The fountain of youth; the mythical spring whose waters are a source of rejuvenation for anyone who drinks from it or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been written about, and searched for, for thousands of years likely because of our quest for youth, vitality, and freedom from aging and disease.
But what if it wasn’t a myth? What if there was a way to maximize ‘youthfulness’ as we inevitably age? Not in the sense of endless amounts of plastic surgery, botox, extreme dieting, or binge exercising in a vain attempt to hold on to the physical appearance of those in their 20s & 30s but rather one of biological youthfulness.
In a word – telomeres
What are telomeres and how do they keep us young?
Everyone has a sense of what DNA is; the genetic code that makes us who we are. Our DNA is stored as strands of chromosomes; we get one set from our mother, and one from our father. On the end of each strand of chromosomes are protective caps called telomeres. Think of the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces; they keep the ends of the laces from fraying. Telomeres do the same thing for our DNA; they keep the ends of the chromosomes from fraying as well. The result? Your genetic data is protected; solid strands of DNA is a good thing and one of the hallmarks of youth and youthful cells.
Chromosomal health & fitness is so 21st century. Who knows? Maybe we’ll soon be boasting about our telomere length versus how much we can squat or press at the gym!!
How do nutrients and the foods you eat affect telomeres? By either prematurely shortening them or by maintaining their length and when it comes to telomeres, it’s all about length.
You see, every time your cells divide to grow new cells to maintain and repair tissues such as bone, skin, hair, blood cells, muscles, antibodies, your heart, the digestive tract and more, telomeres get progressively shorter until those cells can no longer divide and eventually die. Over the years, our telomere length naturally shortens with age and it is one of the reasons why we become susceptible to chronic degenerative diseases; prematurely short telomeres = chromosomal instability.
Compared to healthy individuals, those with chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, advanced signs of aging such as premature wrinkling etc. are found to have much shorter telomere length in the cells of those respective tissues. Like with all things, telomere length, and therefore disease risk, varies greatly between individuals due to heredity but research as shown that their length is also greatly influenced by environmental ‘exposures’ such as chemicals, lifestyle choices like diet, nutrient intake etc.
If your telomeres are healthy and long to begin with, the strand of chromosomes is protected through each cell division. Once cell division has maxed out its number of times to divide, the telomere length runs out, cell health breaks down and problems occur. This is known as the Hayflick Phenomenon, which refers to the number of times a cell divides until it dies. It correlates with lifespan, and telomeres play an important role.
Inflammation & oxidation again
Seems like everything goes back to inflammation and oxidation when it comes to poor health and it’s true; excessive amounts of both drive disease and, in turn, disease begets more inflammation & oxidation – it’s a viscous cycle. Not surprisingly, the current school of thought is that this badass duo is bad news for our telomeres by accelerating their shortening. Lifestyle choices that have been associated with shorter telomere length are smoking [of any kind], psychological & emotional stress, lack of sleep, overweight & obesity, inactivity, recreational drug use, alcohol, poor diet including trans fat, large intakes of refined/added sugar, and functional nutrient deficiencies: vitamins C, D, E, polyphenols, folate, B-vitamins, carotenoids like beta/alpha carotene, lutein, lycopene, and the like.
The fountain of youth
Turns out the fountain of cellular youth is as close as the grocery & supplement store. The quality of your calories influence your telomere length and health. A whole-foods diet that includes the usual suspects of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, whole grains, herbs, spices and pulses [i.e. lots of nutrients], as well as, the judicious use of good quality supplements, can go a long way to protect your chromosomes and DNA, So-called anti-inflammatory diets have been shown to slow the rate of telomere shortening.
In fact, lowering inflammation is so critical to maintaining cellular youthfulness that studies looking at the use of baby aspirin (81 mg of ASA) to prevent heart attacks and stroke found that those taking the aspirin lived longer than those not taking aspirin; an average of 13%, or about 2-3 years longer. This is because after the age of 50, inflammation increases and out-paces the body’s ability to squash it. Anti-inflammatory diets are great at lowering inflammation but are limited compared to what ASA can do which is effectively block the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. See how aspirin works here.
Higher intakes of key nutrients/foods that have been shown to preserve telomere length and, in some cases, have been shown to lengthen prematurely shortened telomeres to that of healthier individuals include omega-3 fats, vitamins C, D, E, polyphenols found in green tea, turmeric/curcumin, resveratrol, carnosine, ginger, cinnamon and more.
It’s important to note that while there is a rush to develop a drug to activate the enzyme telomerase, whose job it is to actively lengthen telomeres, this is very different from the impact of a whole-foods based diet and supplements. This is key to point out as criticism for drug-based telomere treatment has been raised. In theory, any use of an telomere lengthening anti-aging drugs theoretically could interfere with the body’s built-in mechanism to kill defective cells precisely by shortening telomere length.
This does not apply to a whole foods, healthy lifestyle & supplement use approach to telomere preservation & health and biological youthfulness promotion.
How to love your telomeres & promote longevity!
- Eat real food. Don’t get lost, or bogged down, with the nuances of vegan, raw, paleo, organic etc. The evidence is clear; a diet based on whole foods from both plants and animals will provide the nutrients shown to help preserve telomere length
- Get your stress levels in check and under control. Long-term chronic stress kills.
- Minimize your intake of alcohol
- Don’t smoke or use recreational drugs
- Chuck the trans fats and keep added/free sugars to a minimum
- Add a good quality multivitamin with minerals.
- Eat fatty fish twice a week, if not, get your hands on a good quality omega-3 supplement.
- Get more vitamin D.
- Consider a standardized curcumin supplement.
- Adopt the principles of an anti-inflammatory diet, maybe seem like common sense but it bears repeating – people suck at being consistent about it!