Relaxation Techniques Can Change Your Genes

Yoga and meditation positively change gene expression linked to metabolism, inflammation, and disease.


This guy’s got the right idea. Photo via Shutterstock

Listen up, anti-yogis. We reported last month on a Northeastern study that says meditating boosts compassion toward others. And if that wasn’t enough to get you to say ohm, a study just came out saying the relaxation practice also improves gene activity connected to metabolism, stress, and inflammation.

The study was done by researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who found that achieving a relaxation state through activities like meditation, yoga, prayer, and breathing exercises actually changes your genes. It’s long been said that these relaxation techniques positively impact an individual’s health and quality of life, but with this research, which was published in the journal PLOS ONEscientists can say why that’s happening from a genetic standpoint. In a report from Harvard, the study’s co-senior author Herbert Benson says:

“Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging,” said Herbert Benson, HMS professor of medicine at Mass General and co-senior author of the report.

Benson is director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute.

“Now for the first time we’ve identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced,” he said.

The researchers took blood samples from 26 healthy adults who didn’t regularly practice relaxation. Then, they had the participants watch a short video about relaxation techniques and took another blood sample. Next, they compared their blood samples with those of people who regularly practice relaxation techniques and who watched the same video. They found that the gene expression for energy metabolism was significantly enhanced and the activation of a protein involved in inflammation, stress, trauma, and cancer was suppressed in group of regular practitioners. And while those in the expert group had the most drastic results, positive differences were still apparent in the beginner group even after only watching the short relaxation video. The article quotes Benson:

“People have been engaging in these practices for thousands of years, and our finding of this unity of function on a basic-science, genomic level gives greater credibility to what some have called ‘new age medicine,’” he said.

The report says the researchers are also studying how relaxation can affect the genetic pathways of those who are at risk for or already suffering from diseases as wide-ranging as high blood pressure, multiple myeloma, and bowel diseases. While those studies haven’t been completed yet, we think there’s already more than enough evidence out there to justify breaking out your yoga mat.