I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.
Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).
As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.
But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.
Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.
They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.
For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.
Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”
In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.
It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.
However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.
Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.
Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).
But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.