You probably already know that inflammation, stress, and lack of sleep aren’t good for you. You may not know, however, that these things have a huge impact on your cells.
More specifically, they all affect the length of your telomeres—which can actually affect the length of your life.
What are Telomeres?
In 2000, a young doctor asked molecular biologist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn a rather simple question: Does length matter?
Dr. Blackburn’s research, which focused on the role that DNA tips—called telomeres—play in the ability to replicate, eventually earned her a Nobel Prize. But no one had connected this process to stressful and important life events.
Today, though, the science is clear: Shorter telomeres are associated with dead and dying cells. Short telomeres also suggest a person is susceptible to age-related diseases and even early mortality.
So let’s take a look at what we can do to keep our telomeres LONG so we live a long and healthy life!
What Shortens Telomeres?
Taking care of our telomeres means first understanding what outside factors affect them. These factors are simpler than you might think.
But we should also understand a bit more about what they do.
Telomeres protect the useful, programmed parts of our DNA—which, in turn, affect when our cells divide, or make new cells.
Every time a cell divides, it must make a full copy of its DNA. To do this, the DNA unwinds into smaller, easier-to-copy units called chromosomes. However, when each chromosome is copied, the process cuts off some of the end pieces.
Think of telomeres as those plastic tips on shoelaces that prevent the laces from unraveling. With each cycle, a little bit of telomere DNA gets lost, but the important coding DNA is protected.
Cell division is a natural cause of telomere shortening that we can’t control. We can, however, manage some everyday stressors that shorten our telomeres faster than usual.
Which outside factors affect telomeres the most? Keeping clear of the top three stressors listed below will not only improve your telomere length, but also your overall health.
Top Three Stressors
- Lack of sleep
1. Inflammation is triggered by your body’s defense system fighting off anything it believes is hurting you. This includes germs, chemicals, and radiation.
In a study funded by the National Institute of Health in 2010, chronic inflammation had a significant correlation with shortened telomere length. It was the first large-scale study to show evidence that telomere length can relate to increased amounts of inflammation.
In past articles, I have recommended fighting unwanted inflammation with a healthy diet. I think that’s the easiest and most direct approach to keep systemic inflammation in check.
2. That stress can wreak havoc on your body should come as no surprise. But did you know that psychological stress also boosts inflammation and can speed up the cell-division process?
In a large German study, people with post-traumatic stress disorder had telomeres that were much shorter than those without the disorder. Some studies have also been done on childhood trauma and indicate this sort of stress also shortens your telomeres. This backs up my belief that it is never too soon to start taking care of your stress levels.
3. Sleep is an often-overlooked factor in our overall health. Sleep can help alleviate stress by reducing the production of stress hormones. Sleep also relaxes your blood vessels, which helps your heart, and reduces inflammation.
Several scientists have studied telomere length in people who sleep for different lengths of time. In one recent study done by the University College of London and Cardiff Metropolitan University, telomeres appeared to be shorter in people getting less than five hours of sleep per night compared with those sleeping seven or more hours per night.
These studies do not show us, though, whether less sleep led to shorter telomeres or if shorter telomeres led to insomnia. What we do know is that poor-quality sleep can produce chemicals that lead to inflammation, which is one of the main culprits in shortening telomeres.
While there are many other stressors that shorten telomeres (more than we have room to discuss here), we also have three simple ways to protect and even lengthen your telomeres.
Top Three Protectors
- Vitamin D
1. Antioxidants are a class of chemicals known for fighting cancer and other ailments. Antioxidants also help blood vessels expand and regulate the flow of blood. Vitamin C is one type of antioxidant. Other antioxidants include vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants can help preserve your telomeres and improve your health in other ways as well. A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Cancer discovered that women with low antioxidant intake had shorter telomeres and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Getting plenty of antioxidants in your diet is simple. Some antioxidant-rich foods include chocolate (the darker, the better), blueberries, red wine, tomatoes, and broccoli. I’m sure you have some of your own favorite antioxidant-rich foods, as well.
2. The top recommendation on my annual list of ways to improve your health is movement. Regular exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins, improves brain function, and improves cardiovascular health. And it turns out, exercise also lengthens telomeres!
Last year, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco tested the relationship between exercise (along with other lifestyle changes) and telomere length. Participants who walked at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a day for six days each week lengthened their telomeres about 10%. Participants also improved their diet, reduced stress, and increased social support.
Please notice that participants did not need overly strenuous exercise to improve their health. Even yoga and gardening can count toward your daily movement requirements.
3. The next telomere enhancer on my list might surprise you, or maybe not. The sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, is associated with telomere length. Vitamin D inhibits cell proliferation (how fast your cells grow and divide).
A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a positive association between high vitamin D concentrations and longer telomeres. Although the study shows a correlation and not a direct cause and effect, we know vitamin D reduces cell division in white blood cells (the cells used in most telomere studies), so it may have a direct role in preserving telomeres.
The best way to get vitamin D is from the sun. Do what I do and go for a walk every day to get natural sunlight. People who live in areas that don’t get much sun in the winter can become deficient in vitamin D. In those cases, dietary supplements may be necessary.
How Long Are My Telomeres?
Measuring telomeres is a complicated process. Companies like SpectraCell and Life Length will charge a few thousand dollars for the test and require about five milliliters of blood. That’s about one teaspoon.
Tests like these are still relatively new, so their precision and usefulness in diagnostics are still being evaluated. If you are interested in getting your telomeres checked, talk to your doctor or go online to read more.
Here’s the bottom line, though: Research on the importance of telomere length keeps increasing. The good news is we now have scientific evidence showing how we can preserve and lengthen our telomeres. Reduce your stress, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods like leafy green vegetables and berries.
Follow the suggestions I’ve outlined here, and you’ll find yourself on your way to improving the quality of your life by increasing the length of your telomeres.