The popularity of practices such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing stems from the state of deep physiologic rest they can produce, an antidote to the stress of our 24/7 lives. This relaxation response has many health benefits, producing beneficial changes in heart rate and blood pressure, improving concentration, and reducing pain and anxiety.

Obviously, something good happens to our bodies when we experience deep relaxation. Now, thanks to a new study, we know just how basic and rapid the physiological effects of relaxation are.

Those experienced in deep relaxation used a variety of techniques including yoga, meditation, and prayer.

Investigators found that deep relaxation produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

By observing people experienced in achieving deep relaxation, researchers were able to both identify the genes affected by the relaxation response and uncover the potential significance of those changes on various biological systems in our bodies.

“Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individuals and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and aging,” Herbert Benson, MD, co-senior author of the report said in a statement. “Now for the first time we've identified the key physiological hubs through which these benefits might be induced.”

The study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center examined changes produced during a single session of relaxation response practice, as well as those taking place over longer periods of time. It enrolled a group of 26 healthy adults with no experience in relaxation response practice and a group of 25 with experience in deep relaxation techniques.

Before participants completed an 8-week relaxation response training course, they listened to a 20-minute health education CD. Three blood samples were taken — prior to, immediately after, and again 15 minutes later. These "novice" samples served as the control or baseline for the study.

The blood tests taken before the training of these short-term practitioners were compared to those taken after completing relaxation training. A similar set of blood samples was taken from a group of 25 individuals with 4 to 25 years experience regularly eliciting the relaxation response before and after they listened to the same relaxation response CD. Those experienced in deep relaxation used a variety of techniques including yoga, meditation, and prayer.

Blood samples from all participants were analyzed to determine the expression of more than 22,000 genes at the different time points.

When researchers compared the novice blood samples with those of the same people after relaxation training, and the samples from both the short- and long-term relaxation groups, they found that relaxation produced significant changes in the expression of several important groups of genes. Long-term practitioners showed even more pronounced genetic changes from relaxation.

The genes affected by relaxation produce proteins involved in energy metabolism and inflammation pathways. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered. In particular, pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB – known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer – were suppressed in people who had achieved a relaxation response.

“Some of the biological pathways we identify as being regulated by relaxation response practice are already known to play specific roles in stress, inflammation and human disease,” said Towia Libermann co-senior author of the study. Others are more speculative. The researchers plan to study the effects of relaxation on patients with precursor forms of multiple myeloma, a condition known to involve activation of NF-κB pathways.

The findings underscore the value of deep, physiological relaxation, whatever the method. As Benson puts it, “People have been engaging in these practices for thousands of years, and our finding of this unity of function on a basic-science, genomic level gives greater credibility to what some have called 'new age medicine.'”

The study appears in PLOS One.