Meditation practice can lead to a greater ability to cope with stress and achieve a sense of well-being, and now scientists say these psychological changes are linked to the activity of a specific enzyme. The study is among the first to demonstrate a relationship between positive psychological changes and levels of the enzyme telomerase.
Meditation ultimately leads to changes in enzymes
A team of scientists from the University of California, Davis, and the University of California, San Francisco, measured telomerase activity in 30 participants in the Shamatha Project, a long-term, matched control-group study of the impact of intensive meditation training on the mind and body. The measurements were taken at the end of a three-month intensive meditation retreat.
The scientists found “that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of telomerase,” according to Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.
Telomerase is an enzyme known to play a critical role in the long-term health of cells. The enzyme rebuilds and lengthens telomeres, which are sequences of DNA located at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides, and when they become too small, the cell is unable to divide properly and dies.
In the study, scientists found that telomerase activity was about 33 percent greater in the white blood cells of individuals who had completed the meditation retreat when compared with 30 matched controls, who did not attend the retreat. Retreat participants also had other beneficial psychological qualities such as an increase in perceived control over their life and surroundings, mindfulness, and purpose in life, and a decrease in negative emotionality.
Numerous studies have identified health benefits associated with meditation, and covering a wide range of populations. Meditation can ease depression and fatigue in people who have multiple sclerosis, for example, and reduce disease risk in half in heart patients. Mindfulness meditation has been named as a way to curb physician burnout, and even just 20 minutes of meditation daily may help individuals cope with pain.
Saron pointed out that “The take-home message from this work is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person’s health and longevity,” but rather that “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.”
University of California, Davis