It’s seven in the morning on the beach in Santa Monica, California. The low sun glints off the waves and the clouds are still golden from the dawn. A few metres back from the water’s edge, a handful of people sit cross-legged: members of a local Buddhist centre about to begin an hour-long silent meditation. Such spiritual practices may seem a world away from biomedical research, with its focus on molecular processes and repeatable results. Yet just up the coast, at the University of California, a team led by a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist is charging into territory where few mainstream scientists would dare to tread. They are engaged in serious studies hinting that meditation might – as Eastern traditions have long claimed – slow ageing and lengthen life.
Elizabeth Blackburn’s work began in 1970 when she discovered a repeating DNA motif that acts as a protective cap. The caps, dubbed telomeres, were subsequently found on human chromosomes too. They shield the ends of our chromosomes each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, but they wear down with each division. In the 1980s, working with graduate student Carol Greider at the University of California, Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognized as a key process in ageing. This work ultimately won Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
This discovery led Blackburn to collect blood samples from 58 women for a small pilot study. To give the highest chance of a meaningful result, the women in the two groups – stressed mothers and controls – had to match as closely as possible, with similar ages, lifestyles and backgrounds. The results were crystal clear. The more stressed the mothers said they were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase. These results were the first indication that feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it literally ages us.
Blackburn’s study led to further research analyzing how high stress can accelerate the aging process. Lab studies show that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation – the physiological fallout of psychological stress – appear to erode telomeres directly. This research further strengthens the argument that stress (high cortisol and low telomerase activity) prematurely ageing our bodies.
So what does this mean for us? How can we reduce our levels of cortisol and increase telomerase activity so that we can look and feel younger for longer? Follow these steps:
- Relax and Meditate: Take time out of your day (even if it’s only 5 minutes) to close your eyes and relax. Take deep breaths and reflect on what you are grateful for.
- Exercise: Studies have shown that low intensity exercise like walking or jogging can reduce cortisol. High intensity exercise may increase cortisol (only temporarily), but will decrease overall cortisol levels in the long-term.
- Get adjusted by your chiropractor: Studies going back as far as 1998 have shown that chiropractic adjustments reduce cortisol levels and better equip your body to manage stress.
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