The shortening of telomeres is now an established hallmark of aging that is often referred to as the ‘telomere clock.’ Studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between telomere length and life expectancy, stress, DNA damage, and the onset of aging-related diseases.
The epigenetic nature of telomeres remains controversial, but some studies point to DNA methylation and chromatin structure as playing a part in telomere degradation.
As science gets closer to unraveling the miracle known as the human body, with every new discovery comes a multitude of revelations and unanswered questions. It can lead one to believe the complexity of body systems and how they interact at a cellular and chemical level may never be completely understood.
But you don’t have to completely understand how a car engine works to drive the car. You look for the signs that indicate when it needs gas, oil, a new battery, or air in its tires, and when you sense something more serious is going wrong, you take it to an expert.
When clients come to you, they see you as the expert and want answers, but as all functional healthcare practitioners know, finding answers can take time when you are striving for real solutions to chronic conditions. And sometimes busy practitioners need trustworthy advice and support.
Gaining the wisdom that comes from keeping an open mind, continuing to grow as a practitioner through education, and having a built-in support system are three things that will take you to the cutting edge of healthcare.
Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training (NEPT) program graduates receive all three.
Having the opportunity to meet regularly with peers post NEPT is one of the greatest advantages my graduates have. We exchange ideas, discuss stubborn conditions, and learn from each other. It serves to broaden everyone’s understanding of how to get results for clients who have suffered a long time in the broken healthcare system.
A group discussion about telomeres is a perfect example of how my NEPT graduates gain an edge.
Telomeres are often described as chromosome end caps, much like those on the end of a shoelace. It’s believed they are there to protect DNA and prevent genomic instability, something now believed to be a root cause of disease and aging.
The telomeres are made up of a single DNA sequence that is repeated over and over, specifically TTAGGG. This sequence is repeated anywhere from 300 to 8,000 times at the end of a strand of DNA. It’s not essential for life but serves another very important purpose.
Before a cell divides, it needs to make an exact replica of the DNA within each chromosome so a complete set of genetic instructions is passed on to the new daughter cell. This replication involves an enzymatic process that begins by “unzipping” the familiar DNA double helix. Each separated strand then serves as a template for the production of its counterpart.
There is only one problem.
When a strand of DNA is copied, it doesn’t get copied all the way to the end, so a small portion isn’t passed on to the new cell. However, as I talked about earlier, this tail end is part of the telomere and contains the DNA that isn’t necessary. So a telomere isn’t so much a shoelace end cap as it is a long piece of expendable DNA.
Each time a cell divides, the telomere loses some of these protective sequences and becomes shorter. In fact, it can lose anywhere between 50 to 200 base pairs with each cell division.
But then researchers found telomerase.
Telomerase is an enzyme that can make DNA using RNA as a template. It binds to a special RNA molecule that contains a complementary sequence to TTAGGG, the repeating sequence in telomeres.
Bottom line: telomerase enables additional base pairs to be added to the end of a telomere during cell division resulting in a telomere maintaining its protective length.
So what’s the problem?
You would think if telomerase provides a way to add length to telomeres, it’s a good thing, but research has discovered a paradox: it’s the enzyme that immortalizes tumors.
Telomerase is mainly active in sperm and egg cells and embryonic stem cells, when genetic stability is critical to development. There is very little activity in somatic cells, the simple cells present throughout the body.
The only other cells telomerase is especially active in is cancer cells. Cancer cells have notoriously short telomeres and it’s believed the production of telomerase helps to prevent further shortening and extend cell life and proliferation of the cancer.
As excited as some are to figure out how to use telomerase to counter aging, it seems an equal number are expressing the need for extreme caution for fear its artificial use could support cancer growth.
So what is the answer?
Maintaining Telomere Length
When research first came out regarding telomeres and aging, you can imagine what that news did to the supplement industry. I saw one supplement priced at $4000 for a six-month supply, guaranteed to lengthen telomeres, though no proof was provided.
It’s tempting to believe the simple answer is to artificially stimulate cells to produce telomerase, but that could come with serious side effects.
Like most things when it comes to optimal health, there are no definitive answers that apply to everyone. And again, there are more questions than answers regarding this topic, but many studies are finding that the same things that positively impact epigenetic factors, such as a healthy diet and lifestyle, also serve as a primary way to support telomere length.
The Journal of Gerontology, Biological Sciences, highlights the following facts:
- A direct link was found between mitochondrial dysfunction and shortened telomeres at a molecular level. It’s believed this may have to do with overproduction of reactive oxygen species (ROS) leading to oxidative stress. The healthier the mitochondria, the longer the telomeres.
- Vitamins C, D, E, folate, and ?-carotene and the minerals zinc, and magnesium have shown to be protective against oxidative stress and inflammation which leads to telomere protection and are positively associated with telomere length.
- It is the correct ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, not just consuming omega-3 fatty acids, that supports a positive correlation with telomere length.
- The consumption of anti-inflammatory foods is associated with longer telomeres. Specifically studied were seeds, nuts, legumes, seaweeds, and coffee. Dietary fiber intake, especially for women, and resistant starch also suggested a positive correlation, while processed meat had a negative correlation for certain groups.
- A fasting mimicking diet and time-restricted eating showed marked benefits for overall health and longevity for humans, but no correlation with telomere length.
- Irisin is a hormone released from skeletal muscles after exercise which may induce calorie restriction-like effects by increasing energy cost from adipose tissue. Using telomere length as a marker of aging, this study showed a significant positive correlation between plasma irisin levels and telomere length.
- The Mediterranean Diet had a direct, positive effect on telomere length which was further confirmed in the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest research studies into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women. Adherence to the diet preserved telomere length that corresponded to 4.5 years of aging.
- Obesity and smoking correlates with short telomere length and early aging.
- Moderate physical activity is associated with positive telomere length, sedentary behavior the opposite.
- Chronic levels of high stress, especially for caregivers, depression, high phobic anxiety, and sleep deprivation showed a positive correlation with accelerated telomere shortening.
- There are a few studies that directly link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity showing that mental health is an adjustable factor associated with telomere length.
A final word.
Throughout my 35 year career in the healthcare industry, I’ve witnessed countless discoveries that create a huge buzz. When the noise settles, it always seems to return to diet and lifestyle being the safest, most accessible, and least expensive answer to resolving or preventing chronic health issues.
Science and research is critical to advancing healthcare, but as long as its focus remains reductionist and intent on financial outcomes instead of health outcomes, progress will remain slow.
If you want to be part of the answer, I know a place where you will find what you require to bring the change so desperately needed to the broken healthcare system. If you are a practitioner, consider my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training (NEPT) program. If you are looking for answers to your own chronic health issues, look into my Empowered Self-Care Lab.
The sooner people learn to provide the body with what it needs to do its own healing naturally, the quicker they will find optimal health and live their best life.
Don’t you want to be part of that?