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Mind Body Practices Affect Health At The Cellular Level Via Gene Expression

DNA“Mind body” practices affect gene expression – these are the findings of Herbert Benson M.D. and William Proctor J.D., reported in their recent book: Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing. Included in this article is a link to an NPR radio broadcast that discusses Dr. Bensen’s research.

Herbert Benson and his teams at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital have been researching the “relaxation response” for approximately 35 years. Their earlier research was documented in numerous scientific journals and popular books, including The Relaxation Response (1975), Beyond The Relaxation Response (1985), and Timeless Healing (1997).

In these older works, Benson and company enumerated the many mental and physical health benefits of a general protocol that they refer to as the Benson-Henry Protocol that involves a) elicitation of the “relaxation response trigger,” which includes breathing more slowly and deeply, progressive relaxation, and adoption of a passive attitude toward one’s own thoughts, followed by, b) conscious positively oriented visualization/affirmation. The benefits cited include a myriad of health enhancements including reduced anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and pain, enhanced sleep, and numerous others. These changes are both short term and long term in nature, i.e. the Benson-Henry protocol has demonstrated its ability to influence both acute and chronic conditions.

The Process Of Gene Expression

Their major breakthrough in understanding, initially reported in 2008 in the journal PLoS ONE, is that “mind-body practice,” typified by, but not limited to the Benson-Henry Protocol, changes the way that genes “express.” This refers to the way that DNA or “genes” are transcribed into RNA, RNA into proteins, proteins into cell structure and function, and cell structure and function into the human organism at large. In this way, “gene expression” is the most fundamental of biological processes. Listen to the discussion on National Public Radio: Just Breathe – Body Has A Built In Stress Reliever.

The study compared the genetic expression of 19 men and women in good health, all in their mid-30s to early 40s and of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, with that of 19 “expert” mind body practitioners. Expert participants had practiced yoga, meditation, or prayer for an average of 9.4 years. A blood sample was drawn from each of the 38 participants and spun in a centrifuge separating the red and white blood cells from plasma. Genetic material was then removed from the blood cells and analyzed by a scanner that identified all of the 54,000 genes from each participant and determined differences in activity and expression. Of the 54,000, 2209 or ~4% were found to express differently in the group of experienced mind body practitioners as compared to the control group.

The really exciting part is this: within the 2209 that expressed differently are the genes known to relate to stress and related diseases including those that regulate immune function, govern inflammation, and contribute to premature aging. Furthermore, the genes that expressed differently between groups are those that are already known to be associated with robust health, where their positive expression is the opposite outcome of the same genes and their negative expression. In other words, the same genes that might express in a way that builds health, in the absence of mind body practice, tend to express in a way that detracts from health – making these genes central players in aging and the formation of disease.

Benson and team went on to determine if the gene expression of their control group was modifiable via mind body exercise. Each of the 19 control participants engaged in an 8 week program of mind body exercise involving: a) eliciting the relaxation response trigger which involved repetition of what is in effect a mantra of neutral or positive personal connotation, progressive relaxation, and slow, deep, natural breathing, and b) visualization, such that once deeply relaxed, one visualizes themselves in a peaceful environ in radiant health and free of affliction.

After 8 weeks a blood sample was again drawn from each of the control group participants and gene expression evaluated and compared against their former sample as well as that of the experienced group assessed earlier. Amazingly, 1561 genes had changed their expression. Secondly, 433 genetic “signatures” were already similar to those of the experienced practitioners. Benson and team determined the probability of this occurring by chance to be 1 in 10 billion.

Of particular interest is gene expression and cancer where Benson and team found the gene expression of those who practice mind body methods to be counter to that associated with various cancers. In fact, the gene expression observed in seasoned practitioners was found to be consistent with the gene expression associated with certain cancer therapies.

Stephen Elliott is a frequent contributor to the BMED Report. Stephen is the principle author of The New Science of Breath and Coherent Breathing: The Definitive Method. He’s an avid researcher in the field of cardiopulmonary functioning, and the inventor of  “Valsalva Wave Pro” and “BreatheHeart” – biofeedback instruments that monitor the “Valsalva Wave”  in the circulatory system produced during resonant breathing, and its outcome, breathing induced heart rate variability (HRV).  (See and, respectively).

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