We call them “mind-body” interventions for a reason. Things like meditation, relaxation, hypnosis, imagery – even yoga – are often classified as mind-body interventions, meaning they are typically things you intentionally do with your mind that also affect your body. Of course, this division or split between mind and body is a false one to begin with. We are not walking heads somehow disconnected from everything else below the neck! Every state of mind has a corresponding state of body. When we are nervous, we feel butterflies in our belly or pounding in our chest; when we are sad, we feel tightening in our throat or heaviness in our chest. Other things are also going on that we may not directly feel, like changes in our immune cells and hormones.
So just what is going on at a cellular level when we experience various psychological states like stress or depression? A large body of research has associated stress with enhanced vulnerability to viruses such as the common cold. More recently, researchers have looked at molecules called “telomeres,” which are markers of cell aging. These are specialized proteins that form the protective ends of chromosomes, and provide stability to the cells. Telomeres become shorter with each round of cell division, and can be affected by toxins in the cellular environment; when a critically short telomere length is reached, cells enter old age and stop functioning properly. Shorter telomere length has been associated with the development and progress of a number of different diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
We wanted to see if mind-body interventions could also affect telomere length. This had never been investigated before, but we thought if stress was associated with shorter telomeres, maybe stress reduction could help to lengthen them. So we conducted a study of breast cancer survivors who were still feeling moderate to severe distress. They participated in either: 1) mindfulness meditation and yoga groups (for eight weeks); 2) emotionally supportive and expressive therapy groups (for 12 weeks); or 3) a control condition of usual care plus a one-day stress management seminar.
While the women in the usual care group showed a shortening of telomere length over the three-month study period, the women who had either of the longer group interventions showed maintenance of their telomere lengths over time. The women in the interventions also showed healthier patterns of the stress hormone cortisol.
So what does this all mean? We don’t know if the size of the effect would be big enough to be meaningful or affect disease outcomes, or even whether the group differences would persist over time. This study is compelling, though, because it’s the first to show that any short psychosocial intervention can change this potentially important marker of cell aging.
It’s also more proof of the power of the mind and the interconnectedness of mind and body.
The first part of this study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, while the telomere length findings are currently under review: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23918953.