This relaxation response has a number of beneficial effects on the body, producing beneficial changes to heart rhythm and blood pressure, improving focus, and decreasing pain and anxiety. As a stress countermeasure, inducing a relaxation response may improve the clinical symptoms of a wide variety of stress-related disorders, including high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and even aging. Mind-body practices like mindfulness meditation are widely claimed to be protective against stress-related diseases ranging from arthritis to dementia.
Mind-body interventions (MBIs) like meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi not only relax us; according to research by Coventry University and Radboud University, they may reverse molecular reactions in our DNA that contribute to poor health and depression. There is evidence that such mind-body practices inhibit the activity of genes associated with inflammation – in effect, they reverse molecular damage caused by stress. A new study from researchers in Spain, France, and the US found that meditation could decrease the expression of genes involved in the process of inflammation.
The study is the first to show meditation causes gene-expression responses that may boost the immune system, while most previous studies on meditation and health looked at mostly subjective reductions in stress and anxiety. Published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the study combined high-level expression profiling and systems biology analysis to both pinpoint genes affected by the relaxation-response practice and to identify potential biological significance to these changes. A pilot study was designed to examine whether the relaxation-response-based intervention can improve quality of life for patients with IBS or IBD, and analysed the effects of the intervention on inflammatory markers and gene expression.
A new study examined changes produced in one session of relaxation-response training, as well as changes occurring over longer periods. A new study from researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (BIDMC) found that induction of a relaxation response–a physiological state of deep relaxation, induced by practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and prayer–produced immediate changes in expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion. In 2008, Benson and Libermann led a study finding that prolonged practice of the relaxation response changes expression of genes involved in the bodies stress response. In reports published in 2008 and 2013, Herbert Benson, together with Towia Libermann and Manoj Bhasin–both from BIDMCs Centre for Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics, and Systems Biology–described how eliciting the relaxation response in healthy individuals affected gene expression in pathways involved in the body’s stress, inflammation, and energy metabolism.
The genes affected by relaxation produced proteins involved in energy metabolism and in pathways related to inflammation. Many of the genes altered expression are known to contribute to pathways involved with stress responses and inflammation.
Genes controlled by a key protein acting as a switch for on inflammation–called NF-kB–seem to be especially affected. These activities leave behind what we call molecular signatures in our cells, reversing the effects stress or worry might have on the body, changing the way our genes are expressed. The changes observed in gene expression indicate that NF-kB is the focus of targeted molecules both for IBS and for IBD — and its regulation could be contributing to the reversal of harmful effects of stress for both diseases.
Most importantly, the direction of the expression changes in these genes affected by RR-MBI appears to be to counteract the immune inflammation and disruption seen in IBS, and is expected to blunt a dysregulated immune response. In IBD, decreased expression of the response genes to RR-MBI is more strongly associated with the inflammatory responses, cell growth, proliferation, and oxidative stress-related pathways. However, according to this study, individuals undergoing MBI showed an opposing effect — that is, decreased NF-kB and cytokine production, leading to the reversed pattern of pro-inflammatory gene expression, and decreased risk for diseases and conditions associated with inflammation.
While previous work has not shown convincing evidence for beneficial effects of psychological interventions on IBS, our recent genomic work has demonstrated changes in gene expression of the inflammatory pathways in response to an RR-MBI , suggesting the mechanisms by which MBIs may have benefits on IBD. Such findings, although needing to be confirmed by further studies, are provocative and suggest that the genomic changes caused by the practice induced by the RR act as counter regulated genes to those caused by stress and inflammation.
Results indicate differential transcripts in genes involved in metabolism, inflammatory processes, oxidative stress, and DNA damage responses in both chronic and brief practitioners. An interesting case study of two lifelong expert meditators who were able to reach a higher state of consciousness, once again showed differential expression in genes involved in metabolism and regulation of the cell cycle, immunological responses, stress responses, and cell death (Ravnik-Glavac et al., 2012). Differential expression of genes related to Type I interferon responses and inflammation was reported after daily yoga practice among a population of breast cancer survivors (Bower et al., 2014 ).
A new study indicates that individuals who meditated for an eight-week period had remarkable changes in expression of 172 genes regulating inflammation, circadian rhythm, and glucose metabolism. A pilot study found that participation in a nine-week training program including the elicitation of a relaxation response had significant effects on the clinical symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – as well as the expression of genes related to inflammation and the bodies stress response. The study provides the basis to understand the effects of meditation and suggests that meditation, as a behavioural intervention, may volunteer–and nonpharmacological–improve the immune response for treating a variety of conditions associated with excess or persistent inflammation, with an altered immune system profile. Regular relaxation, including practices such as yoga, meditation, prayer, and deep breathing, has been shown to activate genes that are protective against disorders including infertility, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and inflammation.\