By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Theories differ as to how meditation might boost telomeres and telomerase, but most likely it reduces stress. The practice involves slow, regular breathing, which may relax us physically by calming the fight-or-flight response. It probably has a psychological stress-busting effect too. Being able to step back from negative or stressful thoughts may allow us to realize that these are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality but passing, ephemeral events. It also helps us to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.” – Jo Marchant
One of the most exciting findings in molecular biology in recent years was the discovery of the telomere. This is a component of the DNA molecule that is attached to the ends of the strands. Recent genetic research has suggested that the telomere and its regulation is the biological mechanism that produces aging. It has been found that the genes, coded on the DNA molecule, govern cellular processes in our bodies. One of the most fundamental of these processes is cell replication. Cells are constantly turning over. Dying cells or damaged are replaced by new cells. The cells turn over at different rates but most cells in the body are lost and replaced between every few days to every few months. Needless to say we’re constantly renewing ourselves.
As we age the tail of the DNA molecule called the telomere shortens. When it gets very short cells have a more and more difficult time reproducing and become more likely to produce defective cells. On a cellular basis this is what produces aging. As we get older the new cells produced are more and more defective. The shortening of the telomere occurs each time the cell is replaced. So, slowly as we age it gets shorter and shorter. This has been called a “mitotic clock.” This is normal. But, telomere shortening can also be produced by oxidative stress, which can be produced by psychological and physiological stress. This is mediated by stress hormones and the inflammatory response. So, chronic stress can accelerate the aging process. In other words, when we’re chronically stressed we get older faster.
Fortunately, there is a mechanism to protect the telomere. There is an enzyme in the body called telomerase that helps to prevent shortening of the telomere. It also promotes cell survival and enhances stress-resistance. Research suggests that processes that increase telomerase activity tend to slow the aging process by protecting the telomere. One activity that seems to increase telomerase activity and protect telomere length is mindfulness practice. Hence, engaging in mindfulness practices may protect the telomere and thereby slow the aging process. This predicts that long-term meditators will have longer telomeres than non-meditators of comparable ages.
In today’s Research News article “Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion.” See:
Alda and colleagues investigated this idea and extended it by looking at what psychological changes might be produced by meditation that act to protect the telomere. They recruited long-term meditators (at least 10 years of continuous practice) and a group of age, gender, and life-style matched control participants. They were assessed for telomere length, mindfulness, health, psychiatric issues, experiential avoidance, self-compassion, anxiety and depression.
They found that the expert meditators had nearly 10% longer telomeres than the comparison group. The expert meditators also had significantly higher mindfulness, resilience, satisfaction with life, subjective happiness, self-compassion, humanity, and lower experiential avoidance, anxiety, and depression. Using a sophisticated statistical technique (Stepwise multiple regression) they found that telomere length was longer with younger age, lower experiential avoidance (avoiding emotions and the present moment), and higher humanity (seeing one’s failures as due to their humanity).
These are interesting and important findings. They replicate the previous findings that meditation practice is associated with longer telomeres. This suggests that meditation may increase healthfulness and longevity. They also suggest that the important effects of meditation for increasing telomere length are increasing emotion regulation, focus on the present moment, and understanding one’s human fallibility. In other words, it appears that meditation helps the individual have a healthier relationship with their lives and existence and this improves the biological markers of health and longevity.
It should be kept in mind that these results are correlational, only documenting associations. They do not demonstrate that meditation caused the differences in telomeres. But, previous research has manipulated the amount of meditation and found that it did indeed produce longer telomeres. It is reasonable to conclude that the relationships seen by Alda and colleagues are reflective of this causal process.
So, meditate to improve longevity by producing a healthier relationship with existence.
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time, we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” – Linda Carlson
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Alda M, Puebla-Guedea M, Rodero B, Demarzo M, Montero-Marin J, Roca M, Garcia-Campayo J. Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion. Mindfulness (N Y). 2016;7:651-659. Epub 2016 Feb 22.
Mindfulness refers to an awareness that emerges by intentionally focusing on the present experience in a nonjudgmental or evaluative manner. Evidence regarding its efficacy has been increasing exponentially, and recent research suggests that the practice of meditation is associated with longer leukocyte telomere length. However, the psychological mechanisms underlying this potential relationship are unknown. We examined the telomere lengths of a group of 20 Zen meditation experts and another 20 healthy matched comparison participants who had not previously meditated. We also measured multiple psychological variables related to meditation practice. Genomic DNA was extracted for telomere measurement using a Life Length proprietary program. High-throughput quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization (HT-Q-FISH) was used to measure the telomere length distribution and the median telomere length (MTL). The meditators group had a longer MTL (p = 0.005) and a lower percentage of short telomeres in individual cells (p = 0.007) than those in the comparison group. To determine which of the psychological variables contributed more to telomere maintenance, two regression analyses were conducted. In the first model, which applied to the MTL, the following three factors were significant: age, absence of experiential avoidance, and Common Humanity subscale of the Self Compassion Scale. Similarly, in the model that examined the percentage of short telomeres, the same factors were significant: age, absence of experiential avoidance, and Common Humanity subscale of the Self Compassion Scale. Although limited by a small sample size, these results suggest that the absence of experiential avoidance of negative emotions and thoughts is integral to the connection between meditation and telomeres.