Telomeres are the hot topic of cutting edge longevity science. It was just a few years back (2009) that Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak were awarded the Nobel Prize in the “Physiology or Medicine” category for discovering caps that protect the ends of chromosomes from free radical damage and the correlating signs of illness and aging. It seems that the longer your telomeres are, the better they protect your chromosomes and the healthier and more vibrant your health will be.
All plants and animals grow and heal by creating new cells. Existing cells form new cells by dividing, thus creating a twin cell. This cell division or “cell reproduction” is called mitosis. Cells divide as a part of the growth process and whenever your body needs to heal. Nearly two trillion cells divide in your body every day— you’ve come a long way considering that you started as a single cell, aka an egg.
Skin cells are constantly dividing because you need so many new ones all the time. You lose 30,000 to 40,000 dead skin cells every minute, and they need to be replaced. You will need about 50 million new skin cells every day. Through mitosis you will make about two trillion new cells for your entire body today.
Telomeres – what we know so far
Inside the nucleus of your cells are DNA molecules, coiled tightly around proteins called histones. Histones are arranged to make up your 23 pairs of chromosomes (XX or XY) in every cell that determine what you look like and how your body functions. The ends of chromosomes have protective caps called telomeres. But, every time a cell divides, it loses a little of its telomere length on the chromosomes in the new cells. Thus, after years of cell division, the telomeres become shorter and less able to protect the DNA in the chromosome, and the cell can no longer divide. The cell becomes damaged and eventually dies. This telomere shortening process is associated with aging, as well as a higher risk of death from illness or injury.
This is not really cutting edge information considering that in 1956 Denham Harmon conceived the Free Radical Theory of Aging. Since then, much has been added to the theory as it contributes to much of the emerging science on longevity and wellness. After that (about a decade and a half ago), geneticist Richard Cawthon and colleagues at the University of Utah found that shorter telomeres are associated with shorter life spans. When they looked at the telomeres of people over the age of 60, the ones with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease. This showed that your rate of telomere shortening is therefore a critical marker of your health and pace of aging. (1)
As research into telomere length and its association with other diseases has progressed there have been many other links exposed, especially regarding the ailments most closely associated with aging. For instance, shorter telomeres and the resulting oxidative/free radical damage to chromosomes are also linked to age-related pathologies like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. (2)
Free radicals cause damage to many systems of the body that are associated with aging, but none is as apparent as the damage that is done to the skin. For example, in sun exposed skin, UV irradiation has been shown to accelerate telomere shortening. The damage to the telomere then leads to DNA damage that shows up on the skin as “photoaging.” (3)
Beyond mere vanity though, is the heightened risk of certain types of skin cancer
(basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) when telomeres in the skin shrink. In fact, shorter telomeres are associated with increased risk for cancers of the bladder, breast, ovaries, kidneys, head and neck, esophagus, stomach, and lung as well. And it’s not just because telomeres automatically shrink with age, because this holds true even when adjustments are made for age. (4)
The good news is that, fortunately for us, this science is emerging at a time that is giving our generation the knowledge to control the quality of our lives as we age and have greater longevity.
How Much Does Size Matter?
Humans have telomeres that are much shorter than mice, who only live a few years. Scientists do not yet know why, but this is used as evidence that telomeres alone do not dictate lifespan. I think this is another example of why scientific testing on animals is a bad idea. There are too many differences in species that hinder reliable results.
Free Radicals, Oxidative Stress & Antioxidants
What is “oxidative stress”? As the name suggests, it involves oxygen. You see it when an apple turns brown or when iron rusts. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are created in your body from the mere act of breathing, as well as many other normal metabolic processes that involve oxygen. Some ROS are unstable molecules with a single unpaired electron in its outer shell; these are called free radicals. As you learned in high school chemistry class, molecules in this state pair with other molecules and change them into something else. This is how free radicals cause damage to other molecules. It is known as oxidation (aka “oxidative stress” and resulting “oxidative damage”). The way the body deals with free radicals is to use antioxidants to combat the oxidation (get it: “anti-” oxidant?). Therefore, you are better off if you have more antioxidants swirling about in your system than free radicals. More things that heal than cause oxidative damage. Gotta keep those free radicals in check.
The load of oxidative stress from the number of free radicals that your body accumulates is a result of the chemicals (both natural and unnatural) that enter or touch or are triggered within your body and how much work the body will then have to do to combat anything excessive or toxic. How clean is the air you breathe—are you exposed to smoke or smog or pollen or other particles in the air that your body will have to remove? What sorts of foods do you choose to eat— is there pesticide residue or are there GMO-molecules, or other toxins? Are there saturated fats, cholesterol, fragmented nutrients, and processed sugars for your body to deal with? What touches your skin—have you had too much sun exposure, or are there toxic chemicals in lotions and fabric dyes that are touching your skin? The harder your body’s various organs have to work to filter away the bad stuff, the more free radicals are produced, and more oxidation can occur. Remember, the way the body combats free radicals and oxidative damage is with antioxidants produced by the body from fruits and vegetables.
We know that telomeres protect chromosomes from unraveling, but when you feel like your life is unraveling, what happens to your telomeres? There is a large body of evidence that people exposed to chronic stress show signs of accelerated aging and shorter telomeres, including systemic inflammation. But scientists are learning that not all psychological stress is harmful. Cortisol increases in response to an acutely stressful event have the potential to either enhance or undermine psychobiological resilience to oxidative damage, which often depends on the body’s prior exposure to chronic psychobiological stress.
Chronic and repeated stress exposure promotes oxidative damage through sustained or frequent activation of stress hormones, like cortisol, which can increase oxidation and risk for disease. However, stress that is not perceived to be constant, but episodic and manageable, may promote resilience and resistance to disease. Breaks between episodes of stress with lower levels of stress hormones allow for recovery and less oxidative damage. Antioxidants are also able to come to the rescue to rebalance the system. Brief doses of cortisol (such as during short bursts of stress) also improve mitochondrial function and neuro-protective effects, whereas long-term cortisol doses (from longer term stress) dramatically decrease mitochondrial function and promote cell death. Remember, the mitochondria is where the cell gets its energy. Think about this the next time that you feel tired after a stressful situation. (5)
Lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet have been found by many scientific studies to increase the pace of telomere shortening. This can create early onset of many age-associated health problems discussed earlier, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. (6)
Here’s one more reason to quit smoking today. The more a person smokes, the shorter their telomeres. Studies have found that smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years reduces the equivalent of 7.4 years of life in telomere damage. (7, 8) It might be surprising that obesity is associated with even greater DNA damage, independent of age. The excessive loss of telomeres in obese individuals was calculated to be the equivalent of 8.8 years of life. (8, 9)
It is also a fact that athletes consistently have less telomere shortening with age, relative to non-athletes. Exercise seems to be associated with reduced oxidative stress and elevated expression of telomere stabilizing proteins. So, overall, moderate exercise is agreed to reduce the pace of aging and age-associated diseases. (6)
Telomere length was examined in ultra-marathon runners (people who run races that are longer than a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles/42K). The ultra-marathoners were found to have 11-percent longer telomeres than persons in the control group (of their same average age of 43 and in good health). This translates into an over 16-year beneficial difference in biological age for the ultra-runners. (10)
While there have been studies that have suggested that moderate exercise is preferable to more extreme forms of exercise, such as ultra-running or heavy weight lifting, many of those studies are being shown to have had methodological flaws. Other studies are showing myriad benefits to telomeres from all athletic activity. For instance, it was once theorized that the harder stress load placed on the body from exercise, the weaker the immune system and the greater susceptibility to colds and flu. But recently it was shown that older athletes have immune cell telomerase enzyme activity similar to younger individuals and greater than age-matched sedentary adults. (11)
One major study found that telomeres were on average six-percent shorter in men who slept five hours or fewer per night compared with men who slept more than seven hours per night. (12) Another study found that women who report having poor sleep quality have shorter telomeres as well. (13)
Still not convinced? In another, larger, study that assessed telomeres and sleep quality and duration of 89 men and 65 women, the conclusion was that among older adults, better sleep quality and sleep duration were significantly associated with longer telomeres. Scientists interpreted the results to suggest that getting an adequate amount of sleep in older adulthood inhibits the telomere shortening that usually occurs with increasing age.
The most important thing that you can do to keep your telomeres long and lovely is to eat right. Telomeres have been said to be not only a marker for risks of age-related illness, but on the flip side, longer telomeres are said to be a marker of good nutrition. That is how sure scientists are that you really are what you eat. (14, 15)
While studies on eating a completely plant-based diet are still lacking, numerous studies have consistently shown that eating more antioxidant-rich foods, aka unprocessed fruits and vegetables, protects telomeres from shrinking. One study found that eating a diet rich in carotenoid-rich vegetables, such as greens, squash, carrots, tangerines, grapefruit, papaya, tomatoes, and red peppers, increases telomere length as you age by as much as eight percent. (16)
One highly respected study conducted in Helsinki, Finland compared the telomeres and lifestyles of 928 men and 1075 women born between 1934 and 1944. They found that higher fat and saturated fat intake was associated with shorter telomere length in men. In women, vegetable intake was positively associated with longer telomeres. Men consuming the most butter and the least fruits were found to have significantly shorter telomeres than those consuming the lowest amounts of butter and highest amounts of fruit. (17)
In one study, 24 prostate cancer patients were placed on a low-fat, primarily vegetarian diet in conjunction with 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day, six days a week, stress management techniques (yoga, breathing and meditiation) and a one-hour support group once a week. Two-thirds of the group showed a 29-to-84 percent increase in telomerase activity! This is a strong association with telomere restoration that wowed scientists. Univeristy of Glasgow biologist Pat Monaghan (author of a book on telomere dynamics) stated, “It seems remarkable that decreased stress and improved diet might give rise to measurable increases in telomerase activity in such a short time period.” While this was not a typical scientific study with a control group or data on actual telomere length, the study has passed muster with the scientific community and is considered to show the importance of lifestyle choices in longevity and wellness.(18)
One meta-study looked at 17 other previous studies on the relation of dietary choices to telomere length. Scientists found that studies consistently indicated a beneficial effect of fruits and vegetables on telomere length. And, in many other studies, a consistent association of shorter telomere length with intake of processed meat, fats, and oils was reported. Some of the other studies were inconclusive, but the general consensus was that telomere length is definitely affected by dietary choices. It makes sense. We know that fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, which combat oxidative damage caused
by free radicals. And we know that benefits telomeres. (19) Conversely, consuming just one serving of processed meat per week was found to shorten telomeres significantly. (20)
Sunlight for Longer Telomeres
“Vitamin” D is actually a hormone that is released in the body when UV radiation from the sun touches your skin. (The form of vitamin D that is created in laboratories for vitamin pills is traditionally D3 made from lamb’s wool, although they are now using lichens or mushrooms exposed to UV rays in labs to create vegan versions of vitamin D). Since the most useful form of vitamin D is created within the body by sunlight, it is not considered an “essential” factor (does not need to be ingested in food), and is also technically not a “vitamin.” (A vitamin is a nutrient that the body needs, that cannot be created by the body, and thus must be consumed.) (21)
The functions of “vitamin” D include helping the body absorb calcium, magnesium, phosphate and zinc. It is important to prevent osteoporosis and many other ailments. Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with depression, although it is unclear if there is more to that dilemma, since lack of sunlight can darken a mood in many ways. How does this play into our telomere story? Since Vitamin D is a potent inhibitor of inflammation and reduces turnover of white blood cells, it benefits the immune system as well as telomere length since less turnover of cells (dividing/replication) means you keep more of your telomeres intact longer. (21) So get out in the sun for a few minutes every day. Sit near a window, and gaze up at the blue sky. You will feel it working right away. Just don’t overdo it. If your skin starts to change color, you are doing damage (see the previous section on skin cancer).
Note: in winter months or in areas where there is little sun exposure for long periods of time, you can ingest vitamin D3 in mushrooms that have been placed in the sun. While this was once an area of contention that set the supplement manufacturers on a tirade, it has been adequately proven that mushrooms exposed to UV rays produce D2, D3 and even D4. (22) Try setting them on your windowsill when temps are too cold to expose skin outdoors. Your mushrooms will create the “vitamins” in their skin, similar to how you would laying on a deck chair on a cruise ship. Then those cute as a button little “fungis” (fun-guys) pass the goodness along to you.
Protein is the one nutrient that most people think that they need to make sure that they get enough of in their diet. But, I bet you’ve never known anyone with a protein deficiency. And you should know that many of the very top nutritional experts, especially Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell (think of him as the Stephen Hawking of Nutrition), have stated for years in their reports to government bodies, and in their books and research papers, that Westerners tend to eat far too much protein. (Please read: The China Study, and Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition for a more thorough understanding). Instead of having a small salad with a big steak and potato, the suggestion is that you simply focus on the colorful stuff at the salad bar for greater health.
And now, telomere scientists are joining T. Colin Campbell in stating that reduction in protein intake, or at least certain types of protein (animal protein), seems to increase longevity. They point to studies with rodents and other animals for examples. They replaced milk protein with soy and tumors disappeared, diseases were reversed, and lifespans increased. For human examples, telomere scientists remind us that the Japanese consistently have the highest life expectancy in the world, and their diet is associated with low protein and high-carbohydrate intake. (6)
Plan for Telomere Longevity & Wellness
Increase your fruit and vegetable intake, choosing organic versions whenever possible. Experiment with some delicious new recipes, like the ones here. Try replacing the food items that shorten your telomeres with alternatives made out of the stuff that lengthens your telomeres. For instance, replace your favorite processed meats with “veggie meats”. Replace your dairy butter with a plant-based butter. But make sure that most of your diet consists of unprocessed foods from the produce section, increasing them more with time until they make up most, if not all, of your diet. Get outside every day and enjoy a little sunlight, and get some exercise. Add some meditation, yoga or Tai Chi to further reduce stress levels and contribute to a better night’s sleep. Then, make sure that you get to bed in time to get at least seven hours of uninterrupted, quality sleep. The takeaway lesson with telomeres is that they will mark your reward of a longer, healthier life if you take good care of yourself.