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

Mindful Eating and Self Compassion

June 6th, 2014 by

Mindful eating is as common a practice at many monasteries, meditation retreats, and Zen centers as walking or sitting meditation. Like the more formal mindfulness meditations, mindful eating is a practice of presence, noticing sensations, and observing one’s surroundings. In the monastic setting, practitioners enter dining halls silently, bow to their food to acknowledge the farmers who grew it and the chefs who prepared it, then eat slowly and silently, bringing awareness to each mouthful of food. While we may not have the luxury to eat every meal in silence, we can incorporate some simple mindfulness practices into mealtime and move a more enjoyable relationship with food and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

Many of us have made it a practice to inhale our breakfast in the car on the way to work or distractedly eat dinner standing up while watching the news. Our attempts at a better relationship with food usually involve strict, unpleasant dieting that feels more like punishment than health. Contrary to dieting, eating mindfully is not about restriction but about listening to our bodies, cultivating awareness of the present moment, and appreciating our meals. For those of us who eat as a stress release or coping mechanism, the practice of mindful eating provides us with the opportunity to face the normally unconscious, uncomfortable feelings that drive us to eat when we do not need or want to eat. We discover that what we are truly hungering for is not food, but a way to satisfy some other kind of hunger: emotional hunger, for example. The reason we are typically unsatisfied after eating and seem to experience endless hunger is that we have not given ourselves the opportunity to fully taste and enjoy our meals, have not made ourselves available to the body’s cues of satisfaction or hunger, and most importantly have not addressed the discomfort that we are compelled to suppress by eating. Instead of ignoring our feelings, punishing our bodies, and squelching the opportunity to enjoy our meals multiple times a day, we can bring awareness and healing to the experience of eating.

By practicing mindful eating, we do not need to binge because we are choosing to consciously address our feelings instead of stuffing them down with food. We no longer need to diet because by fine-tuning our relationship with the body and mind we automatically make healthier choices. Slowing down to fully experience our meals also invites us to become aware of the beauty and richness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the time and care it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and prepare before it reaches our mouths. We bring awareness to our connectedness to the earth, the plants, animals, and people, and we can abide in our open-heartedness towards all of life, including ourselves.

Simple Mindful Eating Practices to Incorporate Each Day

  1. Sit, Breathe, Eat
    As much as possible, get in the habit of sitting down to eat. When you sit, feel the weight of your body on the chair. Check in with yourself: what sensations are happening in the body? Before lifting your fork, take several deep breaths. Notice the feeling of the breath entering and leaving your body. Say a little blessing or grace before beginning your meal; thank the earth and elements, the farmers that grew your food, and yourself for taking the time to nourish your body and spirit.
  2. Chew Your Food
    It’s incredible how quickly we can gulp down food after hardly chewing. As difficult as it may be at first, commit to taking one bite at a time putting down your fork in between bites, and fully chewing your food. Doing this will allow you to fully taste and enjoy your food and will also give your body time to cue your brain that it’s time to stop when you are full.
  3. Eat Until You are Satisfied
    Even if you do not do this with every meal, as a practice once daily commit to eating only until you feel moderately (or two-thirds) full. What happens when you do this? Notice the feelings that arise when you stop yourself from automatically reaching for another mouthful of food. Observe how your body feels five, twenty, sixty minutes after this practice.

photo credit Andy Newson via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Live Long and Thrive: How Mindfulness Slows the Aging Process

May 21st, 2014 by

Are you interested in something you can do for your self 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 our 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 one-way street. Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn of theUniversity 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 thr ough 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 compassi on 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 fromwww.nobelprize.org)

Epel, E. et. al. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cogniti
ve 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 psychologicalmediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010)

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.

Mindfulness & Connection: Key Components of Your Best Life

March 17th, 2012 by

During my graduate studies in Transpersonal Psychology I became intrigued with the idea of human connection and mindfulness as catalysts for healing and transformation. Something about today’s world of divisiveness and separation seemed fundamentally inconsistent with my own understanding of psychological health.  I wanted to find out just what are the key elements of healthy psychological development. I was surprised to learn that prior to the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, the primary model of psychological health was based exclusively on research involving only male subjects. As a result, attributes like autonomy, separation, and competition were assumed to be qualities of healthy psychological development, while the urge for connection and relationship (typical of the female experience) was seen as inferior and unhealthy.

Enter the Healing Power of Connection

In the 1970’s, when women entered the field of psychological research, this old and incomplete model was shown to be in error, and a new model of psychological well-being emerged. This new model, based on decades of current research involving male and female subjects, shows that the urge to connect is our essential human drive – not autonomy and separation. Growth-fostering relationships, those involving active participation in the development of others, are now understood to be the primary vehicle for psychological wellness. It’s easy to see how all of us – men, women, boys and girls – have suffered under the mistaken assumptions of the old model. In fact, it seems to me our world as a whole is suffering from a failure to comprehend the critical importance of connection, interdependence, and the healing power found in a network of relationships.

Mindfulness Opens the Door to Connection

The practice of mindfulness, which is the cultivation of our natural human skill for non-judgmental present moment awareness, is emerging from its ancient roots as a healing and wholesome way to live. Health-care, personal fitness, and wellness models are beginning to incorporate a holistic mind-body-spirit perspective in the services they offer for the prevention and treatment of disease, and mindfulness is the central feature. Unlike the “find it and fix it” healthcare model currently in existence, the new integrative model of healthcare, as practiced at many major academic medical centers, reflects elements of relationship, communication, spirituality, mindfulness, wholeness, nutrition, life meaning and purpose, personal development, and the mind-body connection. These elements correspond to what appears to be the public’s increased demand for holistic treatment, the trends toward a unified approach toward life, health, and personal/spiritual growth, and hopefully an indication of a larger pattern being reflected in the world at large.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week educational program, taught throughout the US and worldwide, which originated in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and was initially developed as a way to teach mindfulness practices to patients with chronic pain. During the thirty years since, this intensive program in mindfulness has been the subject of extensive research demonstrating significant benefits for people with chronic pain, anxiety, panic, psoriasis, prostate cancer, immune function, hot flashes, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, and psychological distress. The number of scholarly studies on mindfulness has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. Recent studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between mindfulness and emotional well-being, improvements in sleep quality, mood, and fatigue.

                  In my experience as a teacher of MBSR, I’ve observed that as practitioners develop the qualities of mindfulness  through meditative practice, they typically experience a decline in their reactivity to stress, and an improvement in their attentive communication skills. These developments are ideal catalysts for the creation and improvement of relationships. The qualities of mindfulness, which MBSR practitioners learn to cultivate, include trust, patience, acceptance, non-judgment, non-striving, letting go, and curiosity. Mindfulness practice initiates a ripple effect  – from the practitioner outward toward others. This ripple effect has a scientific basis which has gained attention in the fields of psychology and organizational management in the last decade. Known as limbic resonance, researchers in this field are examining the interrelationship between the activity of the brain’s limbic system, the non-verbal transmission of emotion, feelings of empathy and relatedness, and the methods by which we, as human beings, become attuned to the inner states of others with whom we are in close contact.

I’ve seen first hand  how the ripple effect transmits these qualities from practitioners  to others, and weaves a web of healthy connections. It is this web that supports the conditions for healing, growth, mutual support, engagement, and transformation. This, combined with the extensive body of research demonstrating the importance of social connections for health and longevity, demonstrates the immense value of mindfulness practice for our health and well-being.

References: 

Gilligan, C. (1982/1993). In a different voice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (1995). Hearing the difference: Theorizing connection. Hypatia, 10(2).

Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form connections in both therapy and in life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Florida Home to the World’s Oldest Yoga Teacher!

December 27th, 2011 by

As reported in this article by the Associated Press , Bernice Bates, age 91, of Pinellas Park, Florida, is now officially the world’s oldest yoga teacher. She’s been practicing for 50 years! Some of her students are in their 80’s. Wonderful article about this health-giving, life enhancing practice. Do it! It’s good for you!

 

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