Ain’t no “woo woo” going on. Mind, body, relaxation and health

Posted by on Jan 24, 2011 in health, general, Meditation/mindfulness therapy | 6 comments


It’s so elusive for many of us. And yet, so important to our overall health and wellbeing. In fact, researchers are finally discovering how relaxation actually counters changes that occur in our bodies that result from exposure to constant stressors.

For decades, Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Institute in Cambridge, MA and an associate professor at Harvard University, has been writing about the relaxation response, a “mind-body intervention that elicits deep changes in the physical and emotional response to stress.” Strategies that elicit the relaxation response include meditation, yoga, tai chi, Qi gong, deep breathing, controlled muscle relaxation and guided imagery. And although many would like to point to the “woo woo” factor at-play, an evolving and wide body of published literature is indicative of how interested the medical community is in the mid-body connection and the positive changes that these practices promote, including a slowing or heart rate, a reduction in blood pressure, improvements in blood sugar and fats, and even boosts in our immune system. However, what has long eluded researchers is what actually happens in the body to achieve these improvements.

In a novel study published in 2008 in PLoS ONE,  Dr. Benson and his colleagues looked closely at 19 volunteers who had practiced relaxation response strategies (e.g. meditation, yoga, repetitive prayers) for as long as 20 years and compared them to 20 novices, individuals with no relaxation practice experience. These novices were provided with training sessions for 8 weeks that included information about how to reduce daily stress and the relaxation response and a 20 minute, individually-guided session comprising diaphragmatic breathing, a body scan and meditation.For 8 weeks thereafter, the novices then used a 20-minute relaxation CD at home and were asked to review the informational brochures. Blood samples and analysis of gene expression between experienced and novel relaxation practices, and pre- and post-training were then compared.

Importantly, while the researchers observed distinct changes in the genes in experienced relaxation practitioners compared to novices, when the novices started to incorporate relaxation practice into their lives, they also started to express similar positive alterations in their genes. Moreover, these changes are directly related to how cells respond to stress and create free radicals and inflammation that can lead to long-term damage. Additionally, type of relaxation strategy that was practiced was of no important; by achieving a relaxation state, individuals could make positive changes in their cellular structures thought to promote health.

Both inner and outer psychological states and environmental factors play a role in how women experience peri and post-menopause, their self-esteem, attitudes and severity of symptoms. If a daily practice of some sort of relaxation strategy can actually alter genes in a way that improves health and well-being, why can’t that daily practice also improve the menopausal/midlife experience?

While I’ve long embraced the idea, I’ve never actually made a concerted effort to incorporate some sort of relaxation strategy into my daily activities. I’m going to change that. Ain’t no woo woo but a woot woot so far as I can tell.


  1. 1-24-2011

    Employing the deep abdominal breathing techniques of qigong–Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me beat four bouts of “terminal” bone lymphoma in the early nineties. Since then it’s helped me manage chronic pain and the chronic stress of the modern world. This is not “woo-woo!”

    • 1-24-2011

      Bob – that’s terrific and so important to know. I think that a lot of people don’t give credence to mind-body techniques because they often get filed under the umbrella of “alternative medicine.” Yet, a search on PubMed turns up decades of scientific study. I really appreciate you sharing how it’s helped you. Thanks so much!

  2. 1-24-2011

    Thanks for this. I have been trying to apply Qigong…It is a mind shift to sit for 20 mins a day…but I am learning a vital important choice.

    • 1-24-2011

      Msaxoloti. My dad is heavy into the practice of Qi Gong and swears by it. I’m in the process of figuring out what I want to do.

  3. 1-24-2011

    There are so many forms of qigong: standing, sitting, moving and even laying down. I myself prefer standing postures for about forty minutes a day–plus various moving sets to massage the joints and “kick out the jams. To me, it’s best to do some quiescent qigong–standing or sitting–and some moving. It’s good stuff and I believe (and my oncologist also, grudgingly) that it saved my life. This is my 15-year anniversary being cancer-free. I’m hoping for a parade but probably will have to settle for a beer!

    • 1-24-2011

      15 years~? Wow. That’s fantastic!!! We’ll have a parade and beer on Flashfree in your honour!


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