Of Stress and Skin: the tangled tale of Telomeres

Anti-aging skincare needs more research - free radical damage and antioxidants feature largely in the public consciousness but there are other more subtle ways in which we can care for our skin. Reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines get less press. Fortunately telomeres are having their cultural moment with Elizabeth Blackburn's new book - "The Telomere Effect". This is not some casual tome but is penned by the Nobel Laureate who co-discovered telomerase in 1984. 

All you need to know about telomeres - these are the caps to DNA - like the ends of shoelaces they function best when they're long and not frayed. The length of telomeres and the amount of telomerase (the enzyme that helps telomeres regenerate in cell division) are markers for cellular aging. The thing about telomeres is that they respond well to a range of expected healthy behaviours that are detailed in the practical suggestions of this brilliant book. 

The most interesting is the finding regarding meditation. The links between stress and skin are evident if quite mysterious - the loss of vibrancy is the big giveaway.  That mystery is resolved by the way telomeres fray and are shortened by stress but scientists at Harvard have noticed that meditators have longer telomeres than non-meditators of any age. Now this could just be one of those correlations that do not imply causation - people with naturally longer telomeres are predisposed to meditate but they also researched people during a meditation retreat replete with a whole wet lab on a mountain that found increases in telomerase. This is the kind of evidence in Liz Blackburn's book that is immensely reassuring. In an aside, telomeres were affected by cosmetics containing genotoxic and telomere-damaging chemicals so the very things you imagine are helping your skin might very well be counterproductive.

But back to meditation - this is qualitatively different from sleep in terms of restoration with all due respect to sleep - it is conscious rest and infuses a sense of balance when you actually need it when you're awake and dealing with all the curveballs that come your way. In terms of skin this telomere hypothesis is the best explanation to how beneficial meditation can be for a sensible skincare regime.