“The mind has great influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there.” — Moliere
What were Dean Ornish, Mehmet Oz, Dan Brown, the Dalai Lama, and I all doing in Woodstock, New York, last week?
We — along with an assortment of Tibetan monks and doctors, Buddhist scholars, meditation researchers, and prize-winning
biomedical scientists in the field of aging, the immune system, stem cells, genetics, brain aging, stress physiology, and more from MIT, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, and UCSF — were all part of a special conference at the Menla Center.
The subject of this conference: Longevity and Tibetan medicine.
If that seems intriguing, it was! Thanks to Maria Collier for this post.
The goal of the conference might sound complex — but it was
We were there to investigate the relationship between the
science of longevity and wellness and the ancient Indo-
Tibetan practices of meditation and training the mind.
The point wasn’t to learn how to treat disease, but to learn
what we know about regeneration of the body, protection from
illness, and optimization of our function and wellbeing.
The convergence of “post-modern biology” — the new science
of “systems” thinking and medicine — and the ancient wisdom
and practices of Tibetan medicine and Buddhism was
So what did we talk about?
Well, for one thing, we explored the relationship between
the nervous system and health and aging, and the connection
between the immune system and health.
As you get older, your immune system produces more
inflammatory molecules, and your nervous system turns on the
stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.
That’s not just talk. It’s backed by scientific studies.
For example, Kevin Tracey, the director of the Feinstein
Institute for Medical Research, discovered how the brain
controls the immune system through a direct nerve-based
He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put,
it is the way the immune system responds to the mind.
Let me explain.
You immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus
But this isn’t just any nerve.
It is the most important nerve coming from the brain and
travels to all the major organs.
And you can activate this nerve — through relaxation,
meditation, and other ancient practices.
What’s the benefit of that?
Well, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your
immune cells, reduce inflammation, and even prevent disease
It’s true. By creating positive brain states — as
meditation masters have done for centuries — you can switch
on the vagus nerve and control inflammation.
You can actually control your gene function by this method.
Activate the vagus nerve, and you can switch on the genes
that help control inflammation.
And, as you know from my books Ultraprevention and
UltraMetabolism, inflammation is one of the central factors
of disease and aging.
But that’s not all we learned at the conference.
Even more fascinating was the discovery that our bodies can
regenerate at any age.
Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that
our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into
any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be
transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)
This is a phenomenal breakthrough.
It means that we have the power to create new cells and
renew our own organs and tissues at any age.
And how are these stem cells controlled?
You guessed it: the vagus nerve.
So relaxation — a state of calm, peace, and stillness —
can activate the vagus nerve.
And the vagus nerve, in turn, activates your stem cells to
regenerate and renew your tissues and organs.
Scientists have even shown how meditation makes the brain
bigger and better.
They’ve mapped out the brain function of “professional
meditators” by bringing Tibetan lamas trained in
concentration and mental control into the laboratory.
The result? They found higher levels of gamma brain waves
and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher
brain function) in meditators. (iii)
Relaxation can have other powerful effects on our biology.
In biology, being a complex system that can adapt to its
environment and that is resilient and flexible is critical
The same is true for us.
The more complex and resilient we are, the healthier we are.
Take, for example, our heartbeat.
Its complexity is called heart rate variability (HRV) or
beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the
healthier you are. The least complex heart rate is the
worst — a flat line.
So what does this have to do with relaxation?
The HRV is also controlled by the vagus nerve.
As you can see, turning on the relaxation response and
activating that vagus nerve is critical to health.
Let me review what we learned at the conference.
By learning to create positive brain states through deep
relaxation or meditation, you can:
* Reduce inflammation
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Thicken your brain (which normally shrinks with aging).
* Boost immune function
* Modulate your nervous system
* Reduce depression and stress
* Enhance performance
* Improve your quality of life
Not bad for just learning to chill out!
Think you’re too stressed out to relax?
Not so fast. We learned that it’s not always outside
stressors that are the most important, but our responses to
In fact, the Dalai Lama told a story of a Tibetan monk he
met who had been in a Chinese gulag, where he was tortured,
placed in solitary confinement, and prohibited from
practicing his traditions for more than 20 years.
The Dalai Lama asked him what his greatest stress was.
The monk replied that it was his fear that he would lose
compassion for his Chinese jailers!
I have met a number of these old monks, who spent the better
part of their lives imprisoned and tortured. What is
remarkable is that they didn’t suffer from post-traumatic
stress syndrome — that they emerged intact, peaceful,
happy, smiling, and giving back to the world.
Perhaps stress is more about the stories we tell ourselves
about our lives.
On the other hand, the damaging effects of stress are clear.
As we learned at the conference, one of the leading theories
of aging is that the protective ends of our DNA (called
telomeres) shorten as we age.
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres,
explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the
end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our
cells, so they die.
Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening
of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.
What’s even more remarkable?
In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the
caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!
It sounds impossible, but it’s true.
The caregivers who felt the care to be a burden had shorter
telomeres, while those who saw their work as an opportunity
to be compassionate had no shortening. (iv)
In closing, the Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion
is actually biological and — necessary for survival.
Perhaps the development of compassion and wisdom in coping
with unfavorable life conditions is the true key to
It just may be that working to understand our true nature
through the cultivation of our minds and hearts with
positive practices like meditation or similar techniques is
critical to health and longevity.
The ways we can change our bodies through changing our minds
is not longer a theory.
There is a new scientific language to understand how the
qualities of the mind control the body through effects on
the vagus nerve, immune cells, stem cells, telomeres, DNA,
Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely
adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and
You simply have to learn how to work with your body, rather
than against it. Then you can have a healthy, thriving life
— and live out your full lifespan, which can be as high as
So here are a few tips to activate your vagus nerve and
1) Learn to meditate.
Find a teacher or check out tapes or CDs like those at
2) Stretch it out.
Try a yoga class in your area. Yoga can be a great way to
release tension and deeply relax.
3) Get some energy.
Learn qi gong, a relaxing ancient system of energy treatment
4) Get rubbed the right way.
Massage has been proven to boost immunity and relaxes the
5) Make love.
The only way you can do it is if you are not stressed!
6) Get back to nature.
Climb a mountain and watch a sunrise, which will calm your
7) Express yourself.
Write in your journal about your inner experience — this
has been shown to boost immunity and reduce inflammation.
Now I’d like to hear from you…
Have you noticed how stress affects you?
Have you noticed people looking older after significant life
Have you noticed how people who seem to have a happy
disposition or compassionate attitude toward life don’t seem
to age as quickly as people who are angry and miserable?
Do you have any other suggestions for how to reduce stress,
or better yet, how to better your manage your own response
to stressful events?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below
— just click on the Add a Comment link.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
i Kevin J. Tracey, The inflammatory reflex, Nature 420, 853
– 859 (19 Dec 2002)
ii Krause DS. Plasticity of marrow-derived stem cells. Gene
Ther. 2002 Jun;9(11):754-8. Review.
iii Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN,
Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch
SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated
with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov
iv Epel ES, Blackburn EH, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Adler NE,
Morrow JD, Cawthon RM. Accelerated telomere shortening in
response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Dec
7;101(49):17312-5. Epub 2004 Dec 1.