Laughter might be the best medicine, but it’s definitely not the only natural healer on the block. Meditation, yoga, and support groups have long been claimed to offer health benefits, and science has just proved at least some of those claims true: all three make clear, measurable changes to people’s cells. Intriguing news, but don’t give up on your doctor’s office just yet.
The scientific proof about these all-natural methods comes from a team of Canadian researchers. As Science Alert reports, the team studied 88 breast cancer survivors who had “experienced significant levels of emotional distress.” They were divided into three test groups. One group went to 90-minute sessions once a week and were shown how to practice mindfulness meditation and do gentle yoga. The researchers also asked them to meditate and do yoga every day at home.
Of the other two groups, one went to weekly group meetings where they “talk[ed] openly about their concerns and feelings.” The last group attended a single seminar on stress management. The entire study is available online at the journal Cancer.
The results showed hard scientific proof that meditation, gentle yoga, and emotional support alter the body at a cellular level?specifically, our telomeres. In the meditation and support groups, the telomeres stayed the same length. In the third test group, the telomeres got shorter.
Why does this matter? Because telomeres are bits of your DNA; tiny protein caps that cover the ends of your chromosomes. You can think of them as the genetic equivalent to those little plastic covers that keep the ends of your shoelaces from fraying apart. Telomeres do sort of the same thing for your chromosomes. If you didn’t have them, your body would have a much harder time creating new cells and rebuilding itself. (Here’s a great explanation from the University of Utah Health Sciences, complete with graphics.)
The problem, though, is that telomeres don’t last forever. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter, until eventually there’s nothing left of them. It’s part of the aging process, and some researchers are studying the link between telomeres and disease.
So if meditation, yoga, and emotional support can change the length of telomeres, does that vault them to the exalted role of miracle cures? No, and you should be wary of anyone who tries to sell them as such.
Indeed, if there’s anything that this research shows, it’s that traditional and cutting-edge medicine often work best when combined. It reinforces the complementary ways that physical (surgery, chemotherapy) and mental (meditation, emotional support) techniques can be used to treat diseases. Even deadly ones like cancer.
Of course, many people deny the idea of a mind-body connection as nothing but New Age nonsense and insist that prescriptions or surgeries are the only cure. Others take it to a different extreme and refuse any sort of pharmaceutical or scientific treatment for what ails them, relying on vague claims and overpriced herbs.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and scientific research continues to bridge that gap. So next time you’re feeling under the weather, go ahead and see your doctor. And use that time in the waiting room to meditate.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.