UC DAVIS (US) — Positive psychological changes that occur during meditation training increase activity of telomerase, an enzyme important for the long-term health of cells in the body.
The effect appears to be attributable to psychological changes that increase a person’s ability to cope with stress and maintain feelings of well-being, according to a new study.
“We have found that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of telomerase,” says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the University of California, Davis.
“The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person’s health and longevity,” Saron says.
“Rather, meditation may improve a person’s psychological well-being and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in immune cells, which has the potential to promote longevity in those cells.
“Activities that increase a person’s sense of well-being may have a profound effect on the most fundamental aspects of their physiology.”
The study is published online Oct. 29 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and will soon appear in print.
“This work is among the first to show a relation between positive psychological change and telomerase activity. Because the finding is new, it should serve to inspire future studies to replicate and extend what we found,” says postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs, the study’s lead author.
Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that tend to get shorter every time a cell divides. When telomeres drop below a critical length, the cell can no longer divide properly and eventually dies.
Telomerase is an enzyme that can rebuild and lengthen telomeres. Other studies suggest that telomerase activity may be a link between psychological stress and physical health.
The research team measured telomerase activity in participants in the Shamatha Project, one of the first long-term studies that matched control group studies of the effects of intensive meditation training on mind and body, at the end of a three-month retreat.
Telomerase activity was about one-third higher in the white blood cells of participants who had completed the retreat than in a matched group of controls.
The retreat participants also showed increases in such beneficial psychological qualities as perceived control (over one’s life and surroundings), mindfulness (being able to observe one’s experience in a nonreactive manner) and purpose in life (viewing one’s life as meaningful, worthwhile and aligned with long-term goals and values). In addition, they experienced decreased neuroticism, or negative emotionality.
High telomerase activity was due to the beneficial effects of meditation on perceived control and neuroticism, which in turn were due to changes in mindfulness and sense of purpose.
The retreat included 30 participants each in the retreat and control groups. Participants received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques, attended group meditation sessions twice a day, and engaged in individual practice for about six hours a day.
A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity, and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco contributed to the study.
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