Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stem Cells and Stress

I recently heard an amazing interview with Doris Taylor, a biologist who has developed a way to grow functioning hearts using stem cells.  She washes the dead cells out of a rat heart so only the connective tissue scaffolding remains. Then new stem cells are piped into the structure, and slowly, gradually, they multiply and fill out the tissue, and it starts beating!  This work is the precursor to regrowing human organs - custom made from your own stem cells.

SoundSeen: Bioreactors + Building Hope from Speaking of Faith on Vimeo.

The power of stem cells is that they can differentiate into any kind of tissue, depending on what the body needs.  They play a central role in healing and regeneration.  In Taylor's view:
[A]ging is really a failure of stem cells. For most of our lives, we have stem cells in all of our organs or tissues that can heal them. And they do so by taking care of that normal wear and tear. But as you get to be 52, 62, 72 and you fall down and you scrape your knee, you may have a scar for the rest of your life because as we age the number of stem cells we have goes down and the function of the ones that we have decreases.
Taylor cites research that shows that stress ages stem cells.  An "old" stem cells will not be able to divide many more times.  As the body's stem cells age, there are fewer in circulation, and our ability to heal and rejuvenate diminishes.  From this perspective, aging and chronic disease are the same thing, and both are exacerbated by stress.

If our behavior can negatively affect the functioning of stem cells, it can also enhance it.  Small studies have shown that meditation can vastly increase the number of stem cells in the blood stream.  Surely yoga does the same thing - especially during the relaxation practice at the end of class.  The ageless look of long-time yogis makes this clear.

Most fundamentally, yoga and meditation give us tools to avoid the stem-cell-aging effects of stress in the first place.  It is ultimately our mind that determines how we react to the ups and down of life.  My 8-week Calm Within Chaos program is designed to explore and transform how you relate to stress - and perhaps make you younger in the process!  I have just two spots left, and it begins Monday, March 1.  Learn more on my website.

Footnote:  The bones contain big reserves of stem cells.   It turns out bone marrow transplants are really stem cell transplants.  Here I see a congruence between the scientific understanding of stem cells and the Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of jing, the vital fluid that supports all growth, development, sexual maturation, and reproduction. In particular, jing is considered the source of bone marrrow!

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