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October 24, 2019

Most of us are aware of a lot of the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, particularly its positive impact on stress and anxiety. But recent studies have also revealed that it may play an important role in the ageing process and neuroplasticity changes in the brain!

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How our body ages

When the stresses of life become too much, our fight-or-flight response is switched on. And if we stay in this state for too long, it can impact negatively not only on our minds, but our bodies as well. This increased stress response leads to elevated levels of chemicals in our system such as adrenaline and cortisol which are super helpful if we need to run away from that swooping magpie, but if they hang around in our bodies too long, they can actually cause DNA damage. 

There is a section at the end of each DNA strand called a ‘telomere’, which acts like a cap to protect our DNA. As cells go through multiple life cycles, our telomeres eventually shorten. The cell eventually dies when the telomere has shortened to the point where DNA is exposed, and is therefore vulnerable to damage. Once the DNA within the cell becomes damaged, the cell dies. The faster our cells die, the faster we age.

An enzyme (enzyme = molecule that speeds up biological reactions) called ‘telomerase’ helps to maintain telomere length – lots of telomerase activity means nice long telomeres, but low telomerase activity means telomeres can shorten more quickly. 

Our elevated stress levels can actually reduce the ability of telomerase to keep our telomeres long and healthy, which means quickly shortening telomeres. And loss of telomeres means DNA damage, cell death and fast-tracked ageing… 

 

The impact of meditation on our DNA

But studies show that practicing mindful meditation can help stop this from happening! People who regularly practice meditation have been shown to have increased telomerase activity, and longer telomeres! Not only can meditation help to prevent our telomeres from getting shorter; enough stimulation of telomerase can actually help increase their length. That means our cells can keep on living, our DNA is protected for longer and ageing can be slowed down! 

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How meditation can grow the brain!

Another incredible benefit meditation can have, is on the structural changes in your brain known as ‘neuroplasticity’. Through our thoughts and attention, we are unconsciously making physical changes to the neural connections in our brain. These connections are formed through repetition and arise as a result of focussed attention and emotional states. Our brains are constantly remodelling and changing based on our experiences and how we relate to ourselves and the world around us!

Studies have shown increases in the volume and density of specific regions of the brain in people who meditate. Brain imaging research in people who have been long-term meditators reveals there is significant differences in certain brain regions compared to non-meditators.

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Insula cortex
  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus 

These regions are associated with self-awareness, emotional processing, stress-responses, executive function, memory formation, interoception and physical sensations.

The amazing thing about these meditation-induced brain changes is how quickly some of them take place! Studies have shown that in as little as 8 weeks of meditation training, with approximately 20-40mins of practice a day, significant brain changes can occur!

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If you’re reading this and thinking you could never meditate for 20-40 minutes a day, have no fear. You can start small and still reap benefits. Just like going to the gym and training your muscles, every time you meditate your brain is getting just a little bit stronger. Slowly but surely as your brain starts to permanently change, you may find that many of the benefits you feel during a meditation session follow you around throughout the day even when you haven’t meditated. 

 

References

  1. Thimmapuram, J., Pargament, R., Sibliss, K., Grim, R., Risques, R., & Toorens, E. (2017). Effect of heartfulness meditation on burnout, emotional wellness, and telomere length in health care professionals. Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, 7(1): 21-27 
  2. Keng, S. L., Yim, O, S., Lai, P. S., Chew, S. H., & Ebstein, R. P. (2019). Association among dispositional mindfulness, self-compassion, and leukocyte telomere length in Chinese adults. BMC Psychology, 7(47): 1-10 
  3. Nguyen, K. D. L., Lin, J., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Kim, S. L., Brantley, J., Salzberg, S. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2019). Loving-kindness meditation slows biological aging in novices: Evidence from a 12-week randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 108: 20-27
  4. Stress Management: Chronic stress puts your health at risk [Internet]. Arizona: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2019 March 19. Available from:  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.
  5. Stress effects on the body [Internet]. Washington: American Psychological Association; c2019. Available from: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body 
  6. Blackburn, E. and Epel, E. (2017). The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. American Swimming, 4: 26-27
  7. Blackburn (2005). Telomeres and telomerase: their mechanisms of action and the effects of altering their functions. FEBS Letters, 579, 859-862. doi:10.1016/j.febslet.2004.11.036
  8. Lazar, S.W., et al., Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 2005. 16(17): p. 1893.
  9. Hölzel, B.K., et al., Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2007. 3(1): p. 55-61.
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  11. Vestergaard-Poulsen, P., et al., Long-term meditation is associated with increased gray matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport, 2009. 20(2): p. 170-174.
  12. Leung, M.-K., et al., Increased gray matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyri in loving-kindness meditators. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2012. 8(1): p. 34-39.
  13. Holzel, B.K., et al., Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 2010. 5(1): p. 11-7.
  14. Desbordes, G., et al., Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012. 6(292).
  15. Hölzel, B.K., et al., Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011. 191(1): p. 36-43.