A March 2011 study conducted by Elissa Epel, PhD and Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, among others, sought to discover the ways in which stress affects the human body. Specifically, Epel (UCSF) and Blackburn (UCSF) aimed to use previously studied biomarkers to determine how psychological stress and, conversely, psychological well-being, impact human lifespan, healthspan, and susceptibility to chronic illness. The human telomere was used as the biomarker, along with the enzyme that maintains and replenishes telomere lengths, telomerase.
The study is prefaced with the following: “The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and possibly organismal longevity. Telomere length has now been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. This raises the question of how might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning.”
Seizing on this question, researchers at UC Davis conducted a study to find out how meditation impacts telomeres, and therefore how meditation and increased mindfulness influences human healthspan.
The Shamatha Project, lead by Tonya Jacobs and Clifford Saron, measured telomerase activity in participants of a three-month, intensive meditation retreat. In the retreat itself, lead by B Alan Wallace, subjects meditated in groups twice daily, and individually for six hours a day.
A goal of the Shamatha Project, which is the most comprehensive study of its kind, is to study the psychological and physiological processes that occur with positive changes in emotions and well-being.
The randomized, controlled study was set up to investigate how intensive meditation training affects human thought processes and emotions. To do this, researchers used cognitive perceptual tasks, emotional provocation, questionnaires, and physiological and biochemical monitoring to evaluate participants’ skills and behaviors before, during and after extended mediation sessions.
Meditation was found to have beneficial effects on both mental and physical health.
Those who participated in intensive meditation training showed significant improvements in attention, emotions and well-being five months after the retreat ended. Important gains were also seen in the biomarker enzyme telomerase, which was 30% more active in retreat participants than in members of the control group.
In addition to seeing positive emotional and psychological shifts, telomerase, which preserves genetic material during cell division and ensures cell longevity, was found to be considerably more active in retreat participants versus the control group. The study’s website states, “telomerase activity was related to meditation-induced changes in well-being.”
“The take home message from this work,” says Saron, “is not that meditation directly increases telomerase activity and therefore a person’s health and longevity. Rather, meditation may improve a person’s psychological wellbeing and in turn these changes are related to telomerase activity in cells, which have the potential to promote longevity in those cells.”
The Shamatha Project is the first study to show a relationship between beneficial changes in psychological state and telomerase activity.