Mindfulness meditation and the immune system

While mindfulness meditation can have tremendous effects on the mind and the heart, it can also greatly influence the body in a physical way. In some cases, mind really is over matter, and more and more studies are now managing to prove that. For many researchers, the mind could have this wonderful power of having an effect on health. That being said, the effect can be positive as much as negative. You probably must have heard about the negative effects the mind can trigger on one’s health, for example through the consequences of chronic stress and anxiety. Indeed, it is now well known that stress can be the cause of sleeping issues – themselves causing a whole lot of new negative physical effects –, digestive problems, muscular trouble and even some forms of cancer in the long run.

Now, what you may not be aware of is that the mind, notably thanks to the processes of positive thinking and mindful meditation, can also cure the body, can also improve the health when the body is sick. Recently, a group of Canadian researchers led by Dr. Linda E. Carlson discovered that mindfulness meditation and support groups – in which positive thinking is very often practiced and experienced with other patients – are associated with preserved telomere length.

As we dig into scientific terms, let us quickly define what a telomere is (I have to admit here I myself had no idea before I actually did some research for the sake of this article). Well, a telomere is something that prevents the chromosomes from deteriorating, they keep them in a sort of ‘good health’. They are part of the DNA, stretches of it more exactly, and cap the chromosomes to protect them. If the telomeres happen to shorten prematurely, conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer are very likely to develop. Indeed, scientists had previously discovered that people dying from ‘old age’ were actually dying from the shortening, the wearing down of the telomeres, causing exhaustion of the stem-cells.

Let us come back to our main topic now: how can mindfulness meditation can help keeping the telomeres long? How did the scientists find that out? A study was conducted on 88 women who were breast cancer survivors. These women were divided in three groups: one group practicing mindfulness meditation and yoga for eight weeks, one group assigned to twelve weeks of group therapy, and one group receiving a six-hour stress management course. Of course, the telomeres were measured before and after the study. At the end of the project, results showed that while the first group roughly kept the same telomeres length, the latter shortened in the third group. In addition, Dr. Carlson stated that “generally healthy people I a work-based mindfulness stress reduction program have been shown to produce higher antibody titers to the flu vaccine than controls, and there has been promising work looking at the effect of mindfulness in HIV and diabetes”. There are several good news in that statement. First you do not need to be sick to experience the benefits of mindfulness meditation physically, on your body. Indeed, what is implied in Dr. Carlson’s statement is that this type of meditation could strengthen the immune system of persons in generally good health. Then, mindfulness meditation could prove to help HIV and diabetes patients in the fight against their illness.

Twenty years ago, a group of scientists from the Department of Medicine of the Ulleval University Hospital in Oslo (Norway) had already managed to prove that mindfulness meditation could be a way to improve the quality of the immune system, especially after the body had been put through a strenuous physical stress. To conduct their study, they used a panel of twelve males running regularly and taking part in at least one competition over 10 kilometers every year. Half of the group practiced meditation, while the other half did not. You may ask now why use men exercising regularly, as we might assume they are in better health than the average population. Well, intense physical training may actually be responsible for a decrease of the normal immune response when the body is facing infectious agents. As a matter of fact, infection susceptibility tends to be higher among athletes compared to the rest of the population. The thinking pattern of the researchers was the following: if stress, physical in that case, could be the trigger of a poorer immune response, stress management and reduction, through meditation, could well be the solution to bring the immune system up again.

What mindfulness meditation is actually doing is that it is modifying the response of the immune system when exposed to intense physical stress. In other words, what happens is not that the immune system is brought down after the effort and then brought up again thanks to meditation, but the meditation actually suppresses the decrease of the immune response.

Further studies still need to be conducted in the years to come to confirm these first theories, and the good news is that the scientific community seems to be taking a particular interest in the topic. This is yet another great example of what the mind can achieve when you put it to work. If we become fully able to prevent illnesses, or to slow their growth (in the case of HIV for instance) when they are already there then truly, anything is possible.

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