Harvard Medical School: Deep Relaxation Can Have a Profound Effect on a Wide Range of Medical Conditions → Washingtons Blog
Harvard Medical School: Deep Relaxation Can Have a Profound Effect on a Wide Range of Medical Conditions - Washingtons Blog

Monday, August 3, 2009

Harvard Medical School: Deep Relaxation Can Have a Profound Effect on a Wide Range of Medical Conditions

The Independent writes:

Researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered is that, in long-term practitioners of relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation, far more "disease-fighting genes" were active, compared to those who practised no form of relaxation.

In particular, they found genes that protect from disorders such as pain, infertility, high blood pressure and even rheumatoid arthritis were switched on. The changes, say the researchers, were induced by what they call "the relaxation effect", a phenomenon that could be just as powerful as any medical drug but without the side-effects.

"We found that a range of disease-fighting genes were active in the relaxation practitioners that were not active in the control group," explains Dr Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who led the research...

More encouraging still, the benefits of the relaxation effect were found to increase with regular practice – the more people practised relaxation methods such as meditation or deep breathing, the greater their chances of remaining free of arthritis and joint pain with stronger immunity, healthier hormone levels and lower blood pressure...

"After two months, their bodies began to change – the genes that help fight inflammation, kill diseased cells and protect the body from cancer, all began to switch on."...

Because regular practice of the relaxation response can boost immunity, it is actually a good preventative measure to reduce the odds of catching diseases, including the swine flu (remember to wash your hands, get enough sleep and take vitamin D as well).

One traditional yoga method for inducing the relaxation response is by doing the flat-on-your-back pose (the "corpse pose"). See this, this, this and this.

But - as the Independent points out - there are many ways to create the relaxation response (and as I point out below, it doesn't have to be cult-like or effeminate):

So how can you access relaxation's healing powers? Harvard researchers found that yoga, meditation and even repetitive prayer and mantras all induced the relaxation effect. "The more regularly these techniques are practised, the more deeply-rooted the benefits will be," says Jake Toby. Have a go at one or more of the following for 15 minutes once or twice a day.

Body scan

Starting with your head and working down to your arms and feet, notice how you feel in your body. Taking in your head and neck, simply notice if you feel tense, relaxed, calm or anxious. See how much you can spread any sensations of softness and relaxation to areas of your body that feel tense. Once your reach your feet, work back up your body.

Breath focus

Sitting comfortably, become aware of your breath, following the sensation of inhaling from your nose down to your abdomen and out again. As you follow your breath, notice your whole body and let tension go with each exhalation. Whenever you notice your mind wandering, come back to your breath.

Mantra repetition

The relaxation response can be evoked by sitting quietly with eyes closed for 15 minutes twice a day, and mentally repeating a simple word or sound such as 'Om'. [My comment: you can repeat a nonsense word or something like "The Three Stooges Are Funny" or "Kobe Bryant is the best!" as your mantra; it doesn't have to be religious or feminine to create the relaxation response.]

Guided imagery

Imagine the most wonderfully relaxing light, or a soothing waterfall washing away any tension or worries from your body and mind. Make your image as vivid as possible, imagining the texture, colour and any fragrance as the image washes over or through you.

In addition to the relaxation response, I am convinced that active exercise is also very important for health.


  1. Love this. And so glad I do yoga and meditate.

  2. I would add "smoke some cannabis for goddsake" to that list.

    Recommendation for GWB readers: The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer.

    (not to be confused with The Emperors New Clothes story from old)

  3. Avoid doctors. They are the Grim Reapers that will kill you with a look, if not with their dirty, clawed paws, their knives and their pharmaceuticals. I haven't visited a doctor in 20 years. I'm sixty.

    If you're struggling with the weight, (and who isn't) cut out the meat and all the dairy products too. Don't eat till dinner-time, if you can do nothing else.

    Stop using salt, and try Jalapeno peppers for taste.

    Eat one apple every day.

    Eat four plums every day.

    Never eat another doughnut or candy bar.

    If you're over fifty, or very heavy, -forget walking. Falling is the big concern.

    Get a recumbent (sitting-up) exercycle, and peddle it daily till you sweat profusely. Start slow with it. Work your way up. Peddle with your toes and the balls of your feet. Be careful not to let your knees slap at the bottom of each peddle stroke. That will ruin your knees in short order.

    Swim -if you can find a pool.

    The federal government would do well to invest a billion dollars in 50 meter swimming pools, swim coaches and lifeguard salaries throughout the nation. This would be a better investment in the health of the nation than 200 billion given to the health industry. I'm 100% serious about the figures.

    Not too many basketball players still shoot hoops at 60, and runners are all but crippled by 60. I'm still swimming at 60. I'm not part of it, but there is a competitive swim league that has swimmers still competing in their eighties, and they are swimming times that 99% of the people in the country, regardless their age, could not compete against. Imagine racing an 80 year old guy and getting beaten. Right now, at 60, I could beat just about everyone who will read this post in a fifty yard race, regardless the stroke chosen.)

    Swim like your life depends on it.

    And if you're a kid, smoking... And even if you're not, go to your library and read "Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son."

    No one is fit to discuss anything until they have read these letters written by a man to his son in the Eighteenth Century.

    Your thoughts are infantile without some historic perspective about what is honestly important in the world.

  4. An interesting post. Thank you.

    I would suggest, from my experience, that it is a good idea to repeat short relaxation exercises regularly throughout the day, especially if you are in a pressurised job. It does help you to focus beautifully - and you feel healthier of course.


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