The mechanism behind how relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, and prayer improve health has been identified by scientists.
Research collaborators from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) say that such relaxation techniques work by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress.
The changes were seen in long-term practitioners as well as in newer recruits during the study, published the open-access journal PLoS.
"It's not all in your head. What we have found is that when you evoke the relaxation response, the very genes that are turned on or off by stress are turned the other way. The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes. The mind is not separated from the body," Live Science quoted Dr. Herbert Benson, president emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as saying.
Dr. Gerry Leisman, director of the F.R. Carrick Institute for Clinical Ergonomics, Rehabilitation and Applied Neuroscience at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K., agreed: "It's sort of like reverse thinking: If you can wreak havoc on yourself with lifestyle choices, for example, [in a way that] causes expression of latent genetic manifestations in the negative, then the reverse should hold true."
Leisman added: "Biology is not entirely our destiny, so while there are things that give us risk factors, there's a lot of 'wiggle' in this. This paper is pointing that there is a technique that allows us to play with the wiggle."
Benson, a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, first described the relaxation response 35 years ago.
Mind-body approaches that elicit the response include meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery and Qi Gong.
"Previously, we had noted that there were scores of diseases that could be treated by eliciting the relaxation response -- everything from different kinds of pain, infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, insomnia," Benson said.
During the study, Benson and his colleagues compared gene-expression patterns in 19 long-term practitioners, 19 healthy controls, and 20 newcomers who underwent eight weeks of relaxation-response training.
The researchers observed that over 2,200 genes were activated differently in the long-time practitioners relative to the controls, and 1,561 genes in the short-timers compared to the long-time practitioners.
They also found that some 433 of the differently activated genes were shared among short-term and long-term practitioners.
Upon further genetic analysis, the researchers saw observed changes in cellular metabolism, response to oxidative stress and other processes in both short- and long-term practitioners.
All such processes might contribute to cellular damage stemming from chronic stress.
Robert Schwartz, director of the Texas A and M Health Science Center's Institute of Biosciences and Technology in Houston, said that the study was relatively small.
He, however, added that the study was "unique and very exciting. It demonstrates that all these techniques of relaxation response have a biofeedback mechanism that alters gene expression."
He pointed out that the researchers looked at blood cells, which consist largely of immune cells.
"You're getting the response most probably in the immune cell population," he said.
"We all are under stress and have many manifestations of that stress. To adequately protect ourselves against stress, we should use an approach and a technique that we believe evokes the relaxation response 20 minutes, once a day," Benson added.