Meditation is a practice that helps you direct your attention to the present moment. As a mind-body practice, meditation works by priming your attention and awareness to help cultivate wellbeing and reduce stress. Mindfulness practices like meditation act on specific parts of the brain, disrupting stress pathways which may have supportive effects on the psychological arousal systems. Meditation has been shown to support our overall well-being in many ways, from lowering stress hormones like cortisol, to even reducing blood pressure. But what we’re most excited about is the emerging research that highlights the role that meditation plays in the cellular aging process.
Chronological age – the number of years you’ve been alive – has long been referred to as the ultimate predictor of mortality. But it turns out that your biological age may be just as, if not more crucial in determining future health outcomes. Your biological age is the rate of aging that happens internally, and it’s determined by the health of your cells. While you may experience the classic markers of aging like gray hair or fine lines, biological aging is less perceptible less visible because it takes place inside your cells – and unlike chronological aging, everyone ages biologically at different rates.
How meditation influences your biological age
While stress is crucial for our survival, an overactive stress response can impact longevity. Researchers speculate that the longstanding practice of meditation may decelerate cellular aging by buffering the body's stress response. In addition to lowering stress hormones – and reducing oxidative stress as a result – mindfulness meditation has been shown to influence aging in other ways, from supporting telomere maintenance to modulating neurotransmitters in the brain.
Telomeres – a portion of DNA found in your chromosomes – are an important factor that contributes to biological age. Telomeres act as a protective cap which shields your DNA from damage, and the longer your telomeres are, the more protection they can give. As your cells replicate, the telomeres get shorter.
As you age and the more cellular replications you have gone through, the shorter your telomeres become. While it’s natural that telomeres shorten with age, accelerated telomere shortening in humans can lead to impaired longevity. Studies have shown that stress (whether that be perceived life stress, or the inability to cope with the everyday demands of stress) can have an impact on telomere length.
The relationship between telomere length and meditation seems to be that when people are more mindful, they experience less stress and changes in mood which are all thought to be associated with the hormone cortisol. One study found that healthy subjects who experienced chronic stress had shorter telomeres in comparison to those with low levels of everyday stress – concluding that stressful life circumstances appear to relate to increased telomere shortening, which directly influences longevity.
Brain-derived neutropic factor (BDNF) is a protein in the body that plays an important role in brain cell growth and survival. It modulates neurotransmitter function and supports neuroplasticity, which is crucial for learning and memory. BDNF declines with age, and lower levels of BDNF are associated with age-related memory impairment.
Supporting BDNF as you age encourages learning and cognition, focus and healthy aging. Stress is a crucial factor that can suppress BDNF, and it’s widely known as one of the biggest ‘BDNF inhibitors’. Thanks to its stress buffering effects, meditation strengthens areas of the brain that encourage attention, body awareness and emotional control – which in turn, increases BDNF.
Reducing oxidative stress
While there are many theories that unpack the factors of aging, the “oxidative stress theory of aging” is considered one of the most well-known theories that contributes to the aging process. Oxidative stress can contribute to telomere shortening, and studies show that oxidative stress could provoke abnormalities that influence the aging process. Since everyday stress is one of the key drivers that induces oxidative stress in the body, reducing stress is a crucial way to keep oxidative stress at bay.
- One study showed that the markers of oxidative stress were lower among meditation practitioners, and another study found that people who meditate regularly showed a reduction in both glucocorticoids and other markers of oxidative stress.
- A study found that practicing a controlled breathing technique significantly increased glutathione – a powerful antioxidant that helps to reduce oxidative stress.
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