02 June 2014

Ian Gawler Blog: Change your mind, change your genes

Aahhh….  The Relaxation Response. 

That wonderful feeling of letting go of tension, relaxing deeply and returning to our natural state of balance. Feels great, but did you know that a particular type of relaxation, along with a particular type of happiness (yes, there are 2 main types and the other is actually harmful!) can change your genes for the better?

How does that work? How can we benefit?

Fascinating new research shows that genes when relaxed and happy in the right way change their expression - leading to better energy levels, immune function, stress management capacities, healing and more!

So this week we find out how by delving into some great new science, plus there is news of a very useful training by world authority Christine Longacre on compassionate care for the dying, but first

Thought for the day

Confess your hidden faults.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Help those you think you cannot help.

Anything you are attached to, give that away.

Go to the places that scare you.
                 Machig Labdron, Tibetan lama

Dr Herbert Benson has been one of the great pioneers of therapeutic meditation. 
A cardiologist with a personal and professional interest in meditation, Benson was founding the Mind-Body Centre at Harvard in the mid seventies around the time Dr Ainslie Meares was helping me use meditation to recover from my cancer. They corresponded and I used to speak with Dr Meares about Benson’s work.

Benson initiated a great deal of research in this field and wrote the highly influential bestseller, The Relaxation Response.

As a reader of this blog I do not imagine you need any convincing about the myriad of mind-body benefits the research demonstrates that follow on from learning to relax, to regain our balance and to have a calm and clear mind.

However, in 2008, Benson and a colleague Towia Libermann led a study finding that long-term practice of the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with the body's response to stress.

Now, another of their ground breaking studies has combined advanced gene expression profiling and systems biology analysis to both identify genes affected by relaxation response practice and determine the potential biological relevance of those changes.

In this study, they examined changes produced during a single session of relaxation response practice, as well as those taking place over longer periods of time. This research revealed that the relaxation response produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

Significant changes in the expression of genes were seen in beginners, with even more pronounced changes in the long-term practitioners.

Benson, who has a very egalitarian approach, notes that the long-term practitioners in this study elicited the relaxation response through many different techniques – various forms of meditation, yoga or prayer – but those differences were not reflected in the gene expression patterns.

"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 credibililty to what some have called 'new age medicine,' " he says.

Reference: Bhasin MK et al. (2013) Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817

And then there is mindfulness.
A growing body of research shows that mindfulness meditation specifically can alter neural, behavioral and biochemical processes. In another major recent study, Prof. Richard Davidson and colleagues explored the impact of one day of intensive practice of mindfulness meditation in experienced meditators on the expression of circadian, chromatin modulatory and inflammatory genes in peripheral blood mononuclear cells.

The researchers found that after the brief intervention they detected reduced expression of histone deacetylase genes (HDAC 2, 3 and 9), alterations in global modification of histones (H4ac; H3K4me3) and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes (RIPK2 and COX2) in meditators compared with controls. They found that the expression of RIPK2 and HDAC2 genes was associated with a faster cortisol recovery to the TSST in both groups.

This may sound a trifle technical, but what the researchers said was that the regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based meditations. Also, these findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.
Science is catching up.

Reference: Kaliman, P et al. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol 40, Feb 2014, Pages 96–107

Now for how happiness and meaning are good for your genes
A recent study from UCLA has shown that different types of happiness have surprisingly different effects on our genes.

People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being - the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life - showed very positive gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic wellbeing - the type of happiness that comes from self-gratification and high levels of consumption - actually showed just the opposite.

This was despite the researchers claiming that both groups seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. They commented "What this study tells us is that doing good and feeling good have very different effects on the human genome, even though they generate similar levels of positive emotion. Apparently, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are conscious minds."

Reference: Frederickson, B L et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being PNAS 2013 110 (33) 13684-13689

Meditation an In-depth Guide

Meditation – a Complete Path

Relaxation for Everyone

Learn to relax and change your life


1. Meditation in the Desert  : August 29 – September 7 


                                        Ruth leading gentle yoga in the morning light

Come, join us with Mike Tyrell and Julia Broome, along with like-minded people for 7 days of meditation in the extraordinary atmosphere of the Central Australian desert, followed by several days of close contact with senior local indigenous leaders.

Secure your place with a deposit. For details CLICK HERE


The East Coast Tour  –  from JULY onwards

Starting in early July Ruth and I will be travelling right up the East Coast to Cairns, across to Mt Isa and Alice Springs, then down to Adelaide. A road trip with a difference, giving talks along the way.

Hope to see many of you along the way. There will be the chance for a refresher, to help get back on track if needed; but also exciting new information and the opportunity to meditate together and to deepen the experience of what meditation really is.

A good opportunity to share what we do with family, friends and colleagues.

FULL DETAILSCLICK HERE  and please do share the link.



  1. Thanks Ian, always good to get some perspectives on what is being uncovered - I find it quite motivational for my own practice of meditation. One question I have been chewing on for a while is - "do the benefits occur because meditation creates the presence of something in our mind/body or because meditation facilitates the removal of something from our mind. My own experience is like a water tank - when I meditate regularly it is like I have access to reserves of perspective and insight and calm. If I reduce my practice it's like the tank empties. This would support the idea that meditation "brings something into my mind" that requires continued practice to remain. I'm curios about this - what is meditation "bringing/removing and why does it require continued practice"?.
    Michael Adeney

    1. Thanks Michael, great question. Meditation does several things. It helps us let go of destructive (or negative) thoughts and emotions, helps us to regain our natural balance which leads to all the life affirming states of mind, and it does generate constructive (or positive ) emotions and states of mind. Something for everyone really! No wonder it is so useful.
      Obviously, when it "fills your tank" , it makes sense to maintain a regular practice, although some say it is possible to reach a stage where the "positive" states become stable and unshakeable.
      happy meditating.

  2. As usual, thank you Ian. That really is quite fascinating about the 2 types of happiness ie one based on internal contentment and the other dependent on externalities. Thank goodness "meditation delivers" on the first. Jane

  3. Hi Ian,
    every now and then a particular passage from a blog seems to resonate with me.
    One such passage is about the two kinds of happiness, 2/06/14 blog.
    Boy, this was like a kick in head for me. I've always had hefty levels of hedonic happiness, but thankfully, since beating prostate cancer and successfully controlling CLL, I've come to have a strong desire to help others, only now I recognise what has happened.
    Thank you once again.

  4. What a great thing to have changed in one lifetime! And to be aware of it - well done Graham, enjoy your new state of mind!