How do these activities – as simple as breathing or even thinking – affect our bodies in such profoundly positive ways? By what internal processes does this occur? As modern science marches steadily ahead, paving the way to understanding the physiologic underpinnings of the mind–body connection, we are beginning to see glimpses of the extraordinary and beautifully complex mechanisms behind the changes our bodies undergo when we meditate, practice yoga, or simply. . . breathe. As a physician and clinician, it is exciting for me to see these unfolding answers to age-old questions.
In the last several years, research has emerged suggesting that when we relax, changes occur not only at the cellular level, but also at the most subtle level of our physiology – our genes. Our genetic code, which lies within our DNA, holds all the information necessary to build and maintain our bodies. Although this code is largely unchanged from conception throughout our adult lives, it appears that changes in gene regulation – or when our genes are turned “on” or “off” – are the greatest factor in how our inherited code shapes our health and wellbeing. What science is now showing us is that we can affect our own gene regulation through mind-body relaxation practices.
A very recent study that suggests the relaxation response actually changes how our genes express themselves adds more support to what researchers see as a growing body of evidence that giving your mind and body a break can result in some real – and important – health benefits, such as improving energy metabolism and decreasing the aging effects of vascular inflammation.
In a nutshell, researchers found that when study participants practiced a relaxation technique such as mindful breathing, meditation or prayer, or yoga, different genes were activated in their bodies than when they were in a neutral or stressful state. Specifically, genes that counteract the damaging effects of stress are activated, and the activity of genes that fuel the anxious “fight-or-flight” reaction are diminished. The relaxation response elicited positive genetic changes affecting mitochondria, the powerhouses that energize the cell. The activity of genes linked to insulin levels, which aid in energy metabolism, also increased. Also noted was a decrease in gene activity related to inflammation, which has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
The good news is that these positive genetic changes were seen in all the study participants who engaged in relaxation activities. The even better news is that far more pronounced changes were seen in the participants who were long-term practitioners of the relaxation response. The researchers note that this beneficial relaxation response can be attained through many different techniques – meditation, prayer, yoga, or mindfulness, among others – but the differences in techniques were not reflected in the patterns of the gene regulation changes.
These findings hearten me as I continue encouraging my patients to engage in the healing practices of the Vedic tradition such as yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques). With this added insight, I know that they will not only feel better, they will be better.
In the end, as we get closer to unwinding the secrets of age-old wisdom, we gain a renewing appreciation for the strength of our healing traditions that integrate into our modern lives and help to keep us whole well into the future.