Inducing The Relaxation Response

The Relaxation Response Changes Gene Expression

The resulting molecular “resilience” may underlie the broader medical and psychiatric resilience observed with practices such as meditation and yoga.

Several practices (yoga, mindfulness, meditation) elicit the relaxation response and produce beneficial antidepressant, antianxiety, and antistress effects. The relaxation response also has potent beneficial physiological effects (e.g., reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity) thought to help improve medical illnesses, such as hypertension. These researchers examined the acute epigenetic effects of practice sessions in both novices and long-experienced practitioners.

Gene-expression profiles were analyzed from peripheral blood cells in 26 long-term practitioners and before and after training in the relaxation response in 26 novices. Samples were obtained three times during the 20-minute practice sessions — at the start, immediately afterwards, and 15 minutes later (before training, novices listened to health information for 20 minutes). Both trained novices and long-term practitioners produced gene-expression changes within this short relaxation period. More genes were affected in experienced practitioners than in novices. There was increased expression of genes involved in energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance and decreased expression of genes involved in the inflammatory response and oxidative stress.

Comment: The authors suggest that relaxation causes multiple gene-expression changes that create “mitochondrial resilience” by stabilizing key cellular processes during the adaptation to oxidative stress and by enhancing cell survival and function. The rapidity of these changes is noteworthy, as is the finding that more changes occur with more practice. Relaxation may have greater or lesser epigenetic effects depending on the individual’s unique genetic makeup. These core cellular changes provide a broad substrate that underlies both the “mind” and “body” effects of relaxation.

— Peter Roy-Byrne, MD

Published in Journal Watch Psychiatry June 3, 2013

Bhasin MK et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways.