That mindfulness meditation helps us feel better mentally has long been recognised. Now, for the first time, a new Canadian study published in the journal Cancer reveals practicing mindfulness meditation also influences key aspects of our biology.
A research team from Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary’s Department of Oncology has demonstrated that telomeres – protein complexes at the end of chromosomes – maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who practice meditation or are involved in support groups, while they shorten in a comparison group not involved in interventions. Shortened telomeres are associated with cell ageing and a number of diseases, whereas longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.
Eighty-eight breast cancer survivors, average age 55, who had completed their treatments for at least three months, were involved for the duration of the study. Most had ended treatment two years previously. To be eligible, the women also had to be experiencing significant levels of emotional distress.
– Those in the Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group attended eight weekly, 90-minute group sessions that provided instruction on mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga, with the goal of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Participants were also asked to practice meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.
– Women assigned to the Supportive Expressive Therapy group met for 90 minutes every week for 12 weeks, where they were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide them in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.
– The participants randomly placed in the control group attended one, six-hour stress-management seminar.
All involved in the study had their blood analysed and telomere length measured before and after their programs.
“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied,” comments Dr Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”
Whether the effect of these interventions is just short term or long lasting is yet to be determined.
One study participant who was placed in the mindfulness-based group describes her experience as life-changing. She admits to initial scepticism, considering it a “bunch of hocus-pocus”. Today, she practices mindfulness throughout the day and says it reminds her to become less reactive and kinder toward herself and others.
For those interested in learning more about mindfulness meditation, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre offers free guided meditations.
Written for the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society (ATMS) from materials released by Alberta Health Services.