Not just wrinkles and saggy boobs. I’m talking about heart disease, diabetes and other maladies waiting for us in our ‘golden’ years.
So what the hell are telomeres?
What are Telomeres?
These caps safeguard the crucial genetic information that makes us who we are. Without these protective caps, the DNA strands in our chromosomes would come unraveled, like shoelaces.
If there weren’t telomeres to protect our chromosomes and regulate our cells they would ultimately stop regenerating, wither away and die (or become senescent). When our cells stop regenerating, our aging accelerates.
The shorter the telomere the faster we age. The longer the telomere the slower we age.
Let’s look at the science of it so you don’t think I’ve completely lost my mind.
The Science of Telomeres
Not to revisit fifth grade science class but a refresher may be in order.
Chromosomes are thread-like structures that are made up of proteins and nucleic acid which carry our DNA, or genetic information. These DNA threads are tightly wound over each other.
Each and every healthy cell in your body, with the exception of our reproductive cells, contain an exact copy of our DNA.
The cell division and duplication (or regeneration) process is what keeps everything in shipshape working order. If our cells fail to make an exact copy of themselves those abnormal cells accumulate and wreak havoc in our body.
When we don’t have enough healthy cells to replace the dead or damaged ones, our body starts deteriorating, our skin starts to sag because we don’t have new cells to replace our collagen, our hair turns grey because we don’t have cells to replace the pigment…
Heart disease, cancer, sanity, saggy boobs, everything in our physical body comes down to the length of our cells. If our telomeres aren’t there to keep them in line, aging starts to happen.
(this is a time when length does matter) 😉
The Telomeres Role in Anti-aging
Our telomeres are kind of like little gatekeepers that regulate the rate at which our cells divide and replicate as well as parse out our DNA evenly (metaphor #2).
Without telomeres on our chromosomes, several things will happen:
- Our DNA would come flying out of the chromosome like a snake in a can (metaphor #3). It looks like this:
- Next, our cells will start dividing and replicating all willy nilly, the DNA won’t get replicated properly and they end up generating a boatload of abnormal cells
- Our old damaged (abnormal) cells start accumulating which is good for nothing except getting in the way of the good cells (and possibly causing cancer)
Cells can only divide about 40 to 60 times and then they just break down. This is called the Hayflick Limit.
So the key to antiaging is to keep our telomeres long and healthy.
The problem is that over time our telomeres deplete, it’s just a fact of life. Every cell division takes a little piece of the telomere and they eventually get short, we age and then pass.
But don’t fret! There are ways we can measurably strengthen and lengthen our telomeres.
How to Lengthen and Strengthen Your Telomeres
Research has shown that the length of our telomeres is partially determined by heredity (of which we have no control), but also:
- Physical Activity (exercise)
- Stress Reactivity
A key player in telomere longevity is an enzyme called telomerase. This anti-aging enzyme is continuously active in the embryonic stem cells that we had in the womb, but in the rest of our cells, this fountain-of-youth enzyme, lies dormant most of the time.
Telomerase both protects our telomeres and produces more. So why not just get some more telomerase, right?
Actually, scientists have tried it and it works – in mice. By introducing telomerase into the systems of mice, old mousies got younger looking and healthier. It’s been tested on humans too.
There have been clinical studies on human subjects where the telomerase enzyme was injected into cells with shortened telomeres, and the telomere length of these cells increased.
BUT, an excess of telomerase beyond what we can get our body to produce on our own, can accumulate and become cancer. Ironic, huh? (I sense an Alanis song here).
Don’t be a momo and go buying telomerase pills or some other nonsense. It can only hurt, not help (some scientists say it can perpetuate cancer).
Currently, the only ways that we know to promote the production of telomerase in our body are our lifestyle choices. (oh, that again!)
If your first reaction was ‘well then, I’m screwed’ then we should hangout. Kidding (mostly). But I will say that it’s not too late to reverse the shortening of your telomeres and honestly, the lifestyle choices we’re talking about aren’t as dire as you’d think.
(I’ll tell you how to find out your telomere age in a second!)
Exercise promotes the replenishing process of telomerase. But, you don’t have to go all batshit crazy about it. Studies have shown that there are two types of exercise that work better than others.
Good for Telomeres
- Moderate Cardio for 45 minutes 3 x a week (treadmill, stepper, slow paced jog…)
- High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for 45 minutes 3 x a week. (crossfit)
Not Good for Telomeres
- Weekend Warrior Navy seal training (seriously guys)
- Marathon after Marathon after Marathon
Your telomeres are picky eaters. They don’t like foods that cause an inflammatory response or insulin resistance. But they love foods with antioxidants that counteract oxidative stress.
Food Good for Telomeres
- Whole grain such as brown rice, brown pasta or brown bread
- All fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas
- Foods with Omega-3 oils like salmon, mackerel, sardines, eggs, tuna, broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts and cauliflower (supplements don’t count)
- Green Tea
Food Baaaad for Telomeres
- Red meat, processed meat (no spam for you my dears) 🙂
- White bread
- Sweetened drinks
- Vegetable oils such as rapeseed or sunflower oil
- Snackety Snacks – chips and cookies
(Welp, there go my dinner plans. 🙁 )
Cheese wasn’t mentioned on either of these lists but since fat-containing foods affect the telomere length probably overdoing the cheese won’t do you any favors.(I’ll risk my telomeres on some manchego)
So, living a sedentary life, wolfing down potato chips and Anti-AGin vodka is super bad for your telomeres. No surprise. But there’s actually something that can be far worse than all of that, stress.
Adjust Your Stress Response
Stress, or actually the way you react to stressful situations, is a common way to deteriorate our telomeres. (I’m surprised I’m not on a ventilator)
A study comparing caregivers vs non-caregivers found that the caregivers, people caring for someone with a long term illness (such as a their child, parent or spouse), had shorter telomeres than the ones who didn’t.
But, the caregivers who perceived themselves as stressed had the shortest telomeres of them all.
Stress that Can Shorten Telomeres
- Burnout from job stress (maybe your job is killing you)
- Traumas from your childhood or from the present such as rape, abuse, domestic violence, prolonged bullying, being an illegal immigrant in the U.S.A. or unappreciative teenagers
- Bad living situation
We all have stress. It’s impossible to avoid and difficult to control, but what we can control is our reaction to stress and it goes a long way in telomere happiness.
An example of the different reactions to stress:
Stressor – An argument with a friend
Reaction # 1 You ruminate about it, pick it apart, imagine what she is thinking, assume the worst outcome and have yourself in a frenzy for the next three days.
Reaction # 2 -You chalk it up to a bad day and decide to call her in a few days to straighten it out.
Can you guess which reaction uses more telomeres? Reaction #1 of course. So, the stressor was the same but the reactions were different.
The good news is that there are actual ways to reprogram your stress reaction and go a long way in keeping your telomeres long and strong:
What is Your Telomere Age?
So of COURSE you want to know your telomere age, right? Well, think of a number 1 to 10, divide it by .374, then add…oh, just kidding!
You’ll want to check out Teloyears. You can send in a sample of blood (just a pin prick!) and about six weeks later they send you a report. Like this:
I was shocked and amazed to see that my telomeres are like a 39 year olds and I’m wondering how random their sample was. 🙂
However, if it’s skewed, it’s skewed in our favor! But I’m hoping I’m not.
If this subject interests you more you may want to pick up a copy of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier and Longer written by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn (who won a Nobel prize on the subject) and Dr. Elissa Epel.
The power of aging is in your hands. What you do with it is up to you.
P.S. And chill out!
To quote Simon & Garfunkel:
“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feeling groovy…”