A Fountain of Youth at the Cellular Level
Nancy Palermo Lietz, MD
Since Ponce DeLeon’s unsuccessful search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, the fascination of maintaining youth has continued.
Whether in mythical tinctures or herbs or expensive skin creams the obsession lives on. While aging is a natural inevitability it seems, there are things we can do to compound the process. Our lifestyles filled with processed foods, refined sugars, poor antioxidant intake, inadequate sleep, environmental toxins, technology overload, and unrelenting stress seem to be speeding up the process.
In fact, science has shown this to be true. The study of telomeres, the tips on the end of our chromosomes, has provided more information on just how lifestyle and diet can impact our aging process. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes. They have been compared to the protective cap at the end of shoelaces. The length of your telomere is in part genetically determined but no matter what your starting length, all telomeres shorten over time. When this “cap” disappears, the cells die and thus so do we.
Telomeres can serve as an indicator of biological age and it was believed that the telomere length would always correlate with age, however recent research has uncovered processes which can speed up telomere shortening ( think poor diet, stress, lack of sleep, environmental exposures) and more important processes which can slow or even reverse the shortening.
Reverse aging? This should be front page news, right?
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel prize winner for her work on telomeres, certainly thinks so. In her 2017 book. “The Telomere Effect” Blackburn and her colleague Dr. Elissa Epel, share ground-breaking research on the telomeres and how they contribute to aging and illness. It appears that 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 in detail studies in genetics, epidemiology, nutrition and social science supporting the role of lifestyle choices in aging and disease at the cellular level.
While we have heard that a Mediterranean diet composed of whole foods and devoid of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, red meat, and sugary drinks is beneficial, it appears there may be evidence at the cellular level. In an article published in the British Medical Journal, researchers looked at 4676 disease-free women in the Nurses Health Study examining their dietary habits.
It seems that 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 (sugar pill) was associated with an increase in telomere length. Blackburn suggests the findings are provocative enough to recommend Omega 3 supplementation in addition to the anti-inflammatory diet.
It is no surprise that exercise can slow and even increase the length of telomeres, but research suggests that only 3-4 days of moderate exercise for only 45 minutes was enough to be beneficial and was even preferred to more intensive exercise, like marathon running which can be harmful. 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 effects. High-intensity workouts (HIT) showed the most benefit in studies combining all forms of exercise.
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 individuals their same age. It certainly explains how stress can accelerate the aging process. Now research is giving us reason to address the stress. Modalities like meditation and mindfulness not only help us to 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 study groups, researchers from the University of California showed 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 reason to find your Zen.
Dietary restriction and timed fasting have received attention for effects on weight management, however, 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, 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. It appears that intermittent fasting was shown to benefit telomere length when practiced 18 hours at least one day a week. Many plans suggest three 16 hours fasts every week, however.
Research on telomeres is still in its infancy but the data is intriguing and certainly warrants personal changes 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 which makes sense for obvious reasons. 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
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