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How the Dalai Lama Can Help You Live to 120

How the Dalai Lama Can Help You Live to 120

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? 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.

I have met a number of these old monks, who spent the better
part of their lives imprisoned and tortured…that they emerged …
happy, … and giving back to the world.

If that seems intriguing, it was! The goal of the conference might sound complex — but it was quite simple.  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 well being. 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 startling.

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 connection.  He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put, it is the way the immune system responds to the mind. Let me explain.

Your immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus nerve.  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 and aging!  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. Here’s why.

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 to health.  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 the 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 those stressors.

In fact, the Dalai Lama told a story of a Tibetan monk he met who had been in a Chinese gulag or prison, 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 it was his fear that he would lose compassion for his Chinese jailers!

I have met a number of these old monks, who have spent the better part of their lives imprisoned and tortured.  What is remarkable is that they didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome —  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  longevity.

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 no 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, and more.

Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and thrive.  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 120+ years!

So here are a few tips to activate your vagus nerve and prevent aging:

  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 and balancing.
  4. Get rubbed the right way. Massage has been proven to boost immunity and relaxes the body deeply.
  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 nervous system.
  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 stressors?

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 leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

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 28;16(17):1893-7.

(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.

This email is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i)medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine including psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) the creation of a physician patient or clinical relationship, or (iv) an endorsement,  recommendation or sponsorship of any third party product or service by the sender or the sender’s affiliates, agents, employees, consultants or service providers.  If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly.

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (18)

  • i found your latested post to be beneficial to my situation. Thank you for sharing.

  • Hi Mark,
    I work as Neuromuscular Therapist and Sound Massage Therapist in Colorado. I have been telling clients for years the most important knowledge I use in my treatment room comes from my studies in Ecology. Ecology gave me the clear understanding of how systems interrelate and depend on one another. Therefore, I am so appreciative of your work; your integrated approach to the body-mind, your dedication to “getting the word out”, and your deliberate intention to reach people in a way that is as accessible as possible. The Detox Box is easy to understand and easy to use ( just finished the 21 day detox; feel terrific). I recommend it and your books/CD’s to clients all the time. I wish you continued success and fulfillment and thank you.

    • Dear Helen
      Thank you for mentioning the detox box.As a physical therapist I studied Polarity therapy and spent many summers in New Mexico cleansing and detoxing every summer. I receive Dr Hyman’s news letter but must have missed the one of the detox box.I would highly appreciate if you would please send me the information about where to order the detox box.
      Thank You
      Love and Blessings

  • John 14:6, Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
    1 Corinthians 15:3,4 …Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that He was buried and that He rose again the third day in accordance with the scriptures
    The best stress buster is knowing where you’re going for eternity. Repent and trust the savior Jesus Christ.

  • To minimize “the stress response” to a stressor:

    a) observe
    b) act in congruence with the heart
    c) trust the path.

    : )

  • Tom –
    You are completely right.
    I have done so many of the meditations and yogic exercises for decades that I must consider myself a quite experienced amateur in these areas. Many of them are excellent and helpful, and I do them regularly.
    However, until I realized the true identity of Jesus, and my personal state with regard to my creator, I was never at peace. The relationship between the individual and Jesus is the only way to truly be stress-free, because the issue of death cannot be resolved without Him.
    I used to think that belief in Jesus was a psychological crutch. Now, I know that it is based in truth, and it is the only truth that can remove worries at the core of your being. Each individual has this issue at his/her core. It is written in the human heart.
    Thanks again for pointing out that the best stress buster is Jesus — Actually, He is the only absolutely fundamental stress buster.

  • Thank you for this article, so beautiful..I do love Yoga and Meditation, including breath work…One of my benefits throughout my life has been sleeping..becoming a widow at 39 , raising three children, sleep has always been my friend, now knowing it was a time of regeneration, This article rang so true to my soul..Namaste

  • Dear Mark,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I love all of the suggestions and have already incorporated yoga and nature into my life as well as listening to beautiful music. I wonder if you have any information on this great way to relax. By the way, I am currently a student at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and I recently listened to your module . It was great information. Thank you again!

  • The more I read your words of wisdom, love and life, the more I realise what a treasure you are. I wish you were my doctor! And you’re not (I live in the UK). So I’ll just give thanks that those who are your patients, and those who read your words, can benefit from the wisdom, life and love that flow through you.

  • So often we think we can not make the changes leading to a less stressful lifestyle, i.e., different job, different spouse, different house, etc……I didn’t think so either, until depression, then I was forced to make the changes. I live a much less stressful life now….Better and more fulfilling job, better and more fulfilling relationships, less consumerism, yoga, meditation, better eating, peace and quiet, good sleep, learning to say “no,” good medical care, connection to nature, much spiritual connection and discipline, an “attitude of gratitude and compassion.” Less stressful living requires an all encompassing approach. Currently, I’m falling short on exercise, though…..gotta work on that!

  • I’m THRILLED to see qigong on the list. Thank you, Dr. Hyman. For years, I’ve been telling my students about what you mentioned in this article. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to hear it from you. Thank you!

  • Very glad to see you getting into this area. Excellent. Destructive Emotions, written by Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama is a good introduction to how the brain and emotions are affected by meditation and the Isagenix Product B is an excellent telomere support supplement for those who cannot afford the enzyme itself.

  • Interesting post…as a meditator of 15 years, I know it only gets more and more profound in how it helps us become more selfless, perceptive and wise in the way we relate to reality. However, I also know through that perceptiveness an my own enlightened teacher of lifetimes that the Dalai Lama is really not the kind (or wise) guy he pretends to be. Time will show that he ran Tibet with an iron fist, and the money he accumulates now (supposedly for TIbetans) isn’t going to Tibetans. I think when the truth comes out, we will all be a little wiser and realize how easily we were fooled. He repeats popular simplistic phrases either from western culture or Tibetan training…and since we’re already a very idealistic people…we see him as holy, and wise. It’s pretty funny really!

  • It is remarkable how stress can produce so many problems with one’s health and in today’s world we need all the help we can get to bring us back to health. Yoga, meditation, relaxation methods are key but the first and foremost is compassion for our being.

  • Hello there! I just would like to give you a big thumbs up for your great info you have here on this post.
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