Mindfulness meditation is known to have a positive emotional and psychological impact on cancer survivors. But some groundbreaking new research has found that meditation is also doing its work on the physical bodies of cancer survivors, with positive impacts extending down to the cellular level.
Practicing mindfulness meditation or being involved in a social support group causes positive cellular changes in breast cancer survivors, according to researchers at the Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary.
"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," lead researcher Dr. Linda Carlson of the Tom Baker Cancer Center at Albert Health Services, said in a statement.
Publishing in the journal Cancer, Carlson and team found that telomeres (DNA sequences at the end of chromosomes) were longer among a group of breast cancer survivors who had a mindfulness practice or participated in a support group, compared to survivors who didn't have these interventions.
Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the end of every cell's chromosomes that protect the integrity of its genetic information. As cells divide, telomeres shed some of their length. In other words, telomeres shorten with age and are often associated with diseases such as cancer. Telomere length is also associated with breast cancer outcomes, reported the researchers, and longer telomeres are generally considered a sign of good health.
The researchers tested a group of 88 breast cancer survivors, at an average age of 55 years old, who had completed their treatment a minimum of three months earlier (although most had been in recovery for two years). All women who took part in the study were experiencing significant emotional distress.
The group that took part in Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery attended eight 90-minute weekly sessions with instruction in meditation and gentle yoga, and were asked to practice 45 minutes of meditation and yoga at home each day. The Supportive Expressive Therapy group participated in 12 90-minute weekly group support classes, in which they were encouraged to share their emotions freely and seek support from other women. The control group attended one six-hour stress management seminar.
All participants had their blood analyzed and telomeres measured before and after the interventions, and participants in both the mindfulness and support group interventions were found to have longer telomeres. Carlson says that it was surprising to see any changes at all in telomeres after such a short test period.
While there was no statistically significant difference in telomere length between participants in the mindfulness and the support group interventions, mindfulness training had more extensive psychological benefits, which Carlson and colleagues reported on in a 2013 paper.
So how is it that psychosocial practices can have physical benefits that extend down to the cellular level? Carlson explains that mental and emotional states have an effect on the body's biomarkers, particularly signs of stress.
"We have known for a long time that psychological states affect biomarkers in the body," Carlson said in an email to The Huffington Post. "For example, depression is associated with inflammation in the immune system and heart disease, and stress results in activation of cortisol and other stress hormones, and increases susceptibility to the common cold and other viruses. How exactly this makes its way specifically down to the telomeres in the cells is currently unknown, however. It is a topic of much interest for researchers in this area."
Previous research on the physical impacts of mindfulness practices have also found that meditation can limit the expression of genes associated with inflammation.
Carlson's new study joins a growing body of research which has demonstrated mindfulness practices to have significant positive impacts for cancer patients and survivors. Meditation has been found to lessen some symptoms associated with cancer in teenagers, and it may reduce pain among children with cancer. Among survivors of breast cancer specifically, mindfulness meditation has been found to improve physical and emotional well-being.