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:
- Meditation (mindfulness, transcendental meditation, breath awareness, etc.)
- Guided imagery
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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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