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Key Takeaways

  • Your genetic information is stored in genes, which are bundled tightly into chromosomes that are stored in every cell’s nucleus. The end fragments of each chromosome are called telomeres. Their primary function is to protect the genetic information in the chromosomes from instability.
  • With each cell division, part of the telomere is lost. When a telomere’s length becomes critically short, its cell dies via apoptosis (programmed cell death)
  • There is a clear link between short telomeres and chronic psychological stress, as well as increased mortality rates
  • Some forms of meditation, particularly intense meditation retreats, seem to make the telomeres longer. In theory, this effect could promote longevity in humans.

Actions to Consider

  • Consider embarking on a silent meditation retreat. In this study, the participants went through a three-week silent residential retreat at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Of course, there are many other centers that offer similar experiences. Search for one closest to you. 
  • If three weeks of silent meditation is too intense at this point, how about just staying completely silent for at least one day? This includes no talking, reading, writing, texting, or any form of information exchange with other people.
  • Alternatively, try meditating for 10-20 minutes every morning. Apps like Headspace, Calm, Waking Up App, and the Tara Brach podcast are great resources for beginners.

Can you meditate your way to longevity?

Meditation is an increasingly popular therapeutic technique right now. 

Different sources claim it could improve your focus, reduce stress levels, soothe anxiety, and maybe even give you a productivity boost.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, in reality, the truth might be even better.

One interesting study reported that intense meditation seems to lengthen human telomeres. In other words, it could promote longevity.

What is this study about?

This study was presented at the annual conference of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE) in September 2015.

The researchers observed a group of 26 people embarking on a three-week silent meditation retreat. The scientists measured the telomere length of the participants two times—after their first full day of silence and then three weeks later, almost immediately before breaking the silence. 

Surprisingly, the telomeres of the participants were significantly longer after three full weeks of silent meditation.

Getting to know your telomeres

All your genes are packed into chromosomes, all of which are tiny X-shaped structures (besides the male Y chromosome). The end portion of each arm in this X is called a telomere.

When a cell divides, it loses a tiny bit of the telomeres in its chromosomes. There’s a limit to how much of its telomeres a chromosome can lose before its cell becomes senescent (old) and dies via programmed cell death (apoptosis). This limit is called the Hayflick limit, and it equals to about 50 cell divisions.

The only cells without a Hayflick limit are cancer cells. Basically, they are immortal, and can divide unlimited times—hence the usual recklessness we see in cancer growth. On the other hand, the number of senescent cells in our body rises significantly as we age, since more and more cells reach their limit of 50 divisions.

In other words, finding a way to lengthen telomeres effectively would give as one more weapon against aging on a cellular level. Cells with longer telomeres could divide more times, meaning they could promote regeneration and fight off the signs of aging.

So, how exactly meditation lengthens your telomeres?

Although it’s impossible to say for sure, the authors of the study hypothesized that maybe such contemplative periods like a silent three-week meditation retreat help the body and mind adapt to the stress they deal with.

When left unaddressed, both intense acute and mild chronic stress may lead to unhealthy shifts in the body’s metabolism, regulatory loops, and hormone levels. Through these changes, stress may eventually shorten the telomeres, speeding up aging.

Conclusion

It seems that intense mediation could be extremely beneficial to slow down cell aging.

However, three weeks of silence and meditation (as observed in this study) are too much for the vast majority of people, both spiritually and logistically.

Do you really need to go above and beyond your usual meditation efforts to combat aging

We need more clinical studies to make sure, but one thing is clear already: occasionally meditating for 10-20 minutes daily is a great start already.

Link to the study:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282043531_Telomere_lengthening_after_three_weeks_of_an_intensive_insight_meditation_retreat

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