You probably know that telomeres are the caps on the ends of our strings of DNA, and that they shorten with each cell division. When they’re completely gone, the cell no longer divides, and dies. That’s ageing for you! Our telomeres are believed to shorten more quickly with stress and illness. Particular lifestyles (and I bet you can guess which… smoking, drinking, negative emotions etc etc) are going to speed up the ageing process.
But we knew that, didn’t we?
Science can now prove that there’s a link between behaviours which focus on the well-being of other people (such as charity work and caregiving), and living a long and healthy life. Blood samples were taken from people who had been practising Buddhist ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ and a control group who hadn’t done any meditation.
Measuring before and after telomere length demonstrated that, meditation and focusing on the welfare of others resulted in more telomerase sloshing about in their cells, especially for women. Telomerase is the protein which is needed to build the telomeres back up after cell division. It is logical to infer that if you keep up the meditation, the sustained presence of telomerase is likely to decrease the rate of ageing.
And just to be clear – meditation isn’t about relaxing as such, though it is indeed relaxing. You can’t get the same effect flopping in front of the TV, for example! While there was a 4% increase in telomerase in the ‘relaxing’ control group, the meditators had an increase of 43-50% and more – a massive difference.
Scans show that with meditation, there are physical changes in the brain connected with learning, memory, emotion regulation as well as cognitive processing. It changes the way we respond to stress too.
Stress, of course, is absolutely necessary. It protects us from danger. Our ancestors benefitted from its short-term payoff when surviving wild animals. But in these modern times, our stress response tends to get triggered by long-term mental stress, for which it’s not designed. That makes us much more vulnerable to all sorts of nasties, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression and ultimately, death.
After meditating, people on the trial produced less of the stress hormone, cortisol. There were changes in the amygdala too, part of the brain that reacts with with fear in response to threat. It is thought that meditation promotes parasympathetic activity – the opposite of sympathetic activity – the stress response. Instead, the body produces growth hormone and repairs itself.
Perhaps meditation has us see the world as less threatening so we don’t get as much of a stress reaction? And perhaps that especially comes about with Loving Kindness Meditation which encourages loving connection with others?
So what’s the secret?
Just 12 minutes a day will do the trick! So what are you waiting for? Go get my free 10 minute guided relaxation MP3 and start practising.
And I’ll let you in on a secret – I called it a ‘relaxing’ track so it wouldn’t be off-putting to the hardened sceptics out there… but…
Yep! I’ll leave you to work out what it really is!