You’re buying a new car and hear about a magic wear-and-tear-o-meter. It takes into account maintenance, wrecks, city miles vs highway miles, aggressive vs passive driving, environmental components, and anything else that might deteriorate the vehicle. All of these factors impact the magic wear-and-tear-o-meter and tell you how much attrition the car has endured. There is no such thing as a wear-and-tear-o-meter…for cars. But there is one for humans. And it’s in the form of something called telomeres (pronounced tee-low-meers).
Some Bio Basics.
When a cell divides it creates two daughter cells from a single parent cell. Cells must divide to replace worn-out cells for an organism to function properly. This is a constant process. It’s happening in you right now! During cell division, it is vital that DNA remains unbroken and evenly dispersed among cells. Chromosomes are a key part in making this happen.
The Cellular Recipe.
Imagine a friend gives you a recipe for some dynamite pumpkin bars. The instructions dictate combining eggs, oats, pumpkin, and cocoa. You first have to separate the egg whites from the yolks. Then need mix up the yolks. After this, you fold in the pumpkin, the cocoa, and oats. Next, you press the bars into a mold. From here you whip the egg whites to a fluffy texture and brush on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 min. And then let them cool for 5 minutes before eating. Delicious!
Cell division works in the same manner. The whole recipe is like a chromosome and DNA forms the alphabet. The DNA alphabet alone is meaningless but organized into words, sentences, and paragraphs you can form a meaningful recipe. The recipes for new cells are held in the form of chromosomes.
Chromosomes look a bit like string or a shoelace. Telomeres act like the plastic or metal piece that protects the ends of your shoelace. On your shoelaces, this is called an aglet. Just like aglet protects the shoelace from fraying, telomeres protect our chromosomes and the cellular recipe.
An indecipherable recipe causing bad pumpkin bars is one thing, but incorrectly copied cells are a different ball game. Cells replicated from damaged DNA are liable to produce cancer or a variety of different ailments.
The DNA in our chromosomes hold the recipe for our cells, our cells form tissues, tissues form organs, and an organ system forms an organism. Psst… that’s you! Protecting our telomeres helps keep the recipe complete so it can be repeated over and over again.
Telomeres and Senescent Cells.
Unlike your intelligent-ass self, your cells cannot commit the recipe to memory and need the cellular recipe every time. Now imagine you’ve got a stack of 10 copies of these pumpkin bar recipes. And every day you make pumpkin bars. Reach into the cabinet, grab a random one from the stack, make the bars, and put the recipe back. Over and over and over.
After a few years or decades, those sheets of paper would become pretty worn. That worn-ness in the cell is like our telomeres shortening. Physically this is like the shoelace aglet becoming cracked or decayed.
Back to the pumpkin bars. Since it’s random which sheet you are choosing from the cabinet, some will wear out faster than others. Eventually, one of the pages will become too beaten up and can’t be used anymore. When this happens to a cell, we label that cell senescent (pronounced seh-neh-sent).
Senescent cells are not dead and they’re not really alive either. Senescent cells do not divide to create new cells but still tend to linger in the body. It’s like leaving the too-damaged-to-use page in the cabinet. You’re not using it to make pumpkin bars, but you’re still holding onto it.
When your immune system (your body’s protective biological army) sees senescent cells, it attacks them like an outside invader. This causes local inflammation. When enough senescent cells build up in one area they cause chronic inflammation and become the foundation of diseased tissues. As cells within these diseased tissues are replaced, they quickly become senescent increasing the number of senescent cells in the area and more inflammation ensues.
I think of this like getting pissed about the state of the pumpkin bar recipes. You reach in the cabinet and pull out an illegible recipe. You curse under your breath and put it back in the cabinet. You reach in for another one, it’s also illegible. Shit! You reach back into the cabinet and are so miffed that you rip a third recipe. MOTHER FUCKER!! Your anger keeps building and building causing more damage to your precious stack of recipes. This is how senescent cells cause inflammation.
The key component with telomeres is like the stack of pumpkin bar recipes. You only have those 10 pages to start with and when you lose them…they’re gone. As more telomeres shorten, your cells and tissues don’t function as well as they once did. This is considered aging. When too many telomeres get chewed up, your organs start to fail and you die. Preserving your telomeres protects the cellular recipe and enables your cells to replicate and help you flourish.
Telomerase (pronounced teh-law-muhr-ace), also called telomere terminal transferase, is an enzyme that elongates telomeres. Wait a minute! Elongates telomeres?… Like my cells can divide forever?… Like eternal life? Maybe! Telomerase is found in quantity in fetal tissues, germ cells, and tumor cells but, is very low in body cells. This is why our cells age and our body ages.
Making our cells live forever through artificially amping-up telomerase (through supplementation or other artificial remedies) within cells creates some exciting possibilities. Telomerase research may hold some important discoveries related to aging. But as my aunt always says, “If it sounds too good to be true…it probably is.”
The problem is in the form of cancer. Cancer cells are a kind of malignant cell. Malignant cells multiply forming a tumor that develops irrepressibly. Telomerase detected in human cancer cells is found to be 10-20x more active than standard body cells. This is the growth advantage for many types of tumors. Increasing telomerase levels artificially may feed these cancer cells. Shit!
Jumping back to the telomerase research. If we are able to selectively turn on and turn off desired cell telomerase it may be possible to boost telomerase in beneficial cells (like those properly functioning in your heart, liver, pancreas, etc.) and cut it off from harmful ones (like cancer cells). This is not something that is available now but does pose promising hope for the future.
You may be thinking, but hey I don’t have cancer so bring on the telomerase! Again, not so fast. You have cancerous or pre-cancerous cells within your body. Like right now. We all do. Our immune systems do a good job of shuffling these problems out of the body. But with artificially added telomerase, there is potential to feed these dangerous cells before the body can destroy them.
What to do with this information? Your body is very good at self-maintaining given the proper tools. Naturally, not artificially, helping increase telomerase levels in the body is the type of tool you should target. Implementing methods to increase telomerase levels to their natural highest is the best way to ensure our telomeres are preserved, but we don’t fuel a cancer fire that cannot be stopped.
Health Span vs Disease Span.
Health span is the portion of your life of healthy living. Healthy living does not mean you don’t get cuts and bruises or that you are endlessly happy. It means that your health does not compromise your overall quality of life (life excellence). Disease span is the years that we are alive but suffer from ailments that impact our quality of life.
The example above highlights a long health span and short disease span vs the latter. Chris and Matt have vastly different durations of life excellence. Assuming they both live the average U.S. life expectancy of 80 years, Chris will experience 72 years of healthy life where Matt will only experience 48. Yikes! But preserving your telomeres can extend your health span and shorten your disease span.
The tactics outlined below not only preserve telomeres for longer health span but have traction to increase overall well-being for a longer lifespan.
Protecting your Telomeres.
Let’s break the telomere impact factors into three categories. This is by no means an all-encompassing list, but this will lay a good foundation of telomere knowledge. New research keeps the telomere topic in constant flux, so keep an eye out for future references and updates.
- Diet-Telomere Connection: How what you eat affects your telomeres.
- Exercise-Telomere Connection: The role of exercise and fitness on your telomeres.
- Mind-Telomere Connection: Determining how your mind affects your telomeres.
This is not an intended diet plan. The goal here is to identify foods that cause the most telomere damage and minimize them. And to demonstrate foods that provide the greatest benefit to our telomeres and preserve them.
Cellular enemies related to food.
- Inflammation: Avoid foods that cause inflammation and eat foods that suppress it.
- Oxidative Stress: Consuming foods high in antioxidants reduce oxidative stress.
- Insulin Resistance: Cells that don’t use insulin effectively have trouble absorbing glucose. This causes a buildup of sugar in the blood. AKA high blood sugar.
Inflammation. The following is a quick list of inflammatory foods to avoid: added sugar vegetable oil, refined flour, dairy, artificial sweeteners (sorry, these aren’t a suitable sugar substitute), grain fed meat, trans-fats, and excess alcohol consumption. All of these foods/drinks trigger those immune cells to attack.
Anti-inflammatory foods help abate inflammation. The following is a list of great anti-inflammatory foods: berries, ginger, green tea, coffee, wild salmon (or any food high in omega-3 fatty acids), raw cocoa, turmeric, beets, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, etc.), extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, eggs, and garlic.
Do not think that you are balancing your inflammation by combining berries with sugar or eating a big filet of wild salmon with your third martini. Inflammation comes from many angles and anything you can do to abate it will benefit your telomeres and your health. We’ll go in depth about inflammation in the future, but for now, reach for anti-inflammatory foods to protect those telomeres.
Oxidative Stress. Like a banana turns brown when exposed to air, our cells also suffer from oxidative stress. This process is caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that like to ‘get stable’ by bonding with available molecules and cause oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is like taking a bite out of the ends of your telomeres.
Foods that fight oxidative stress are an obvious solution. The following is a list of foods with high-antioxidant properties: Goji berries, raw cocoa, pecans, elderberries, wild blueberries, artichoke, cranberries, kidney beans, blackberries, and cilantro.
Insulin Resistance. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you know that added sugar is bad for you. Well to pile it on further, added sugar is also bad for your telomeres. Added sugar increases inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress. All three of the food-related cellular enemies.
Metabolic disease has a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Added sugar has been shown as the primary culprit to metabolic disease.
All sugar is not bad though. Natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and proteins are sound sources (currently the only sound source) of this compound. Avoid the added sugars and reach for the real thing.
The following is a quick guide representing good and bad foods related to telomere health.
Physical-Telomere Connection.Throw this list in your phone for a quick reference. It’s easy to incorporate many foods that are beneficial to your telomeres into your daily diet.
Exercise. I don’t think it will come as a surprise that regular exercise is beneficial to your telomeres. Exercise lowers blood pressure, improves mood, increases calorie burn, fights osteoporosis, stabilizes insulin levels, reduces the risk of stroke, and MUCH more. This combination is more powerful than what any drug.
Exercise induces a brief stress response, which results in a massive restorative response. When you exercise molecules get damaged which can cause inflammation. Yikes! Don’t worry though, this type of inflammation is temporary.
Your workout also induces a process called autophagy (pronounced aww-taww-fuh-jee). Autophagy is an incredible physiological process that flushes damaged molecules…including things like your lingering senescent cells. Sweet! As discussed earlier, senescent cells lead to inflammation and damaged telomeres, so removal of such cells is crucial.
Late in a workout when you have a high rate of damaged cell production, the cell dies quickly in a process called apoptosis (pronounced aye-pop-tow-sis). This is a more complete version of cell death, compared to cell senescence, and does not lead to inflammation.
Once your workout is complete, your body goes into a cleanup mode. This cleanup mode removes cell debris, which makes cells heartier than before exercise. I like to think of this like giving your car a quick tune up. Blowing dust from the air filter so it can breathe easier, removing oil sediment so pistons slide better, and wiping grime from the engine valves so the whole thing runs smoother. You’re not actually replacing anything, but cleaning for optimum efficiency.
Extreme Fitness. What if you want to push yourself to the absolute limit? Will completing an insane mission like a double-Ironman cause accelerated telomere damage?
People who compete in super-challenges show to have the same telomere-benefit as moderate exercisers (say 30 minutes 4-times per week). This means that people who wish to pursue more extreme challenges need not worry about threat to telomeres. Also, your average-joe doesn’t need to complete epic levels of effort to receive the telomere-benefits of exercise.
The only exception to either of these is overtraining. Overtraining happens when a person performs more training than his or her body can recover from. This happens over weeks or months, not over a single day or workout. Most of the time overtraining comes from ramping up too quickly.
Twin Exercise Study. There was a study completed looking at twins. One twin had a lifetime habit of exercise and the other lived a sedentary lifestyle. The twin who exercised had longer telomeres than the sedentary one. Simple as that!
Stress. Chronic stress causes shorter telomeres. You can control how your body responds by having the correct perception of stress. A beneficial way to combat telomere-threatening stress is through a challenge response. This is simply shifting your perspective from an anxious, fearful, or uncertain feeling towards stressful situations to a hopeful, excited, and confident approach. In other words changing from an ‘I don’t have what it takes’ response, to an ‘I’ve got what it takes’ response. This is a small component of what is examined in the Take the Growth Oath. As a quick reminder, the growth mind set is approaching challenging situations with the understanding that they will make you better.
Doing vs Being. Your state of mind has also been shown to have an impact on telomeres. Being present in the moment and focusing your attention to now is beneficial to telomeres. There are a lot of different matters pulling at you in today’s’ modern world. Phone notifications, calls, kids sports practice, that dinner party tomorrow night, etc. Having varied focus or not being present in the moment is doing. Being present in the moment versus concentrating on the next thing can be a challenge. But focused awareness will help you follow through with being.
Telomere Preservation Mentality. To better increase your stress resiliency and overall lookout on life, focus on these key areas. (Quick note: There are entire encyclopedias in every one of these categories, but for the purposes of telomere preservation we’re only going to touch upon them to give you tools to pursue further.)
- Purpose of Life: Finding that something that is bigger than yourself that propels you along. This could be a career, a hobby, a person you care for, cleaning the oceans, etc. This is what we’re all about at The Pursuit of Excellence!! We believe that the act of pursuit gives you the best life purpose you can have.
- Monotasking or Uni-tasking: This is the opposite of multitasking. Working singularly on that project in a dedicated space without phone, headphones, or anything else that may distract you. Monotasking is designed to put you in what positive psychology calls flow. Flow is the mental state in which you are fully immersed in performing an activity. In more layman’s terms, getting in the zone. Are you reading this article and have the TV on in the background? Bring your attention to one task.
- Positivity: Having an optimistic outlook on life. Having confidence and hopefulness about the future or prosperous outcome of an activity or situation.
- Mindfulness: Having a meditation practice is something I advocate for everyone. Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment while calmly acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This can be as simple as finding a quiet room for 10 minutes a day and focusing on your breath. A mindfulness or meditation practice is a wonderful way to transition from doing mode into being mode.
- Self-Compassion: Having an empathetic understanding and patience with yourself. It’s easy to beat ourselves down much more than we’d consider doing to another person. Be kind to yourself. You spend more time with you than anyone else. And if you constantly badger your self-worth, it’s like welding yourself to an enemy.
Sleep: Getting 7 hours or more of restorative sleep correlates to longer telomeres. Everyone needs varying amounts of sleep and quantifying ‘restorative sleep’ is difficult to do. If you wake up exhausted day after day, you’re not getting the sleep your body needs.
If you struggle falling asleep or staying asleep, experiment with some techniques that help prepare you for sleep. All light, but especially blue light, suppresses the brains’ release of melatonin, a sleep hormone. So eliminate screen time (a primary source of blue light) 1 hour before bed to help transition to sleep. Sleeping with a dark room also ensures the hormone’s release throughout the night. Either blackout curtains, or my favorite an eye mask, helps limit melatonin blocking light. Listen to your body and make ample sleep a priority.
Further research about lengthening or preserving our telomeres emerges constantly. For this reason, the telomere concept is important to understand as it will come up again and again. Telomeres in and of themselves are the shield that protects our chromosomes. Preserving them means preserving our entire body.
All of the mechanisms presented above either preserve the telomere or influence the telomerase within the body naturally. Remember telomerase is the miracle child until it endorses cancer.
Everything relates to the length of your telomeres and this is a lot of information to take in. I highly encourage you to not take on too many of these practices at once. Take a look at the You want it. You can habit! post for some tools on taking up some of these practices. Remember to start small and make incremental, intentional progress.
One concept we didn’t discuss is these pieces are all interrelated. Lack of sleep makes you more susceptible to oxidative stress. Exercise calms the mind making meditation easier. Meditation improves blood pressure and insulin resistance. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation in the brain improving monotasking efficacy. Pick the thing that excites you most and let the benefits spread through your cells and your life.
The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel