Buffering the Negative Effects of Chronic Stress with Meditation

Posted on September 25th 2015 (over 4 years)

We’ve all experienced stress at some point in our lives. In fact, the term “stress” is pervasive in our everyday language. Although the word often has a negative connotation, stress is essential to our survival. It’s what kept us alive in the past as we made life or death – “fight or flight” – decisions when encountering saber-toothed cats, and, surprisingly, it’s what keeps us alive today when we eat fruits and vegetables, engage in exercise and other healthy lifestyle behaviors such as sauna use, or even take on that new project at work that is a little outside our comfort zone. These short-term “good” stressors provide hormetic benefits that switch on physiological processes that protect us from harm in the long-term.

In the modern world, however, myriad “bad” chronic stressors – such as debt, a cranky boss, or relationship problems – can become overwhelming, especially when we ruminate or dwell on them to excess. Rumination can set in motion a cascade of hormonal and physiological responses that harm our mental and physical health.

A key player in the body’s response to rumination is a biological pathway that starts with the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone. This brain-derived hormone drives the entire stress hormone system and has a direct effect on many parts of the body including the brain, gut, and DNA.

Stress promotes neuronal cell death in the brain

In the brain, corticotropin-releasing hormone increases the production of amyloid beta​, which aggregates and forms plaques in the brain, disrupting the synapses that form between neurons and promoting neuronal cell death. This impairs energy metabolism in the brain’s cells, leading to the production of reactive oxygen species production and more amyloid plaque production – and a vicious cycle ensues.

Stress promotes inflammation in the gut

In the gut, corticotropin-releasing hormone activates specialized immune cells called mast cells, initiating a kind of chemical warfare. The mast cells release pro­inflammatory cytokines and proteases that damage the gut, leading to intestinal permeability, a condition otherwise known as “leaky gut.” This leakiness allows bacteria and bacterial antigens to cross the gut’s inner layer, the epithelium, and activate even more immune cells, leading to more inflammation – a key driver in the aging process.

Stress promotes aging through telomere shortening

Stress-related inflammation also accelerates the shortening of telomeres – tiny end caps located at the end of a chromosome. Telomeres serve as protective buffers against DNA loss during DNA replication and DNA damage caused by inflammation, reactive oxygen species, and other chemical compounds. Telomere shortening is linked to biological aging because it promotes cell death, or, worse, it promotes alternative lengthening of telomeres – a harbinger of cancer.

Buffering the Effects of Stress

Identifying strategies that buffer the negative effects of chronic stress is critical to our health. One highly effective strategy for buffering stress is meditation.

Meditation Protects Against Cognitive Aging

Research suggests that meditation, or mindfulness, may protect the brain from the negative effects of stress by decreasing ruminative thoughts and distraction. Reducing rumination may decrease distress and may even promote compassion and altruism.

One mechanism by which ​meditation protects the brain is through the production of gamma waves​ – a sign of neuroplasticity, which is linked to a capacity to learn new things and change synapses as a consequence of new behaviors. Neuroplasticity makes your brain more resilient and slows cognitive aging. While the young will always have a greater degree of neuroplasticity than the old, it is empowering to know that neural plasticity can be modulated through our lifestyles and behavior.

Meditation also increases the brain’s gray matter – the area of the brain associated with working memory and executive decision making. Gray matter is also where the omega­-3 fatty acid DHA is enriched. DHA protects the brain against cognitive decline. As we age, our brains atrophy and we lose some of that gray matter. But meditation may increase brain volume in areas of the brain related to learning, memory, neurotransmitter production, empathy, compassion, attention, and self-relevance, while decreasing activity of the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in anxiety and fear.

Meditation Protects Against Biological Aging

Not only does meditation slow cognitive aging, but it also slows biological aging by slowing the shortening of telomeres, protecting your DNA. ​Studies​ by telomere experts Elizabeth Blackburn at UCSF and Elisa Epel show that meditation buffers the stress that shortens telomeres and activates the gene that encodes for the enzyme telomerase, which can extend the length of telomeres.

Managing Stress

“Good” stress builds resilience, the body’s ability to adapt to stress and retard aging. The activation of stress resistance pathways through hormetic stress may be at the heart of many mechanisms of aging. However, chronic psychological stress can have negative effects on the brain and body and accelerates the aging process. Engaging in mindful meditation promotes healthy stress coping mechanisms, decreases rumination, and slows brain and biological aging.

Meditation can be practiced in many ways and venues, include yoga, transcendental meditation, nature walks, flotation tanks, and Headspace or Oak – app-based audio guides to meditation.

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