The emphasis of medicine on the mechanics and chemistry of our biology sometimes leaves us with a chasm between the observed links between our psychological and physical health and any known physiological mechanism to explain them. I was fascinated therefore to read of recent research showing that ‘mind body’ practices can affect gene expression.
Teams from Harvard medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, led by Dr Herbert Benson have been researching what they call the ‘relaxation response’ for many years now. They have developed a protocol (the Benson-Henry Protocol) that involves going into a deeply relaxed state with a passive attitude to one’s thoughts, followed by conscious, positively oriented visualisation or affirmation.
Over the years, the benefits have been demonstrated to be wide-ranging, including reductions in anxiety, depression, blood pressure and pain and increases in quality of sleep and other well-being indicators. The benefits have been seen in both the short- and long-term and can have a real, positive impact on both acute and chronic conditions.
In 2008 it was reported that mind-body practices such as those used in the Benson-Henry Protocol and similar, resulted in actual changes in gene expression. Gene expression refers to the switching on or off of genes within our body. It is one of the most fundamental processes that takes place in our bodies and has profound influence over our health.
The study compared the gene expression of a group of ‘expert’ mind-body practitioners (ie people who had practiced yoga, meditation or prayer for a long time) with a group of similar people who did no such mind-body practice. Both groups provided samples of blood and their genetic material was scanned. 54,000 genes from each person were studied! The researchers found that 4% (2,209) genes were expressed differently between the groups.
The really exciting bit is that within these 2,209 genes were known to be the ones associated with stress and related diseases – ones which govern inflammation and immune function and ones which impact upon the rate of ageing.
What’s more, those genes expressed by the mind-body practitioners were those known to be associated with good health and known to result in poor health when not expressed. That is, these genes are important to health and their expression (as apparently enhanced by regular mind-body practice) associated with good health.
The research went a step further. Benson and his team then looked to see if they could enhance the expression of these genes in the group who had history of mind-body practices. Each member of this group undertook an 8-week programme of mind-body practice. After the eight weeks, their blood was tested again for gene expression and compared again to the experienced mind-body practitioners. After just 8 weeks, the expression of 1,561 had changed. In fact, 433 genetic ‘signatures’ were already similar to the experienced group.
It has been calculated that the chances of these changes happening by chance are 1 in 10 billion! Most interesting perhaps was that the gene expression found in the experienced mind-body practitioners was counter to that associated with various cancers – in fact, the expression in this group was consistent with that associated with certain cancer therapies.
This study is ground breaking in demonstrating that what we think and how we practice relaxation is translated by our bodies at a genetic level which, in turn, affects our health at the most fundamental level. Benson and his research partner William Proctor have written a book on his work “Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing”.
If you want to learn to experience deep relaxation you could take up meditation, mindfulness or learn self-hypnosis. You can try to learn these techniques for yourself, but why not join a meditation/mindfulness class or visit a local hypnotherapist to be taught effective methods to suit you and the way your mind works?