When you go to your high school reunion 20 or 30 years later, you do a quick scan around the room. You see your old classmates, and the first thing you notice is how they look. You know you’re all older, yet you cannot but help but wonder—how did some of your friends end up looking so much older than they are?
The answer lies in our cells!
One key reason people age at different rates is how fast our cells age. Nobel Peace Prize recipient and renowned researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn focuses her work on our Telomeres and their impacts on aging.
So What are Telomeres, You Ask?
The best way to think about Telomeres is to imagine your shoelaces, which have small plastic caps at the end that prevent the shoelaces from fraying. Telomeres perform the same function for your chromosomes. Within your cells, your DNA is bundled into structures called chromosomes.
Chromosomes carry genetic information in the form of genes. Your cells divide so that your body can respond to injury, heal, and carry out normal functions. When your cells divide, the chromosomes must be copied into the new cell so that every cell has the same, full genetic makeup. When the cell divides, the Telomeres protect your chromosomes and your DNA from becoming damaged during the process.
Here is the interesting part.
Every time a cell divides, the Telomeres protecting the chromosomes get a little bit shorter. So as we get older, and our cells have divided thousands of times, our Telomeres get shorter.
Over time, the Telomeres become short enough that any further division would cause damage to the chromosomes. So they have to stop dividing to protect the integrity of our DNA. When this happens, it becomes a senescent cell that no longer divides, and simply hangs out in the body. As a senescent cell hangs around in the body it starts releasing inflammatory cytokines, which leads to inflammation and damage in your body.
So we definitely want as little of these senescent cells in our body as possible. In fact, a study of 64,000 people from Copenhagen showed that short Telomeres can predict early death.
That’s the bad news.
But if all we need to do is have cells that keep dividing normally, for as long as they can, we just need to keep Telomeres as long as possible. Right?
Here is the key question, though: do you have the power to lengthen or maintain longer Telomeres?
It turns out that you do, and it is done automatically through an enzyme called Telomerase.
Telomerase: the Elixir of Anti-Aging?
As we know, cells keep dividing until the Telomeres get too short, at which point they stop dividing in order to protect your DNA. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn discovered that an enzyme, Telomerase, replenishes the Telomeres and increases their length. With an increased length of the protective Telomeres, our cells are empowered to continue dividing.
This powerful discovery prompted the following questions.
- What if we can increase our supply of Telomerase?
- And would this increase the length of Telomeres and allow our cells to keep renewing forever?
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could walk to your favorite health store and drink a tall glass of rejuvenating Telomerase enzyme that would lengthen your Telomeres in just a few weeks? According to the research, that would push back diseases by a few years and lengthen our life expectancy. Unfortunately, though, it’s not that simple. While there are various companies on the internet that sell Telomerase supplements, they come with a big risk.
Telomerase and the Big C
Using a telomerase supplement, as an attempt to flood the body with the excess enzyme can cause cancer. Cancer is the result of unchecked cell growth in the body. If we get a high enough quantity of Telomerase into a cell at the wrong time, it might kick off uncontrolled cell growth, which could turn into cancer.
So if supplements are out, what can you do? Is there anything else that can be done to lengthen your Telomeres.
Remember, our body is a complex and wonderous machine that often provides us with all the tools to live long, healthy lives. We just have to know how to access those tools. So if your Telomeres are short, or you simply want to maintain their length, you can take immediate steps, today, to lengthen them. Below are some of those ways.
Exercise and Get Fit
Regular exercise has already been proven to offer a host of benefits. Now there is yet another reason to exercise—exercise helps maintain long Telomeres. A study of 1,200 twin pairs showed that even with the same genes, the active twin had longer Telomeres than the less active twin.
What type of exercise is best?
People who do moderate aerobic exercise for 45 minutes, three times a week, for six months, can increase their telomerase activity by 200%. People who do HIIT workouts have similar effects on telomerase activity. The more categories of exercise you engage in, such as walking to biking to strength training, the longer your Telomeres.
If you are stressed, it is especially a good time to exercise. Stress can reduce the length of Telomeres, and exercise has been shown to cancel out the shortening effects that stress has on Telomeres.
Sleep Well, and Age Well
We already know that sleep is essential for you to have a sharp mind, good mood, a well-functioning metabolism, and healthy levels of human growth hormones. Getting at least 7 hours of sleep has also shown improvement in the length of Telomeres, especially if you are older.1 Since sleep is essential all around, it‘s not surprising that it also affects the length of Telomeres.
And not just the quantity, but also the quality of sleep is associated with longer Telomeres. This effect is even more pronounced as we age. One study found that age was not related to Telomere length if sleep quality was great.2
Finally, adding a good sleep rhythm helps too. Going to bed and waking up at regular times can help maintain the rhythm of telomerase activity that is best for Telomeres.3
Meditate and be Mindful to Reduce Stress
Oxidative stress has a destructive effect both on Telomere length and telomerase activity.4
A study conducted in 2016 compared the levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone found in the body, and any effect on the length of Telomeres. These participants were monitored for 3 years, and the study found that participants with more stress had shorter Telomere length.
So, decreasing oxidative stress is an essential strategy to combat this effect. Studies have found that meditation reduces oxidative stress on the body, therefore blocking the lessening of both Telomere length and Telomerase activity.5
Another study measured tracked participants during a 3-week intensive meditation retreat and found that the meditators had longer Telomeres in their white blood cells than non-participants.
Find some time in your day, even just 5 or 10 minutes and do a quick meditation session. New to meditating? No problem. There are apps and great meditation videos on YouTube for guided meditations that will take the stress of out, ‘I don’t know how to meditate. These will do wonders for your focus, calm you down, and increase your Telomere length.
As Always, Watch Your Diet
Researchers have conducted many studies on the relationship between diet and Telomeres, with some expected findings. The key is to eat foods that are anti-inflammatory and also reduce oxidative stress on the body.
Eating green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, a limited amount of whole grains (careful about gluten) can increase Telomere length as they reduce inflammation in the body.6 In addition, eating natural foods with low glycemic load helps keep sugar and glucose levels low. Avoid inflammatory foods as much as possible such as highly refined carbs, fried foods, sugary sodas or baked goods.
A diet rich in Omega-3 fats was found to reduce the shortening of Telomeres.7 The benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are widely known, and this is another good reason to load up on them. Omega-3’s are abundant in oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring), leafy veggies, nuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds to name a few.
Can You Test Telomere Length?
Unfortunately, there are no reliable Telomere tests. There are a few companies offering at-home kits to test Telomeres, but at this point, there does not seem to be a reliable way to measure Telomere length consistently.
In the meantime, you would be better off saving that money and buying up leafy vegetables of all colors so that antioxidants can flood your body with goodness that will increase Telomere length.
Long Telomeres are essential to staying youthful and vibrant. Over time, as cells divide, Telomeres shorten and can eventually turn into senescent cells, which we want to limit in the body as much as possible. Researcher Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn has studied Telomeres for years and has made great discoveries about Telomeres and the telomerase enzyme, which has been shown to increase your Telomere length.
Unfortunately, science has not caught up to synthesizing telomerase into a supplement that doesn’t come with pretty significant risks, like cancer. However, all is not lost, and there are natural ways you can lengthen your Telomeres, right now, today. Eat healthy, sleep, exercise, and reduce stress. Simple, yes, but who said living a healthy lifestyle has to be hard?
Now go out there and live a long youthful life.