Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Slow Aging? The powerful link between mind and body

October 2nd, 2016 by

dna-163466_1280

Meditation has a lot of benefits for those who practice regularly. New studies are suggesting that meditation can even help slow down the complicated process of aging. While the work is still new, it’s quite interesting and finds support in a wide variety of studies.

People vary widely in how they age. One marker of biological age seems to be “telomere” length – the length of the protective protein caps at the ends of the chromosomes housed in each of our cells. The longer the telomeres, the more times a chromosome can replicate itself without errors. Shorter telomeres are correlated with weaker immune function, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and other problems of old age. “Telomerase” is an enzyme that helps keep our telomeres long and healthy, slowing cellular aging. The correlation between cellular aging and bodily aging is still being studied, but new correlations are coming to light.

Many things can cause the shortening of telomeres – primarily, of course, time. The protective protein caps naturally wear down as cells divide and renew themselves, something all cells do. However, research is showing that having a regular meditation practice seems to have a protective effect on this wearing down process thus preserving the length of our telomeres. While the popular idea that your entire body renews itself over seven to ten years isn’t quite true, it’s pretty close – only a few types of cells don’t renew, and some (like heart cells) renew extremely slowly. Lifestyle factors that seem to accelerate telomere shortening include poor diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Stress is another major factor in shortening telomeres. We know that too much stress is bad for us (as is too little: everyone needs some challenge in life!). Stressful thoughts – such as constantly perceiving threats and ruminating – can lead to prolonged periods of reactivity and chronic stress. In contrast, mindfulness meditation increases positive mental and emotional states, including being able to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat. Various studies are linking mindfulness with increased telomere length.

A pilot study of 39 caregivers compared one group who practiced daily meditation to another group who listened relaxing music, and found that the meditators had better cognitive functioning, less depression, and improved telomerase activity after eight weeks. While these results need to be confirmed in a larger sample, they are promising signs that meditation can be helpful for longevity as well as your mental state.

Higher objective stress is associated with shorter telomeres, leading researchers to conclude that higher objective stress actually ages our cells. Fascinatingly, higher perceived stress leads to even shorter telomeres, thus illustrating the powerful influence of our thoughts on the body. Because meditation helps us change our perception of stress, it also changes the physical effects of the same objective amount of stress, even at the cellular level.

A UCSF study of early-stage prostate cancer patients showed that lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, stress-management (including meditation) and social support – over five years lengthened telomeres by 10% The control group, who didn’t experience the lifestyle interventions, had telomeres that averaged 3% shorter than at the beginning of the study. While the study was very small, it’s quite intriguing! The researchers believe that the findings should hold for healthy individuals, as well.

We’ve long known that mindfulness meditation can help keep us young by encouraging mental flexibility and inner peace. How amazing that it can also keep us physically young by helping our cells renew!

Mindfulness Practices
Awareness of Breath Meditation
Body Scan (Similar to “Yoga Nidra”)
Gentle Yoga
Walking Meditation
Tai Chi / Qigong

Rx: Meditate in Nature – Wide open spaces are good for the body and mind.

March 28th, 2016 by

footpath-691021_1280

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree. He was outside, in nature, when he attained enlightenment – not inside a monastery or palace. Whether you believe the story to be myth or history, people have long known that there is wisdom, serenity, and balance in nature.

The Science of Green

Research, too, shows that green spaces bring benefits to people, more than just being outside. You don’t have to travel miles away from everyone — even your local park can help. A recent study compared walking in an urban park versus walking through urban streets and found participants had lower heart rates, lower anxiety, and greater subjective well-being after just fifteen minutes walking through a park. In another study walkers fitted with mobile EEG sensors were significantly less stressed when they strolled through green space than when they ambled through shopping or commercial districts.

In Japan, walking through the forest is known as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. Research has shown that it improves cortisol levels, heart rate variability, blood pressure, sleeplessness, mood, and other markers of stress. Researchers looked at the components of a forest bathing experience, including sight, smell, sound, and touch, all of which show benefits.

We often meditate indoors. It’s convenient and eliminates some distractions. The outdoor environment is less controlled. There could be traffic noise or kids playing or it might even start raining! While there doesn’t yet seem to be research that directly compares meditating indoors to meditating outdoors, every contemplative tradition includes meditation in nature, in both stories and prescribed practices. Given the evidence-based benefits of both meditation and nature, it stands to reason that we can reap significant benefits by meditating outdoors.

Try Walking Meditation

Any meditation that can be performed indoors can be performed outdoors, as long as you have a suitable space. While you may already be familiar with sitting meditation, the natural world is ideal for walking meditation. Most of the time, we use walking as a means to get somewhere. The hustle and bustle of the street, the hard concrete of sidewalks, our everyday shoes all serve to keep us moving.

A walking meditation, by contrast, has no destination. Wear comfortable shoes, or if the ground is safe go barefoot. Begin by centering yourself. Feel the ground beneath your feet, the air stirring around you, the sunlight or fog on your skin. Keep your gaze softly focused ahead of you. When you begin walking, the pace is not important, but awareness is. Walk at the pace that best allows you to be fully present. Feel the muscles in your hips and legs and feet as you lift each foot and replace it gently on the ground. Just as in sitting meditation, your attention will wander. That’s ok; the value doesn’t come in having perfect concentration, but in continually bringing your attention back to the present moment. Use the feeling of taking your next step to gently anchor your attention into the here and now. Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood, California notes, “I sometimes find it restful to think of letting my body take me for a walk.”

Realize You Are a Part of the Natural World

When I was working on my Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology in Boulder Colorado, our professors took my class into the outdoors for an experiential exercise. Each of us went on our own solitary “walkabout” in the gorgeous foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After a time of walking, sensing, and savoring the beauty and serenity of the natural world, I sat down to meditate among the wildflowers. My experience then is best described as completing a jigsaw puzzle by inserting the last piece that completes the picture. At first it seemed as though the pieces of the surrounding natural environment all fit together perfectly – it was only “I“ that was the last missing piece. I felt separate. However, as I continued to meditate – patiently returning my attention to the immediate experience of the present moment – it felt as though my mental idea of “I” – that concept that separated me from everything else – dissolved. Only then did the last piece of the puzzle find its home in the living experience that surrounded me. All was one. I was no longer separate from nature. I was part of it.

Some Practices to Do Outdoors

Sitting Meditation
Walking Meditation
Yoga
Qigong
Tai Chi

UW study shows benefits of mindfulness meditation for inflammation

May 4th, 2013 by

While interest in mindfulness meditation as a stress reliever has grown through the years, there’s been little evidence to support that it helps those suffering from chronic inflammation conditions in which psychological stress plays a major role. Until now. A new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists suggests mindfulness meditation techniques may help people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. Read more from this article by By Keren Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Wall Street Journal: To Cut Office Stress, Try Butterflies and Meditation?

October 15th, 2012 by

Job pressures are the No. 2 cause of stress after financial worries, a recent survey shows. And while most of us struggle to manage the stress of a demanding boss or a mounting workload on our own, savvy employers are stepping in to help both their employees and their own bottom line. The research is incontrovertible: meditation reduces stress, improves employee health and productivity, decreases health care costs and absenteeism. Read about the growing number of companies offering meditation training for reducing workplace stress in this article from the Wall Street Journal. 

Mindfulness in the Modern World: An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn

October 9th, 2012 by

An absorbing interview with the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a pioneer in bringing the gift of mindfulness to the Western world.

Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain?

July 15th, 2012 by

Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

Chronic pain affects 30 to 40 million U.S. adults, costing an estimated $600 billion a year. But researchers have learned more about the physiology of pain in the past ten years than in the previous thousand. Pain is created by the brain in response to what it thinks is a threat. Contrary to previous thought, there isn’t just one pain center in the brain, there are many, according to Pain Explained, a publication of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute (NOI) of South Australia. “These parts include clusters of nodes used for sensation, movement, emotions, and memory, and they all link up to each other electrically and chemically.” In chronic pain, some of these nodes are hijacked or enslaved by the pain experience. While this is a complex process, one primary feature of chronic pain is hypersensitivity in the body’s alarm system of sensory neurons whose function is to send “danger” messages to the brain, particularly in the presence of inflammation.

Injured body tissue has a fairly specific window of time for healing. However, pain can persist even when the injury has had time to heal. This typically happens because the body’s natural alarm system becomes hyper-vigilant and abnormally sensitive, sending exaggerated “danger” signals. The brain’s faulty interpretation of these signals becomes deeply ingrained and persistent. “This can mean just touching the skin, or a slight temperature change, might cause the body’s sensors to send danger messages to the brain.” The brain incorrectly concludes that a threat remains, and that you need all the protection you can get. It produces pain, which is the body/mind’s normal way of motivating you to “get away” or escape from the “danger”. According to the NOI, brain responses such as movements, thoughts, autonomic and endocrine responses are then based on faulty information about the health of the tissues at the end of the nerve cells. “It’s as though an amplifier on a sound system is turned up.”

Thought Viruses Maintain the Chronic Pain Cycle

Thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too, and part of the chronic pain loop. As the NOI explains, “the brain has learned to be very good at protecting you from anything that might be dangerous to your tissues. “Anxious and worrisome thoughts are threatening to a brain that is already hyper-vigilant about your survival.” Research has identified thought processes – “thought viruses” – powerful enough to maintain a pain state. Some powerful thought viruses include:

I’m in pain so there must be something harmful happening to my body,”

“I’m staying home and not going out until all the pain goes away,” and

“I’m so frightened of my pain and of injuring my back again that I’m not doing anything!”

Meditation Helps Chronic Pain Sufferers Diminish “Thought Viruses”

People who practice mindfulness meditation find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, according to a 2010 study. Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered that regular meditators show unusual activity during anticipation of pain in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in controlling attention and thought processes when potential threats are perceived. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse,” said the lead researcher. The value of meditation is that it soothes the hypersensitive threat/alarm/danger system at play in chronic pain.

Depressive Thoughts Make Pain Worse

In new study at the University of Oxford, researchers induced a depressed mood in study participants and found this disrupted the neural circuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced experience of pain. Researchers believe that a sad mental state disables our ability to regulate the negative emotion associated with pain. Thus, pain has a greater impact. “Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.” Mindfulness meditation is beneficial in preventing the relapse of depression by strengthening the practitioner’s ability to recognize the physical, cognitive, and emotional effects of depressive thoughts, and to proactively “decenter” from those thoughts.

Communication in the Brain Affects Pain

A 2012 Northwestern University study is the first to show that chronic pain develops the more two sections of the brain – related to emotional and motivational behavior – talk to each other. The more the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens communicate, the greater the chance a patient will develop chronic pain. “The nucleus accumbens is an important center for teaching the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react  . . . . and may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain,” said the study’s senior author.

With this knowledge of how and why chronic pain develops, and with training in mindfulness meditation, you have tools for influencing patterns of thought and emotion that may be driving your pain. Mindfulness meditation is a complementary practice which can enhance standard medical treatment by your healthcare provider. You can proactively change the vicious cycle of chronic pain.

References:

Explain Pain, Neuro Orthopaedic Institue, Noigroup Publications, South Australia 2003, 2010. www.noigroup.com

University of Manchester (2010, June 2). Meditation reduces the emotional impact of pain, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100602091315.htm

Elsevier (2010, June 7). Why does feeling low hurt? Depressed mood increases the perception of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100607111318.htm as reported in Science Daily (June 7, 2012

Northwestern University (2012, July 1). Why chronic pain is all in your head: Early brain changes predict which patients develop chronic pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com

American Gastroenterological Association (2011, September 19). Negative emotions influence brain activity during anticipation and experience of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/09/110919113842.htm

Image: nanny snowflake

Live Long and Thrive: How Mindfulness Slows the Aging Process

May 21st, 2012 by

Are you interested in something you can do for yourself to slow the aging process, and enhance the quality and length of your life? Then you’ll be interested in the emerging body of scientific research on stress, aging, and mindfulness, a practice correlated with a protective effect on our cells. By taking up a regular mindfulness practice you can improve your well-being, slow the aging process, and help protect yourself against the most common diseases of aging.

Chromosomes 101

At the heart of this story are chromosomes – the bundles of DNA in each of our cells – especially the tips, or end caps, of chromosomes called “telomeres”. Telomeres are like the protective ends on shoelaces that keep them from fraying.  Telomeres are necessary for a cell to divide in a healthy way. Each time a normal cell divides, the telomeres become shorter and shorter. Ultimately, the cell’s telomeres become so short it can no longer divide. The result is that the cell dies. Historically this shortening of telomeres was thought to be a one-way street: shorter telomeres meant the aging and death of cells, and eventually the living thing made up of these cells.

However, new research concludes that telomere shortening is neither inevitable, nor a one-way street.  Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues, discovered why. In 2009 they received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Telomerase – a protective enzyme in our cells that actually replenishes and lengthens telomeres. More telomerase means longer telomeres, and thus longer and healthier cell life, and presumably longer life for the organism. As you can imagine, the implication of Blackburn’s discovery for the treatment of age related disease, and the investigation of the aging process, is now growing rapidly.

Stress and Telomere Length

Many common diseases of aging are associated with shorter telomeres: cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, weakened immune system, and cardiovascular disease. Research has linked chronic stress to shortened telomere length. Interestingly, pessimism in post-menopausal women shortens telomeres as well. Chronic stress wears down our telomeres and causes our cells, and our bodies, to age and die more rapidly. But what happens to telomere length when we learn to positively change the way we manage stress? Studies now show that reducing stress and increasing positive states of mind, particularly through the practice of mindfulness, promotes telomere maintenance and lengthening!

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as taught in the 8-week program “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” or “MBSR,” is one of the most extensively studied methods for reducing stress and improving quality of life and overall health. Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, without judgment. It’s considered an inherent aspect of human consciousness, and it can be strengthened through a variety of mental training techniques collectively known as mindfulness meditation.

How Does a Mindfulness Practice Result in Longer Telomeres?

The evidence reveals that mindfulness meditation practices are associated with increased levels of telomerase, the enzyme that protects, replenishes, and even lengthens telomeres. Researchers believe this is so because mindfulness promotes the adaptive regulation of emotion and reactivity, and is linked to greater psychological well-being. Mindfulness practice decreases rumination (the pattern of revisiting negative thoughts), while it increases the intensity and frequency of positive and pro-social emotions like empathy, kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

“We have found that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of [the chromosome protecting enzyme] Telomerase.” Clifford Saron, PhD University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain

Researchers believe that cultivating positive mental states, and decreasing negative moods and thinking, through a regular mindfulness practice, results in a “stress-buffering” benefit for our cells.  This positive change boosts our levels of telomerase which replenishes and lengthens telomeres and the life-span of our cells. In this way a mindfulness practice buffers cells against the long-term wear and tear effects of stress, and is thus believed to slow the rate of cellular aging.

References:

Blackburn, E. H. Telomeres and Telomerase: The means to the end. Nobel Lecture by Elizabeth H. Blackburn, delivered December 7, 2009 at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm (retrieved from www.nobelprize.org)

Epel, E. et. al. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009 August; 1172: 34–53.

Jacobs, T. L. et. al. Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010)

How Does Stress Influence Disease? Inflammation

April 3rd, 2012 by

Most people are beginning to understand that stress is bad for us. But just what is it about stress that can make us more prone to disease? And why does stress make chronic health conditions worse? Researchers have now learned that stress adversely affects the body’s ability to regulate inflamation. Read more from Science Daily here.

Harvard University Declares Dairy NOT Part of a Healthy Diet

January 9th, 2012 by

If you want to learn more about what to include and exclude from your diet, consider eliminating (or at least minimizing) dairy. Harvard University disputes the recommendations of the USDA. One perspective is based on science, the other on the influence of agriculture lobbyists. Which do you believe?

 

Prevention Magazine’s 2011 Integrative Medicine Awards: The Best of the Best

December 30th, 2011 by

Acupuncture / acupressure, yoga, massage & mediation top Prevention Magazine’s 2011 list of stress-busters & preventative health therapies.

.