Relaxation and Health2

Relaxing in the Gene Pool

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Relaxation and Health2

A lot has happened since Herbert Benson, M.D., began relaxing at Harvard University 40 years ago – enough for Benson to conclude…

“…because all health conditions have some stress component, it is no overstatement to stay that virtually every single health problem and disease can be improved with a mind-body approach.”

There’s a clear link between relaxation and health (see The Relaxation Response) that many people are aware of, but you may not know exactly how relaxation promotes health. Mind-body methods like Benson’s produce CHANGES IN GENE EXPRESSION and PHYSICAL CHANGES IN THE BRAIN. These changes are the opposite of what stress produces and they have profound implications for health.

Later in this post, I will describe one of Benson’s experiments in detail, but first, the bottom line:

  1. As we age our cortex tends to become thinner in certain regions, and this thinning is associated with age related neural degeneration. The cortexes of mind-body practitioners tend to thicken in ways associated with healthy (and younger) brains. Whereas, the cortexes of non-mind-body practitioners may thin with age, and this may be associated with dementia.
  2. Mind-body practices change how genes are expressed. This is important because in a person with a genetic disposition toward a particular disease, that disease will not manifest if the genes that are instrumental in producing it are inactive.
  3. A wide variety of mind-body disciplines produce these results – TM, yoga, tai chi, repetitive prayer, and more. Benson defines the “Relaxation Response” broadly:

“Briefly stated, the relaxation response is defined as the response that is opposite of the ‘flight or fight’ or stress response. It is characterized by the following:

  • decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing;
  • a decrease or ‘calming’ in brain activity;
  • an increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain: and
  • changes in gene activity that are the opposite of those associated with stress.”

So let’s take a look at The Relaxation Revolution:

Experimental Details

Benson has persuasive scientific evidence to validate his claim. I find most remarkable experiments are the ones that demonstrate changes in gene activity.

In a 2008 experiment, Benson compared participants of two groups. The first group (I’ll call them “experienced practitioners”) had done some kind of mind body discipline for an average of 9.4 years. Participants in the second group (“Inexperienced mind-body practitioners” [again, my term]) were, on average, men and women ranging in age from the mid-30s to early 40s. They were white, Asian, African-American and Hispanic. They had no previous experience with any mind-body discipline.

Using “microarray analysis” technology, Benson and colleagues checked the activity of the 54,000 genes in both groups. The initial comparison found 2,209 genes were expressed differently in the experienced practitioners versus the inexperienced ones.

Then for 8 weeks members of the “inexperienced group” were taught how to enter the relaxation response through listening to a CD that instructed them to breathe deeply, scan their bodies, relax different parts of their bodies, use repetitive prayers and mantras, and a mindfulness meditation practice that allowed them to refocus their attention when their minds wandered. They practiced 20 minutes a day. At the end of the practice session they were instructed “imagine on each out breath letting go of any residual inner anxieties or worries.”

In analyzing the gene expression of the Inexperienced Practitioners, researchers found that 1,561 genes had changed expression from the first test to the second.

“Even more striking, when we compared the [Inexperienced Practitioners] after their training with the [Experienced Practitioners] (9.4 years of practice), we found that 433 gene expression signatures were similar in both groups… The probability of the same gene signatures being involved accidentally in both groups in both experiments was less than one in 10 billion.”

If you’re a research scientist, producing results at that level of statistical probability could possibly induce dangerous levels of ecstasy! I’m sure Benson was justifiably happy with his results, but not just for the statistics. The implications for improved health and longevity are profound.

In Benson’s words…

Gene signatures that were switched on or off in both groups by the relaxation response were associated through past research with clear benefits… [They] included more healthful regulation of the immune system, lower psychosocial stress levels, less distractive oxidative stress, and a reduced tendency towards premature aging. Also, the gene activity we observed is associated with helpful gene activity that is the opposite of that found in many cardiovascular diseases and other conditions…

Benson recommends mind-body treatment for “angina pectoris, anxiety, depression, hypertension, infertility, insomnia, menopausal, perimenopausal, and breast cancer hot flashes, nausea, pain (abdominal, back, head, joints and rheumatoid arthritis, knee, neck and shoulder, postoperative), Parkinson’s disease, phobias, premature aging, premature ventricular contractions and palpitations, PMS…

Evidence is mounting to suggest mind-body treatment protocols can address allergic skin reactions, bronchial asthma, congestive heart failure, constipation, cough, diabetes mellitus, dizziness, drowsiness, duodenal ulcers, fatigue, herpes simplex, hostility and anger, immune problems, impotency, obesity, postoperative swelling, posttraumatic stress disorder, and tinnitus.

Benson’s protocol is an excellent amalgamation of mind-body techniques.

Originally published at

About the Author

Stephen Josephs has coached executives and top performers at some of the world’s most impressive organizations for 30+ years. By applying psychology and transformational methods to leadership development, Stephen brings an integrated approach that maximizes performance and helps leaders find new ways to expand their effectiveness. His book, Dragons at Work, is a seminal text on peak performance and leadership management.

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