Telomeres are the protective nucleoprotein structures located at the ends of chromosomes in the nuclei of cells. Telomeres shorten on each occasion that a cell replicates. Eventually the cell enters a state of senescence or cell death. Telomere length is thus important in studying cell ageing. In fact, shortening of telomeres is associated with a range of chronic medical conditions. Telomeres shorten with ageing. This shortening is increased when there is oxidative damage or chronic psychological stress.
Telomerase is a ribonucleoprotein reverse transcriptase cellular enzyme. Telomerase counteracts telomere shortening, i.e. it increases the length of telomeres. Thus telomerase activity is important in situations where there are shortened telomeres. In summary, telomeres are required for chromosome protection. Also, telomerase is essential for telomere maintenance. As a result, telomere shortening leads to cell death or ageing after many cell divisions. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to impact on telomere length.
Impact of Stress
Stress has multiple adverse effects. People struggle with multiple stressors: personal, caregiving, work, financial and societal pressures to name a few. Research on the effects of psychological stress on cell ageing shows that there is a link between stress and shortening of telomere length.
Threat Appraisal & Challenge Appraisal
We feel stressed when a situation harms or threatens important goals: This is known as a “threat appraisal”. Alternatively in a stressful situation, a person might see the possibility of doing well at coping and thus perceive the stressor as a challenge: This is known as a “challenge appraisal”. The threat appraisal is the harmful type of stress and is linked to cell ageing. Mindfulness meditation impact on telomeres is to mitigate the effect of stress on telomere length.
Meditative practices such as mindfulness meditation mitigates stress-related cognitions, negative emotions and stress arousal. So mindfulness practices help with adopting a “challenge appraisal”. This results in restoring balance and decreasing oxidative stress and thus affecting telomere length. In conclusion, mindfulness meditation training appears to confer a protective effect on telomeres.
Epel, E., et al. (2009). “Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.” Ann N Y Acad Sci 1172: 34-53.
Hoge, E. A., et al. (2013). “Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women.” Brain Behav Immun 32: 159-163
Guendelman, S., et al. (2017). “Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: Insights from Neurobiological, Psychological, and Clinical Studies.” Front Psychol 8: 220.
Recommended lecture on Telomerase and the consequence of Telomere Dysfunction by Dr Carol Grieder.