Do you know what an aglet is?
An aglet is the little plastic cap on the end of your shoelace. It protects the end of the shoelace and keeps it from unraveling and getting frayed.
Did you know that your chromosomes have a similar structure on their ends? That structure is called the telomere. It’s like an end cap that protects the chromosome from wear and tear and DNA damage.
Why do we care about telomeres? Just one reason: the shorter your telomeres, the faster you are aging. Telomeres get shorter as cells divide and reproduce and under the influence of chronic inflammation. There is an enzyme called telomerase that lengthens and protects the telomeres.
When the telomeres shorten to a certain point the cell get old, dies and is replaced. If this tends to happen to your cells very quickly, you age faster than if it happens slowly.
There is evidence that a number of lifestyle factors affect telomere length. (This list is NOT exhaustive, just meant to be an example.)
- Diet (refined sugars, processed foods and trans fats shorten telomeres, omega-3 fats and polyphenols lengthen them)
- Smoking (the more you smoke, the shorter your telomeres are)
- Not enough exercise (regular exercise is associated with longer telomeres)
- Obesity (higher weight correlates with shorter telomeres, although more research needs to be done as the relationship isn’t clearly understood)
- Too much stress (chronic psychological stress is associated with shorter telomeres)
So what can we do to help our telomeres stay long and robust? Obviously we want to live a healthy lifestyle and eat right, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, manage our stress and avoid cigarette smoking.
What is the healthiest diet for your telomeres? Since omega-3 fats and polyphenols seem to be protective and associated with longer telomeres, eating plenty of fresh colorful fruits and vegetables and getting omega-3 fats from cold-water fatty fish and plant sources like nuts, seeds and avocados is wise. There is evidence that the Mediterranean diet is helpful for maintaining long, robust telomeres (see the article cited above).
What about supplements? Do they help keep telomeres longer? In fact, there is evidence that nutritional supplementation is protective and that those who take supplements do have longer telomeres. Shaklee presented research showing that those who took Shaklee supplements for more than 5 years had longer telomeres than those who did not take supplements.
Because of the concerns about mercury in fish, and because mercury has a 60-day half-life in the body I am beginning to recommend that patients take high-quality fish oil capsules rather than eat fatty fish regularly. If you eat seafood regularly, refer to this chart to choose fish least likely to be contaminated with mercury. Also, ask your fish market or restaurant whether they sell fish that is sustainably sourced or refer to the Seafood Watch app by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
There is also evidence that resveratrol delays aging in human cells by protecting DNA and through antioxidant mechanisms. Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant found in the skins of red wine grapes. Click here to see which resveratrol supplement I take (bet you can guess!).
Telomeres are a marker of cellular aging and there’s a lot you can do to protect yours. Clean up your diet (and think about supplementing), get out and move more, sleep more, stress less and don’t smoke.
QUESTION: If you had to guess, would you think your telomeres are longer or shorter than the average for someone your chronological age?