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Lions Roar : September 2018
Another 2014 study found increases in IL-10 in colitis patients who took a mindfulness meditation course com- pared to a matched mind–body edu- cational program, especially among patients whose colitis had flared up. This supports the idea that mindfulness some- how impacts our immune response. Studies have found impacts on mark- ers of inflammation, too—like C-reactive protein, which in higher levels negatively impacts physical health. In one 2007 study published in Arthritis and Rheuma- tology, people with rheumatoid arthritis had reduced CRP levels if assigned to an MBSR intervention versus a waiting list for the treatment. Overall, these findings suggest that mindfulness meditation can have disease-fighting powers through our immune response. MINDFULNESS MAY REDUCE CELL AGING. Cell aging—marked by cell-shortening—occurs naturally as cells repeatedly divide over our lifespan. It can also be increased by disease or stress. Proteins called telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes and serve to protect cells from aging, seem to be impacted by mindfulness meditation. In a 2014 experimental study published in Cancer, research- ers found that breast cancer survivors who went through MBSR preserved the length of their telomeres better than those who were on a waitlist control. However, this study also found general supportive therapies to impact telomere length, so it may not be something special about MBSR that impacts cell aging. On the other hand, other studies with breast cancer survivors have found no differences in telomere length after taking an MBSR course, but have found differences in telomere activity, which is also tied to cell aging. In fact, a 2018 meta-analysis of research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology ties mindful- ness training to increased telomere activity, suggesting it indi- rectly affects the integrity of telomeres in our cells. That’s one reason why scientists are at least optimistic about the positive impacts of meditation on aging. MINDFULNESS MAY HELP REDUCE PSYCHOLOGICAL PAIN, WHICH IN TURN HELPS PEOPLE HEAL. Of course, while the above physiological impacts of mindful- ness are interesting, we shouldn’t forget that mindfulness also impacts our psychological well-being, which in turn affects physical health. In fact, it’s quite likely that these changes have synergistic effects on one another. Many studies suggest that mindfulness can play a supportive role in health care by helping people to cope with pain, stress, anxiety, and depression. For example, drug addictions, at heart, come about because of physiological cravings for a substance that temporarily relieves psychological suffering. Mindfulness can be a useful adjunct to addiction treatment by helping people better understand and tolerate their cravings, potentially help- ing them to avoid relapse after they’ve been safely weaned off of drugs or alcohol. The same has been found for people struggling with over-eating. Thanks to Jon-Kabat Zinn’s pioneering Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program, there’s now a large body of research showing that mindfulness can help people cope with the pain, anxiety, depression, and stress that might accompany illness, especially chronic conditions. And, perhaps, that’s its most ben- eficial effect. As renowned happiness researcher Richard Layard suggests, mental health is key to life satisfaction for people around the world—more important than income, education, and, yes, even physical health. So, anything that helps us keep our mental health strong and intact is a potential boost to our well-being. In fact, meditation’s impacts on physical health and emo- tional health may be difficult to separate, as psychological stress has been tied to heart health, immune response, and telomere length. This idea is further supported by the fact that other stress-reducing therapies also seem to impact physical health as well. It’s encouraging to know that something, which can be taught and practiced, can have an impact on our overall health—physical and mental. That’s reason enough to give meditation a try. ♦ Although nothing suggests meditation is a stand-alone treatment for disease, nor the most important ingredient for a healthy life, there are many ways it appears to benefit us physically. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 61