Benson’s research has demonstrated that techniques such as yoga, prayer, and several forms of meditation, among others, can elicit the relaxation response, or RR, and result in improved health. The details are below, but in short, regular practice of RR-inducing activities can help you feel better—physically and mentally—whether you are a healthy person in general or experience a physical or mental health issue.

Before I continue, here are some of my favorite, time-tested techniques for inducing the relaxation response, in no particular order:

  1. Meditation (mindfulness, transcendental meditation, breath awareness, etc.)
  2. Hypnosis
  3. Guided imagery
  4. Yoga
  5. Biofeedback
  6. Progressive muscle relaxation
  7. Rhythmic activity, such as a steady but not too strenuous jog

Physical Benefits of RR

Some of the physiological benefits associated with RR include decreased oxygen consumption, blood pressure, and rate of respiration, as well as improved heart rate variability and brain activity. In general, engaging in RR enhances overall well-being in healthy people and counteracts some of the negative effects of conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, anxiety, diabetes, aging, and others. Until recently, however, the molecular mechanisms behind the benefits of RR remained unclear.

The Research

In a 2008 study, Dr. Benson and colleagues found that even one session of RR in those totally new to the practice was enough to produce immediately measurable physical benefits. Furthermore, for long-term RR practitioners, there was an additional and measurable improvement in participants’ psychological states after one RR session.

These findings led the team to assess, in a recent study, whether one session of an RR-eliciting practice (listening to a 20-minute, RR-inducing CD) would have an immediate impact on gene expression. The team also sought to understand whether there would continue to be a difference between the effects seen in long-term and novice practitioners, so they enrolled 26 people who had no RR experience and assessed them prior to and after completing an eight-week RR training program. Both before beginning and at the conclusion of the eight-week program, the team took blood samples at three time points: immediately prior to listening to the RR CD, immediately following listening to the CD, and again 15 minutes after listening to the CD. The results for these novice participants were compared to those of people who reported regularly practicing some form of RR, such as meditation, yoga, or repetitive prayer. The long-term practitioners did not receive any additional RR instruction during the study period.

Many of the genes studied were involved in immune response and cell death, and RR resulted in changes to the expression of these genes that were beneficial. The pathways involved with energy metabolism were upregulated after the relaxation response, whereas those involved in inflammatory processes (such as stress and cancer) were suppressed.

The results of the study showed that long-term practitioners had more pronounced beneficial changes in gene expression in response to the CD, particularly as compared to the baseline (prior to enrolling in the eight-week program) results of the participants with no previous RR practice. After completing the eight weeks of training, however, listening to the RR CD also resulted in benefits for the new RR practitioners.

Understanding how RR impacts gene expression, and thus how it can alleviate symptoms of diseases triggered or aggravated by stress, may further encourage people to set aside time for RR-eliciting activities and could pave the way for more formal inclusion of RR therapies into treatment recommendation. The team is currently studying how the genomic changes induced by mind/body interventions affect pathways involved in hypertension, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

References:

  1. Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B-H, Joseph MG, and Denninger JW, et al. (2013). Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817.
  2. Dusek, JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, Joseph MG, Benson H, & Libermann TA. Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2576.

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Comments
  • corwin July 20th, 2013 at 1:24 AM #1

    stress troubles me time and again.and it always wins.stressed has become my permanent status I guess.this sounds very promising.never tried yoga or meditating before and I am thinking of giving this a shot.could someone point to places where I could have such sessions with experts?

  • andrea July 20th, 2013 at 4:53 AM #2

    I wonder why more in the medical field do not pursue this track along with their patients to relieve chronic stress instead of always looking for something in the pharmaceutical realm to do the job? Is it because patients don’t want that or that the providers, for the most part, don’t believe in it OR they are simply trying to follow the wishes of the patients? I think that seriosuly if more people would educate themselves about this can improve themselves and their health in so many more ways, they would look to stress relief via this route instead of only thinking about popping a pill to deal with it.

  • Traci Stein July 20th, 2013 at 6:09 PM #3

    Hi Corwin and Andrea, thanks for reading and for your comments.

    Corwin, these days yoga studios are nearly ubiquitous, unless you are in a rural area. If there is not a studio near you, Yoga Journal has a great magazine and a catalog of yoga DVDs, including those that are helpful for beginners. If you have not exercised in some time, or have any physical issues, my advice is to first get clearance from your doctor and then start with gentle, beginner-level classes. Activities like yoga can help you to get back into your body (stress can make us feel like we are too much in our heads). Many people find the practice of yoga to be a very grounding, centering, and healing experience.

    With regard to meditation, urban areas are more likely to have an abundance of formal meditation centers, but an online search may help you to locate places in your area that offer instruction in meditation, and many yoga classes finish with brief meditation. Finally, a growing number of therapists are training in mindfulness meditation and can provide instruction in the course of psychotherapy.

    Andrea, the question you pose is an important one. A growing number of medical providers are becoming aware of the costs of stress as well as non-pharmacologic methods of inducing feelings of calm (rather than simply blunting stressful feelings with medication). Sometimes it is a matter of finding the right provider – one who can discuss or at least recognize the importance of mind-body approaches even if he/she does not provide specific instruction in them. That being said, in my opinion, there are conditions and situations that do warrant the addition of medication. This has to be evaluated on an individual basis, of course. But even then, good self care can help one to feel better, physically and mentally, in a way that drugs alone do not. The approaches mentioned here can be relaxing, healing, and very empowering.

    With regard to my own RR practice, I most often use self-hypnosis/guided imagery, because I can listen to a recording and derive benefit even if my conscious mind isn’t paying strict attention. Or I can listen to affirmations if I need to remain alert and have even less time.

    Find the techniques that feel most helpful and enjoyable to you, and then try to set aside a regular time for engaging in it. Regular practice results in greater benefits.

    Thank you for reading, and be well!

  • Jason Ellis July 21st, 2013 at 5:07 AM #4

    The five RR techniques you use are terrific. However, it must be said that the discipline of Patience has to be implemented before even reading up on these strategies.

    That’s because so many anxiety sufferers are looking for ways to decrease their stress instantly. This mindset isn’t realistic so it should be understood that RRs are designed for those with a learned approach.

  • Jason Ellis July 21st, 2013 at 5:09 AM #5

    Oops, I meant 7 RR techniques. :) Thank you for this post btw. I think I forgot to include some common courtesy before. Cheers!

  • Traci Stein July 21st, 2013 at 5:58 PM #6

    Hi Jason,

    Thank you for reading. You make a good point re: the importance of patience and practice. The researchers found in their original study that even one RR session resulted in physical benefits, although enduring benefits of course come from regularly eliciting RR.

    That being said, I have noticed in my clinical practice – almost without exception – that even from the first session of using #s 1-3, 5 and 6 in session that people report feeling their bodies relax and their minds become pleasantly quieter and clearer. (With biofeedback, we can observe physiological signs of relaxation immediately, via decreased heart rate, slower respiration rate, decreased blood pressure, increased peripheral skin temperature, or, in the case of neurofeedback [which I did not mention above but is also effective], an observable increase in the proportion of slower brain waves, such as alpha and theta.)

    But again, practice is key to “building the muscles” for relaxation.

    Be well!

  • James July 21st, 2013 at 9:46 PM #7

    Encouraging to see that even one session pays off.Would bring in a lot of people that ate new to this.I have experienced the benefits of yoga for a couple of years now and there is no looking back.I recommend it to each and every person meddling with the idea.

  • Jacqui July 22nd, 2013 at 4:14 AM #8

    Information like this always excites me. I mean, there could be genomic changes as a result of meditation? That almost seems crazy, but then when you look at how much benefit one can derive from it, you step back and say yeah, I see how this could happen.

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