A Canadian study has provided further proof in the power of positive thinking. Researchers from the University of Calgary have succeeded in measuring the influence that positive thinking practices, such as mindfulness meditation and yoga, have on the DNA of recovering breast cancer patients, showing that, in some circumstances, mind really is over matter.

This study is by far not the first to suggest that mindfulness and positive thinking has an effect on an individual’s health. However, the proof that these researchers have presented to support their theory is compelling. Lead investigator Dr. Linda E. Carlson and her colleagues found that in breast cancer patients, support group involvement and mindfulness meditation were associated with preserved telomere length. But before you realize the significance of this finding, it’s important to first understand what telomeres are.

What Are Telomeres?

Tolemeres are the stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes. Their main purpose is to prevent our precious chromosomes from deteriorating. In an analysis of the blood from the previous “world’s oldest woman,” Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, scientists discovered that at the end of her life the telomeres on van Andel-Schipper’s white blood cells were drastically worn down, such as a burnt out wick on a candle. This led to the remarkable discovery that, what we refer to as “death from natural old age” is actually due to stem-cell exhaustion caused by the shortening of the telomeres, Medical Daily reported.

Premature shortening of telomeres is associated with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and high stress levels, Scientific American.

Think Happy Thoughts

The study consisted of 88 distressed female breast cancer survivors divided into three groups. Scientific American reported that the first group was assigned to eight weeks of mindfulness meditation and yoga, the second group assigned to 12 weeks of group therapy in which they shared difficult emotions and fostered social support, and the third group received only one six-hour stress management course. The women had their telomeres measured both before and after the programs.

Results showed that telomeres stayed the same length in the first two groups but appeared to be shortened in the third group.

“Psychosocial interventions providing stress reduction and emotional support resulted in trends toward TL maintenance in distressed breast cancer survivors, compared with decreases in usual care,” wrote the authors.

While the authors write that, at the moment, they cannot prove that the maintenance of telomere length was a direct result of the meditation, Carlson does write that “generally healthy people in a work-based mindfulness stress reduction program have been shown to produce higher antibody titers to the flu vaccine than controls, and there has been promising work looking at the effects of mindfulness in HIV and diabetes.”

Mindfulness meditation is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation, where practitioners focus on present thoughts and actions in a non-judgmental way. This involves ignoring past grudges and future concerns and deliberatively paying more attention to what’s going on at the moment.  

In earlier studies, Carlson found that this particular type of meditation was associated with healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and decreases in compounds that promote inflammation.

Source: Carlson LE, Beattie TL, Giese-Davis J, et al . Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer. 2014.