Once in a while I come across a perspective, conversation or piece of information that makes me shift the way I look at things in a simple but profound way. These shifts might be large or small, but they always impact the way I live my life in some way. I think of these shifts as wisdom gained as I navigate my way through this lifetime, and I welcome them wherever I find them. Sometimes they provide a completely new understanding; other times they confirm a deeply held conviction, in which case they are like a nod: “you’re headed in the right direction – keep going!”
A lot of my world, my everyday life, is focused around health and well being – it’s what I teach, it’s what I try to live, it’s what I am constantly educating myself about, looking for the latest information and research. I work with many people who are concerned about their health. Some of them (or their spouses) have existing conditions, often chronic diseases directly related to their diet and lifestyle. Others are more focused on looking good, feeling good, and “being healthy,” and the benefits of living healthfully that appear almost as soon as you begin to make healthy habits a practice are a great motivator.
But what if you knew that how you live your life today – not just what you eat or how much you exercise, but also how well you sleep, the quality of your relationships, and how you handle stress – are directly and importantly related to how long you will live, and even more significantly, how healthy you will be as you get older? So much of the time healthy aging seems to be a crapshoot – we’ve all heard about the grandmother who drank and smoked every day of her life, and who lived to be 120, sharp as a tack to the very end. And we’ve all known people who have sadly passed away from an unexpected heart attack in their ‘50s. So, can you really tell? Is it all chance?
That’s the topic of a book I have been reading recently, The Telomere Effect by Nobel-Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and health psychologist Elissa Epel, PhD. Together these two scientists have been studying the role that telomeres play in aging and how living a lifestyle that is protective for our telomeres can affect the quality of our health now, and into the future.
So, What The Heck Are Telomeres?
Telomeres are repeating segments of non-coding DNA that live at the end of your chromosomes. I like the way the authors describe them: if you picture DNA strands as shoelaces, telomeres are like the plastic caps on the ends. Our cells are constantly dividing, but most of them have a lifespan, and eventually they become senescent (deteriorated), and they die. When too many of your cells are senescent your body’s tissues start to age.
It turns out that the length of our telomeres is directly related to cell senescence, i.e. when telomeres are too short, the cell stops dividing. So telomeres help determine how fast your cells age and when they die.
The good news is that there is extraordinary new research that shows that we have an amazing amount of control over the length of our telomeres. Even better, if we live a lifestyle that supports them, we can keep them long and healthy, and even increase their length.
What affects the length of our telomeres?
There are several factors that affect our telomeres, and most of these won’t come as a surprise to anyone who considers health from a holistic perspective. First, of course, genetics play a role. We are each born with a certain set of genes (and telomeres of a certain length), and our genetics may predispose us to various health conditions. But it is becoming increasingly clear that our genes are only the beginning of the story. To a large extent the way we live our daily lives can determine whether those predisposing genes get turned on or off. For the most part, your genes don’t create your health destiny. Enter the lifestyle factors – or pillars, as I like to call them. These are all factors that Blackburn and Epel have identified as affecting the length of our telomeres:
- Exercise – a critical predictor of good health into your later years; if you are active regularly, your telomeres are likely to be longer;
- Sleep – getting a good amount of quality sleep on a regular basis is important for good telomere health;
- Stress response – we all deal with stress in our lives, but Epel and Blackburn argue that the way we respond to it (whether we see it as a healthy challenge, or as a threat) and the strategies we use to manage it (e.g. meditation, yoga etc.) are important predictors for telomere length;
- Social support – it is becoming apparent that the quality of our relationships, and whether we feel safe and connected in our families and communities is linked to the health of our telomeres;
- Nutrition – what we eat (or don’t eat) can have a significant impact on the length of our telomeres, our lifespan, and how healthy we are as we age. This is, of course, my particular area of interest, and the area I want to focus on in a little more detail here.
There are three conditions that Epel and Blackburn reference that are directly related to what we eat, and that can create an environment that is toxic for telomeres and cells.
One of my favourite concepts from the book: You can eat foods that feed these cellular enemies, or your can eat foods that fight them.
Condition #1: Inflammation
Inflammation and telomere damage share a mutually destructive relationship that can escalate into a vicious cycle. As the authors explain it, aging cells with short or damaged telomeres send out proinflammatory signals that cause the body’s immune system to turn on itself; in turn inflammation can cause immune cells to divide and replicate, which shortens telomeres even more. One of the best ways to protect yourself against inflammation is to stop feeding it by:
- avoiding fast food, refined carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods and drinks (which cause blood glucose to rise rapidly and increases cytokines (inflammatory messengers) in your bloodstream
- eating foods that help prevent an inflammatory response in the first place, for example anti-inflammatory foods like dark coloured fruits and vegetables and omega-3-rich foods like flax, walnuts, and seaweeds
Condition #2: Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress occurs when there are too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants in your cells, which can damage your DNA and your telomeres. You can counter oxidative stress by bathing your cells in antioxidants, and once again fruits and vegetables offer the best sources of antioxidant protection – citrus, berries, apples, plums, carrots, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, as well as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and green tea.
Condition #3: Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s natural response to the hormone insulin is not as sensitive as it should be, and therefore your cells are less able use the glucose in your blood stream effectively, which can lead to high blood sugar and puts you at risk for diabetes and other problems. Once again, the solution is to avoid high glycemic, refined foods and eat plenty of low-glycemic, whole plant foods that are high in fiber, antioxidants and omega 3s.
Living Longer and Better
Knowing about telomeres and how to protect them doesn’t really change anything about the way I do things, or the nutrition advice that I share with others – all of the pillars discussed in The Telomere Effect are things that I have believed for a long time are keys to good health and longevity. But what it does give me is a slightly different framework to work from. Instead of that sort of nebulous idea, “I need to eat and live healthfully so I can be healthy now and into the future,” I can think about how my actions today are affecting my telomeres…it’s a move towards something a little more concrete to protect. It’s also more reason to focus on a whole foods plant-based way of eating and living – because we know this is not just good for our hearts, muscles and skin, but it’s also good for our telomeres, and we want to encourage those telomeres to be long and healthy, and with us for many years to come.