The field of epigenetics has remarkably revealed that our internal environment of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and emotions; our lifestyle, including what we eat; and our external environment all affect our genes. These factors have the ability to turn on and off the genetic codes that are responsible for either improving our health or making us more susceptible to disease.
Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology as a result of her research determining that positive lifestyle changes (in particular, successful stress management) can reverse telomere shortening. Dr. Blackburn identified the enzyme telomerase, which maintains telomere length, while investigating the theory that psychological stress alters the rate of cellular aging. Her research on women determined that those with the highest levels of perceived stress had much shorter telomeres than those with lower levels of perceived stress.
It is clear that epigenetic factors affect both our short-term and long-term responses and are key in determining how well our telomeres function. Recent studies have revealed that telomeres are powerful indicators of life’s great insults. They are shortened by exposure to significant abuse in childhood, and they are shortened even more each year an individual spends depressed, caring for a sick loved one, going through a bankruptcy or a divorce, and so on. Most people are living with one or more ongoing life stressors resulting from their work, relationships, and world events.
Chronic Stress=Short Telomeres
Your emotional response to stressful situations, especially to anything you perceive as a threat, can lead to a prolonged state of physiological arousal, a heightened fight-or-flight response that may affect cell longevity. A perception of threat—or even a cycle of negative thinking—triggers a cascade of negative emotional responses that intensify the significance of whatever seems threatening, making its presence seem even more stressful. Accelerated telomere shortening is linked to stressful life circumstances, psychological distress, aging, and disease. It is even associated with pessimism.
Several studies involving men ages twenty-seven to sixty-five with mood disorders, increased stress, poor self-rated mental health, childhood trauma, and cognitive impairment and decline were found to have shorter telomere lengths compared to other men of the same ages. Pessimism was the first personality trait to be linked to shorter telomere length.
While there remains skepticism about optimism, and misperceptions about what it really is, we know that people who are truly optimistic are healthier, and recover quicker when experiencing a wide range of diseases. I believe their positive emotions are playing a role in protecting their telomeres.
It’s never too late too late to shift your perceptions and change your response to stressful situations. It is one of the most important lifestyle changes you can ever make. Here’s a few tools that can help you:
Techniques to Enhance Your Telomeres
- Positive Emotions
All of these techniques interrupt the stress response, and interrupts the process of telomere length shortening.
Source: Superhealing, Chapter 2 Superhealing Mind-Body Research Breakthroughs (www.superhealingbook.com)
Click to read Part 1 of How Your Lifestyle Regulates Your Genes
About the Author:
Elaine R Ferguson, MD, is a pioneer in the field of holistic and integrative medicine. She is the author of the international bestseller Superhealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being. For more information visit www.drelaine.com