DNA leads a precarious existence. Each cell contains several feet of genetic material that must be packed very tightly to fit the allotted space. When cells divide, the DNA strands have to split apart, with every piece creating a new strand for each of the two new cells. This process can be particularly treacherous and vulnerable to harmful mutations that distort the genetic material. Fortunately, the body has ways to protect the all-important DNA. One of the most important structures that safeguard DNA consists of what are called telomeres.
Located at the tips of each of our 46 chromosomes, telomeres help protect DNA and are particularly important during cell division. Telomeres have received a lot of notoriety due to their relationship with aging. These protective structures shorten with each cell division, exposing DNA to potential danger. In time, telomeres get too short to shield DNA. That’s when cells stop working, function poorly or, even worse, develop disease.
There’s a lot of research being conducted on ways to preserve telomeres. Much of this work focuses on telomerase, an enzyme that helps rebuild telomeres after cell division. Some researchers propose that boosting telomerase may be a way to preserve telomere function and increase longevity and health. However, there’s another side to the coin: Too much telomerase activity may be associated with cancer formation, because it allows cells to replicate uncontrollably. But other studies debunk this link.
What researchers are suggesting overall is that healthy telomere function, like so many other complex systems in the body, requires a careful balance. Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that telomere function is influenced by numerous environmental and lifestyle factors and that shortened telomeres can lead to a number of chronic, degenerative diseases. Obviously, more research is needed, but data suggests that preserving telomere health can play a role in maintaining long-term vitality.
Telomeres can be prematurely shortened by many factors. Environmental toxins, stress, smoking and an unhealthy diet play a part. Shortened telomeres have been linked to cancer, heart disease, inflammation, insulin resistance, osteoarthritis, obesity and dementia.
It’s not entirely clear whether shortened telomeres are causing these conditions. Still, there’s obviously a relationship. A study conducted at the University of Utah found that people with shorter telomeres have a shorter life expectancy. In particular, they seemed to be susceptible to heart disease and infections. A more comprehensive study conducted in Denmark showed that reduced length increases the chance of premature death by 25 percent.
Preserving telomeres is not a magic health bullet. If we eat poorly, smoke, drink heavily and neglect exercise, there’s no amount of telomere support that will guarantee protection.
On the other hand, if we develop a healthy lifestyle and control known disease markers, like blood pressure and chronic inflammation, supporting telomere length can complement these efforts.
As always, the starting point is diet and exercise. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, drink lots of filtered water, and choose lean proteins and healthy fats. Adopt a sustainable exercise program: brisk, 30-minute walks provide excellent cardiovascular support.
Don’t forget stress reduction. There are a number of studies linking stress to shortened telomeres. Again, we’re not sure whether this is cause or effect, but it hardly matters. We know that stress releases the hormone cortisol and can cause chronic inflammation along with other degenerative effects. On the other hand, a study from researchers in California found that positive feelings, such as those produced by meditation, seem to activate telomerase. They also found that people who sustained “good feelings” had healthier telomeres.
In other words, we should adopt activities that quiet the mind and help center us. Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, walking in nature or swimming a few laps in the pool can all be beneficial.
There are a wide variety of herbs and nutrients that have been linked to healthy telomeres. Astragalus has been used for centuries in traditional medicines. Recent research has shown that Astragalus boosts immune function. At present, at least two pharmaceutical companies are focusing on this herb’s potential to preserve telomeres.
Vitamins also seem to play a role. Several vitamins, specifically vitamin D, appear to boost telomere length. Antioxidants, which can be found in vitamins and other sources, are also important. Oxidative stress is linked with shortened telomeres; arming the body against this pro-inflammatory process is always beneficial.
Long touted for its ability to boost heart and cognitive function, omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked with telomere length. In one study, lower omega-3 levels in the bloodstream were associated with accelerated telomere shortening.
As noted, environmental toxins such as heavy metals may play a significant role, as well as being harmful to health in other ways. There are a couple of supplement formulas I recommend to help the body remove these pollutants. A comprehensive, botanical detoxification formula containing vitamins, minerals, astragalus, gingko, antioxidants and other botanicals helps rid the body of toxins and may preserve telomere health.
I also recommend modified citrus pectin (MCP), which has long been used to remove heavy metals and other toxins. In addition, MCP helps reduce levels of an inflammatory protein often associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer.
This is by no means the final word on telomeres. New research will further illuminate these key structures, helping to guide our efforts to preserve long-term health. Meanwhile, a simple common-sense approach that includes a healthy diet, exercise, stress reduction and focused supplementation can go a long way toward preserving telomeres and promoting health and longevity.