Relaxation Practice Actually Changes Your Genes
Eastern practices like yoga and meditation have always been popular with a certain subset of the population, but over the past decade or so they’ve really gone mainstream. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that this is due in large part to the “me too” mentality. Yoga and meditation suddenly became hip for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that highly visible celebrities started endorsing them.
And that’s a good thing. People who might once have scoffed at trying something as “out there” as meditation or yoga have taken up the practices. Some, of course, drop out as soon as the novelty wears off. But for those who stick with it, the health benefits are often significant.
The sudden popularity of these and other mindful practices have had an added benefit: the anecdotal stories have spurred science to look into what effects they really have on our health. It’s thanks to this sudden upsurge in interest that have scientific evidence showing that yoga, meditation, and other mindful practices have a very real effect on a variety of health problems from blood pressure to chronic pain.
For a long time, the effects of mindfulness-based practices like these were assumed to be due to stress reduction, or even the placebo effect. But it seems there’s much more to it than that, and the effects may be more far-reaching than we imagine. Because it turns out that when you meditate or do yoga—on a regular basis, at least—it actually changes your genes.
More than mind over matter
Research into the physiological effects of yoga, meditation, and even repetitive prayer—which in itself becomes a form of meditation—has been going on for some time. We already know that these things have a real physiological effect. They lower blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and even blood sugar in some cases. The why of this is something we’re still learning…and what’s being discovered is surprising. It appears that relaxation practices such as these can actually turn different genes on or off when you do them for an extended period of time.
A 2008 study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center compared a group of people experienced in some mindful relaxation technique (yoga, meditation, or repetitive prayer) with another group who didn’t have any kind of practice.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The average person tends to think of genes as something static—if it’s “in our genes” it’s set in stone. But things are actually more fluid than that. You can imagine genes as something like a vast row of light switches—each one has the capability of being turned “off” or “on.” Some simply must be turned on or we won’t survive. Some stay on forever once they’re turned on. But for some, whether they’re “on” or “off” is dependent on external factors. We call this “gene expression.”
That’s where the relaxation practice comes in. The Beth Israel study found that the long-term relaxation group had more than 2200 genes which were expressed differently from those of the control group. 1,275 were turned “on” in the relaxation group but not the controls, and 934 were turned “off.” These genes were involved in a variety of stress- and disease-related issues such as inflammation.
Now it could be that the relaxation group were just healthier, more mellow personalities to begin with, so they ran a second experiment that included a third group of people who went through an 8-week relaxation training course. This group too showed major changes in gene expression—1,561 in total.
Another study from 2013 showed the same type of results, and that the changes began immediately after a period of mindfulness meditation. A third, also from 2013, found that simply watching a relaxation video could influence the expression of genes.
Could meditation cut your risk for diabetes, heart disease and even cancer?
Many of the changes researchers saw were in genes associated with inflammation—which increasingly appears to play a major role in many chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes. And one of the 2013 studies found that relaxation practice switched off a gene governing production of a protein associated with cancer. If medicine makes the effort to follow through, this could have serious implications for a wide variety of diseases.
Of course if you already practice yoga or meditate, you’re already aware of the incredible effect they can have on your health. And if you don’t…well, this is the perfect time to start. But where to begin? There are several options.
Yoga classes. When it comes to yoga, the fact is that nothing beats a real live class with a real live instructor. But depending on where you live, what your finances are like, and how your schedule looks that might not be possible.
Online yoga classes or videos. The internet can be your best friend or your worst enemy. There’s a glut of yoga-related content on the web, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed—or overcharged. Opt for a reputable site such as Gaia (formerly Gaiam) and stick to routines specifically aimed at beginners.
Yoga DVDs. I say skip these—they’re much more expensive than online classes/videos and they may or may not be suitable for beginners.
Yoga books. Books can be great if the photos are good and the instructions are clear, and they may be easier to follow than videos at first. But once again, nothing compares to a real live class, even if you can only go a few times.
Meditation classes and books: like yoga, the internet is overflowing with mindfulness articles, sites, and classes. But in this case, you’re in luck. You can find a complete Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class absolutely free at Palouse Mindfulness. I highly recommend it. And if you just want a quick taste of relaxation practice, you can try my 10-minute yoga sequence or anytime, anywhere stress-busters .
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