Nutrition Makes Anti-Aging Possible: Secrets of Your Telomeres
A telomere is a repeating sequence of DNA at the end of a chromosome. Each time a cell replicates and divides, the telomere loses some of its length. Eventually the telomere runs out, and the cell can no longer divide and rejuvenate, triggering a poor state of cell health that contributes to disease risk and eventual cell death. In 1962, Leonard Hayflick revolutionized cell biology when he developed a theory relevant to telomeres known as the Hayflick Limit, which places the maximum potential lifespan of humans at 120, the time at which too many cells can no longer replicate and divide to keep things going. Fifty years later, new gene science emerged, opening the door to maximizing our genetic potential.
Various stressors accelerate the rate at which telomeres shorten, in turn speeding up the rate of biological aging. Many conditions of age-associated poor health are associated with short telomeres. Telomere shortening is clearly linked to heart disease, a larger waistline, diabetes, and cartilage loss. Short telomeres force inefficient gene function that locks into place a triad of problems involving inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune cell aging which drive the rate of aging and risk for diseases of aging.
Another important aspect of this topic is telomere quality, as different from telomere length. For example, Alzheimer’s patients do not invariably have shorter telomeres, but the telomeres they do have show significant signs of malfunction – a problem that vitamin E helps correct. In some ways, telomeres are the weak link in DNA. They are readily damaged and must be repaired, yet they lack the repair efficiency of other DNA. This results in an accumulation of partially damaged and poorly functioning telomeres of lower quality, regardless of length.
One way to view our potential to influence the aging process is simply to slow down the rate. In the context of telomeres, this means utilizing strategies to slow down the rate at which they shorten, while helping to protect and repair them to maintain their quality. An emerging body of nutritional science says that this is now possible.
Another intriguing possibility is that we may be able to lengthen telomeres while maintaining their quality, actually turning back the biological clock. This can be done by improving the activity of the telomerase enzyme which can add length back to telomeres, while simultaneously protecting the longer telomeres to ensure quality.
The goal of this article is to give you a better working understanding of the situation, as well as practical steps you can take to improve and maintain the health of your very important telomeres.
Basic Nourishment for Your Telomeres
Genetic destiny is not written in stone. Genes are somewhat pliable and nutrition excels at offsetting gene weaknesses. Many gene systems are set up in the womb, in the first few weeks of life, and further molded into shape in your early years. Thereafter, they are influenced by a variety of factors, especially nutrition. These are called epigenetic settings, and they determine how genes manifest their functions. For example, if we say that a thermostat represents your core genetic make up, then the temperature the thermostat is set to and the program that will raise and lower the temperature are epigenetic factors.
Telomere length is epigenetically regulated, meaning it is influenced by nutritional status. Malnourished mothers give their children a bad dealing of the telomere deck, leading to future increased rates of heart disease (atherosclerotic arteries have higher numbers of short telomeres). Conversely, well-nourished mothers help establish optimal telomere length and quality in their children.
Healthy function of telomeres requires adequate methylation. Methylation is the chemical process of donating a methyl group (one carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms —CH3) to the genetic material of the telomere, epigenetically marking the telomeres for proper function.
The important point to understand is that an adequate supply of methyl donors is needed for telomeres to work properly, just like a car needs gasoline. The primary methyl donor for this purpose is called SAMe, which uses nutrients like methionine, MSM sulfur, choline, and trimethylglycine as building blocks. Forming SAMe from these building blocks requires vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6. Folic acid and B12 actually play multiple roles in supporting telomere genomic stability.
The most important basic supplement for telomere support is a good quality multiple vitamin, along with adequate dietary protein, especially sulfur-rich proteins. Examples include whey protein, eggs, cottage cheese, dairy, red meat, chicken, legumes, duck, nuts, and seeds. Eggs contain the highest source of choline in the diet, with others such as red meat, chicken, dairy, nuts, and seeds containing moderate amounts.
Your brain also requires a large supply of methyl donors to maintain a good mood. Chronic stress and depression typically indicate a lack of methyl donors, meaning telomeres are undernourished and prone to accelerated aging. This is a major reason why stress ages people.
This simple fact can help you determine your personal “minimum daily requirement” for methyl donors. You may want to increase your B vitamin intake. Either take more of your multi vitamin or take an extra B-complex, along with adequate protein and possible other cofactors such as MSM sulfur, choline, and trimethylglycine, to the point that you feel a significant improvement in energy and mood. You can assume that if you have sufficient methyl donors for healthy brain function, you will most likely have adequately nourished telomeres.
A study with 586 women found that those who took a multiple vitamin on a regular basis had five percent longer telomeres compared to those who did not. Men with the highest levels of folic acid had longer telomeres than men with low folic acid. And another study with men and women found low folate was related to shorter telomeres. It is now quite clear that high homocysteine has a major impact on shortening telomeres involved with hardening of the arteries whereas folic acid, the most important single nutrient for lowering high homocysteine, prevents telomere shortening and improves the quality of longer telomeres.
The more demands you are under and/or the worse you feel, emotionally or mentally, the more you need to focus on getting an adequate support of basic nutrients, which will not only help your nerves and brain, but also your telomeres. Conversely, if you feel pretty good most of the time, with a good energy level and mostly positive mood, and you have basic B vitamins and adequate dietary protein, then you are doing a good job of covering your telomeres’ basic nutrient needs.
Minerals & Antioxidants Help Genomic Stability and Telomeres
Nutrition excels at helping offset the wear and tear that is part of daily life. Many nutrients help protect and enhance our DNA's repair capacity, including that of telomeres. A lack of antioxidants leads to increased free radical damage and more risk for damage to telomeres. For example, patients with Parkinson’s have shorter telomeres than expected for “normal aging” in direct relation to the amount of free radical damage associated with their condition. Women with lower dietary intake of antioxidants have shorter telomeres and an increased risk for breast cancer.
Magnesium is necessary for many enzymes involved with DNA replication and repair. One animal study shows that magnesium deficiency is associated with increased free radical damage and shorter telomeres. A human cell study shows that magnesium deprivation causes rapid loss of telomeres and inhibits cell replication. Magnesium deficiency is common in the United States and likely contributes to rapid aging. Ensuring magnesium adequacy supports many aspects of health, including the length of telomeres. Total magnesium intake should be between 400 mg – 800 mg per day, with higher levels for increased stress.
Zinc is intimately involved with binding signals to DNA, as well as with DNA repair. Lack of zinc causes an excessive amount of DNA strand breakage. A lack of zinc in elderly people is associated with excessive numbers of short telomeres. The minimal amount of zinc you want is 15 mg per day, ranging up to 50 mg for women or 75 mg for men. A novel antioxidant that contains zinc is carnosine, which has been shown to slow the rate of telomere depletion in human fibroblast cells, while extending their longevity. Carnosine is also a major brain antioxidant, making it a great stress management nutrient. Numerous antioxidants are likely to help protect and repair your DNA. Vitamin C has been shown to slow the loss of telomeres in human vascular endothelial cells.
Impressively, the special form of vitamin E known as tocotrienols has been shown in human fibroblast cells to actually restore the length of telomeres while reducing DNA damage. Vitamin C has also shown the ability to boost the activity of the telomerase enzyme so as to lengthen telomeres. These studies show that it is possible for nutrients to reverse the shortening of telomeres, a potential reversal of aging.
DNA is under constant free radical attack. In healthy individuals, there is an adequate antioxidant defense system fueled by nutrition. These antioxidants help reduce damage and preserve DNA function. In some cases they help repair DNA.
As you age and/or as your health begins to decline, you start to accumulate damaged molecules that trigger more frequent free radical attacks, as well as interfere with DNA recovery and telomere function. You don’t want a snowballing effect that leads to poor health and is accompanied by excessive telomere loss. For example, simply being overweight causes significant free radical damage not seen in normal weight people.
Antioxidant nutrients are highly synergistic and mutually beneficial to each other and thus to your body. You want a comprehensive array of antioxidant nutrients as a foundation. This baseline of support needs to be higher in people with chronic health problems or under high demands (stress load, physically challenging day, lots of exercise, etc.). In addition to an antioxidant foundation, specific antioxidant nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, carnosine, and especially tocotrienol E are likely to directly benefit your telomeres.
Inflammation and Infection Drive Telomere Loss
At this time in our scientific understanding of telomeres, the most realistic expectation is to be able to slow the rate of telomere loss. Hopefully, this will enable you to fulfill your Hayflick obligation of 120 years of healthy life. It means you must effectively manage wear and tear. High stress and infection are two examples of wear and tear that shorten telomeres. Both situations are highly inflammatory, causing significant cell damage. As inflammation rises, so does free radical damage. For example, patients with periodontal inflammation, which is typically accompanied by low-grade mouth infections, have higher levels of inflammatory markers, higher amounts of free radical damage, and shorter telomeres.
Under conditions of higher inflammatory stress, cells increase their rate of replication and division in order to restore themselves. This need to recover from cellular damage actually accelerates telomere loss due to significantly increased cell turnover. Additionally, free radicals generated during inflammation also damage existing telomeres. Thus, we want to do everything we can to reduce inflammation (especially traumatic injury, physical or emotional) and prevent infectious illness. In addition to the more obvious acute and intense issues, we also need to manage the low-grade, chronic issues such as infections in our sinuses, mouth, and digestive tract.
It is simply not realistic or even desirable to avoid all stress or inflammation. However, it is important to manage life effectively in order to prevent premature shortening of our telomeres. In the unfortunate event of trauma or a nasty infection, it is a good idea to boost telomere support nutrition until there is a full recovery. The most basic supplements to address the inflammatory aspect are vitamin D and DHA (the omega-3 fatty acid).
Vitamin D determines how much inflammatory heat the immune system generates. With a lack of vitamin D, it is easy to overheat, generate a ton of free radicals and damage your telomeres. Your ability to tolerate stress successfully is based in no small part on your vitamin D status, including your ability to fight infection. Researchers have now demonstrated in 2,100 female twins, ages 19-79, that the highest levels of vitamin D were associated with the longest telomeres, and the lowest vitamin D levels were associated with the shortest telomeres, a difference equating to five years of lifespan potential. Another study shows that 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day in overweight adults boosts the activity of their telomerase enzyme, helping to rejuvenate telomere length despite metabolic stress.
Inflammation sets off a chain reaction of free radical damage, a problem that can magnify if inflammation remains high. Quenching inflammation naturally with nutrition is key in preserving telomeres. With our understanding of DHA and EPA - that they actually produce compounds that protect against as well as resolve inflammation- these omega-3 essential fatty acids play an important role in preserving telomeres. In a group of 608 cardiovascular patients followed over a five year period, those with the highest intake of DHA/EPA had the longest telomeres, and those with the lowest levels had the shortest telomeres. Another study has shown that boosting DHA levels in patients with mild cognitive impairment reduced the rate of telomere shortening.
There is a very long list of dietary supplements that help calm the core inflammatory gene signal known as NF-kappaB. NF-kappaB-quenching nutrients are also found in the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains in your diet. In theory, the sum total of your NF-kappaB support nutrients versus lifestyle demands, plus daily wear and tear should give you some idea if inflammation is taking too much of a toll. If you feel a poor trend in symptoms, you can assume your telomeres are also struggling. Conversely, if your body feels fit, energetic, free of aches and pains, and you recover well with a good night’s sleep, you are in relatively good anti-inflammatory shape.
There are some specific studies on anti-inflammatory nutrients known to calm down NF-kappaB, which also help preserve telomeres. Nutrients such as quercetin, green tea catechins, grape seed extract, curcumin, and resveratrol all show specific ability to help preserve telomeres, with grape seed extract and curcumin showing the ability to generate longer telomeres. Certainly, other NF-kappaB-quenching nutrients would likely show benefits; there just aren't currently any specific studies in this regard. On the other hand, the nutrient curcumin is being extensively studied for its ability to help repair DNA, especially epigenetic malfunction, and prevent and help treat cancer, making it one of the best documented nutrients you could take.
Likewise, resveratrol is particularly intriguing. Calorie restriction may help extend lifespan. Eating too much on a regular basis will shorten your telomeres. Animal data indicates that eating less food preserves telomeres. Eating less activates the sirtuin 1 (sirt1) gene, which helps the body's systems maintain themselves during times of food scarcity -- a feature very important for the survival of the human race. Resveratrol also activates sirt1, a feature likely to confer benefits to telomeres, especially if you take resveratrol and avoid overeating as a lifestyle pattern.
We now know that short telomeres are reflective of a “worn out” DNA repair and rejuvenation capacity that increases risk for cancer and heart disease. An interesting human study tracked 662 people from childhood until age 38, measuring their HDL levels (the protective form of cholesterol). Those with the highest HDL levels had the longest telomeres. The researchers believed this was due to less cumulative inflammatory and free radical damage in their life up to this midlife point. This study shows that a low HDL level is not only predictive of a longer-term lifestyle of poor health, but also of the toll those health issues take on telomeres. Of course, every chronic health problem has increased inflammation and free radical damage as features, and is likely to be associated with shorter telomeres, as has been demonstrated for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
The bottom line is that you need a lifestyle and nutrition intake that can offset wear and tear and prevent free radical damage. Nutritional anti-inflammation strategies are an important part of your telomere preservation toolbox. The healthier you are, the less you need to do. The worse off your health, the more you need to make changes. Even if you are healthy, general aging takes its toll on your telomeres, and you want to do everything you can to maintain your fitness and health while preserving them. This means that more nutritional support is needed as you grow older, simply as an attempt to minimize the common wear and tear of aging.
You should have a baseline nutritional support program that is relevant to your current health trends and issues. Your lifestyle should be fairly balanced, avoiding known behaviors and substances that cause wear and tear and speed telomere loss.
Furthermore, in the unfortunate event of an accident, injury, illness, or emotional trauma, you should boost up support until such issues have resolved, as they are a major hit to your telomeres. Lingering effects, such as post traumatic stress disorder, predict poor telomere status. Every effort should be made to fully recover from any type of trauma.
Telomeres reflect the vitality your body displays to keep up with demands and challenges. As telomeres shorten and/or or become functionally impaired, your body struggles to keep up. In this situation, damaged molecules accumulate in your body, hampering repair processes and accelerating aging. This sets the stage for the early onset of any number of health issues, based on whatever your weak spots may be. Disease is more likely and quality of health declines.
Skin health is another predictor of telomere status, reflecting biological age. Simply hold your forearm next to a child's forearm and closely compare the differences in skin (don’t do this for too long or you will start feeling really old). Youth and body growth are reflective of the free-spending, happy-go-lucky days of your telomeres. Your skin looks fresh and new. With age, cell division starts to slow down in order to preserve telomeres. The “reckless” spending of youth is replaced by more prudent saving for the future. Better quality skin as you age is directly related to the health of your telomeres.
Preserving your telomeres is an exceptionally important principle of health. Those who are able to stay on top of the telomere game will be rewarded with a longer lifespan and better quality of health as they age. A new era of anti-aging nutritional science is upon us. It is possible to make changes that point you in the right direction at any age. It’s never too young to start or too old to benefit.
Originally written Dec. 2011. Last updated Dec. 2013.