Take a minute, breathe deeply and clear absolutely everything out of your mind. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel the breath as it passes through your nostrils and ascends into your nose.
How do you feel?
According to researchers at UC Davis and UC San Francisco, meditation, including simple breathing exercises like the one above, is associated with greater telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme in your body that is responsible for long-term cell life.
Tonya Jacobs, a UC Davis postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Mind and Brain, was the lead author of the study published in October. The research was conducted by the UC Davis-based Shamatha Project, and it is the first to correlate positive well being and decreased stress to higher telomerase activity.
At the end of chromosomes there are sequences of DNA called telomeres. With every cell division, the telomeres shorten until the cell can no longer divide, so it dies. Telomerase lengthens telomeres, potentially increasing cell life.
Telomerase activity was measured in participants at the end of a three-month meditation retreat. The telomerase activity was found to be near one-third higher in the retreat participants compared to the non-meditating control group.
“Our study is the first to measure telomerase activity in the context of a meditation retreat,” said Jacobs. “Our study emphasizes that the changes in positive psychology, which occur in the retreat setting, are linked to telomerase. But we are not showing that meditation per se is linked to telomerase activity.”
This means that any activity that leads to a positive mindset is connected to higher production of telomerase. Meditation is just one example of an activity that helps mental health.
Jacobs elaborated on the importance of telomerase.
“Various meditation practices are geared toward reducing stress … Telomerase is a potentially important biomarker linking psychological stress with cellular health,” said Jacobs.
Anne Litak, a junior English major, is a regular meditator. She was excited to hear about the results of the study.
“Meditation completely relaxes me after a long day, and I love that it could be benefiting my body at the same time,” said Litak.
Participants in the study were lead and taught by Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar and teacher at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. At the retreat, meditators focused on what the researchers called the “four immeasurables.” Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, said the “immeasurables” are ideals like love and kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. These feelings helped participants analyze themselves and how they felt about others.
Saron described in depth some practices of meditation, and how they can improve psychological well-being. He noted a particular concept called “restorative activity,” which is often emphasized in meditation.
“Now you might think, how might meditation be a restorative activity?” said Saron. “There are many ways to think about that…it’s not just that you are ceasing to do normal activity, but also the explicit agenda to examine your reactions to events and to be mindful of your reactions to reactions.”
This means you are thinking about how you think.
Saron believes college is a good place to start such positive thinking. “You could get your Organic Chemistry test back and you could be right below the mean, and the immediate thing that crops up in your mind is ‘uh oh, I better nail that MCAT’,” said Saron. “Then you have a flurry of anxiety and you reinforce the notion that your life’s meaning is based on your acceptance into medical school.”
That anxiety can be resolved through activities like meditation. Saron said there are more positive ways to think about your disappointments.
“You could think, ‘Well, that is really interesting because when I was reviewing it I had a sense that I was a little shaky on this reaction mechanism … but I really wanted to see Madmen.'”
CAMMIE ROLLE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.