A Longer, More Healthy Life Through Meditation
You may have more control over your aging than you think.
This is the central message of the book The Telomere Effect, co-authored by psychologist Elissa Epel and molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn (the latter shares a Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres). The two authors encourage readers to maintain a healthy lifestyle if they want to enjoy long healthspans. In addition to eating well, exercising regularly and not smoking, lifestyle should include minimizing stress.
Many of us find it difficult to cut down on stress—it seems to be an unavoidable part of our busy lives. However, anyone can learn to better manage their stress levels, and research shows that meditation is one of the best tools available for doing this.
How Stress Works
Professor Bruce McEwan, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, emphasizes in his research that not all stress is the same.
There is "good stress," like what you feel when you give a presentation before an audience. There is "tolerable stress," like when something bad happens but you’re able to deal with it thanks to personal resources and support systems. Then, there is "toxic stress." This tends to arise when something terrible happens to us and we don't have the right tools or resources to handle it.
Research shows that toxic stress can be incredibly harmful. For example, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child found that toxic stress can alter the composition of a young person’s developing brain.
However, as McEwan writes, stress in the general sense has been an important facet of human evolution. When we encounter a perceived threat, our brain responds by telling our body to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases our heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies while cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream so our cells can burn it for energy.
When a stressful situation is perceived as life-threatening, cortisol throttles our immune system and suppresses systems not needed to keep us alive at that moment (e.g. the digestive and reproductive systems).
Those mechanisms can cause trouble if they are out of balance and overreact to stimuli. That imbalance is what causes toxic stress, and there are many reasons for that imbalance—bad health habits or intense feelings of loneliness, for example.
Over the course of a person’s life, intense and toxic stress responses can cause inflammation. Chronic inflammation can severely affect how we age. Limiting the presence of toxic stress can temper inflammatory responses, in turn reducing the amount of inflammatory damage our cells are exposed to.
Genes also play an important role in our stress-response systems. But hold that thought—we will touch on epigenetics in a moment when we look at some of the effects of meditation.
The Mechanisms by Which Meditation Helps the Body Manage Stress
Here at SciLife, we’re all about providing you with nutraceuticals rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients that promote your body’s natural anti-aging functions at a molecular level. To really experience the benefits of our products, we recommend starting a regular practice of mindful meditation—this has been proven to help reduce inflammation and can take your stress reduction efforts one step further.
According to a study published in the Brain, Behavior, and Immunity Journal, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practices—of which meditation is one—might have therapeutic value in treating chronic inflammatory conditions. Participants who underwent eight weeks of MBSR training experienced reductions in self-reported psychological distress and physical symptoms due to a reduced post-stress inflammatory response.
Elsewhere, Researchers at Ohio State University found evidence indicating that mindfulness-based intervention is promising for non-obese subjects in decreasing inflammation.
Meditation Can Alter Gene Expression
There is scientific evidence that practicing meditation, both over short-term and long-term periods, can help reduce stress through changing gene expressions.
According to a study by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine, the physiological state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation and deep breathing produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.
The researchers included both long-term practitioners of meditation and novices who learned a sequence of relaxation response techniques in eight weeks. While the former had the more profound changes in gene activity, the latter also experienced significant improvements.
“Some of the biological pathways we identify as being regulated by relaxation response practice are already known to play specific roles in stress, inflammation, and human disease," says Towia Libermann, HMS associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess and co-author of the study.
There is also evidence of “rapid alterations in gene expression” among experienced meditators after a day of intensive mindfulness practice. Perla Kaliman from the University of Barcelona and her team found altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes in expert meditators, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation. “The changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” the team writes.
In another study, 40 participants whose ages ranged from 55 to 85 spent eight weeks practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction. Carnegie-Mellon researcher J. David Creswell and his team found that after eight weeks participants experienced reduced feelings of loneliness as well as lower pro-inflammatory gene expression.
Meditation and the Volume of Gray Matter in the Brain
Meditation practice has also been found to affect the volume of gray matter in the parts of the brain that regulate our mood and stress levels.
A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found an increased density of gray matter in some brain regions, including the hippocampus, in participants who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks. These brain changes may suggest that meditation improves people’s ability to regulate their emotions and control their stress levels, says Harvard researcher Britta Hölzel, the study’s lead author.
There is also evidence of larger gray matter volumes among experienced meditators in the right orbitofrontal cortex and the right hippocampus, both of which have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. The hippocampus' ability to grow new neurons into adulthood is particularly important to maintaining a sharp brain while aging.
Finally, researchers at Emory University have studied the effect of Zen meditation, a Buddhist practice centered on attentional and postural self-regulation, and found that the practice could protect brain cells and slow the progression of cognitive decline associated with normal aging.
Being Resilient to Stress
As we mentioned before, not all stress is the same. Good stress can make us feel good when we accomplish something difficult.
For example, clinical psychotherapist Sophia Dunn has found that yoga and meditation are excellent tools for helping swimmers learn to swim in rough waters—something that can be quite scary the first time they do it.
Practical Tips to Fit Meditation Into Your Schedule
Benefits aside, meditation takes time. Many of us struggle to find 20 tranquil, consecutive minutes that we can carve into our days for contemplative reflection.
Here are three simple steps you can follow to slot meditation into your busy schedule and build another healthy habit.
1. Do a Little Bit Every Day
You don’t need to spend hours meditating to reap its benefits. The key is to do it regularly. "10 to 15 minutes a day will do," says Dr. James E. Stahl from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “Consistency is the key.”
Just set a fixed few minutes on your calendar for every day of the week.
2. Create a Designated Space for Meditation
Your meditation space doesn’t have to be in a big room. A quiet corner is fine as long as you return to the same place for your practice every day.
"You'll build up a special feeling there, making it easier to get into a meditative state more quickly," says Burke Lennihan, a registered nurse who teaches meditation at the Harvard University Center for Wellness. "Surround your meditation spot with candles, fresh flowers, incense, or any objects you can use to focus your practice."
3. Use a Timer or an App
Use a timer to remind you of the end of your meditation sessions. In the beginning, if you find it hard to maintain a meditative state by yourself, you can use a guided meditation app like Headspace, which was created by meditation and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe.
Meditation for a Healthier You
Meditation as a practice has several benefits. It can make you more resilient to stress and can fortify your cellular-level self-defense mechanisms.
We dedicate an entire section of our blog to stress management because we feel it’s so important. Meditation is a big part of managing stress. Its practice—alongside other healthy lifestyle choices like getting enough sleep and supplementing your nutrient intake—can unlock a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.
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