How relaxation can reverse biological aging and optimize epigenetic expression
Would you believe it if we said the more you relax, the longer you’ll live? Relaxation is an essential part of our natural rhythms, and something we need to pay more attention to.
Imagine an ocean wave – it wouldn’t be able to land on a beach without the preparatory phase of drawing in and building power and momentum. The same applies to us – without giving ourselves time to relax and restore we wouldn’t be able to perform at our best and withstand the daily stresses of life. Renowned cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sara Mednick states just this: “Restoration is incredibly important, and if we don’t focus on restoration, this is what leads us to grow old faster and to have chronic diseases.”
Although we’ve known for a while the health benefits of self-care, we’re now beginning to see it also has the incredible power to nudge DNA methylation, epigenetic expression, and subsequently biological aging – in a positive direction. Even a single practice that elicits a relaxation response can lead to favorable changes in DNA methylation patterns and take us out of the negative epigenetic pattern caused by stress. This could be anything from meditating, breathing, tai chi, and yoga, to weeding, cuddling, sharing a meal with a friend, and volunteering.
Stress and your genes
The beneficial link between the relaxation response and DNA methylation is likely related to a reduction in psychological and physiological stress. This is important because stress can have a powerful effect on genetic expression.
We get it – the world is a stressful place and stress makes it hard to focus on anything other than what is essential for survival. Yet, practices that reduce stress are vital for survival since they can reverse stress-induced epigenetic programming.
If you’re unsure whether stress is affecting you, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you yawning or sighing frequently?
- Feeling out of breath?
- Are your muscles sore?
- Struggling to find words?
- Constantly thinking, ruminating or talking?
- Do you chew your nails or pull your eyelashes?
- Are you experiencing frequent tension headaches?
- Having heart palpitations or pounding chest?
- Do you feel more sensitive to smells?
- Are certain odors bothering you?
- Do you quickly feel angry or overwhelmed?
The more questions you have ticked off as yes, the bigger the impact of stress. But remember: there is a lot you can do to mitigate the effects of stress and even a few minutes of relaxation can help restore optimal epigenetic expression and slow down aging.
Meditate to mitigate
One well-known way to mitigate the effects of stress is meditation. It helps with emotional regulation, supports healthy DNA methylation, and can even change the size of certain areas of the brain. Meditation also gives your brain a break from all the emails, texts, and to-dos that keep you in a stressed-out state.
A 2017 study found that long-term meditators had a younger biological age than people who had never or rarely meditated. And in 2020 researchers demonstrated that those who meditate, regardless of whether they were experienced or not, could favorably alter their DNA methylation patterns. In short: meditation can help you age in reverse and lower your risk of developing all major chronic diseases.
But meditation is not your only option. In 2019, researchers found that just sixty days of relaxation practice, be it meditation or listening to peaceful music, for twenty minutes twice per day significantly reduced biological age in healthy participants. Tai chi has also been found to significantly slow down age-related DNA methylation losses, and practicing yoga for just two hours a week can positively affect DNA methylation.
Make it a ritual
If all of the above inspires you to make relaxation a routine part of your day, here are a few tips to get started:
- Pick a practice that brings joy. Do you prefer to relax through gentle movement or in stillness? Music or quiet time? Guided meditation or group breathwork? You’ve got a sea of options, so make a list of what you would enjoy most.
- Find out what motivates you. What is your why? And what could help you build a consistent relaxation practice? Do you need company (even virtually)? Accountability? Flexibility? Reflect on what support you’ll need to build a lasting relaxation habit.
- Turn it into a daily ritual. We know that finding time to commit to a relaxation practice can be tricky, so thinking about your practice as a ritual that ties into your daily schedule could help. For example, you can do your relaxation practice right after waking up, just before going to bed, after the kids are off to school, after exercise, or before dinner. Tying it to something else you’re already doing—even brushing your teeth!—makes you much more likely to do it.
And don’t stress about getting it wrong. It’s no big deal if you miss a day; rather than throwing in the towel, choose to start again later or the following day. And if the whole idea of finding 20 minutes twice per day sounds overwhelming, it’s ok to work your way up. Start with as little as 3 minutes and be pleasantly surprised that you’re likely to keep going.
Need extra motivation? Let’s do it together!
As we’ve seen above, there are many practices that induce relaxation and support healthy DNA methylation, such as tai chi, yoga, qigong, breathwork, and other mindfulness practices. The best part is all of these can be done in groups either face-to-face or virtually. The community aspect of group settings can make it easier to stick to your relaxation practice and help you slip into a quiet, focused state—you can just ride the vibes in the (virtual) room! Group activities also have the added benefit of creating a sense of connection and community that’s also so vital to emotional, mental, and DNA methylation health.
This is why we created the 3YY digital program, based on Dr. Fitzgerald’s groundbreaking study and Younger You book. It offers a sense of community, accountability, support, and an outlet to troubleshoot problems, share wins, and get ideas. And of course, there are many relaxation and meditation apps that provide moment-by-moment guidance on how to meditate and track your sessions to keep you accountable. Some good ones include:
- Insight Timer
- University of Wisconsin’s Healthy Minds app (free and research-based)
No matter what relaxation practice you pick and where you fit it in your daily life – YOU, and your health, are worth that time.