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

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.

Are You As Busy As You Think?

November 4th, 2012 by

“When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else — we are the busiest people in the world.” – Eric Hoffer –

 

“I’m too busy to meditate.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this statement. My response is usually “You’re too busy not to meditate.” This Wall Street Journal article by Linda Vanderkam really goes to the heart of the “too busy” mindset.

Image (c) Moyan Brenn

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.

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

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