Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Breast Cancer

With the current trend toward a healthy body and mind, the practice of mindfulness is becoming a regular part of a daily routine for many people. Mindfulness involves manipulating attention without judgment in order to keep focus in the present. Individuals practice mindfulness by paying attention to a particular task or by attending to breathing or a mantra (a particular word or a phrase) through meditation. 

In addition to improved relaxation and reduced stress, mindfulness is being explored as a possible complementary treatment for disease. A recent study suggests that mindfulness-based stress relief can have a protective effect on cells, particularly on telomere length and telomerase activity.

What are telomeres and telomerase?

The bundles of DNA on the ends of chromosomes, telomeres are known markers for cellular aging, psychological stress and risk for developing disease. Necessary for healthy cell division, telomeres become shorter each time a cell divides. However, when telomeres become too short for division, the cell dies. While it was originally thought this process was inevitable, a protective enzyme in cells called telomerase was discovered in 2009, which replenishes and lengthens telomeres.

Common diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and more are associated with shortened telomeres, as is chronic stress and pessimism. Chronic stress and negativity break down telomeres, causing cells - and eventually bodies - to age and die quicker. Naturally, researchers have been curious about what would happen when stress is better managed. Results have shown that reducing stress and increasing positivity boosts telomerase activity and promotes healthier telomere length.

It has also been proven that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reduces fears of recurrence and symptoms of anxiety and depression in breast cancer survivors. However, researchers wanted to learn the effects of MBSR on telomere length and telomerase activity in this group.

Published on the website, Biological Research for Nursing, a controlled study within a larger trial examined the effects of MBSR on the telomeres of 142 breast cancer patients who had completed radiation or chemotherapy at least two weeks before the study began. Each patient had also undergone lumpectomy and/or mastectomy within two years prior to the completion of radiation or chemotherapy. Patients were randomly assigned to six weeks of MBSR or standard care.

Measurements of telomere length and telomerase activity were taken three times throughout the 12-week study. Telomerase activity steadily increased over the study period in patients practicing MBSR, while there was no increase in the control group. Although there was no difference in the telomere length between groups, results offer promising implications for future research in boosting the longevity of cells.

How might MBSR result in longer telomeres?

Through regular mindfulness meditation, participants can actively cultivate positive moods and decrease negativity. Many experts believe this creates a stress-protecting effect in the cells of people who practice mindfulness and boosts levels of telomerase. It is thought that continued high levels of telomerase will eventually lengthen telomeres and therefore lengthen the lifespan of cells. More research is needed to validate these beliefs, but in the meantime, people who wish to lower stress levels and boost relaxation may want to practice mindfulness meditation.

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