You don’t have to look very far to discover the number of anti-aging products that are available on the market. In addition, countless hours of research have gone into the topic to help people answer one of humankind’s greatest questions: How do we slow the aging process? One of the best anti-aging techniques really could be something as simple as meditation.
Here is the short answer to this question: Yes, meditation can slow the aging process. You don’t even need to meditate for long every day, and other techniques, such as practicing yoga and mindfulness, can also help.
In some respects, this is not surprising. After all, meditation practitioners in Eastern cultures have believed for centuries that meditation can help keep you younger.
One of the main reasons meditation slows the aging process is because it reduces stress. Again, most of us have probably seen this anecdotally in our own lives. You just have to think of someone you know who has gone through a significantly traumatic and stressful period of their lives. Have you noticed how this makes them look older?
There is more to meditation and anti-aging than our own anecdotal observations though. In fact, there is a growing body of scientific research to back up the thinking.
The Evolution of the Body’s Stress Response Mechanism
An important part of understanding what happens to our bodies when we are under stress is to understand how our bodies evolved. When stress coping mechanisms developed, the type of stress humans faced had nothing to do with pressing deadlines at work or how to pay the mortgage this month.
Instead, it was the stress of dealing with a rampaging mammoth or an attacking rival tribe. It was also the stress brought on by our bodies fighting disease at a time that was thousands of years before the invention of modern medicine.
To deal with this sort of stress, humans developed the well-known fight or flight mode. In other words, when faced with the mammoth, we instinctively run, but when faced with an attacking tribe, we might choose to fight.
The Fight or Flight Mode
What actually happens when our bodies trigger the fight or flight mode? In general, the fight or flight mode prepares us for taking on the stressful challenge we are about to face.
First, our brains recognize a situation of high stress. The brain must then jolt the body into action—to either fight or run. This impacts the body in several ways.
Your heart rate speeds up, for example, and your breathing gets faster and heavier. At the same time, your digestion slows so your body can allocate resources to different actions. This includes releasing glucose and fat into your bloodstream to give you energy for your chosen response to the stressful situation. The inflammatory response in your body is also activated.
How Stress Impacts Our Bodies
All the things listed above, when taken together, are internally damaging. If they help you escape from a rampaging mammoth or fight off an attacking tribe, the physical damage caused to your body is worth it. After all, what’s worse a slightly older biological age and physical appearance or a mauling by a mammoth?
Fast forward to today and our bodies still have these fight or flight response when faced with stressful situations.
The problem now is that we no longer face the rare occurrence of a mammoth attack. Instead, many of us face frequent stressful situations, from being late to pick up the children from school to missing an important target at work. Modern life often involves moving from one stressful situation to another.
Exacerbating this greater frequency of stressful situations is the fact that the old fight or flight response of our bodies does not help. For example, you can’t deal with heavy traffic causing you to be late for an important meeting by either getting into a fight or running away. Your body reacts in a fight or flight mode, but the reaction is practically useless.
Therefore, damage caused by stress is more frequent with little to no upside.
Introducing Telomeres and Their Relationship with Stress
Telomeres are protein caps on the end of each chromosome in your body. During cell division, the chromosome replicates, a process that shortens the telomeres.
When telomeres become too short, the cell can no longer divide and replicate. This increases aging in the body and is associated with age-related diseases.
This discovery led to lots of research with scientists looking at ways to slow or prevent the shortening of telomeres. If you can do that, you can slow the aging process—both inside and outside the body.
There are lots of things you can do to prevent accelerated shortening of the telomeres, including living a healthy lifestyle. One of the other things that researchers looked at in relation to telomeres, however, was the impact of stress.
One of the most well-known studies involved University of California scientists Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn. The latter won a Nobel prize for work on telomeres when she discovered the effect of telomeres on the aging process.
The study explored the effects of stress on mothers responsible for looking after chronically sick children. This is a highly stressful situation for any mother to be in, and the researchers wanted to know what effect this stress had on the telomeres of the mothers involved.
The results showed the stressed mothers had shorter telomeres than the control group. The control group included mothers who were as similar as possible to those in the main test group. The main difference was the mothers in the control group were not involved in caring for a seriously ill child. Their children were healthy.
The results of the study were significant: The stressed mothers had telomeres that were equivalent to being 10 years older than the women who were not as stressed.
Meditation as an Anti-Aging Solution
So now we know that stress ages our bodies. We also know that one of the main benefits of meditation is reducing stress. In fact, for many people, the main reason they practice meditation is to help them manage stress in their lives.
The concept is simple: Can meditation that reduces stress slow the aging process? There are multiple studies that show this is the case. In one, the length of telomeres increased after participants in the study took part in a meditation retreat. The authors of this study included the scientists mentioned earlier, Blackburn and Epel.
Here are some more examples:
• A study found increased production of telomerase following intensive meditation. Telomerase helps to rebuild and lengthen telomeres after cells divide.
• This study showed that just 15 minutes of daily meditation helps with telomerase production. In fact, in this study, anything that helped trigger the relaxation response, including repetitive prayer and yoga, helps with telomerase production.
• Another study found that Zen meditators with extensive meditation experience have telomeres that are 10 percent longer than people who were of a similar age and who lived a similar lifestyle but who had never meditated.
The researchers in the final study mentioned in the above list drilled into the effects of meditation further. They wanted to discover exactly what it was about meditation that led to slower aging.
One of the things they found relates to experiential avoidance. This is where we naturally and willingly suppress bad or painful memories because they are too difficult to face. This could be anything from an embarrassing moment to an experience of failure to the death of a loved one.
Zen meditators, however, focus on accepting unpleasant experiences in a way that doesn’t judge. In other words, they face them rather than suppressing them. The researchers in the above study found this was healthier in the long run and helped to slow the signs of aging.
Other Benefits of Meditation
One of the best things about using meditation to slow the aging process is that it brings other benefits as well. This includes the following:
• It’s free, which contrasts significantly with some anti-aging treatments that can be considerably expensive.
• There are no side effects to meditation. All you have to do is allocate a small amount of time to it every day. If we are all honest, we can all find at least 15 minutes.
• Your concentration levels will improve when you meditate, plus it reduces memory loss and improves your attention span.
• You will be happier. Many people believe that being happier also helps slow the aging process.
• Meditation reduces feelings of anxiety and improves your overall emotional health.
• You will become more self-aware, getting a better understanding of who you are.
• Your sleep will improve.
• Meditation can reduce blood pressure.
• You can do it anywhere.
You can’t stop stress as it is a part of modern living. It is possible to deal with stress better, though, and to help our brains and bodies react to it in different ways. One of the best ways of achieving this is through meditation.