A study published in Cancer suggests that our minds have a great influence on our bodies — more specifically on our DNA. Lead investigator Dr. Linda E. Carlson and her colleagues found that support group involvement and mindfulness meditation are associated with preserved telomere length in breast cancer patients.
Telomeres are the protective structures at the end of chromosomes. While their disease-controlling properties are not fully understood, we know that shortened telomeres are associated with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high stress levels, and cell-aging, whereas longer telomeres are thought to prevent disease. In other words, we want our telomeres to maintain their length and strength. Deterioration is not ideal.
Apparently, meditation and support groups work against that deterioration.
"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 Carlson, in a press release.
For the study, 88 emotionally-distressed breast cancer survivors were divided into three groups. The first group was randomly assigned to an 8-week, Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group; the second to a 12-week Supportive Expressive Therapy group in which they were encouraged to share their feelings; and the third was a control group in which they only received a 6-hour stress management course. The researchers analyzed the women's blood for telomere length before and after the sessions had been completed.
They found that telomere length was maintained in both treatment groups but shortened in the control group. However, they don't know how lasting the effects are. Carlson said that there is a need for further research is to see if the psychosocial interventions have a positive impact beyond the three-month study period.
"The meaning of the maintenance of telomere length in this study is unknown. However, I think that processing difficult emotions is important for both emotional and physical health, and this can be done both through group support with emotional expression, and through mindfulness meditation practice," Carlson told Scientific American.
One of the study's participants, Allison McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries, agrees with Carlson. She was placed in the mindfulness group. "I was skeptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus," she said, "But I now practice mindfulness throughout the day, and it's reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others."
The therapeutic possibilities of the mind-body connection are now common knowledge. People use meditation to treat pain, sleep problems, and headaches, among countless other conditions. This study is groundbreaking because it brings our DNA into the picture. It supports the idea that while we can't control the genes we inherit, we can protect them — and possibly extend our lives — by altering our lifestyles.
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