Can yoga (or other lifestyle choices) affect the way we age?
Research over the past thirty years has shown that the practice of yoga and meditation, and clean diet and lifestyle, can greatly reduce the fraying of telomeres, the part of our DNA that is related to aging.
The telomere is like the plastic cap on the end of a shoelace that prevents the shoelace from fraying, and hence becoming unusable (or hard to get through a lace hole). In actuality, the telomere is a cap at the end of our DNA that protects our chromosomes. The telomere is related to our biological age, and as it frays, or gets shortened, our longevity decreases. Telomeres naturally shorten with age as our cells replicate themselves; however, stress, smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise have been shown to lead to
a quicker shortening of the telomeres. Research by Nobel Prize–winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn has shown that after four to six months of regular mindfulness practices, the activity of the enzyme that impacts the length of the telomeres, called telomerase, goes up 30 percent, and reduces their rate of decay. (Her book, The Telomere Effect, is a great read.) [Read the goop Q&A on it here.]
“Epigenetics holds that our genetic activity is not completely fixed—our genes do not entirely rule our destiny—and that our genes, which are like on and off switches, turn on or off depending on the environment that we either are exposed to, or expose ourselves to.”
Our ability to influence our DNA is part of a science called epigenetics. Epigenetics holds that our genetic activity is not completely fixed—our genes do not entirely rule our destiny—and that our genes, which are like on and off switches, turn on or off depending on the environment that we either are exposed to, or expose ourselves to. Epigenetics is primarily related to diet, and adding in a healthy dose of methyl-rich food (beets, onions, garlic, and dark, leafy greens such as kale—but not kale chips!) has been shown to have a beneficial effect on gene expression.
Activities that will help strengthen our healthy genetic activity are:
By consciously placing ourselves in a healthy environment, and by doing practices like breathing, yoga, and meditation with regularity, we can increase our baseline response to challenging situations. Our genes will begin to respond to stressful situations in a constructive manner, rather than going into a hyper-stress response. We can’t remove excess stress completely from our lives, but we can change our baseline response to it, which will lead to great physiological and emotional health.
Another important function of our physiology is called neuroplasticity, which is a process that happens within our brain whenever we learn something new, whether it’s while reading a book or attempting a new pose on the yoga mat. There is a saying in neuroscience that “nerves that fire together, wire together”—each time we learn something, or are introduced to a new idea, our neural axons fire electrical messages seeking dendrites to connect with in order for the brain to understand the new information.
We have more than a hundred billion neural cells in our brain, which have a potential for making more connections than there are stars in the universe. When we speak of having unlimited potential and infinite creativity within us, we can see that within our own physiology this is an actual fact. As babies, when we experience the world around us, our neurons begin to wire together in response to situational needs. As we begin to lift our heads, roll over, crawl, walk, and eventually speak, neurons make the connections that allow us to perform all of those basic functions without us having to continually think or remember how
to perform them. We make neural connections when we are held, fed, loved, or abandoned. Every human and environmental interaction leaves its mark upon our nervous system.
“We have more than a hundred billion neural cells in our brain, which have a potential for making more connections than there are stars in the universe.”
As we get older, we can maintain our brain health by learning new languages, doing crossword puzzles, reading
a variety of books, studying new subjects, learning to cook or play an instrument, exercising, and generally staying active. Sleep, as well, is a very important part of brain health. When we sleep, the glymphatic system of the brain, which is connected with the glial cells, drains the plaque debris that collects in the brain due to all the thinking and brain activity we have during the day. This is why consistent good nights of sleep truly are refreshing. When we do not sleep enough, our body releases neurotransmitters such as cortisol and adrenaline that under balanced circumstances are flushed from the body without causing excess conditions of inflammation.
If we want to create lasting habits of health, wellness, happiness, and longevity, all we have to do is support the synaptic connections that will fix those habits as part of who we are. How do we do that? Not only by making choices and setting intentions and goals, but also by identifying what is truly important in our lives and making those things our priority, and consciously remembering those priorities when it comes to decision making.