An Unexpected Antidote to Ageing & Disease
HH the Dalai Lama said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. “
It is one of my favourite quotes. It is personally meaningful for me and I suspect that it touches a deep place in you too. Kindness creates happiness, it makes people smile, it brings hope, it strengthens relationships, and it can even make dreams come true. It might be an overused cliché, but kindness really can make the world a better place.
And not only can it bring a smile to the face of the receiver, but kindness can also make us better. It can make us healthier and happier. It might
even help us to live longer.
When most of us think of being healthy we immediately think of diet and lifestyle, which are the traditional routes to better health. It is important to eat a healthy diet and take regular exercise. But recent scientific evidence suggests that we must also add attitude to this formula, and especially attitude towards other people.
Scientists at the University of Utah conducted a clever study that showed the importance of how we treat each other. They asked 150 married couples to discuss matters from their marriage for 30 minutes while in a room with a video camera pointed at them that would record their conversation for the scientists to review.
Watching the videos the scientists were able to categorise the couples depending upon how they related to one another. At one end of the spectrum of relationships were those who were most hostile and aggressive towards one another. If words were objects then you might imagine that daggers would pin the other to the wall at times. Words were spoken with aggression. At the other end of the spectrum were those who were most gentle, kind, and caring towards each other.
Blood samples of the couples revealed that those who were most hostile also had the highest levels of coronary artery calcification (CAC). Those who were most kind and caring had least. Controlling for other lifestyle factors, the only real difference between both sets of couples was in how they treated each other.
Love, kindness and caring within a relationship are cardioprotective. They offer some protection from disease to the heart and cardiovascular system.
Studying the seeds of genesis of this form of heart disease – what I like to call the plasterboard effect, in that arteries move from the internal consistency of poached eggs towards the consistency of plasterboard – reveals that the two main seeds are free radicals and inflammation, both of which are also key players in the ageing process.
It is well known that free radicals and inflammation levels rise in response to unhealthy diets and lifestyles and also in response to high and consistent levels of stress. But now we know that they are also side effects of hostility and aggression.
Most people have heard of free radicals. They are implicated in heart disease and cancer as well as aging because they cause the breakdown of cells. We take antioxidants in our diet to combat free radicals. Antioxidants behave, in a sense, like mini-sponges, searching out and soaking up free radicals. This is why you find heart foundation endorsements on juices that contain high antioxidant levels, like purple grape or pomegranate juices, for instance.
Most people are also familiar with inflammation. A cut becomes inflamed as it heals, which is part of the healing process and helps draw nutrient rich blood to the wound to facilitate healing. But inflammation also occurs on the inside of the body. You just don’t see it. And it plays a key role in heart disease, many cancers, and just about every serious disease we know about in western medicine.
Such is inflammation’s role, in fact, in ageing that some gerontologists believe that if we could control inflammation around the body then the average person would live around 150 years. Inflammation is very important in healing and repair of the body, but too much inflammation, which is a side-effect of unhealthy behaviours – diet, lifestyle, stress, and attitude – is not healthy.
But regular kind behaviour provides an antidote to free radicals and inflammation. The antidote is a well-known hormone called oxytocin. It has always been known for its role in childbirth and in lactation, but recently oxytocin has been investigated for its powerful role throughout the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin counteracts some of the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle by reducing levels of free radicals and inflammation.
In a 2009 study, scientists at the University of Miama put some cardiovascular cells under stress in the lab that approximated the type of stress that we put our own cardiovascular cells under when we’re not being so healthy. They noted high levels of free radicals and inflammation. But repeating the experiment in the presence of oxytocin found that free radicals were up to 48% lower and inflammation up to 57% lower. Oxytocin seemed to be counteracting lifestyle stresses.
And how do we produce oxytocin? We do it naturally when we bond and connect with each other. We produce it when we hug. We produce it when we’re in love and when we make love. We also produce it when we’re being kind or caring, especially if the kindness involves connecting with another person, which it most often does. Even holding a door open for someone, which usually means eye contact and an exchange of smiles, produces oxytocin. Yes, as simple as it might sound, small acts of kindness are cardioprotective.
And due to the role of free radicals and inflammation in ageing, kindness may also be slowing the ageing process. Could it be that kindness is better than botox?
Even more evidence for this comes from recent studies of the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body that runs from the top of the brainstem, through the face, through, heart, all major organs, and the entire gastrointestinal tract. The vagus nerve runs the principal inflammation-reducing factory in the body.
If it weren’t for the vagus nerve, in fact, we would
be at the mercy of body-wide inflammation following even the simplest of cut. Inflammation would start out playing its role in helping to draw blood and nutrients to the wound site, but it wouldn’t stop. It would just keep on doing its thing, and eventually inflammatory chemicals would spill out from the wound site and spread all over the body, wreaking havoc everywhere they go.
Most people would suffer septic shock from a cut hand if it weren’t for the vagus nerve. Its endings sense when there is enough inflammation for healing and send a signal to the immune system to turn of the manufacture of inflammatory substances.
And how does this link with kindness? Well it turns out that there is a very strong correlation between the vagus nerve and compassion
-kindness displayed in caring behaviour towards another person. People who are most compassionate tend to have the most active vagus nerves. To demonstrate the link between compassion and inflammation, then, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine invited volunteers to practice the Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique known as loving-kindness- compassion. For six weeks, volunteers attended as many meditation classes as they wanted and had their blood analysed for inflammation at the start and at the end.
At the end of the 6 weeks those who had practiced the most loving-kindness-compassion meditation, which involves sending thoughts of kindness, wellbeing, peace, happiness, and compassion to ourselves, our loved ones, neutral people, and even people who have upset, hurt, or offended us in the past, had the lowest levels of inflammation in their blood.
And inflammation is one of the major accelerators of ageing in the body. Not only was compassion being shown to be generally healthy but also to powerfully slow the ageing process.
The regular practice of kindness and compassion can keep our hearts healthy, protect us from disease, and even help us live longer lives. This breakthrough in science has almost slipped under the radar but I believe it represents one of the most important discoveries ever made.
Behaviours that we know make the world a better place also make us healthier too. And we can also enjoy happiness in our longer, healthier lives.
When we’re kind we feel emotionally better too. Studies show that people who commit regular acts of kindness are happier than people who don’t.
In a simple study by scientists at the University of British Columbia that examined people’s spending habits, volunteers were asked to keep a diary of every penny they spent over a month, from food and drink, to social time, to school fees, and even charitable donations. At the end of the month all of the volunteers did a happiness test. Those who spent most money ‘prosaically’ – that is, on other people – were the happiest.
Giving to others made people happier. Least happy were those who spent the highest percentage of their income on themselves.
In another version of the study, volunteers were given $5 or $20 and asked to spend it by the end of the day. Once again, those who had given most of the money away or used it for the benefit of other people were happier than those who kept it for themselves.
This doesn’t mean that spending money for our own means makes us unhappy, just that when we focus some of our efforts in life towards aiding the happiness and wellbeing of other people we feel happier.
And it shouldn’t mean that we go out and do good deeds just to make ourselves better. This doesn’t work. We can’t lie to ourselves when we are not being genuine when we help others. This inner knowing of our reasons and motivation really matters. When an act of kindness or compassion is genuine we don’t even think about it. Something inside of us drives us to improve the life of the person we help; then our health and happiness benefits.
So should all of this new knowledge make us go out and be more kind? No! Bet you were expecting a ‘yes’!
The knowledge of the health gains of kindness should never be our inspiration. The knowledge should stimulate thoughts and conversations about kindness. And it is these thoughts and conversations, when they move towards how kindness can improve the lives of others that then motivate us to be kind, to share, to help, to love, and to care.
Let your own heart be your guide as you travel through the terrain of your life. Take the opportunities to be kind as they arise. And just as a pebble makes waves when dropped in a pond, each small act of kindness ripples outwards, touching many more lives than you immediately see. This is how we change the world! And this is why each of us matters much more than we think we do.
David R. Hamilton PhD