Markers of Cellular Aging Improve During Insight Meditation Retreat

three people sitting on grass in meditation pose
A UC Davis study found that telomeres, protective “caps” at the end of DNA strands, grew longer in individuals who participated in a month-long Insight meditation retreat. (Sean Johnson/UC Davis)

Telomeres are repetitive nucleotide sequences that act as protective “caps” at the end of DNA strands. As cells age, either as a function of time or as a result of stress and poor health, telomeres tend to shorten. As such, telomere length can be used as a crude biological marker of health and well-being.

illustration of x-shaped chromosome showing telomere caps at each end.
Telomeres are caps at the end of a chromosome. They become shorter with aging. (Getty Images)

A recent study by researchers at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, measured changes in telomere length, telomerase (the enzyme which replenishes telomeres), and telomere-regulating genes in a group of individuals who participated in a month-long Insight meditation retreat.

The researchers found that after a three-week period, average telomere length in immune cells increased in retreat participants compared to a control group of individuals who were matched on age and meditation experience. The increases in telomere length were greatest in individuals high in neuroticism or low in agreeableness, indicating that personality variables moderated the degree of change observed.

This is the first study to show changes in telomere length occurring over such a short time span.

“It has been assumed that it would take months to years to change telomere length, and many intervention studies don’t bother to measure it,” said first author and UC Davis psychology graduate student, Quinn Conklin.

Co-senior author Elissa Epel added, “While we don’t know the exact mechanisms of how average telomere length changed, we wouldn’t expect these changes to happen over just three weeks with a less intensive daily routine. Residential retreats are potent interventions.”

Hours of meditation

Insight meditation retreats, conducted mostly in silence, involve a rigorous schedule including  about nine hours of meditation practice per day.

“Retreats aren’t stress-free vacations. They are periods of intense self-reflection and directed solitude, which can be quite demanding,” Conklin said.

Co-senior author Clifford Saron cautioned against any claims that meditation alone will lengthen telomeres.

“We are not claiming that meditation per se causes the measured changes—we are pointing to the sum total of all the effects of being on retreat. That includes for example, improvements in nutrition, sleep, and the removal of daily work demands,” he said.

Additional co-authors include: at UC Davis, Brandon King, Anthony Zanesco (now at the University of Miami, Florida), Anahita B Hamidi (now at Boston University), Jennifer Pokorny and Perla Kaliman; at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, UCSF, Jue Lin and Colin Huang (now at Johns Hopkins University); María Jesús Álvarez-López and Marta Cosín-Tomás, University of Barcelona, Spain. The work was supported by grants from the Fetzer Institute and the John Templeton Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and philanthropic gifts from the Hershey Family, Baumann, Tan Teo Charitable and Yoga Science Foundations and private donors.

— Anahita Hamidi (Ph.D., neuroscience, ’17) wrote this article for the UC Davis Egghead research blog