Nutrition Makes Anti-Aging Possible: Secrets of Your Telomeres

 / / December 21, 2011 - - The 21st Century is ushering in a new era of nutritional science, demonstrating the unbelievable power of nutrition to benefit human health. In this new understanding the search for the Fountain of Youth is no longer a fairy tale story. Scientific findings now suggest nutrition may be able to turn back the clock, at least a little bit. And the science clearly shows that nutrition can slow your rate of biological aging. There are a number of concepts of health contributing to this view.  In this article I will examine the emerging body of nutritional science in the context of improving your telomeres, a key approach to true anti-aging.

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 as he developed a theory relating 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 is opening the door to maximizing your genetic potential.

Various stressful factors speed up the rate that telomeres shorten, in turn speeding up the rate of biological aging. Many conditions of age-associated poor health are associated with short telomeres.  The new science continues to demonstrate that telomere length is very important, but equally important is telomere quality. 

In some ways telomeres are the weak link in your 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 your potential to influence the aging process is simply to slow down the rate.  In the context of telomeres, this means you would have strategies to slow down the rate they are shortening while helping to protect and repair them so that their quality is better maintained.  An emerging body of nutritional science says that this is possible to do right now.

Another intriguing possibility is that you may be able to lengthen your telomeres while maintaining their quality, actually turning back your biological clock. The new science is showing that this is also possible, although we are far from any instant Fountain of Youth remedy.  Regardless, the path to better telomeres is very clear.  My goal 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

Your genetic destiny is not written in stone.  Genes are pliable to some degree and nutrition can excel at offsetting gene weaknesses. The settings for many gene systems are set up while you are in the womb, in the first few weeks of life, and further molded into shape in your early years.  Thereafter they can be influenced by a variety of factors, especially nutrition. These are called epigenetic settings. They determine how your genes will 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.

Your telomere length is epigenetically regulated. This means it can be 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. 

The healthy function of your telomeres requires adequate methylation in order to work properly, turning genes on and off to regulate appropriate telomere function. Methylation is a chemistry process of donating a methyl group (one carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms --CH3.) to the genetic material of the telomere, which epigenetically marks the telomeres so they can behave properly. 

The important point to understand is that you need an adequate supply of methyl donors in order for your telomeres to work properly, just like your 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 plays multiple roles in supporting telomere genomic stability.

The most important basic supplement to help your telomeres is a good quality multiple vitamin along with adequate dietary protein, especially sulfur-containing proteins. Examples include whey protein, eggs, cottage cheese, dairy, red meat, chicken, legumes, duck, nuts, and seeds. Eggs are the highest source of choline in the diet, with other sources containing moderate amounts such as meat, chicken, dairy, nuts, and seeds.

Your brain also has a high need for methyl donors in order for your mood to feel good. If you are stressed out or depressed you are typically lacking methyl donors, meaning your telomeres are also running low of nourishment and prone to accelerated aging. This is a major reason why stress ages a person.

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 taking more of your multi or taking an extra B complex, along with adequate protein and possible other co-factors such as MSM sulfur, choline, and trimethylglycine, to the point that you can definitely tell your energy is better and your mood is better. You can assume that if you have enough methyl donors to help your brain function then you most likely have enough to help your telomeres with basic nourishment.

A study with 586 women found that those who took a multiple vitamin on a regular basis had 5% longer telomeres compared to those who did not. Men with the highest levels of folic acid have longer telomeres than men with low folic acid. And another study with men and women found low folate was related to shorter telomeres.

The more demands you are under and/or the worse you feel, emotionally or mentally, then the more you need to pay attention to adequate support of basic nutrients that will not only help your nerves and brain but also help 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 you offset the wear and tear that is part of your life. Many nutrients can help protect and enhance repair capacity of your DNA, including your 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 increased risk for breast cancer.

Magnesium is needed by many enzymes that are involved with DNA replication and DNA repair. An animal study has shown 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 cells can no longer replicate.  Magnesium is a common deficiency in the United States and likely contributes to accelerated aging. Ensuring magnesium adequacy will support many aspects of health, including the length of telomeres. Total magnesium intake should be between 400 mg - 800 mg per day, higher levels if you are under higher stress.

Zinc is intimately involved with the binding of signals to your DNA as well as to DNA repair. The lack of zinc causes excessive amount of DNA strand breakage. A lack of zinc in elderly is associated with excessive numbers of short telomeres. 15 mg per day is the minimal amount of zinc you want, up to 50 mg for women or 75 mg for men. A novel zinc-containing antioxidant called carnosine 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. This study shows that it is possible for a nutrient to reverse the shortening of telomeres, a potential reversal of aging.

Your DNA is under constant free radical attack. In a healthy person there is an adequate antioxidant defense system that is fueled by nutrition. These antioxidants help reduce damage as well as preserve function of DNA. 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. What you don't want is 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 that a normal-weight person does not have. 

Antioxidants nutrients are highly synergistic and mutually beneficial to each other and thus your body.  You want a comprehensive array of antioxidant nutrients as your foundation. This baseline of support needs to be higher in any person with any type of ongoing health problems or is under high demands (stress load, physically challenging day, lots of exercise, etc.). On top of your antioxidant foundation there are specific antioxidant nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, carnosine, and especially tocotrienol E are likely to have direct benefits for 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, which will hopefully enable you to fulfill your Hayflick obligation of 120 years of healthy life. This means you must manage wear and tear effectively. High stress and infection are two examples of wear and tear that will shorten your 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 replicating and dividing in order to restore themselves. This need to recover from cellular damage actually speeds up the loss of telomeres due to significantly increased cell turnover. Additionally, the free radicals generated during the inflammatory situation 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, or digestive tract. 

It is simply not realistic or even desirable to avoid all stress or inflammation. However, it is important to manage your life effectively so as to prevent your telomeres from shortening too quickly. And 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 issue are vitamin D and DHA (the omega 3 fatty acid).

Vitamin D determines how much inflammatory heat your immune system generates. When you are low in D then 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 2100 female twin pairs, 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. 

Inflammation sets off a chain reaction of free radical damage, a problem that can magnify if inflammation remains high. Quenching inflammation naturally is a key role nutrition plays in preserving telomeres. With our new understanding of DHA and EPA, that they actually produce compounds that protect against as well as resolve inflammation, these omega 3 essential fatty acids become an important basic nutrient to preserve your 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.

There is a very long list of dietary supplement ingredients that help calm down 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 helping nutrients vs. the demands on you and wear and tear you experience will give you some idea if inflammation it taking too much of a toll. If you can feel a poor trend in your 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, then 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 isn't any specific studies on them in this regard at this time. On the other hand, a nutrient like 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.  If you eat too much on a regular basis you will shorten your telomeres.  Animal data indicates that eating less food does preserve telomeres.  Eating less activates the sirtuin 1 (sirt1) gene, which helps systems in your body maintain themselves during times of food scarcity, a feature very important for the survival of the human race.  Resveratrol also activates this gene, a feature likely to confer benefits to telomeres, especially if you take resveratrol and don't also eat too much 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 mid-life point.  This study shows that a low HDL level is not only predictive of a longer-term lifestyle of not being healthy, but also of the toll those health issues have taken on telomeres. Of course any 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 is taking 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 supported is suggested 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 health issues. You should have a lifestyle with some balance, avoiding known behaviors and substances that will 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 telomeres. Lingering effects, such as post traumatic stress disorder, predicts 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 now struggles to keep up. In this situation damaged molecules accumulate in your body and repair processes are hampered, aging is accelerated. This sets the stage for early onset poor health of any kind based on whatever your weak spots may be.  Disease is more likely, quality of health declines.

The health of your skin is another predictor of telomere status reflecting your biological age. All you have to do is hold your forearm next to the forearm of a child and closely look at 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. As you get older cell division starts to slow down so that you don't run out of your telomeres too fast. 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 incredibly important principle of health. Those who are able to stay on top of the telomere game will be rewarded with better quality of health as they grow older and the potential to live longer. A new era of nutritional anti-aging science is upon is. It is possible to make changes at any age that point you in the right direction. It's never too young to start or too old to benefit.
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