In short: Relaxation techniques invoke the 'relaxation response'. This state is the opposite of the stress response. We know that this state counteracts the negative effects of stress on hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, ageing and a multitude of other negative effects, but how exactly does it work? We take a look at how relaxation affects us at the molecular level.
One of the main reasons we created Stress Free is because both Russ and I found ourselves frequently telling our patients (and, frankly, anyone who would listen to us) about the wonders of learning and practising relaxation techniques regularly. Together with exercise they seem to be the two most effective things anyone can do to prevent not only mental health problems, but also physical health problems (which are the same thing, if you ask me). Our problem was that whenever we would relaxation we would be met with a confused expression: 'How do you do that? That sounds hard!' Unfortunately in the middle of a busy clinic we cannot spend the time to properly explain how to do it so we created the app to do the job for us. Now we can simply tell people to download it and start relaxing.
Who cares why it works?
I have a friend who is a physicist and he usually picks on me because according to him physicians are not real scientists. Moreover, psychiatrists are the worst of the very sorry lot. When I pointed out to him recently the benefits of learning and practising relaxation he dismissed it. 'That is a load of the usual doctor woo! How on Earth does "clearing your mind" and listening to some chimes help with ageing?' Thankfully I came across a study by Manoj Bhasin and a few of his colleagues from the Massachusetts general hospital in Boston. They had exactly the same question as my friend.
Manoj et al go to work
To answer it they rounded up a bunch of experienced meditation practitioners and a bunch of people that had never done it. They put on their white coats, took some blood samples and peered into their instruments to get a baseline on their transcriptome. The transcriptome is the sum total of all the RNA a given organism has at any one time. It shows what genes are being read and made into proteins. If you think of all the genes in a person (genome) as a recipe book the transcriptome is the list of all the recipes that are being cooked at that particular time. Just like for any given meal you might chose a few recipes for the starters, main course and dessert, the body is only using a small subset of the whole genome at any given time.
Didn't you mention 3 ways relaxation changes genes
OK, maybe not the genes, but certainly gene expression (which genes are read, which of all the recipes makes it to the table). To tell you about the 3 ways I have to go back to the meditation practitioners. Manoj and his mates gave them a recording to teach them meditation and they got them to practice it for 8 weeks. They measured the transcriptome again and they were able to tell which genes were more expressed (which recipes were read and cooked more often) and which ones were less expressed (no more orders for deep fried bacon doughnut). They found amazing stuff
1 Relaxation increases mitochondrial ATP synthase
The mitochondria are the little cell components that are in charge of energy production. They are, very simply put, the power plants of the cell. ATP is kind of like cell fuel. ATP synthase is the tool that the mitchndria use to make ATP. This change means that the mitochondria the production of cell energy is improved.
2 Relaxation increases insulin production
Making glucose utilisation more efficient. Glucose is used to make the ATP which can then be used as a power source.
3 Relaxation reduces the production of components of the nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-kB) pathway
What that mouthful means is that the inflammatory response is decreased with relaxation as are stress-related pathways.
The study also found that telomere maintenance was improved. Telomeres are the end bits of chromosomes that protect them from deterioration. Shorter telomeres are associated with older age. Also exposure to stress results in a shortening of the telomeres over time. This might explain the ant-ageing benefits of relaxation.
These effects were visible in both the experienced practitioners and the people who just started, but the effects are more significant in the experienced practitioners. So practice does make perfect even at the molecular level.
The paper is preliminary and we cannot be sure of what it means until it is reproduced and these effects are studied more in depth. Having said that on the whole these changes to gene expression seem to explain the effects of relaxation we see in the long term. It may enhance mitochondrial energy production and utilization. At the same it turns down NF-kB-dependent pathways, with effects may reduce oxidative stress.
As a whole these effects can be thought to promote mitochondrial resiliency. This may be at least in part what explains the health benefits that come with reducing stress.
Armed with all this I was able to shut my friend the physicist up. I think he gave up at 'transcriptome'.
You can read the original paper following this link.
As always, please let us know what you though, if this was of any interest and whether I managed to explain clearly what is going on.