This month at Parsley Health, we are taking on the science of aging. While the average lifespan has increased, in some ways we are getting older faster. Although youth is on the inside, every year companies sell us over $200 billion dollars worth of cosmetics to smear on the outside. (1)
In search of an energy boost, the average American consumes almost 70lbs of added sugars each year (2), and yet our cells aren’t making energy the way that they should. Rather than giving us the jolt we want, the added sugar is causing our mitochondria, our cell’s energy powerhouses, to get bogged down by the weight of oxidative stress, making it harder for them to make ATP – the body’s energy currency. (3)
So what are we to do? Well there’s a lot we can do, starting on the genetic level, moving to metabolism, using food as a tool, and choosing the right products, along the way maintaining internal youth as we go.
To get us started, let’s learn about telomeres, a part of our DNA that has been discovered to be key to the aging process.
What on earth is a telomere?
A telomere is a specific sequence of DNA (4) that forms a cap at the two ends of each chromosome. This cap – like the plastic cap on the end of a shoelace – keeps the chromosome from fraying each time it’s replicated. When a cell divides, it replicates everything inside of it including its chromosomes – the bundles of DNA that provide the genetic blueprint for building and running your body. Without telomeres to protect them, chromosomes get increasingly tangled and damaged, resulting in poorly constructed cells and speeding up the process that leads to cell death. This in turn means an older, less resilient body.
Research shows that longer telomeres are associated with a longer lifespan, and that shorter telomeres are associated with the diseases of aging: heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. (4).
How do telomeres get shorter?
Interestingly enough, telomeres themselves can be damaged in the aging process; the shorter telomeres get, the less protective they are to the chromosome. The longer telomeres stay intact, the more protective they can be. This is where telomerase comes in. Telomerase is an enzyme – a protein – whose job it is to repair the telomeres. Over time, telomerase can be depleted and degraded, making it harder for the body to repair its telomeres.
An important research paper in Nature, one of science’s premiere journals, showed that mice genetically engineered without telomerase aged prematurely, but bounced back to health when telomerase was added back in. The mice literally got younger in real time. (5)
It turns out that we may have more control of our telomeres than we think. Lifestyle is an important determinant of telomere length and telomerase activity – this may explain how we age more, or less, than others through the choices we make every day.
Here are 5 to ways to keep your telomeres longer – potentially slowing down the aging process on the DNA level.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight – BMI over 24, and high waist circumference (think, a big protruding belly), are associated with significantly shorter telomeres, particularly in women. Belly fat – the kind that’s inside the body, not the kind sitting on top of the muscles under the skin, but rather the fat that surrounds the internal organs – sends out chemical messengers called adipocytokines that create oxidative stress on cells – this oxidative stress damages DNA including telomeres. (6)
- Exercise regularly. Research has shown that men in their 50s who were active runners had nearly the same telomere length as men in their 20s, but men in their 50s who were sedentary had 40% shorter telomeres than the younger men – and looked remarkably older than their runner counterparts. (7)
- Manage chronic stress. How stress causes telomere shortening is not yet fully understood, but people who face adversity early in life and those who are burdened by chronic caregiving, heavy work loads and financial stress, have shorter telomeres than others, controlling for age and lifestyle factors. (8) To lower stress, we recommend meditation – it’s one of the most powerful ways to combat chronic mental stress.
- Eat a telomere-protective diet. Foods rich in antioxidants – vitamin C (red peppers, kale), anthocyanins (blueberries) and polyphenols (cloves) – contribute to an overall positive antioxidant balance, protecting DNA from oxidative stress. Additionally, because of “food synergy,” food is the best way to reduce oxidative stress. “Food synergy,” as described by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is the concept that because of the way nutrients interact with each other, you benefit more from whole foods than you do from their nutrient parts. (9).
- Supplements may help. While there is no direct evidence that antioxidant supplements improve aging on their own, there is evidence that some supplements support the body’s natural anti-aging mechanisms by helping the body make its own antioxidants. In particular, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) supports the body’s production of one of the few and essential internal cellular antioxidants, Glutathione. (10). That said, supplement quality is highly variable and choosing the right one is best done with the guidance of an expert.
Can’t we just develop a telomerase pill?
The answer is, the body is smarter than that. Just adding in telomerase may be dangerous, as cells that develop the ability to perfectly keep their telomeres intact forever – “immortal cells” – are cancer cells. Cells are meant to die off. Cancer cells lose this positive self-destruction mechanism. Thus there is a lot more we need to know before focusing on a quick-fix like supplementing telomerase.
How do I know if my telomeres are short?
There are direct-to-consumer tests that will give you your ATL, average telomere length, and compare it to the averages of others in your age group. There are also doctor-ordered tests that measure telomere length – we offer this testing at Parsley Health.
Whether you do the testing on your own or with a doctor, we encourage you to work with a knowledgeable physician who can help you understand what telomere status means in the context of your personal risk factors and health story, and who can recommend a personalized program based on the results. After all, a test result is only as valuable as what you do with the information.
- Anti-Aging Market Poised to Surge from USD 140.3 Billion in 2015 to USD 216.52 Billion, Globally by 2021
- The Toxic Truth: Too much fructose can damage your liver, just like too much alcohol
- High glucose-induced oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction in neurons.
- Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging
- Telomerase reverses aging process
- Increased oxidative stress in obesity and its impact on metabolic syndrome.
- Phys Ed: How Exercising Keeps Your Cells Young
- How chronic stress is harming our DNA
- Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition
- Existing and potential therapeutic uses for N-acetylcysteine: the need for conversion to intracellular glutathione for antioxidant benefits.