Telomeres are a region of repetitive DNA at the end of each chromosome to protect them from deterioration, very similar to plastic tips on shoelaces that prevent the ends from fraying.
Stress is known to influence the rate of telomere shortening (Epel et al. 2009). Lifestyle factors that promote cancer and cardiovascular disease can adversely affect telomerase function.
Telomere shortening is also linked to ageing, disease risk and progression such as cardiovascular conditions and premature mortality in many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, colorectal, bladder, head and neck, lung, and renal cell (Ornish et al. 2008).
It is now understood that telomere length is affected by the interplay between genetics, life experiences, psychosocial and behavioural factors.
Recent evidence shows that telomere shortening is counteracted by telomerase, a cellular enzyme.
Resilience to stress, healthy lifestyle factors such as relaxation and social connections have been associated with longer telomere length and it appears that these factors can protect individuals from stress-induced telomere shortening.
Comprehensive lifestyle changes significantly increased telomerase activity and the capacity to maintain telomere length in specific immune cells (Ornish et al. 2008).
Thirty men with low-risk prostate cancer made intensive lifestyle changes for three months. Telomerase enzymatic activity per viable cell was significantly increased after three months compared to the baseline measures. A follow up study demonstrated increased telomere length after five years of follow-up, compared with controls (Ornish et al, 2013).
By decreasing stress hormones, relaxation and meditation may protect telomere integrity and length (Epel et al. 2009).
In a study of family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms, meditation demonstrated an increased telomerase activity compared to no meditation.
The meditation group had a significant 43% improvement in telomerase activity compared with 3.7% in the control group which suggests improvement in stress-induced cellular ageing (Lavretsky et al. 2013).
Another study investigated the effect of a mindfulness-based intervention for stress-related eating and examined changes in telomerase activity from pre- to post-intervention (Daubenmier et al. 2012). There were correlations between improvements in psychological distress, eating behaviour, metabolic health and increased telomerase activity. These findings suggested that telomerase activity may be regulated by levels of both psychological and metabolic stress.
The sophistication of research into relaxation has developed from a generic systems approach to one of highly specific, cellular and molecular changes.
Whether incorporating relaxing massage techniques or teaching diaphragmatic breathing, natural therapists can enhance clients’ health by including relaxation therapy in their clinical practice.