An April 2015 pilot study published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) is the latest in a line of research studies with profound implications for cancer prevention.
A team of researchers examined what changes in gene expression occurred when a group of 48 people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) practiced mind-body techniques that evoked the Relaxation Response, over a period of nine weeks.
First described by Herbert Benson, MD in the mid-1970s, the Relaxation Response can be thought of as the opposite of the “Fight/Flight” response. While “Fight/Flight” is characterized by a hyper-alert (sympathetic) nervous system, the Relaxation Response is characterized by a calming of the nervous system. The Relaxation Response can be evoked through a variety of methods, including breath awareness, guided imagery, meditation and yoga. A large body of research associates regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response with reduced symptoms in a variety of chronic illnesses.
Newer studies are delving deeper, to examine the mechanisms by which the Relaxation Response produces its benefits. Bloodwork from the April 2015 study participants demonstrated significant beneficial changes in the expression of over 100 genes in participants with IBD, and over 1000 genes in participants with IBS who regularly practiced the Relaxation Response. These changes confirmed the findings of earlier studies, which revealed that the Relaxation Response unwinds changes in gene expression that account for the harmful effects of stress. [1,2,3]
In particular, the April 2015 study contributes further evidence that the Relaxation Response reduces expression of protein complex Nuclear Factor kappa beta (NFkB). NFkB is a key regulator of immune function, cell proliferation and cell survival. Overexpression of NFkB has been linked to the development of cancer through promotion of inflammation, increased damage to DNA, increased cell proliferation and suppression of cell death.  NFkB’s contribution to cancer initiation and progression is so well documented that it is has become one of the most promising targets for development of new cancer treatment.
Larger, controlled studies are needed to confirm this study’s findings on the relationship of the Relaxation Response and NFkB. But during the many years it may take to develop treatment based on NFkB regulation, it’s exciting to think that each of us already has access to an effective method for regulating our gene expression in a way that’s highly protective against cancer. It’s easy and doesn’t require special equipment or cost us anything. All we need to do is get good at activating our Relaxation Response.
1 Bhasin MK et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS One, 2013:8. PMID: 23650531
2 Creswell JD et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun 2012:26(7). PMID: 22820409
3 Dusek JA et al. Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response, PLoS One, 2008:3 PMID: 18596974
4 For more on how NFkB promotes cancer, see Goepp, J, MD, “What is Nuclear Factor-Kappa Beta?” in Life Extension magazine, July 2006