Aging, Stress and Mindful Meditation
Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter- Mark Twain
Aging is inevitable. This is how living beings are genetically programmed. Despite knowing this universal truth, we have always been curious about knowing what causes aging. Can we prevent it? Can we actually reverse it? Can we increase our chances to live longer? Scientists around the world have been working relentlessly in the pursuit of these answers.
Wrinkles, grey hair, supressed immunity and weaker organs are only a few of the footprints that aging leaves in its wake. But what if we can slow down this aging process? And how wonderful could it be if we can actually turn back the clock with our own initiatives? A scientific research on cellular aging suggests that mindfulness, a technique of meditation, can actually slow down the rate at which our cells age. The study also shows that the practice of mindful meditation can significantly reduce stress and improve overall health.
The story behind aging: The play of chromosomes and cell division
The story behind this process involves chromosomes, thread like strands found in the cells of every living beings. Chromosomes contains genes that carry hereditary information from one generation to another. You must have noticed the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. They protect the shoelace from getting frayed. In the same way, the end of each strand of chromosome is protected by caps called Telomeres. These caps are basically stretches of DNA that:
- Protects the coded genetic information in the chromosome, and
- Makes it possible for cells to divide without losing this information
Without telomeres, the ends of chromosome could fuse together and corrupt the genetic information.
Why do cells divide? Cells divide so that living beings can grow and can replace old, dead, or damaged cells in the body. But cells cannot divide indefinitely. Each time our cells divide, telomeres get shorter and shorter. Eventually, the telomeres become so short that cells are not able to divide further and die. This causes the degeneration of organs and tissues, as often happens in the old age.
Is shortening of telomeres a one way process?
Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, along with her colleagues, discovered that the shortening of telomeres is not a one way process. In 2009, the team received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Telomerase, a protective enzyme produced by our cells. The study shows that telomerase replenishes telomeres and effectively lengthen it. This means more telomerase can slow or even reverses the process of cell aging and imparting longer life to living beings.
The amount of telomerase in our bodies declines as we age, which limits the cells' ability to replenish and maintain telomeres. However, it is interesting to note that while decreasing supply of telomerase in normal cells causes ageing, an oversupply of this protective enzyme is responsible for the way cancer cells divide and multiply manifold. "In the hands of the wrong cells [telomerase] is a really dangerous weapon,'' says Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn.
Some interesting facts about Telomeres:
- Cells found in the skin, hair and immune system divide more often. Consequently, they are most affected by shortening of telomeres.
- Studies reveal that decreases in bone mineral density in women are linked with the wear and tear of telomeres.
Stress and Telomere Length
While cellular ageing is the primary reason why the length of telomeres get shortened, many studies have revealed that their length is also affected by certain external factors such stress and anxiety, smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthy diet. Scientists have found that chronic stress tend to wear down the telomeres, causing cells to age and die faster. Stress also causes the shortening of telomeres of immune cells, affecting the functionality of immune system. It makes us prone to getting sick more often.
So, is there any way we can manage stress and stop or slow the shortening of telomeres? Yes, it is possible. Studies show that mindful meditation can reduce stress arousal.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is form of meditation that is derived from a century old Buddhist practice called Vipasana or Insight Meditation. It is a technique of paying attention to the present moment in a friendly, inviting and non-judgemental manner. Let’s see how it equips us to deal with stress in a positive way and reduces anxiety:
- It helps the mind to shift the cognitive assessments of a stressful situation from threat to challenge.
- It empowers the mind to distinguish between the problem-solving thought and a nagging, unproductive worry
- It helps to decrease rumination, which is the tendency of mind to return to negative thoughts.
- It helps to focus on the present moment and drive happy, positive emotions.
Mindful meditation can reduce stress: How it works
Stress is known to invite other diseases such as cardiovascular disorders, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, sleep disorders and depression. It is very important to deal with stress positively and this is where mindful meditation can help. We know that chronic stress is known to wear down the telomeres and cause the cells to whither faster. Can mindfulness slow the rate of cellular aging? Can it impact telomere length? Studies show that mindfulness meditation has the potential to increase the levels of enzyme telomerase. And as we know, telomerase is a protective enzyme that nourishes and maintain telomerase, the increased level helps to reduce the shortening of telomeres’ length. Mindfulness shields cells against the long-term effects of stress, slowing the rate of cellular aging.
Not only does mindful mediation help to reduce stress and give you the ability to cope with it in a positive way, it has more far-reaching health benefits such as:
- Decreased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased immunity
- Improved pain management
- Less irritability and depression
- Increased energy
Now that we know how mediation benefits our physical, emotional and mental health, it sounds a good idea to take out at least a few minutes every day from our busy schedule to practice this technique. You can actually turn back the clock yourself.
Go ahead and meditate not only for that lovely, youthful look but also to ward off potential diseases that are associated with either aging or chronic stress.