Fascinating and Strange
NIH: More Studies of Oxytocin for Autism

The Relaxation Response, Your Genes and Oxytocin

New research shows that activities like meditation or prayer that produce a relaxation response in the body actually change the function of our genes.

Herbert Benson and his team looked at long-term practitioners of deep breathing, meditation and prayer, and compared the patterns of gene expression among the individuals. Next, the control group spent eight weeks in one of the practices, and then the researchers compared the before and after gene expression.

Both phases of the study indicated that the relaxation response alters the expression of genes involved with processes such as inflammation, programmed cell death and how the body handles free radicals.

Science now knows that genes are not static. Their activity can be suppressed or enhanced, and they can be "turned on" or "turned off" by other physiological states, as well as events external to the body.

The relaxation response was named by Benson, a Harvard prof who founded the Mind Body Medical Institute. He defines it thusly: "The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress... and the opposite of the fight or flight response."

Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, the Swedish researcher who first identified oxytocin's calming effects, calls it the "calm and connection" response. Although Benson doesn't mention oxytocin, I believe that oxytocin is the ruling hormone and neurotransmitter in the relaxation response. If this research had looked at oxytocin receptors and oxytocin-producing neurons, I bet they would have seen "up-regulation," that is, increased functioning.

From the article in Science Daily:

"For hundreds of years Western medicine has looked at mind and body as totally separate entities, to the point where saying something 'is all in your head' implied that it was imaginary," says Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and co-senior author of the PloS One report. "Now we've found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented."

To my mind, this is further proof that we can build or heal the oxytocin response naturally, without snorting anything.