Stress Busting – Meditate or Medicate?

If you were informed that an investment of 15 minutes of your time each day could seriously reduce your risk of succumbing to the four things that kill us most commonly, you would probably suspect a scam claim. However, there is a simple exercise, practiced by millions of souls for thousands of years, that does, in fact, normalise blood pressure (reducing stroke potential). It can enhance the immune system by boosting killer T cells (so important for cancer protection). This practice has repeatedly been shown to speed recovery from virus pathogens, improve circulation and slow your heart rate.

Wow! That's CHD, stroke and cancer covered, but what is number 4 in the early exit stakes? You may be shocked to learn that the fourth largest killer is prescription medicine. It is an absurd indictment of a bankrupt system that our symptom-treating medication has actually become a major threat to our existence, but that is the current state of play. If we were to analyse our growing pharmaceutical dependence, it quickly becomes apparent that stress is a major player. We have created a world so infused with stress, it is increasingly difficult to find a truly relaxed person. Anxiety and panic attacks have almost become rites of passage in this brave new world. There is a solution with remarkable de-stressing potential. It is free-of-charge and available to all.

I am referring to the simple practice of meditation. Many of my farmer readers around the globe may be envisaging tree hugging hippies or ancient asian cultural practices that have little relevance to their lives on the land. In actual fact, when I think of meditation, I immediately picture someone sitting on a hay bale in the paddock. Stress is a huge issue in the farming community. Recent Australian statistics, published by The Rural Press, suggest that farmers suffer triple the depression rate and nearly triple the suicide rate of other professions.

When I travel in Asia, I often wonder how people can handle these overcrowded hothouses, amidst the pollution and chaotic traffic. Then, each morning, the people descend into public spaces, their bodies flowing tai chi or Qi Gong and their faces reflecting their daily dose of calm. There is now no mystery about what gets them through. The fact is that we can all access this peace, amidst the turmoil. Compelling science now confirms that this is just one of the many benefits of meditation.

Meditation and Your Time

It seems crazy but often, in our time-starved world, we can stress about the time it may take to de-stress. There is a common misapprehension that meditation involves hours of navel gazing that no busy person could justify. This is simply not the case. Several studies have recently emerged, where subjects who spent as little as 15 minutes a day silencing their minds achieved significant, measurable benefits.

One common source of distress involves quality decision making in times of turmoil. You are anxious about both the need to decide and the outcome of that decision and that, of course, only makes things harder. In less time than you would spend surfing the net, or grimly confronting the evening news, you can reduce that pressure. In a recent study conducted at ISEAD and published in the journal Psychological Science, it was found that 15 minutes of meditation per day was a major stress-buster. The meditation in this study focused on building awareness of the present moment, while letting go of intrusive or distractive thoughts (mindfulness meditation). It was discovered that, instead of focusing on the past or the future, meditators focussed upon information available in the present and made much better decisions.

Another study highlighting benefits from shorter periods of meditation was published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology. In this case, three consecutive 25-minute sessions of meditation produced significant stress reduction. In a third study, published in the Journal of The American Medical Association, 30 minutes of daily meditation significantly improved the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Longevity and Meditation

Perhaps the most exciting finding from recent meditation research relates to new found links to increased longevity.

Telomeres are protein strands attached to the ends of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, the telomere shortens. The "Hayflick limit" is the number of times each human cell can divide until mitosis (cell division) ceases – this has been stipulated at around 50 times. When our cells have reached that limit, they begin to die, and so do we. This cell death is directly linked to the shortening of telomeres, so anything that speeds cell division effectively shortens our life. Sugar is often called "the white poison", because the excess insulin, produced from overconsumption of sugar, speeds cell division. Conversely, the fountain of youth may well lie in the preservation of telomeres. Dr Elizabeth Blackburn won the 2009 Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of telomeres. Along with another researcher, she also discovered telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens and rebuilds telomeres. Elizabeth recently co-authored a new study based upon the UC Davis-based, Shamatha Project. This new study was the first to demonstrate a link between meditation and the telomerase enzyme.

Researchers working on the Shamatha Project reported that, following a three-month meditation retreat, subjects were found to have a 30% increase of telomerase activity in their white blood cells. The study also demonstrated an improvement in a variety of psychological parameters related to stress, anxiety and a positive life view. It is believed that this improved emotional health was at the root of the life extending, cellular changes.

It is now recognised that shorter telomeres are linked to much more than reduced longevity. They are strongly associated with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes and dementia. That pretty much wraps up our seven biggest killers, and we can reduce our likelihood of these miserable diseases by simply meditating. Can you picture yourself on that hay bale yet?

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