Telemeres, Telemerase, Ageing, and iRest

By: Richard Miller

I recently had the delightful opportunity to be at dinner with my friend, Elissa Epel, during which she announced the results of her new study that showed the vital role stress plays in our body’s ageing process (Cantor 2014). You may know that Elissa has been at the forefront of the pioneering research on the impact of stress and our ageing process, especially with telomeres and telomerase, two structures in our body that play vital roles in stress and ageing.

Among others, Elizabeth Blackburn (Brady 2009), who won the Nobel Prize-for her work with telomeres, and Elissa (Epel 2004, 2013), Director of the Aging, Metabolism and Emotion Center, both at UCSF, have discovered that stress doesn't just damage our health and well-being, it literally ages us. As Hans Selye so eloquently noted in the 1930s, “Every stress we experience leaves makes us a little older." Blackburn and Epel have shown that stress shortens our telomeres, the protective caps that reside at the end of each strand of DNA in our body. Our telomeres, it turns out, are worn down through the daily stresses we experience during our daily life. Luckily, our body’s produces the enzyme telomerase, which is responsible for rebuilding our telomeres each time they’re worn down. But, like everything else in life, our telomeres and ability to produce telomerase do wear out over time.

Researchers are linking the shortening of telomeres to stress levels experienced by healthy women, by Alzheimer's caregivers, by survivors of domestic abuse and trauma, as well as by people experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (Zhao, 2014; Lavretsky et al, 2013). Studies also reveal that the hormone cortisol, which is released during periods of stress, leads to decreases in telomerase and the subsequent erosion of our telomeres. Other studies are also showing how our health and medical issues such as inflammation, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's and stroke are all implicated in decreases in our ability to produce telomerase and shortening of our telomeres.

The question arises, then, as to how we can best increase reduce stress in our lives, increase our body’s ability to produce telomerase, and therefore protect our telomeres from becoming shortened and increase our ability to weather the ageing process. While studies show that getting a good amount of daily exercise, eating healthy foods, and engaging in healthy social relationships help overcome the effects of stress, one key ingredient in reducing stress, increasing telomerase, and keeping our telomeres healthy, is meditation. For instance, participants in a meditation course were shown to have 30 per cent higher levels of telomerase than folks in the control group. (Jacobs et al, 2013)

We know that meditation reduces stress as it enables us to learn how to be non-reactive to negative and stressful emotions and thoughts. And it helps us be more in the present moment instead of worrying about past or future events. One such meditation intervention, of course, is iRest Yoga Nidra, which teachings stress-reduction through progressive relaxation, engaging healthy breathing interventions, learning to step back and proactively engage and respond, rather than react to our emotions and thoughts, and experiencing regular periods of inner peace and well-being, no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or who we’re with.
So remember, every time you relax your body (take a moment now and soften your jaw and release your shoulders), extend your exhalation (take a moment to take a long exhale), welcome rather than fight with your emotions and thoughts, and welcome in the feeling of well-being, has a profound effect on your health and age. We may be growing younger with each iRest!

Brady, Catherine. (2009) Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA.
Cantor, M. (2014) Soda causes our cells to age as much as smoking does, study finds. Fox News. October 21.
Epel. E., Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., Lazaro, A.,  and Mendes, W.  (2013) Wandering Minds and Aging Cells. Clinical Psychological Science January. Vol. 1 no. 1 75-83.
Epel, E., Blackburn, E., Lin, Jue, Dhabhar, F., Adler, N., Morrow, J, and Cawthon, R. (2004) Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 101 no. 49. 
Jacobs T., Epel E., Lin J., Blackburn E., Wolkowitz O., Bridwell D., Zanesco A., Aichele S., Sahdra B., MacLean K., King B., Shaver P., Rosenberg E., Ferrer E, Wallace B., and Saron C. (2011) Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Jun;36(5):664-81
Lavretsky, H., Siddarth, H. Irwin, M. (2013) A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: Effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Jan. 28(1): 57-65.
Marchant, J. (2014) Can Meditation Really Slow Ageing? July 14.  
Ornish, D., Lin, J.,  Chan, J., Epel, E., Kemp, C., Weidner, G., Marlin, R., Frenda, S.,  Magbanua, M., Daubenmier, J., Estay, I.,  Hills, K., Chainani-Wu, N., Carroll, P., and Blackburn, E. (2013) Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. The Lancet Oncology, Volume 14, Issue 11, Pages 1112 - 
Zhao, J., Zhu, Y., Lin, J., Matsuguchi, T., Blackburn, E., Zhang, Y., Cole, S., Best, L., Lee., E. and Howared, B. (2014) Short Leukocyte Telomere Length Predicts Risk of Diabetes in American Indians: the Strong Heart Family Study. America Diabetes Association. Vol. 63 No. 1 354-362