Dr. Herbert Benson on Sleep and the Mind-Body Connection

It’s week four of the Sleep30 Challenge by Sleep Number! I’m so proud of all the work we’ve done to get here and it’s definitely not too late to join us. This week, mind-body medicine pioneer Dr. Herbert Benson is helping us manage our stress for better sleep. We first met when he was on the Today show, and my husband Jay was very sick. He sat with me in my office while I cried and gave me this mantra to repeat to myself to help with the trauma and sadness: “God, please heal thy servant, Jay.” Read below for our conversation about his work and his step-by-step guide to help all of us calm our minds and get a better night’s sleep…

Katie Couric: You’ve been a leader in Mind Body Medicine for more than forty years! What drew you to this work and what do you hope it can do for people?

Dr. Herbert Benson: I was finding I could not treat high blood pressure with medications at all and I wondered whether or not stress was involved. I believe that health and well-being should be dependent on three features – 1) pharmaceuticals 2) surgery and procedures and 3) self-care. With well over 60% of visits to healthcare professionals being due to stress, we need mind body approaches integrated into our healthcare system as a measure of prevention and wellness.

We all know how difficult it is to get a good night’s sleep when we’re stressed, but can you help us understand why exactly that is from a physiological perspective?

The stress response can affect hormone productivity of the nervous system (specifically production of the hormone cortisol), which directly impacts the brain and sleep. When we are stressed, we also have poorer quality of sleep which further enhances stress as negative feedback.

You developed the technique known as the “relaxation response.” Can you tell us what that is and how you were able to identify it?

The Relaxation Response (RR) is the opposite of the stress response, or “fight or flight” response. This is an inborn capacity that counteracts the physiology and genetic changes of stress. During stress, the body experiences increased metabolism, heart rate, rate of breathing and brain wave activity. During the RR, the changes are the opposite.

People have been evoking the RR for millennia, starting with yoga and meditation. We defined the RR by studying meditation, but it is but one of scores of techniques that bring this about and allow the body to combat the harmful effects of stress.

And what’s the connection between the “relaxation response” and sleep?

When people evoke the RR during the day, slower brain waves are stimulated, making it easier to turn off stress so that sleep can be brought about.

Can you take us through the steps that you recommend to practice mindfulness and achieve a “relaxation response?”

To achieve the RR, one has to break the train of everyday thinking; this is most frequently done by the repetition of a word, sound, prayer or phrase and to disregard other thoughts when they come to mind. It should be practiced once or twice daily for 10 or so minutes, often before breakfast.

When you evoke the RR, it takes your mind off daily worries and alleviates stress. It also affects a number of changes in your genes’ activity – and these are the genes that include energy, inflammation and insulin production.

How long does it generally take for someone to develop these techniques well enough to see a difference in their stress and, ultimately, their sleep patterns?

When we evoke the RR, we can begin to feel its calming effects immediately. But for the long-term, genomic effects to take place, daily practice is necessary.  Some people can achieve those physiologic changes as soon as they begin practicing the RR, but for most people, it normally takes about one week to improve their sleep. Your posture determines the outcome of the RR; when you evoke RR while seated, you are able to reduce stress. When you evoke RR lying down, you are often able to achieve sleep.

Mindfulness and meditation has become so popular in recent years, but you first developed this technique in the 1970s…what was the response in the medical community and in the public back then? Are you heartened by the growing acceptance of mindfulness since that time?

For hundreds of years, the medical community had separated mind from body, so there was resistance to this clear, mind body effect. As the years progressed and the scientific changes were proven valid, prevailing opinions have shifted in the medical community. Harvard Medical School, which was not largely supportive of my early research, now requires all first-year students to take our stress management and resiliency training course.

Among the public, many people who were using excessive medications and under great stress almost immediately recognized the value of the RR. And The Relaxation Response became an instant New York Times best-seller because people needed a way to take control of their own health.

Do you think we all possess the ability to sleep better if we’re able to curb our anxieties and stress responses?

Yes. Stress has been proven to exacerbate all types of medical conditions from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome to cardiac arrhythmias and infertility. To the extent that a disorder is caused by stress, the RR is a useful intervention.