It’s been about a year and a half since I wrote to you about spontaneous remission and the power of mind-body medicine (see Newsletter #398).
I’m happy to report some fantastic things are taking place in this field. Scientific research is showing strong support for the therapeutic value of meditation and similar practices, and more health practitioners are embracing them.
In fact, scientists now know that healthy changes take place at the level of individual cells if you engagee in these practices. Keep reading for the full story. . .
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Newsflash: Meditation improves physical wellness
It’s pretty well-known that meditation and other mind-body therapies provide emotional benefits, such as helping you de-stress and develop a more positive outlook on life. But recent research shows that meditation also produces measurable physical benefits, especially if you’re a cancer survivor.
I’m referring to some fascinating findings recently published in the journal Cancer. In a randomized, controlled study, researchers examined whether mindfulness-based cancer recovery helps breast cancer survivors on a physical level.
The researchers worked with three groups of breast cancer survivors: A control group, plus two groups who received interventions involving mind-body therapies.
One of the groups was trained in mindful meditation and gentle Hatha yoga. Each week for eight weeks, participants attended an hour-and-a-half session. They were also asked to practice their meditation and yoga at home, daily, for 45 minutes at a time.
The second group underwent group therapy with a focus on emotional expression. They met once a week for an hour and a half in a group setting where they were encouraged to talk and share their concerns and feelings.
The control group attended a single, six-hour stress management seminar.
There were 88 participants in all, and each had completed their treatment at least three months prior to the study. All were over age 55 and had experienced significant levels of emotional distress (a requirement to participate in the study).
You could see the results in their cells
The results of the study were striking. Researchers measured telomere length of the participants over a three-month period and found that both of the groups who received longer-term psychosocial interventions had a trend toward maintaining their telomere length. Those in the control group saw their telomere length decrease.
This is incredible for several reasons. Telomeres are the protein caps at the ends of your chromosomes. They basically keep the ends of your chromosomes from deteriorating, much the same way the caps on the ends of shoelaces keep them from unraveling.
Recent studies show that telomere length affects the pace of aging and the onset of disease, so you really want to keep those chromosomal tails as long as possible. Interestingly, telomere length has also been associated with breast cancer prognosis.
Though a lot of questions about telomeres remain unanswered, one thing that’s clear is that they’re somehow involved in regulating disease. The longer your telomeres, the more likely you are to be protected from several diseases, including cancer. So it’s a huge breakthrough if simple meditation and related practices can keep your telomeres from shortening.
Proof the mind-body connection really does exist
The fact that mental and emotional states can affect the body’s biomarkers is nothing new. Stress is a prime example, as it activates the release of cortisol and other stress hormones and makes you more likely to catch infections like colds and viruses. Depression is known to be associated with heart disease and inflammation in the immune system.
What is yet to be determined is exactly how these emotions affect you on the cellular level, and in particular your telomere length. But at least now we know there’s a direct connection, and that’s more than half the battle.
Admittedly, this isn’t the first time mindful meditation has been connected to a cellular response. In a 2013 study conducted by a group of researchers spanning Wisconsin, France, and Spain, it was found that mindfulness can limit the “expression” of genes associated with inflammation.
And in a 2005 study, men and women who meditated just 40 minutes a day had thicker cortical walls than did non-meditators. This feature of the brain’s cortex is associated with decision-making, attention, and memory. So effectively, these people’s brains were aging at a slower rate.
Don’t wait to get started
In a way, it’s no surprise that mind-based awareness can have such a profound effect on health in general and cancer in particular. But it is a relief that increasing amounts of proof are being found in a form scientists are willing to embrace, because that opens the door wide for funding and further research.
If you want to incorporate mindful meditation into your own healthcare regime, follow these basic steps:
- Find a comfortable, quiet spot with as few distractions as possible.
- Decide how long you plan to sit – even five or ten minutes can bring benefits. Set a timer.
- Once you’re comfortably settled, perhaps sitting on a blanket or pillow, pay attention to your breath.
- If your attention wanders, bring it back to your breath. Notice the flow of air into your body, and then back out again.
For more guidance on learning mindful meditation, read this article from Mindful magazine. There are also specific Christian meditative practices if you wish to practice mindfulness within your religious tradition. Contrary to what many think, meditation is not the sole property of Eastern religions.