I’m sitting cross-legged on a square red cushion, trying to think about nothing. I struggle to focus on my breath, like the leader of my introductory meditation class instructed: In through the nostrils. Pause. Out through the nostrils. It isn’t easy to quiet my thoughts: I have a lot to do this week. What’s for lunch? My nose itches. Eventually, I’m able to relax, and I leave with a new sense of calm. My stress seems more in control: my breathing has deepened, my heart rate seems slowed. And if new research is correct, my positive mental state might also be shoring up my DNA.
Elissa Epel is a health psychology researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who says she studies “how stress gets under the skin” — literally. She’s one of the authors of a paper exploring how psychological well-being may change us at the genetic level, published in the November issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study followed 30 participants — matched to a control group — in an intensive three-month meditation retreat at Colorado’s Shambhala Mountain Center. The study set out to measure the effects meditation had on the biology of the body. One of the biochemicals the researchers measured was telomerase, an enzyme that appears to play a role in prolonging life.
By the end of the retreat, participants had a 30 percent higher level of telomerase activity in their immune cells than the control group. They also reported increased feelings of control and sense of purpose in life. However, whether meditation was the real reason for the difference in telomerase activity is still highly uncertain. The study was very small, and the researchers measured telomerase activity only at the end of the three months of meditation, not the beginning, so there was no baseline for comparison to the control group. Even so, Epel said, “it was surprising to find that an intracellular enzyme is tied into a psychological state.”
Telomerase is not just any enzyme; it plays a key role in the life and death of a cell. When a cell replicates, its chromosomes, or individual pieces of DNA, have to replicate too. Every time they do this, they lose a little piece of their ends and gradually, they grow shorter. Once the chromosomes grow too short, the cell dies, or enters senescence — essentially, a cell coma. To help slow this process, cells are equipped with telomeres, which are repeating sequences of DNA that work like the plastic tips on the ends of your shoelaces: they keep your DNA from fraying. Telomerase is an enzyme that works to repair the fraying ends of DNA, keeping cells healthier and living longer.
Studies have associated shortened telomeres with a spectrum of age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, diabetes, and mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because telomerase helps lengthen telomeres, it’s been the focus of recent research, which has begun to correlate it to overall health and longevity.
The age of genomics can feel fatalistic; disease and death are often presented as being controlled by our genes. One expert is cautiously optimistic that this study brings something a little different to the table: “The idea that you could maybe change the length of your own telomeres just by reducing your stress somehow is really exciting,” says Jennifer Daubenmier, a social psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco who studies how lifestyle changes may affect cellular aging. “It means things aren’t as predetermined as we think.”
Past studies have shown that often, people who have experienced high stress in their lives have shorter telomeres. A 2004 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, showed that women who cared for chronically ill children had significantly shorter telomeres compared to a group of low-stress women — a difference equivalent to about a decade of aging, researchers said.
Dr. Michael Fossel, a clinical physician at Michigan State University and an expert in human aging sees promise in using telomerase as a target for anti-aging drugs. “The really wild thought is that we probably could live a great deal longer,” he says. “And if anything’s going to do it, it’s going to be telomeres.”
Although stress and telomere length seem to have a strong association, it could be a red herring. “Cellular health may be related not just to stress but also to some other factors such as inflammation or insulin resistance,” Daubenmier says.
If future research confirms the findings of the meditation study, telomerase-targeting drugs might not be the only way to increase telomerase activity and improve health and longevity. Any activity that helps you reduce stress and attain a positive psychological state — such as yoga or exercise — might also help you keep your genome fit, say researchers. So the next time I head to a meditation class, I’ll have one more thought crowding my head: Could this be doing something for my DNA?