Getting older needn’t be something we should fear. As we age, we gain wisdom! However, how well we age can be heavily impacted by what we eat and do. And the pace of cellular aging may be reflected in the length of our telomeres.
‘Our tele-what’, you say?
Telomeres are the defensive caps that sit at the end of a strand of DNA. Think of them as the protective plastic bit on the end of a shoelace.
The longer the telomere, the better the cell function and healthier you are. But as the telomere shortens it can lead to cellular malfunction or death, and thought to contribute to poor immune system functioning, and chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
The shortening may take place via several mechanisms including:
- Telomerase is the enzyme that monitors the length and durability of telomeres, but levels can decrease over time – especially in states of chronic stress. And when that decreases, so does the length of the telomere.
- Cells divide constantly to renew and regenerate – yet every time a cell divides, a little telomere length is lost. Over time telomeres become too short to continue this process.
- Chronic and unchecked inflammation and oxidation throughout the body can damage cells, and shorten telomere length.
Diet, lifestyle, and wearing away the telomeres
When it comes to inflammation and oxidative stress causing telomere damage and dysfunction, consider it like the shoelace tip being broken down by the elements, leaving the shoelace vulnerable to fray and wear away.
Many factors thought to contribute to shortened telomere length are also associated with states seen with increased inflammation and oxidative stress, including chronic stress, obesity, insulin resistance, physical inactivity and certain dietary factors.1
In particular, our old mate sugar can be pretty harmful.
Researchers from UCSF assessed the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages in 5,309 adults aged 20-65 years, and on average found folk drank about 350ml of soft drink per day. And those consuming daily a 20-ounce drink (equivalent to a 600ml bottle) may experience 4.6 years of additional aging due to shortening of telomere length.2
This is a correlation, not necessarily causation – but connections are being drawn considering the association of excess added sugar consumption as well as shortened telomere length with inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin resistance.
“Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence disease development, not only by straining the body’s metabolic control of sugars, but also through accelerated cellular aging of tissues,” said Elissa Epel, one of the study authors.
So that is the bad news. Want the good news? We can protect and even lengthen our telomeres with what we eat!
Eat your vitamins, minerals, & antioxidants
Tufts University researchers have found that one can prevent DNA damage by consuming adequate folate – found in leafy greens and lentils – as they inhibit DNA methylation, helping maintain DNA integrity and length of telomeres.3
Other new research released suggests high consumption of veg and fruit containing folate and also vitamin C and potassium – such as spinach, capsicum, and avocado for example – offers protection against the oxidative stress associated with damaged and shortened telomere length, potentially helping you age slower. And the earlier in life you start chowing down on a heap of veg and fruit, the better.4
And as real, whole foods are complex packages of nutrients and other compounds, you would do well to get your antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral dose from these, even though popping a multivitamin pill has also been found to be associated with longer telomere length.5
Overall a diet high in real, whole foods – particularly vegetables and fruit – provides constituents that act as antioxidants and can help mitigate inflammation. Great for protecting our wee telomeres! And it seems that exercise and meditation may help too.
Meditation and movement
Get your zen on, and start practicing mediation. The ancient art is believed to provide powerful ‘anti-aging’ activity through stress reduction, whilst encouraging positivity and hormonal factors to promote telomere integrity. And the more years you practice, the longer the telomeres.6-7
And there is emerging research to suggest that even a little intensive exercise can increase telomere length compared to sedentary counterparts.8
So, help rebuild telomeres through eating your antioxidant rich vegetables and fruit, finding inner calm, enjoying exercise daily, and avoiding those sugary drinks!
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Elks, CE, & Scott, RA 2014, ‘The long and short of telomere length and diabetes’, Diabetes, no. 1, p. 65.
- Leung, CW, Laraia, BA, Needham, BL, Rehkopf, DH, Adler, NE, Jue, L, Blackburn, EH, & Epel, ES 2014, ‘Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys’, American Journal of Public Health, vol. 104, no. 12, pp. 2425-2431.
- Paul, L, Cattaneo, M, D’Angelo, A, Sampietro, F, Fermo, I, Razzari, C, Fontana, G, Eugene, N, Jacques, PF, & Selhub, J 2009, ‘Telomere length in peripheral blood mononuclear cells is associated with folate status in men’, The Journal Of Nutrition, vol. 139, no. 7, pp. 1273-1278.
- Lee, JY Shin, C & Baik, I 2016, ‘Longitudinal associations between micronutrient consumption and leukocyte telomere length’, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, [Epub ahead of print].
- Xu, Q, Parks, CG, DeRoo, LA, Cawthon, RM, Sandler, DP, & Chen, H 2009, ‘Multivitamin use and telomere length in women’, The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 89, no. 6, pp. 1857-1863.
- Epel, E, Daubenmier, J, Moskowitz, JT, Folkman, S, & Blackburn, E 2009, ‘Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres’, Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, vol. 1172, pp. 34-53.
- Hoge, EA, Chen, MM, Orr, E, Metcalf, CA, Fischer, LE, Pollack, MH, DeVivo, I, & Simon, NM 2013, ‘Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women’, Brain Behavior and Immunity, vol. 32, pp. 159-163.
- Loprinzi, PD Loenneke, JP & Blackburn, EH 2015, ‘Movement-Based Behaviors and Leukocyte Telomere Length among US Adults’, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 47, no. 11, pp. 2347-52