WRITTEN BY Nancy Palermo Lietz, MD, Thrive Personalized Healthcare and Wellness
Since Ponce de Leon’s unsuccessful search for the fountain of youth in 1513, the fascination with maintaining youth indefinitely has continued. While aging is a natural inevitability, we compound the process with lifestyles filled with processed foods, refined sugars, poor antioxidant intake, inadequate sleep, environmental toxins, technology overload and unrelenting stress. Science has proven this to be true. The study of telomeres—the tips on the end of our chromosomes—shows how lifestyle and diet impact the aging process. Telomeres have been compared to the protective cap at the end of shoelaces. While the length of your telomere is in part genetically determined, no matter your starting length, all telomeres shorten over time. When this “cap” disappears, cells die and so do we.
Telomeres can serve as an indicator of biological age, and it was believed that telomere length always correlated with age. However, recent research has uncovered processes which can speed up telomere shortening (think poor diet, smoking, severe stress, lack of sleep, environmental exposures) and more importantly, processes which can slow or even reverse the shortening. Reverse aging? This should be front page news, right? Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn certainly thinks so. In The Telomere Effect (2017), Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel share groundbreaking research on how telomeres contribute to aging and illness. Changes we make to our lifestyle and daily habits can not only protect our telomeres from premature shortening but can increase our “health spans”—the number of years we are healthy, active and disease-free. The book covers studies in genetics, epidemiology, nutrition and social science supporting the role of lifestyle choices in aging and disease at the cellular level.
While we know that a Mediterranean diet composed of whole foods and devoid of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, red meat and sugary drinks is beneficial, there may be evidence at the cellular level. In an article published in the British Medical Journal, researchers examined the dietary habits of 4,676 disease-free women. Those following a Mediterranean diet had the longest telomeres. Blackburn and her associates found that omega-3 fatty acids, high in the Mediterranean diet, seemed especially beneficial to telomeres. A 2012 study comparing omega-3 intake of 1.25–2.5 grams to a placebo was associated with an increase in telomere length. Blackburn suggests the findings are provocative enough to recommend omega-3 supplementation in addition to an anti-inflammatory diet.
It is no surprise that exercise also can increase the length of telomeres, but research suggests that only 3–4 days of moderate exercise for 45 minutes was enough to be beneficial and was even preferred to more intensive exercise, like marathon running. One study showed the more diverse the exercise program, the better the effects on telomeres. For example, combining resistance training, aerobics and yoga showed the most positive effects. When each of these modalities was looked at individually, high intensity workouts (HIIT) provided the greatest benefit, followed by resistance training and yoga.
Stress and Stress Reduction
We all know that stress can wreak havoc on our health, but research now shows that individuals under higher stress have shorter telomeres than those at the same age who do not report stress. Meditation and mindfulness not only help mitigate stress, they also appear to improve the action of telomerase, the enzyme responsible for lengthening telomeres. In a 2016 study comparing the effects of Zen meditation among different groups, researchers from the University of California found an increase in telomerase activity and telomere lengthening in the group practicing meditation as compared to the placebo group using more conventional stress management systems. Just another good reason to find your Zen.
While dietary restriction and timed fasting have received attention for effects on weight management, recent research suggests these practices slow the aging process by improving telomerase activity and increasing telomere length. Fasting appears to improve autophagy (Greek term for self-eating), the body’s built-in cleanup and recycling process. As autophagy increases, so do telomeres. Intermittent fasting, or periodic restriction of food, has been shown to burn more fat while sparing muscle, provide more energy and reduce the risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Intermittent fasting can benefit telomere length when practiced 18 hours at least one day a week. Many plans suggest three 16-hour fasts every week.
Research on telomeres is still in its infancy, but the data is intriguing and certainly warrants personal change to optimize health. The good news is with such interventions, positive telomere change can occur in just a few months. The greatest benefits, of course, were seen with maintaining the changes long-term. So, it appears that the search for the fountain of youth may be as simple as what we eat, how we move and how we live.
You can’t afford to get sick, and you cannot depend on the current health care system to keep you well. It is up to you to protect the body’s innate capacity for health and healing by making the right choices in how you live.
—Andrew Weil, MD