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

October 2nd, 2016 by

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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

Mindfulness On The Go: Apps and Audio to Facilitate Your Meditation Practice

April 3rd, 2015 by

The technological age is amazing! From apps to podcasts to audio books and videos, everything we need or want to learn is just a Google or YouTube search away. We also have remotes for just about everything to up our convenience factor. With mindfulness having been profiled in both Time magazine and on 60 Minutes, people want to learn how to practice mindfulness (yes, it takes regular practice), and how to make practice more convenient. Dozens of mindfulness apps have emerged in the past few years that include guided meditations, information for beginners, timers, and reminders to become “present” throughout the day. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find an app that is straightforward yet dynamic enough to facilitate mindfulness practice for both beginning and seasoned meditators without too many distracting bells and whistles. Below are three rock-star mindfulness apps to consider trying, as well as a few other recommendations if apps feel too fussy for you.

Apps

Insight Timer for Android, iPhone, and iPad is my personal favorite! As a meditation timer, it allows you to set your practice time for however long you like. In addition, it has many other features that make it really special. Among these is a selection of beautiful Tibetan bell tones. Select your favorite to not only alert you when your session is over, but also as an “interval timer” to alert you during your session to bring your attention back “to the present” if it has wandered). You can set the duration for your session for as few as 5 minutes up to several hours. You can meditate in silence, or listen to one of eighty guided meditations led by internationally noted teachers (including several of my teachers).

What I love is the app logs the duration and frequency of my practice sessions, and gives me “milestones” that show me the number of accumulated sessions and days practiced. The app rewards you for consistency, and seeing your stars accumulate is great encouragement to continue your practice (not to mention all the quality of life and health benefits you’ll be noticing!)

Another great feature is seeing a real-time world map that displays everyone across the globe meditating with the app. You can also join groups based on mindfulness traditions, location, and interests, or create your own group and invite “friends”. If you want a simple, elegant app that will guide you into the practice of mindfulness, keep you motivated, and connect you with the worldwide community of mindfulness meditators, this is the app for you! Free.  InsightTimer.com

Stop, Breathe, & Think is an app for iPhone and Android offering several basic meditation exercises that vary in length and type, including a mindfulness mediation, loving-kindness meditation, and body scan practice. There is also an emotional awareness component that prompts you to input your emotions and then makes relevant suggestions for meditation practices. Free.  StopBreatheThink.org

The Mindfulness App for iPhone and Android made it on a few Best Mindfulness App lists for 2014 thanks to its no-frills format and dynamic session options. It offers guided meditations spanning anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes as well as silent meditation sessions that the user is alerted to begin by the sound of gentle bells. The user can, of course, set reminders for guided meditation sessions as well, and can even personalize his session. $1.99 Mindapps.se

For those looking for brief, consistent guided meditation sessions, Headspace (on-the-go) is a convenient option. The app provides 10-minute meditation sessions starting with a short body scan and then a guided meditation focusing on the breath. Animated explanations of the inner workings of the mind, as well as mindfulness tips, are included as well as reminders and tracking options. $7.99/month Headspace.com

If apps aren’t your thing, many local libraries offer audio books and e-book downloads. Many mindfulness teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hahn have wonderful mindfulness books whose audio versions are easy enough to find at your local library or on Amazon.

 

 

 

Taking Mindfulness in Stride

December 23rd, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step. When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite automatic or “mindless.”

Walking meditation shares the same 2,500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation. Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.  The idea seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

Walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention on the four components of each step.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside. Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

Mindfulness Training & Therapeutic Yoga: Optimal Treatments for Insomnia

September 16th, 2014 by

I remember when chronic pain and obsessive worry kept me awake night after night. Typically, around 2 am, my mind was scanning the horizon like a lighthouse, searching for something to worry about. When it locked on it wouldn’t let go, mentally approaching the “problem” from every conceivable angle – until the alarm clock went off. Does this sound like you?  Are you exhausted day after day due to the inability to sleep? What would life be like if a good nights sleep was something you could count on? How about a life with more energy, better moods, improved concentration, and enhanced health? Sound good?

Restful sleep is a foundation of good physical and emotional health.  But many people lie awake nightly, or have difficulty returning to sleep once awakened.  Sleep medications can produce unwanted side effects, including dependency. Medications can also lose effectiveness over time. Is there a natural alternative that’s actually good for you, without side effects, and the effectiveness of which increases over time? There is!

Medical researchers are looking closely at mindfulness training due to the substantial benefits it offers for insomnia as well as a host of other health, quality of life, and productivity concerns. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but pain, anxiety, and depression – all magnified by stress – are also associated with sleeplessness. Researchers are studying why mindfulness training offers such valuable relief for insomnia.

Jeff Greeson, PhD, MS, clinical health psychologist at Duke University explains, “When we don’t know what to do with intrusive and persistent thoughts, the mind and body feel threatened. That signals the ‘fight or flight’ response which starts a cascade of sleep-robbing emotions like agitation and anxiety.” Greeson’s study of 151 sleep deprived adults, mostly women, who received 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training in mindfulness techniques and gentle yoga, showed significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and less daytime sleepiness. “When people become more mindful they learn to look at life through a new lens. They learn how to accept the presence of thoughts and feelings that may keep them up at night. They begin to understand that they don’t have to react to them. As a result, they experience greater emotional balance and less sleep disturbance.”

Stress is so pervasive today. People worry about the economy, their jobs, bills. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase the risk of illness and disease,” explains Greeson. “When the mind worries, the body responds.” The key, he says, is not to push those thoughts away, but to acknowledge them “That helps people manage their reaction to stress and anxiety and helps them remain calm.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego compared mindfulness training with sleep medication in two groups. One received the 8-week MBSR program. The other was prescribed the sleep medication Lunesta™. The MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, increased their total sleep time, reported no adverse events, and scored their satisfaction with treatment as high. Although the patients who received sleep medication obtained similar benefits, their treatment satisfaction scores were not high, most continued using sleeping pills, and several reported adverse events. Because MBSR produces no side effects, and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness extend far beyond sleep, the researchers encouraged people with insomnia, especially those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training with MBSR.

This year a study by Duke University and Aetna found mindfulness training to significantly improve sleep, stress, pain, and blood pressure. Researchers concluded that mindfulness training reduces stress by teaching people how to significantly shift their attention to the present moment, with a curious and non-judgmental perspective.

If you’re lying awake night after night with a busy or worrying mind, you may already be feeling the effects – from chronic fatigue to more significant health consequences. Imagine a life with more energy, and the feeling of being well-rested and alert!  You can learn time-tested practices that will reverse the cycle of sleeplessness. Mindfulness training can improve the quality of your sleep, your health, and your life  – no pills, no side effects, no dependency.

 

 

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.

How Mindfulness Can Help Your Brain Manage Pain

January 19th, 2013 by

Although medications and, at times, surgical and other interventions can be important tools for pain management, too often they fail to completely relieve pain. Furthermore, drugs and procedures do not directly impact how people cope with symptoms that may not be curable.

How does mindfulness help with pain and coping?

  • Pain is a brain-centered experience in that our brains control how we experience any sensory input from our nervous system. In other words, without a brain, we could not “interpret” pain as such.
  • There is considerable overlap between the structures in the brain that process pain and those that process the emotional experience of pain, its degree of severity, and the meaning we give to pain and how well we cope with it. So our emotions and thoughts about pain can either improve or worsen the experience of it (which is good news and bad).
  • Mindfulness is a simple practice that has been shown to change the activity in areas of the brain that process pain severity and unpleasantness, improving both.

What’s the evidence? . . . Read more of this article from Traci Stein, PhD and expert contributor to GoodTherapy.org. . . 

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.

Training a More Laid-Back Brain

September 22nd, 2012 by

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn’t involve chanting “Om” while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, “without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Read more of this article by Meryl Davids Landau for U. S. News & World Report.

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)

Get Your ZZZ’s Naturally: Mindfulness training & therapeutic yoga are optimal treatments for insomnia

April 15th, 2012 by

I remember when chronic pain and obsessive worry kept me awake night after night. Typically, around 2 am, my mind was scanning the horizon like a lighthouse, searching for something to worry about. When it locked on it wouldn’t let go, mentally approaching the “problem” from every conceivable angle – until the alarm clock went off. Does this sound like you?  Are you exhausted day after day due to the inability to sleep? What would life be like if a good nights sleep was something you could count on? How about a life with more energy, better moods, improved concentration, and enhanced health? Sound good?

Restful sleep is a foundation of good physical and emotional health.  But many people lie awake nightly, or have difficulty returning to sleep once awakened.  Sleep medications can produce unwanted side effects, including dependency. Medications can also lose effectiveness over time. Are there natural alternatives that are actually good for you, without side effects, the effectiveness of which increase over time? There are!

Medical researchers are looking closely at mindfulness training and therapeutic yoga due to the substantial benefits they offer for insomnia as well as a host of other health, quality of life, and productivity concerns. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but pain, anxiety, and depression – all magnified by stress – are also associated with sleeplessness. Researchers are studying why mindfulness training and therapeutic yoga offer such valuable relief for insomnia.

Jeff Greeson, PhD, MS, clinical health psychologist at Duke University explains, “When we don’t know what to do with intrusive and persistent thoughts, the mind and body feel threatened. That signals the ‘fight or flight’ response which starts a cascade of sleep-robbing emotions like agitation and anxiety.” Greeson’s study of 151 sleep deprived adults, mostly women, who received 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training in mindfulness techniques and gentle yoga, showed significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and less daytime sleepiness. “When people become more mindful they learn to look at life through a new lens. They learn how to accept the presence of thoughts and feelings that may keep them up at night. They begin to understand that they don’t have to react to them. As a result, they experience greater emotional balance and less sleep disturbance.”

Stress is so pervasive today. People worry about the economy, their jobs, bills. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase the risk of illness and disease,” explains Greeson. “When the mind worries, the body responds.” The key, he says, is not to push those thoughts away, but to acknowledge them “That helps people manage their reaction to stress and anxiety and helps them remain calm.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego compared mindfulness training with sleep medication in two groups. One received the 8-week MBSR program. The other was prescribed the sleep medication Lunesta™. The MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, increased their total sleep time, reported no adverse events, and scored their satisfaction with treatment as high. Although the patients who received sleep medication obtained similar benefits, their treatment satisfaction scores were not high, most continued using sleeping pills, and several reported adverse events. Because MBSR produces no side effects, and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness extend far beyond sleep, the researchers encouraged people with insomnia, especially those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training with MBSR.

This year a study by Duke University and Aetna compared mindfulness training with therapeutic yoga and found both to significantly improve sleep, stress, pain, and blood pressure. Researchers said mindfulness training reduces stress by teaching people how to significantly shift their attention to the present moment, with a curious and non-judgmental perspective. Viniyoga, the therapeutic form of yoga examined in this study, utilizes tools for managing stress, including “asanas” (physical postures of yoga), adaptation of asanas to suit the individual’s body, breathing techniques, guided relaxation, mental techniques, and education about starting a home practice.

Mindfulness and therapeutic Viniyoga have dramatically improved the quality of my sleep, as well as virtually every aspect of my life. I would love to speak with you about incorporating these wonderful practices into your life!

References

Mindfulness Training Improves Sleep Quality; Lessens Need for Sleep Medicines. Duke Medicine News and Communications. June 25, 2009.

Gross CR, et. al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction v. Pharmacotherapy for Primary Chronic Insomnia: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 7(2): 76-87, 2011.

Wolever, RQ, et. al. Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. February 20, 2012.

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