Updated: Sep 21, 2019
Your thoughts affect your DNA. Here's why, and what you can do to tame them.
Why do some people enjoy good health while others age far before their time? According to science, the answer lies in the complex interplay between your genes, lifestyle, relationships, and most importantly, your thoughts.
Epigenetics, the science of what switches genes on and off, has debunked the myth that your genes are your destiny. A growing body of research now confirms that even if you're born with certain sets of chromosomes, your lifestyle determines whether these genes are expressed.
The secret lies in your telomeres - repeating segments of DNA that live at the end of chromosomes. Like the plastic tips of shoelaces, telomeres protect genetic material from wearing out or unraveling. These telomeres shorten each time a cell divides. The longer the telomere, the less quickly the cell ages. When a telomere becomes too short, the cell stops dividing and eventually dies.
The same rule applies to people. The longer your telomeres, the less rapidly your cells die and the slower you age. This means that the more you engage in activities that preserve your telomeres, or even lengthen them, the better odds that you'll enjoy a healthier life.
Emerging research shows that aging can be slowed down, accelerated, or potentially even reversed depending on your lifestyle. Your telomeres respond to what you eat, how much you exercise and sleep, and how you deal with stress. By doing your best to live a healthy life, you increase the potential for your cells to renew, and for your telomeres to do their vital job of protecting your cells from decline.
One of the key ways to support your overall health and wellbeing rests between your ears. The stories that you tell yourself about who you are, and why things happen are key determinants of your stress level, health and happiness.
Your thoughts and aging
One of the best ways to support your overall health and wellbeing rests between your ears. The stories that you tell yourself about who you are, and why things happen, are key determinants of your stress level, health and happiness.
For example, studies find that cynical hostility, the tendency to be angry and believe that people can't be trusted, can be detrimental to your telomeres. Cynically hostile people view events like traffic jams as happening because people are intentionally slowing down to mess with them, rather than a predicable hassle. They also tend to be more likely to suffer from heart and metabolic disease.
In a study of British civil servants, men with high levels of hostility were more likely to have short telomeres. Their bodies also showed signs of burnout. Rather than responding to stress with increased diastolic blood pressure and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, their diastolic blood pressure and cortisol levels didn't change all that much. What's more, their systolic blood pressure increased and remained elevated, signaling that their bodies weren't adept at dealing with stress. They also reported feeling less optimistic, and had fewer social connections.
Pessimism and rumination also negatively affect telomeres. In a study of 35 adult women, telomere researchers Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel found that women who were more pessimistic tended to have shorter telomeres. This is consistent with prior research showing that pessimism, like cynical hostility, is a risk factor for poor health and premature death. Similarly, in a study of female family caregivers, rumination, or the tendency to rehash negative events over and over again, was linked to shorter telomere length.
You may also be surprised to know that mind wandering, or thinking about something other than what you're doing, is also linked to poor health. In a study of more than 200 healthy women between the ages of 55 to 65 years old with low stress lives, researchers found that women whose minds wandered most had significantly shorter telomeres than low mind wanderers. Although not all mind wandering is unhealthy, getting stuck on negative thoughts can be harmful to your health over time.
Mindfulness practices may help
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to make peace with your mind and build stress resilience. Studies find that mindfulness-based activities like yoga and meditation can increase telomere length. These practices can also give you the space to imagine your stories as movies running through your head and detach from them. The more you're able to recognize them for what they are - stories - the less likely you are to get hooked on them, and the better able you will become at taming them and moving toward health and happiness.
To learn more check out How To Stop Your Stories From Running Your Life from my book Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the science of mind, body and brain