I saw this comment written by a lady recently on the London Meditation Centre facebook page: "My meditation is such a rock to me. I can't imagine life without it. Plus I've been told a lot recently how much younger I'm looking and have I had Botox!? 'No', I reply, 'I've discovered eyelash curlers and practice regular meditation'.... I feel so much calmer, more grounded and at ease."
Another commentator replied: "True. I'm 65, and recently someone said to me, "Oh, I thought you were about my age, 40 or so!" I've been meditating 40 years, and, apparently, it's taken 20 years off my apparent age!"
It got me thinking...in a world where we are bombarded by the latest anti aging beauty products at every corner, often at exorbitant prices, could the secret to eternal youth really be in something as simple as meditation?
Image courtesy Flickr under Creative Commons licence
Research in this area is starting to get interesting. Although it isn't quite as thoroughly explored as nutrition or fitness (yet), there has to be a reason why meditation has been around for thousands of years.
Thanks to a new generation of brain-imaging studies and serious clinical trials, scientists from a range of fields are starting to compile evidence that rather than simply being a transient mental experience used for spiritual or relaxation purposes, meditation may have long-term implications for physical health.
I came across a great article by Jo Marchant in The Guardian about the recent Shamatha project that took place at Shambhala Mountain Centre, Colorado, in 2011. As part of their experiment they used recent brain imaging techniques to study Telomeres (compound structures that protect our chromosomes, a bit like the plastic on the end of a shoelace that stops it fraying). Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. This enzyme declines with age. When telomeres get too short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.
What researchers found that at the end of the retreat, was that meditators had significantly higher telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their telomeres were better protected. In theory this means that meditation might slow or even reverse cellular ageing.
Shamatha project is the first to suggest that meditation plays a role in cellular ageing - and if this gets confirmed it could be a potentially groundbreaking results for scientific studies into meditation.
Brain imaging has been successful in showing that meditation brings about so much more than just a simple state of relaxation. It shows that meditation triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and cognitive processes.
The Journal of Neuroscience have also published a paper stating that people who have regularly meditated for over 5 years or more have a biological age of 12 -15 years younger than those who don't.
This is because regular deep meditation practice dramatically affects production of three important age-affecting hormones: Increasing DHEA (the youth hormone), melatonin (the sleep hormone), and decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone).
I certainly feel that meditation is one of my most effective tools for reducing stress and must be part of the reason why experienced meditators live so long and look so young!
Other studies have shown that meditation can help strengthen the immune system and promote healing of illnesses that crop up as we age. One study I came across showed that when patients with psoriasis listened to meditation tapes during light therapy, they healed four times faster than those who didn't relax. Psoriasis is an uncontrolled cell growth, which makes me wonder about the effect of meditation on telomerase activity again. I hope more research is carried out soon in this area.
Beyond reducing physical symptoms, it seems that meditators have a more positive attitude about their body's, with fewer anxieties and negative thoughts. This is great as a negative attitude to ageing isn't going to help anyone. Even though it's an internal practice, meditation opens you up to the world, engages you in the present moment and keeps you interested and curious in what's going on around you. I believe a sense of playfulness that keeps you feeling young is just as important, if not more so, than looking young.
So why not give it a go? There are so many meditation techniques to pick from, be it deep breathing, visualisation, yoga, repetitive mantra and mindfulness (which includes deliberately focusing on the sensations of the task at hand, like doing the washing up, drinking tea, or eating a piece of chocolate).
Try to set aside at least 15 minutes a day to engage in one of these activities and explore the different options until you find a technique that suits you. Plus who knows, you may end up saving a lot of money on costly cosmetics or procedures!