It’s an age-old question — where to find the fountain of youth? You’ll find much of the answer when you embrace the healthy habits you’ve heard me talk about before — whole foods, rest, movement, stress reduction — but there’s another element you might be less familiar with. It’s your telomeres.
Often likened to the long plastic tips that keep your shoelaces from fraying, telomeres are the ‘endcaps’ that protect the DNA in your chromosomal strands, helping to keep your cells (and the rest of you) young. In our first few decades, our telomeres go about their business, protecting — and shortening a bit — day by day. By middle age, many telomeres have worn out and gone off-line, taking with them a good chunk of your ability to remain youthful inside and out. For better or worse, the shortening of your telomeres is at the heart of what makes us age.
Studies indicate that telomere length is closely associated with health and longevity, so when it comes to delaying or even reversing the ills of aging, like heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more, long telomeres equal youth and health; short ones, not so much. A lot of the uptick in telomere interest in recent years has come from a jaw-dropping Harvard study in which researchers were able to reverse aging in mice by chemically flipping on telomerase, the enzyme that maintains telomeres, thereby demonstrating the relationship between aging and telomeres. Though the actual mechanics are still being worked out, practically speaking, what this discovery means is that by taking care of our telomeres — not abusing or shortening them with a boat-load of bad habits — we can potentially turn aging around, and extend the length and quality of our ‘health spans.’ Living healthier and longer? Count us in.
So how to preserve the health and length of your telomeres for as long as possible? Here are a few ways to go about it.
1. Tend and defend your telomere garden.
Want to protect your telomeres and stay younger longer? The prescription is simple: embrace a healthier lifestyle. Starting now. Your telomeres have no time to lose. Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between a healthy lifestyle and longer telomeres. As I outline in my book, How to Be Well: The 6 Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life, introducing healthier habits, even if it’s only one a week, really adds up, so get cracking! Think of it this way: the more telomere-saving habits you embrace, the slower you’ll age. Can you afford to wait? Didn’t think so.
Where to start:
- Ditch destructive substances like tobacco, sugar, and alcohol, all of which are terrible for countless reasons, in addition to speeding up aging.
- Got stress? Stress is a telomere-shortener, so fight back with a daily meditation practice — just five or 10 minutes confers benefits. Work in more unwinding time — and get more quality rest to help put on the aging breaks.
- Move more every day, particularly if you are headed into middle age. Research has found that people who exercised the most had significantly longer telomeres and that remaining sedentary does your telomeres, and the rest of you, no favors.
- Drop the extra weight. There’s no good reason to keep it. Let it go if you want to show your telomeres some love.
2. Get serious about what you’re eating.
We all know that what we put in our mouths has a significant impact on the health of our bodies. When you factor telomeres into the health equation, and appreciate that you can lengthen them with a nutrient-packed diet, eating well becomes even more of a no-brainer. To clean up your act, go heavy on organic or farmers’ market veggies and a few low-sugar fruits. When eating animal products, stick to high-quality grass-fed or pasture-raised animals, and choose low-in-mercury, small, oily fish like sardines and mackerel to boost omega-3s levels. Dump processed foods, sweets, and telomere-shortening sugary sodas — no excuses! Ultimately, the goal is to go heavy on telomere-supportive antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods at every meal. You’ll never go wrong with goodies like leafy greens, avocado, seaweed, asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, berries, grass-fed and finished meats, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, nuts and seeds to name a few— so pile your plate high. Pair your meal with green or rooibos tea for an extra antioxidant boost.
3. Change your attitude.
Always see the downside? To help fend off the telomere-related ravages of time, you might want to change your attitude. Several studies have shown that those who identified themselves as pessimists were found to have shorter telomeres than those who identified as optimists. How to start turning your psychic frown upside down? In a word, gratitude. When you learn to practice gratitude — and it is a practice — you will help train your brain to redirect negative thoughts in a more positive direction, and do right by your telomeres to boot.
4. Support your telomeres.
The vitamins and nutrients running through your veins also matter. Too little vitamin D can shorten telomeres, whereas several studies have linked higher levels of antioxidants like vitamin C and E with longer telomere length. In addition to a clean, healthy diet, adding a few of these basic supplements to the mix can help fill in any dietary gaps and add another layer of telomere support. Here are my must-haves:
- A high-quality omega 3 supplement with EPA and DHA to help tame inflammation. A daily dose of 1.4 grams of EPA and 1 gram of DHA will cover the bases.
- Vitamin D — but have your levels checked first before loading up or overdoing it. For most people, once your D levels are optimized, a daily maintenance dose of roughly 2,000 IU should do the trick.
- In addition to eating antioxidant-rich foods, take a good multivitamin, which will fill the gaps and make sure you are getting enough of them, especially vitamin C and E.
5. School your telomeres.
To learn more about your telomeres, take a look at “The Telomere Effect’ by Nobel Prize-winning telomere expert Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and noted PhD, Dr. Elissa Epel.