Many have experienced the mental and emotional benefits of mindfulness training. The techniques help with relaxation during stressful times and push individuals to become more attentive to their bodies, their emotions and the environment around them. Those with life-altering diseases like cancer have found these techniques useful in calming the fear, anxiety, depression and fatigue that often comes along with the diagnosis.
While the positive effects of such training on mood and general well-being have been known for some time, there’s never been a study to translate that sense of well-being into a solid biological change. A group of researchers who have published a new study this week set out to see if they could find any signs that body was changing for the better as a result of more mindfulness.
The researchers were interested specifically in knowing whether telomeres were affected. Telomeres are the caps on the end of each chromosome that keep them from degrading over time. Telomere length determines the life of a cell. The shorter a telomere, the sooner a chromosome gets damaged in the replication process. As a result, longer telomeres have been associated with being genetically “younger” than your actual age. Having longer telomeres means your cells will live longer and that your body might not be aging as rapidly as someone with shorter telomeres.
The team targeted this specific biological process because previous research found telomeres to be influenced by life factors like stress. They reasoned that if stress could shorten telomeres, maybe mindfulness techniques that do the opposite might lengthen telomeres. Some studies have also suggested that stress might influence the development and progression of cancer.
To test this, they drew blood from 217 women who had a diagnosis of breast cancer and said they were experiencing stress as a result of their diagnosis. They were randomly assigned to undergo a minimal treatment consisting of a six-hour stress-management seminar, to go to eight sessions of group therapy where they expressed their emotions and supported others going through similar challenges, or underwent eight therapy sessions based on mindfulness training for cancer patients.
The researchers drew blood before and after the therapy intervention to look at telomere length in each group. They found that telomere length in both therapy groups stayed about the same over the course of the eight weeks, but that those who had just gone through the six-hour control session saw a slight shortening of their telomeres over that time.
The research needs to be replicated with more participants, but it gives an initial indication that therapy for individuals going through significant illness can have a tangible, biological effect on even the tiniest cells in the body. Given that other studies have associated shorter telomeres with earlier cancer diagnoses and worse survival after diagnosis, doctors may soon be recommending a lot more mindfulness.