tl;dr – you (via your mind) can alter your genetic activity; an ~8 min read on why and how.
You’ve probably heard of neuroplasticity – your brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections (MedicineNet). With or without your elected participation, your brain is perpetually re-wiring, dusting off its many mantles, and installing new five-lane freeways.
But about our role in this process where we can—where we get to—advocate for positive change on a very conscious level. What an invitation.
I’ve known there is good reason for the increasing engagement in meditation, yoga, mind-body wellness programs, etc., but why is it / what is it that makes these practices effective contributors to improved overall well-being? Below are insights from my exploration on the matter.
“But why (should I care)?“
It has been scientifically proven that you can change the way your genes are “expressed.” You’re stuck with your DNA. But you do have some agency over its proclivity to act in certain ways.
So let’s unpack “gene expression.” Scientifically, it’s the specific patterns, groupings, or sequences of RNA and DNA. In layman’s terms, it’s the activity of genes in influencing your health or producing other changes in the body. Your DNA changing expression can potentially translate to: better sleep, optimized cognitive functioning, stabilized hormones, improved self-concept, injury resilience and healing, improved anxiety and depression, etc. This should mean something to you.
“Okay, then. Tell me more.“
Herbert Benson, MD and William Proctor, MD created the two-phase “Relaxation Response” (also called the Henry-Benson Protocol) that when practiced daily (~22 mins), can elicit beneficial genetic benefits (ie change your gene’s expression) after eight weeks.
The Relaxation Response
Phase 1 – 12-15 mins
- Step 1: Pick a focus (a word, phrase, image, short prayer, your breathing, etc.)
- Step 2: Find a quiet place and sit calmly
- Step 3: Close your eyes
- Step 4: Progressively relax your muscles
- Step 5: Breathe slowly and naturally. As you exhale, repeat your chosen focus
- Step 6: Assume a passive attitude, saying “oh well” when thoughts intrude
- Step 7: Continue with this exercise for 12 to 15 mins
- Step 8: Practice at least once daily
Phase 2 – 8-10 mins
- Visualization: employ mental imagery to picture a peaceful or desired scenario (e.g. living pain-free, picturing yourself achieving a goal, etc.)
Focusing on something. That’s it in a nutshell. When a meditation professional told me that I could choose my focus, —a word or mantra, the flicker of a candle—that was really big news to me. “Connecting to my breath” is challenging for me and if I’m being downright honest, makes me angry. I learned this is surprisingly common. You too?
Your attention matters. The object of your attention (obviously) matters too, but not as much as how you show up. The degree of attention and the amount of saturated time you spend chiseling and refining your attention MATTERS.
Time to unlearn (where due) what the contemporary meditating community may have influenced, and enter stage left: “the Relaxation Response.” Sure, it doesn’t sound as ‘sexy’ and hip as meditating, but don’t be fooled. The “Relaxation Response” is meditating (in the most simplistic and uncomplicated way)—without the unfortunate underbelly of meditation’s religion, billion dollar industry, malpractice, and societal construct.
Have you ever meditated and thought, “why am I the absolute worst at this?” While well-intended, meditation apps can overcomplicate a really simple process (that’s the “value” for your $12.99 subscription). Damn you, Calm! I’m highly supportive of what works best for the individual, which is why I’ve personally veered away from apps.
The good news – it’s easy. The problem – it’s easy. You have unlimited 24/7 access. Because of this, I think it’s less attractive to us. It’s just not how our brains work; behavorial economics reinforces the concept that we assign value to things that come at a cost (usually, a financial cost). Using your brain (time included) is the currency involved in this transaction. Don’t underestimate the value in that. Don’t be dumb.
A Case Study
In 2008, Benson and Proctor wanted to understand in what ways the regular practice of a “relaxation response” (e.g. the above two-phase model, meditation, yoga, repetitive prayer) changes a person’s “gene expression” (genetic behavior that promotes health or produces changes in the human body). Of 54,000 genes, they wanted to see which ones were altered (“turned on” or “turned off”) by employing the “Relaxation response.” Do note: a gene expression being “turned on” is not necessarily a ‘positive’ thing (promoting good health). For example, a gene expression that is “turned off” may indicate a healthy state of well-being. Each gene expression is unique in this way.
Two groups were formed:
- A primary group of 19 experienced self-practitioners in mind body medicine averaging 9.4 years of practice which elicits a form of the “relaxation response” (e.g. two-phase Benson-Proctor model, meditation, yoga, repetitive prayer, etc.).
- A control group of 19 inexperienced self-practitioners in mind body medicine lacking experience with or understanding of mind body medicine, or practice of the “relaxation response.”
- The baseline: Blood was drawn from all participants in both groups to determine which / how many of 54,000 genes were “turned on” and “turned off.”
- Finding: 2,209 genes in the experienced group were expressed differently than the same genes in the inexperienced group. To no surprise, these 2,209 genes are linked to stress-related medical problems.
“What would happen if the participants in the inexperienced group were instructed in mind body techniques? Would they show any of the same positive, anti-stress gene expression changes that the highly experienced mind body practitioners had shown?”(Benson & Proctor, p. 24)
- The control group was appropriately instructed in the “relaxation response,” which they applied 20 mins daily for eight weeks.
- The results: Blood was drawn at the end of eight weeks to understand which / how many of the differentiating 2,209 genes might have changed expression.
- Finding #1: When comparing gene expressions in the inexperienced group from the first blood test to the second blood test, 1,561 genes had changed expression since the first blood test.
- Finding #2: When comparing the experienced group’s blood tests with the inexperienced group’s blood tests after eight weeks of practicing the “Relaxation Response,” 433 of the same genes had the same expression in both groups. Originally 2,209, now only 1,776 genes in the experienced group were expressed differently. In other words, 433 genes changed expression for health betterment.
After only eight weeks of practicing the “Relaxation Response” daily, the inexperienced group of self-practitioners had “caught up” (arguably, by 19.6%) to the experienced group of mind body “Relaxation Response” practitioners with ≥9 years of experience.
If you’re wondering, the probability of the same gene signatures being involved accidentally in both groups in both experiments was less than one in 10 billion. This wasn’t a chance event.
There it is, friends. The mind can influence the body down to the genetic level, via a daily 20 min brain bath.
I took these two photographs a few months ago when I was playing with a new camera lens in my San Francisco neighborhood. The same camera. The same lens. A different setting.
The distance between these two images is partially up to you and me. It’s not for us to know how much space God and science take up (I believe they are both present and mighty), but there is also plenty of room for you and me to participate.
If you’re curious like I am and want to learn more, visit BensonHenryInstitute.org for more research on the genetic nuances of mind body healing.
Relaxation Revolution: the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing, by Herbert Benson and William Proctor, Scribner, 2011.