Anti-Aging and Neuroplastic Effects of Sahaja meditation
In a day and age where we’re constantly bombarded with anti-aging concoctions, meditation, it turns out, may be an effective anti-aging solution that’s free, all-natural, and has no side-effects. And, of course, the anti-aging effect is just one of the many benefits that meditation offers. Through one mechanism or another, Sahaja meditation can influence every aspect of our well-being, all the way down to the cellular level. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that meditation reduces inflammation and other biological stresses that occur at the molecular level.
The evidence suggests that the cumulative effects of regular meditation could literally add years to your life.
One frequently cited study found that people who had been practicing meditation twice a day for 20 minutes for more than five years were physiologically 12 years younger than their chronological (biological) age, based on a standard measure of biological age that assesses such parameters as blood pressure, near-point vision, and auditory discrimination. Short-term meditators were found to be physiologically 5 years younger than their chronological age (Wallace et al, 1982).
What Ages Us?
Over time, certain physiological processes age the mind-body. Major culprits include: inflammation, oxidative stress and allostatic stress. Oxidative stress is a process in which free radicals or reactive oxygen molecules react destructively with the components of cells (e.g., nucleic acids such as DNA), ultimately damaging those cells. Oxidative stress leads to chronic inflammation and the immune system loses its ability to detoxify these reactive molecules or repair the resulting damage.
The chronic wear and tear of stress is sometimes referred to as allostatic load, which is the cumulative damage inflicted on the body as a result of chronic exposure to a heightened or wildly fluctuating neuroendocrine stress response, particularly a repeated triggering of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a brain-body circuit of organs, glands and hormones that play a critical role in how we respond to stress. When the HPA axis is unable to counter-regulate the immune system, allostatic overload occurs. When allostatic overload occurs, the body struggles to regain homeostasis or physiological equilibrium. Elements of allostasis that must remain balanced in order for us to be healthy include: neurotransmitters and neurohormones (e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine and cortisol), immune system components (e.g., interleukins, leukocytes), and cardiovascular parameters (e.g., blood pressure).
The Influence of Meditation at the Cellular and Molecular Levels
Several studies have highlighted the impact of meditation’s anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, and antioxidant effects, as well as its ability to enhance the production of endogenous (natural) substances that possess regenerative properties and enhance longevity. For example, meditation has been found to help protect allostasis and guard against neuronal loss, which not only has an anti-aging effect but also leads to improved cognitive function (Olivio, 2009).
Meditation reduces inflammation.
Meditation’s ability to help reduce inflammation is critical because inflammation plays a significant role in driving the disease process for a host of serious illnesses, including cancer, cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, arthritis and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Studies have shown that meditation can even regulate the expression of certain genes that play a role in causing inflammation; for example, meditation has been found to significantly reduce the pro-inflammatory gene expression and blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation (Creswell et al, 2012).
Meditation reduces oxidative stress.
One way that meditation helps prevent illness is by reducing the level of oxidative stress in our bodies. Several studies have found that oxidative stress and oxidative damage are significantly lower among those who practice meditation (Kim et al, 2005; Van Wijk et al, 2008; Sharma et al, 2008). Two 2013 clinical studies found that Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on oxidative stress, endothelial function, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and heart rate variability (HRV). HRV and endothelial function improved and blood cortisol levels significantly decreased, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels in long-term Sahaja meditators, compared to the non-meditating control population (Rai et al, 2013).
Meditation increases telomerase activity.
Chronic psychological distress diminishes telomerase activity, but several studies have shown that meditation has a positive effect on cellular integrity by increasing telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that keeps immune cells young by preserving their telomere length and their ability to continue dividing. Telomeres are the DNA segments and protective caps located at the end of chromosomes that ensure stability of the genetic material during normal cell division. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides, and when their length decreases below a critical threshold, the cell stops dividing and gradually senesces or deteriorates. Telomerase, however, counteracts telomere shortening, thus telomerase activity is a predictor of long-term cellular viability.
One study found that a 3-month meditation retreat significantly increased telomerase activity by decreasing two major contributors to stress: Perceived Control and Neuroticism. Meditators felt less anxious and more in control over outcomes, which decreased stress and thus increased telomerase activity (Jacobs et al, 2011).
One study funded by NCCAM (the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) found that a lifestyle modification program that included meditation, aerobic exercise, good nutrition and increased social support increased telomerase levels by 29.8 percent in men with prostate cancer (Ornish et al, 2008).
Another study found that meditation slows cellular aging and protects chromosomes by decreasing oxidative stress and improving the meditator’s endocrine balance; i.e., decreasing stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) and increasing hormones that protect the telomere (Epel, 2009).
Meditation Enhances Immunity
Recent studies shed light on the many ways that meditation may enhance the immune system, thus increasing longevity. Sahaja meditation helps modulate the body’s natural stress-immune response in a number of ways, including: increasing disease-fighting T-cell activity, increasing antibody production, reducing oxidative stress, preventing immune cell death, and slowing cellular aging. For example, meditation has even been found to boost immune function in people with cancer; for example, in men with prostate cancer (Carlson et al, 2003) and women with breast cancer (Walker, 1999; Carlson et al, 2003).
Meditation boosts antibody production.
One study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness (MBSR or mindfulness-based stress reduction) meditation produced 5 to 25 percent more antibodies in people who had received an influenza flu vaccine. Researchers also found that a significantly increased left-sided, anterior brain activation (a pattern indicating positive emotions) in meditators (compared to non-meditating controls) and that this activity was associated with the rise in antibodies (Davidson et al, 2003).
Meditation increases melatonin (e.g., Tooley et al, 2000), which acts as an antioxidant and immunomodulator, stimulating the immune system and the antioxydative defense system, thus delaying aging (Massion et al., 1995).
Good coping skills increase T-cell activity.
A healthy immune system can manufacture more T-cells, those natural killer cells that have the ability to recognize and selectively target, for example, tumor cells or virus-infected cells. One Harvard Medical School study found that the natural killer T-cell activity of people with high daily stress but low distress was 3 times higher than that of people with lower stress but greater symptoms of distress. In other words, people who had good coping skills, even though they were under high daily stress, had stronger immune systems than people with lower daily stress but poor coping skills (Locke et al, 1984). Poor coping was found to decrease the activity of natural killer cells, whereas good coping skills produced the highest T cell activity. In other words, the way we manage stress directly affects our health.
(For an in-depth look at how Sahaja meditation improves immunity, see
How Stress Impacts the Immune System
How Meditation Boosts Immunity, From the Cellular Level Up.)
Improved Cardiovascular Health
Stress and illness can arise when the body’s physiological systems are not integrated with the holistic “inner intelligence” of the body. One result is a loss of homeostasis in the cardiovascular system, which might be expressed as higher blood pressure or increased atherosclerosis (arterial plaque buildup). Every physiological process that ages any aspect of the mind-body always takes a toll on the heart.
Sahaja meditation regulates the autonomic nervous system, reducing physiological arousal and triggering key physiological changes such as: reduced respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure and regulation of blood glucose and the stress hormone cortisol. Here’s what a couple of recent Sahaja studies revealed…
- One 2012 2-week trial of Sahaja meditation found that hypertensive participants who received meditation treatment signiﬁcantly improved both systolic (9.4 mm Hg decrease) and diastolic (12.32 mm Hg decrease) blood pressure and had better blood pressure control than control hypertensives who received only conventional Western medical treatment. (Chung et al, 2012). This study found that the therapeutic effect of Sahaja meditation was achieved during the state of thoughtless awareness where participants were better able to introspect, address, and resolve the distress caused by negative thoughts and emotions.
- A large, randomized 2013 study of long-term Sahaja meditators (corroborated in a second study of people with diabetes and cardiac dysfunction) found that just 20 minutes per day of Sahaja meditation had a significant effect on endothelial function, oxidative stress, serum cortisol, perceived stress levels and heart rate variability (HRV). Meditation improved HRV and endothelial function and significantly decreased blood cortisol levels, which decreased oxidative stress and perceived stress levels. In addition to comparable results for these variables, the second study of the diabetic group showed: marked reductions in systolic blood pressure and cortisol; increased levels of the vasodilator nitric oxide, which improved blood flow; marked reduction in bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides; significant improvement in good cholesterol (HDL) levels; and a significant reduction in fasting blood glucose (Rai et al, 2013).
The endothelial improvements noted in the Rai studies are particularly relevant to the aging effect of oxidative stress. The endothelium, a thin layer of flat cells lining interior surfaces of the circulatory system (such as blood and lymphatic vessels and the heart), maintains circulation. One of the endothelium’s primary jobs is releasing nitric oxide, which signals the arteries to relax and dilate, providing healthy blood flow throughout the body. But oxidative stress deactivates nitric oxide, which contributes to endothelial dysfunction. Endothelial dysfunction, in turn, contributes to building blockages in arteries, which elevates the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
(For an in-depth look at how Sahaja meditation improves cardiovascular health, see Meditation’s Influence on Hypertension and Cardiovascular Health).
Not only can meditation reduce, delay and diminish the effects of aging, it may actually help promote longevity and increase life span. Part of the secret is meditation’s ability to promote plasticity in the brain.
How Increased Neuroplasticity Promotes Longevity
What is Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to increase the structure and number of neurons (brain cells), reorganize neural pathways and connections (synapses), and even alter brain structures. Not only does neuroplasticity allow us to learn, form new memories and incorporate wisdom from new experiences, it allows us to adapt and change to maximize function or compensate for lost function resulting from injury or disease.
Some degree of neuroplasticity occurs naturally throughout our lives, especially in our early developmental years.
Unfortunately, our brains shrink naturally with age, but the regular practice of Sahaja meditation can produce structural changes in the brain that improve cognitive functioning and ward off the effects of aging. In other words, meditation helps kickstart neuroplasticity, shaping how our brains grow and change over time by enhancing positive effects and diminishing the impact of negative effects, such as aging.
Meditation takes advantage of the brain’s natural plasticity to induce structural changes to the brain, thus lasting changes in cognitive and emotional processing.
Here are a few highlights of studies that demonstrate the anti-aging and neuroplastic effects of meditation…
- A 2016 MRI/Voxel-Based Morphometry study showed that long-term practice of Sahaja meditation may increase neuroplasticity (Hernández et al, 2016). The study found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume (GMV) across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique. Gray matter volume was found to be particularly enlarged in brain regions associated with sustained attention, cognitive performance, emotional control, and socio-emotional intelligence. Increased gray matter increases neuronal activation, which improves corresponding functions and capabilities. GMV is known to increase in childhood, peak in adolescence, and progressively decrease with age across adulthood. Thus, Sahaja meditation’s ability to promote gray matter neuroplasticity in adults may help diminish the normal age-related decline in GMV and promote a younger brain structure pattern overall.
- In a 2009 MRI study, UCLA researchers found that meditation functions like “push-ups” for the brain, improving memory, reasoning, creativity, learning, motivation. Studies at UCLA found that the brains of active meditators were larger and contained more gray matter than the brains of non-meditators (Holzel et al, 2007, 2008).
- In 2011, UCLA diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) studies found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue (which facilitates stronger, faster electrical connections between brain regions) was considerably reduced in meditators. In fact, the white-matter fibers were more numerous, more dense and better insulated throughout the brains of meditators, improving critical aspects of cognitive functioning… intelligence, reasoning ability, memory, creativity, learning, reaction time and efficiency, emotional stability and self-actualization (the ability to achieve one’s potential). In fact, these meditation-related improvements were most pronounced in older meditators, suggesting that meditation can help offset natural offset age-related cortical thinning and reduction of gray matter. (Luders et al, 2011).
- Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University have shown that the cortical brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing are thicker and higher functioning in people who meditate regularly (Lazar et al, 2005). Sustained attention (as occurs in meditation) has been associated with increased cortical thickness in the right hemisphere of the brain (Lazar et al, 2005; Posner, M, Rothbart, M, 2007).
- Meditation has been found to actually alter the fundamental electrical balance between the brain’s cerebral hemispheres (Cahn and Polich, 2006), increasing synchrony between emotional processing and reason, which leads to better decision-making. The long-term meditator’s brain is better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized and more efficient.
Enhanced Emotional Well-Being and Psychological Thriving
Both psychological and physiological health depends on our ability to effectively cope with stressors.
Sahaja meditation boosts our ability to cope with stressors and increases our long-term resilience. The net result is not just survival, but true psychological thriving.
Stress impedes our ability to accurately appraise stressors and accurate appraisals are necessary for effective coping. Meditation helps us manage stress and teaches us to adapt and cope, rather than remaining rigid in our thinking. We’re able to analyze situations objectively, rather than view them through a lens of false, distorted projections or fear-based beliefs that only lead to more stress and an overworked immune system, which endangers cellular longevity. Meditation helps us develop cognitive shifts that reorganize our outlook on life, which improves our ability to appraise more situations as challenges rather than threats, and facilitates positive coping (Epel, 2009). But these shifts are more than just coping strategies or acute stressor appraisals. They’re not tied to specific situations; rather, they serve as meta-cognitions about our lives. They stay with us, perhaps becoming ingrained schemas that affect all our future appraisals.
Meditation, effectively, acts as a stress-buffer. In increasing our awareness of present moment experience, meditation increases positive thoughts and feelings, gives us a sense of control, increases acceptance of our emotional experience, and enhances our ability to accurately appraise stressful situations. Thus, meditation reduces the likelihood of rumination, exaggerated threat appraisals, and distress about distress. Some studies have shown that increasing positive emotional states and decreasing stress cognitions may, in turn, slow the rate of cellular aging (Epel et al, 2004).
Psychological thriving promotes physical thriving, in part, by enhancing allostasis. Allostasis allows the body to adapt and respond to constantly changing environments or stressors in order to regain homeostasis or physiological equilibrium. The result is quicker recovery and more balanced metabolic functioning after stress (Epel et al, 1998).
The practice of Sahaja meditation triggers a set of adaptive responses at the cortical, autonomic, neuroendocrine, and cardiovascular levels that restore homeostatic and self-repair mechanisms.
Neuroimaging studies of Sahaja meditation, for example, have demonstrated that the state of thoughtless awareness involves a communication loop between the brain’s frontal lobes (responsible for rational thought, behavior, learning, personality, and voluntary movement) and the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional processing (Aftanas, Golosheykin, 2001, 2002, 2005). Structural imaging studies of Sahaja meditation suggest that the increased gray matter volume in attention and emotional regulation regions experienced by long-term Sahaja practitioners may help exert top-down emotional regulation (Reva et al, 2015; Hernández et al, 2016). Thus, meditation can actually intervene and mediate between our thoughts and emotions, ultimately enabling us to become better self-regulators.
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