There's an immense body of evidence that proves that meditation has significant beneficial effects for mental health, but it's only recently that researchers in Canada discovered a link between mindfulness meditation and altered cellular activity in cancer patients.
Biology and meditation: no longer mutually exclusive
"We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology," said Linda E. Carlson, a psychosocial research and the lead investigator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, in a press release. She conducted the study alongside scientists from the University of Calgary.
"It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied," said Carlson. "Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news."
Telomeres are protein caps at the end of our chromosomes, sort of like the plastic tips at the end of a shoelace. These are essential for protecting our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or "senescent" or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. So telomeres also have been compared with a bomb fuse.
ZME Science previously reported how meditation can be a powerful tool to alter our mood, providing a proxy that later indirectly tackles cognitive dysfunctions like Alzheimer's or help relieve pain. It's effects on biological functions have been more or less discusses, and always under debate. We've all heard stories - maybe you personally know someone - about people who left to a retreat, relaxed by the beach, surf and meditate, then spontaneously cured from cancer. These stories, heart warming as they may be, are very difficult to test and as such must be regarded under a skeptical lens. But now have the first evidence that suggests mediation directly alters cellular activity, meaning that it might actually be involved in regulating bodily functions and maybe even help cure diseases. Cancer too, why not?
Does meditation prevent aging?
The team studied 88 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatment at least three months were monitored, aged 55 years on average. All of the participants had to have experienced significant levels of emotional distress. The volunteers were grouped into three segments:
- Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group: participants 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.
- Supportive Expressive Therapy group: participants met for 90 minutes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide women in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.
- Control group: participants attended one, six-hour stress management seminar.
Before and after the study, each participants had their blood drawn and telemores measured. Lab reports show that both groups that underwent group therapy maintained their telomere length, while for the third group this had shortened.
Allison McPherson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. When she joined the study, she was placed in the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group. Today, she says that experience has been life-changing.
"I was skeptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus," says McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. "But I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it's reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others."
Study participant Deanne David was also placed in the mindfulness group.
"Being part of this made a huge difference to me," she says. "I think people involved in their own cancer journey would benefit from learning more about mindfulness and connecting with others who are going through the same things."
Next, the researchers plan on replicating the findings over a much longer period of observation than three months. While the research is definitely exciting on oh so many levels, we advise caution in receiving these findings.