Scientist have long known that there are particular genes that predispose a person to specific diseases and health disorders – but that merely carrying a breast-cancer gene, for example, does not guarantee the onset of that condition. Genes can be turned on or off by various factors, which means they may or may not express the instructions carried in their DNA.
“Now we have found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented.” sates Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson, M.D., co-senior author of the Plos ONE report. “The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes.”
Towia Libermann, Ph.D., director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Genomics Center and the report’s co-senior author, adds, “This is the first comprehensive study of how the mind can affect gene expression, linking what has been looked on as a ‘soft’ science with the ‘Hard’ science of genomics.”
“Mind-body practices that elicit the relaxation response (such as meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, etc) have been used world wide for millennia to prevent and treat disease,” the research report said. “This study provides the first compelling evidence that the relaxation response elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners.
The study indicated that the relaxation response alters the expressions of genes involved with processes such as inflammation, programmed cell death (which can keep genetically impaired cells from turning into cancers), and how the body handles free radicals-molecules produced by normal metabolism that, if not appropriately neutralized, can damage cells and tissues.
According to the ABC News summary: “Researchers for the study took blood samples from a group of nineteen people who habitually meditated or prayed for years, and nineteen others who never meditated. The researchers ran genomic analyses of the blood and found that the meditating group suppressed more than twice the number of stress-related genes-about 1,000 of them-than the nonmeditating group. The more these stress-related genes are expressed, the more the body will have a stress response like high blood pressure or inflammation. Over long periods of time, these stress responses can worsen high blood pressure, pain syndromes, and other conditions.
“The nonmeditating group then spent ten minutes a day for eight weeks training in relaxation techniques that involved repeating a prayer, thought, sound, phrase, or movement. By the end of the training, the novice meditating group was also suppressing stress-related genes, although at lower levels than those of the long-term meditating people.” In their public Library of science report, the researchers stated: “It is becoming increasingly clear that psychosocial stress can manifest as system-wide perturbations of cellular processes… Chronic psychosocial has been associated with accelerated aging at the cellular level… and with increased vulnerability to a variety of disease states. Our result suggest that consistent and constitutive changes in gene expression resulting from the relaxation response may relate to long-term physiological effects.”
Commenting on these results, the noted science columnist Sharon Begley of Newsweek observed: “The genes in our cells don’t matter one iota if they’re not turned on, and there are many things in life that can turn off bad genes such as those that raise the risk of disease such as breast cancer… It really is time to stop thinking of our DNA as immutable. Even thinking can change it.”