Taking Care of Telomeres

By Leigh Erin Connealy , MD

Fighting aging at the cellular level starts by supporting some of the smallest components with stress reduction, regula activity, nutritious food and a positive attitude.

The phrase “Good things come in small packages” wasn’t originally intended to describe telomeres, but it definitely applies. Telomeres are microscopic caps shielding the ends of our chromosomes. These little collections of DNA (the material that contains each cell’s genetic instructions) are involved in the process of cell division, a vitally important process that helps keeps our bodies functioning properly. Each time a cell divides, the telomere attached to it contributes a portion of itself to the process and therefore becomes smaller.

At some point, the telomere is too small to continue providing this service, so cell division stops. While the cell remains alive, it can’t renew itself and its ability to function slows or ends completely. You can see the effects of shortened telomeres in sagging, wrinkled skin, and diseases normally associated with aging, such as heart disease and a weakened immune system. And several studies have confirmed that individuals with shorter telomeres are more vulnerable to a variety of ailments.

As a result, scientists have been looking for ways to keep telomeres from shrinking. So far, the findings suggest that one of the best ways to do that is with lifestyle changes. At the top of the list: stress management!

De-Stressing Slows the Clock

Here’s how stress affects telomeres: During stressful events, the adrenal glands produce hormones that damage – and sometimes kill – immune system cells. To replace them, other cells in the immune system take on the job of replicating, which causes their telomeres to become shorter. So more stress means shorter telomeres, which eventually translates into less effective cells throughout the body. In other words, cells may become old before their time as a result of repeated bouts of unmanaged stress.

Stress management techniques run the gamut, ranging from exercise to meditation and visualization to breathing practices designed specifically for that purpose. In the exercise category, cardio workouts are one option, but yoga, stretching and Tai Chi are also proven stress modulators.

The Rewards of a Better Attitude

Another method of reducing stress is attitude adjustment. A ground-breaking study at University of California San Francisco looked at telomere length in a group of female caregivers, most of whom lived with disabled children. In most cases, these women’s telomeres were significantly shorter than those of women who were not caregivers. But researchers also found that these results were not nearly as dramatic among women who did not consider themselves overwhelmed and seriously stressed. In other words, those women who saw their situation as something they could cope with were healthier than those who felt they had high stress levels and little control over events in life. Clearly, changing one’s perspective via meditation, yoga, or with a psychological approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy can pay off.

How a Healthy Lifestyle Helps Fight Aging

While stress reduction is a major factor in supporting fully functioning telomeres, other elements of a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be overlooked. Smoking, living a sedentary lifestyle, and eating fast and/or processed foods can all take a toll at the cellular level. But new research has shown that eliminating or correcting these habits may actually increase telomere length – and fairly quickly, too!

The study, conducted by renowned physician and author Dean Ornish and published in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, found renewed telomere boosting activity among a group of men who participated in regular exercise and stress management while switching to a low-fat diet. Best of all, the benefits were seen in just three months!

Finally, don’t overlook the effects of depression and related mood disorders on telomere health. Researchers are just now starting to examine the long-term impact of emotional states – particularly depression – on telomeres. But preliminary results show that as much as a decade of early aging could be caused by mood disorders. The lifestyle changes listed above – regular exercise, a nutritious diet and stress management – can go a long way toward relieving depression. If you need further recommendations for combating depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), talk to your physician about the various options.