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Stanford Medicine

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine

Study shows cell health linked to positive mood changes in meditation

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At the end of meditative sessions, my yoga teacher often instructs students to “imagine each cell in your body is smiling.” The image of my cells painted with smiley faces came to mind today while reading a new study suggesting meditation promotes positive psychological changes that in-turn may boost cellular health.

The research (.pdf) involves telomerase, an enzyme important for the long-term health of cells in the body. Telomerase is particularly interesting because previous studies have shown the enzyme could be connected to the aging of human cells and, if activated in mutated cells, the immortality of some types of cancer.

During the latest study, 30 men and women participated in a three-month retreat where they attended group meditation sessions twice a day and engaged in individual practice for about six hours daily. At the conclusion of the retreat, researchers measured participants’ telomerase activity and compared the data to a control group. According to a release:

Telomerase activity was about one-third higher in the white blood cells of participants who had completed the retreat than in a matched group of controls.

The retreat participants also showed increases in such beneficial psychological qualities as perceived control (over one’s life and surroundings), mindfulness (being able to observe one’s experience in a nonreactive manner) and purpose in life (viewing one’s life as meaningful, worthwhile and aligned with long-term goals and values). In addition, they experienced decreased neuroticism, or negative emotionality.

Using statistical modeling techniques, the researchers concluded that high telomerase activity was due to the beneficial effects of meditation on perceived control and neuroticism, which in turn were due to changes in mindfulness and sense of purpose.

The results appear to be attributed to psychological changes that increase a person’s ability to cope with stress and maintain feelings of well-being, explained researchers.

Photo Matt Scott

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