Telomeres: What are they and what is their role in keeping you younger and healthier?

Is there a way of finding out the rate at which your body is ageing? Or more importantly, is there a way of slowing it down, stopping or, dare I say, reversing that rate? Well, telomeres may just be the answer to those questions.

When I talk about ageing, straight away most younger people would picture an elderly person and quickly dismiss the information as irrelevant to them. But, what they may be unaware of is the fact that ageing actually begins the day you’re born. Does that surprise you?

What are telomeres?

You see, every time your cells divide (which happens all the time) the repeating segments of noncoding DNA at the end of your chromosomes, shortens. This last part of the chromosome is known as a telomere, and it sort of resembles the plastic end of shoelaces which helps to keep the shoelace from unravelling.

That may sound a bit depressing, but the good news is that as well as shortening with each cell division, telomeres also have the ability to lengthen. Hence, reverse ageing! Now, what does that mean for a young person? It means; glowing, vibrant and plump skin, it means heaps of energy, it means healthier faster metabolism, stronger immune system. Essentially, it means all the bodily functions will be operating at the optimal level for your body.

There is a finite number of times that a cell can divide before it dies. Just as there is a finite number of base pairs (units of DNA) of telomeres that can be lost before your chromosomes become exposed and begin to unravel, which is where the breakdown of the body begins.

So, here is a typical trajectory for the life of a human’s telomere:

Age

Telomere Length (in base pairs)

Newborn baby

10,000 base pairs

35 years old

7,500 base pairs

65 years old

4,800 base pairs

The shortening of telomeres as the years pass is unfortunately inevitable. However, we do have a lot of control over the rate at which this happens.

The Telomere Effect

In their book, The Telomere Effect, Nobel prize winners Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel discuss some instances that they have discovered which affect the length of our telomeres. Some examples include;

  • Some of us respond to difficult situations by feeling highly threatened – and this response is linked to shorter telomeres. Hence stress is extremely devastating to our telomeres. But we can reframe our view of situations in a more positive way and thus reduce our stress levels.
  • Several mind-body techniques, including meditation and Qigong, have been shown to reduce stress and to increase telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres.
  • Exercise that promotes cardiovascular fitness is great for telomeres. So, for the folks out there hating on cardio, think again.
  • Telomeres hate processed meats like hot dogs and ham, but fresh, whole foods are good for them.
  • Neighbourhoods that are low in social cohesion – meaning that people don’t know and trust one another are bad for telomeres. This is true no matter what the income level.
  • Children who are exposed to several adverse life events have shorter telomeres. Moving children away from neglectful circumstances (like the notorious Romanian orphanages) can reverse some of the damage.
  • Telomeres on the parents’ chromosomes in the egg and sperm are directly transmitted to the developing baby. Remarkably, this means that if your parents had hard lives that shortened their telomeres, they could have passed those shortened telomeres to you.

 

There are so many factors that affect your telomeres and therefore your cell’s ability to function optimally. So in brief, what can you do from today to start slowing down or reversing cellular damage, or ageing?

Here’s a few suggestions:

Make sure you read number 7 (it’s my favourite one!)

  1. Think kind and loving thoughts – Your cells are listening to your thoughts. Think only kind thoughts about yourself and others and you will be amazed at how lovingly your cells will respond. This is no new age business here people! This is hard science documented by pioneer researchers who’ve been awarded a Nobel Prize for their findings.
  2. Manage stress- or take a chill pill as they say. Stress takes a toll on the body in ways that is hard to imagine. It increases your risk of almost all known diseases and it shortens your telomeres. So, try to manage your stress levels through the help of meditation, mindfulness or whatever works for you.
  3. Exercise – We hear this all the time. But seriously, exercise is so important. Most of us are guilty of not doing enough. Aerobic exercise appears to be best for cellular health and longer telomeres.
  4. A healthy metabolism- Insulin resistance and belly fat are real enemies of telomeres. Try to maintain a healthy metabolism by not crash dieting and keep your serum insulin levels low by consuming less carbohydrates.
  5. Eat for optimal cell health – Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds along with high-quality sources of protein. Consume sources of omega 3 such as; salmon and tuna, leafy green vegetables and flaxseeds. Minimise red meat (especially processed meat). And avoid sugary foods and drinks.
  6. Rest – Telomeres like at least 7 hours of sleep. With sufficient sleep you will feel less hungry, less emotional and lose fewer telomere base pairs.
  7. The places and faces that support our telomeres – Whether we like it or not, or whether we accept it or not, we are interconnected to the people around us in ways that we cannot see yet our telomeres can reveal. We need each other. We are social creatures. We’re also affected in more subtle ways like by the way we feel in our neighbourhood, by the abundance of green plants and trees and by the emotional and physiological states of those around us. So let’s be nice to each other, let’s create friendly neighbourhoods, let’s plant more trees and let’s spend more time outdoors enjoying nature.

Living a long and healthy life isn’t rocket science, but it does require tuning back into our true nature. Eating real food, moving about, breathing clean, fresh air and loving the people around us. <3

 

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