There was something exciting and magical about the television series Star Trek. It pushed forward the premise that humans are really mere infants when it comes to discovering what delightful secrets our universe has yet to be uncovered with it’s signature mantra “To Boldly Go Where No Man has Gone Before”:
We are in that same infancy of discovery in the medical world! So everytime I happen to unveil a new tool in the medical tool chest that can help me adopt a more healthy lifestyle, I MUST SHARE IT WITH YOU! So let’s look under the microscope, past the cellular level and examine our genetic makeup, observing the 46 chromosomes (23 pair) in each of our roughly 37.2 trillion human cells:
Now just look a little closer at the end of each of those chromosomes. That’s the seemingly understated non-coding portion of your DNA that is really chromosomal GOLD! Those end-caps on each of your chromosomes tell your individual lifestyle story, certain to be a crucial, next generation of health markers. But I’m sorry, how rude of me! Let me make a formal introduction, meet your TELOMERES:
For this telomere journey we will glean valuable information from the research and now informative new book titled The Telomere Effect by Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and leading health psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel. Dr. Epel was our recent guest on radio show “Healthy U”, KMEM 100.5 in Memphis, MO. Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel make reference to the metaphor of shoelaces when describing your precious telomeres. The shoe lace represents your chromosomes, however the protective tips at the end, the aglets, are what keeps those laces from fraying. Note that the longer those aglets are, the less fraying, thus the more shoelace life you have. Those aglets represent your telomeres:
In terms of chromosomes, the longer the telomeres, the less likely there will be alarms going off in cells or fusion of chromosomes. Fusions trigger chromosome instability and DNA breakage which are catastrophic events for the cells– The Telomere Effect.
So, we naturally lose telomere length as we age (we are born with roughly 10,000 base pairs in telomere length but by age 65 that is shortened to 4,800 base pairs of length), shortened telomeres being one of the primary reasons human cells grow old because the shortened length stifles the cell’s dividing capacity, stopping the cell in it’s tracks from renewing itself. So yes, you guessed it folks, those telomeres tell the age story. On average, those who look older than their age have shorter telomeres AND telomere length predicts mortality overall from many different diseases, including the biggies, heart disease and cancer!
HOWEVER, even though we all are dealt that hand of genetic cards when we are born, we do have the power, through a healthy lifestyle, to maximize both telomerase (the enzyme responsible for replenishing telomeres, restoring DNA lost in cell divisions) AND the length of those telomeres through healthier mental habits, life purpose, exercise, sleep and nutrition and maybe not live a longer life but maximize our healthspan (those years of disease-free living) and minimize our diseasespan (the onset of noticeable disease that interferes with our quality of life)!!
So let’s get to our Star Telomere Lifestyle Health Tips:
1.“Highly Illogical” Thoughts Can Be Tamed- Negative thoughts can go down the road first to anxiety and then later stop at deep depression, affecting our telomere length and thus our overall health. Below is a graph that depicts a Netherlands study of Depression and Anxiety of 3,000 people. Note that the telomeres were really affected at the 10 month mark:
This graph is compliments of The Telomere Effect.
I will list a litany of negative thought-isms (that telomere science proves, leads to shorter telomeres) that can turn into that slippery depression slope:
Threatening Stress– I’m always on edge thinking that I’ll lose my job of 30 years any day now since the new cost-cutting boss is at the helm.
Rumination– I can’t believe I said something so stupid at my husband’s office party last month! I can’t stop thinking about it!
Pessimism– My girls are both getting married this year at our farm. I’m sure a lot of items will fall through the cracks and we’ll be scrambling at the last minute!
Mind Wandering– I can’t seem to get anything done. I’m never thinking about what I’m doing when I’m doing it!
Thought Suppression– I am not even going to think about all the tax bookwork I have to complete before April 15th, it makes me quesy!
The antidote? Try Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is a marrying of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. It’s a way to self-talk to yourself to change those negative thought-isms in a problem-solving format to positive self-talk. Remember it takes work to really see change for a lot of our automatic thoughts have sometimes been with us since childhood.
Below are some positive thought-isms to combat those negatives:
Turn Threatening Stress into Challenge Stress-You know, I might lose my job with this new boss, so it’s time for me to get my resume out and explore new avenues of work. Time for a change anyway! (See Turn Unhealthy Stress Into Eustress for more tips).
Turn Rumination into Letting it Go– I can’t do a thing about the stupid thing I said at that party. You know, everyone makes mistakes. I’ve got to forgive myself.
Turn Pessimism Into Optimism– I am so lucky to have two girls getting married in the same year. I’ll do all I can but I know there will be last minute items that will come up and we will tackle it then! (See Drink from the Healing Pitcher of Optimism for more tips)
Turn Mind Wandering Into Being Present-I do much better with accomplishments when I write down all of the tasks I need to achieve each day. I’ll get to those important tasks I’ve been putting off first thing in the morning when I’m fresh, then I’ll tackle those emails and calls in the afternoon.
Turn Thought Suppression Into Problem Solving– I know I’ve got a lot of tax bookwork to accomplish for April 15th. I will assign myself one part to accomplish each week so it won’t be such a monumental job in one sitting.
Just play a game with yourself and make up your own negative thought-isms, and then the positive thought-isms to answer them. The key then, to make any type of true change, is to be constantly aware of those negative thoughts when they cross your mind and train yourself to make them into positives.
2. “Live Long and Prosper” Life Purpose- A reason for living is key to a vibrant healthspan. As we’ve discussed before when we interviewed Dan Buettner on “Healthy U, “author of National Geographic’s Blue Zones, where centenarians were sought out all over the world for their secret sauce of longevity. Life purpose was at the top of the list!
Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel pointed to a program called The Experience Corps. for their life purpose example. The Experience Corps. pairs retired men and women as tutors in low-income, urban public schools with young students:
To check the older volunteers health in this controlled trial, they set up a control with the volunteers. After two years, the control group had a decline in brain volume of the cortex and hippocampus (responsible for memory, learning and emotion), yet the volunteers (especially men) had increases in brain volume over that two year span. A shrinking brain is linked with dementia and Alzheimers’, yet an increase in brain volume leads to greater memory, brain function and yes, well being!
3. “Beam Me Up Scotty”, I Need my ZZZZs!- The telomeres tell the story on what amount of sleep is optimal: seven hours, especially if you’re older. Five to six hours per night for older adults means shorter telomeres. Now just as an aside, they say President Donald Trump only requires 2-4 hours per night of sleep. I would just love to see his telomeres under a microscope!
All kidding aside, the trifecta of sleep length (7 hours), sleep quality (did you wake up refreshed?) and sleep rhythm (going to sleep at the same time with regularity) lengthen your telomeres, boost your immune system and helps you jump start your next day with a fresh attitude. Need some sleep help? See Fixing Broken Sleep for suggestions.
4. “I’m Givin Her All She’s Got, Captain”, I’m Moving!-
Yes it’s true, the sedentary lifestyle is deadly, leading to shorter telomeres. Even a little daily activity lengthens those non-coding DNA and decreases your chances of chronic disease. So keep it up if you are a weekend warrior (even though 30 minutes per day is optimal)! In a Homburg, Germany study, three types of exercise were studied, and two stood out as telomere lengthening and telomerase (that’s the enzyme that replenishes the telomeres) regenerating: HIIT (See High Intensity Interval Training for the Time Challenged) and aerobic endurance exercises, 3 times per week, 45 minutes per session. Strength training did not register any telomere effects. However, we all know the benefits of strength training through weights and yoga. My advice? Mix it up! You won’t get bored and you’ll be maximizing that exercise time! Do your aerobic training 3 times per week (walk one day, stationery bike one day and maybe swim one day). Then do HIIT, 1-2 days per week and make up the rest of the week with yoga and weight training!
5. “Resistence is Futile”, Eating Healthy AND Enjoying It Is Not!-
First the somewhat shocking telomere news, being overweight does not produce significantly shorter telomeres, In fact:
The effect of excess weight on telomeres is real-but it’s not nearly as striking as the relationship between, say depression and telomeres (which is around three times larger) The Telomere Effect.
What is a major telomere shortener, along with a huge increase in risk for metabolic disease is excess BELLY FAT! That dreaded apple shape or waist to hip ratio where the waist circumference is larger than the hips. One compelling study even predicted a greater waist to hip ratio was associated with telomere truncating of 40% over a five years period.
The trilogy of inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin resistence all are cellular enemies to our telomeres and need to be minimized in our food sources. Inflammation is the starting point for all chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimers’ and Type II diabetes. Oxidative stress is that natural rusting process we all go through as we age with our constant production of free radicals. Insulin resistence results from the constant stimulation of the insulin response from poor food choices, leading to metabolic disease.
So what can we do?
A general rule of thumb is to eat foods as close to the way nature provides them to us, when possible, without added antibiotics and preservatives (that means processed meats should be limited to “treat status” for they are telomere shorteners). That also means the meat/fish/poultry sources we consume should also be consuming their natural source of food, for remember, “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT, EATS”!
So ramp up your inflammation fighters and consume those Omega 3 EPA/DHA sources by consuming wild-caught/grass-fed sources of meat (see A Healthy Acronym: CYH with EPA/DHA and The Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef Debate: You Are What You Eat, Eats!). The telomere science is strong on this, the more Omega 3s in your blood, the less inflammation and the longer the telomeres!
Saturated fats too, like butter, can be eaten, but really should be minimized. They are pro-inflammatory fats. Maximizing those anti-inflammatory monosaturated fats (avocadoes, olives, olive oil) that are in the Mediterranean diet is key. Homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that at elevated levels is associated with inflammation, leading to heart disease, can be fought with foods high in the B vitamins (meat, eggs, dairy) and folate (broccoli, beans, spinach, dark leafies, avocadoes and beans).
Ramp up those veggies to combat oxidative stress. The cruciferous vegetables, that is kale, bok choy,Brussels Sprouts, Swiss chard, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage, along with the allium veggies of garlic, onions, leeks, green onions pack a mean one-two punch to combat inflammation and quench those free radicals. I’m not demonizing fruits here but they just can’t be consumed in mass quantities like veggies can because of their sugar content to have the most, calorie for calorie, anti-inflammation impact. Also, throw in some high protein/ fiber grains (ancient grains are what I mean) and legumes (beans) to round out your meals. See SUPERFOOD RECIPES: Cruciferous Vegetables, SUPERFOOD RECIPES: Allium Vegetables and SUPERFOOD RECIPES: Whole Grains and Legumes for recipe ideas.
So the big elephant (of nutrition) in the room still needs to be addressed: What is the impact on our telomeres of too much refined sugar in our diets? A shocking study by nutritional epidemiologist Cindy Leung at UCSF discovered that the telomere shortening effect of drinking 20 ounces of sugary soda per day (that’s just under 3 cups) was the equivalent of almost 5 YEARS OF BIOLOGICAL AGING!!! Enough said….
This is my go-to for lunch most days. Shredded cabbage on bottom, a can of sardines (an anti-inflammatory EPA/DHA gold-mine) in olive oil, 1/2 of an avocado, a couple of olives, a little tomato pesto, gut microbe loving-kimchi and then I drizzle it with balsamic vinegar. This keeps me going until my husband gets home (usually very late) for dinner!
My take home point? A Healthy Lifestyle Definitely Lengthens Telomeres And Will Likely Increase Your Healthspan!
However, I’ll rely on Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s famous saying for the rest:
Recap of Star Telomeres: The Next Generation of Health Markers:
1.“Highly Illogical” Thoughts Can Be Tamed.
2. “Live Long and Prosper” Life Purpose.
3. “Beam Me Up Scotty”, I Need my ZZZZs!
4. “I’m Givin Her All She’s Got, Captain”, I’m Moving!
5.“Resistence is Futile”, Eating Healthy AND Enjoying It Is Not!
Below is a recipe that reflects both the medicinal side of the nutrition equation (it’s chock full of homocysteine lowering folate) PLUS, it has AMAZING and DELICIOUS FLAVOR!!!
Wilted Greens & Spicy Beans
¼ cup olive oil
**1 oz. of anchovy filet paste
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
6 cloves of thinly sliced garlic
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 oz. hydrated shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 sprig of thyme
1 Parmesan rind
1 lb. dried white beans or chickpeas soaked overnight
5 cups of chicken broth
5 cups of water
1 bunch kale, ribs and stems removed with leaves coarsely chopped
1 bunch large flat-leaf spinach, trimmed and coarsely chopped
6 oz. shredded or chopped shellfish of your choice-See Note
- Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook anchovies with red pepper flakes and garlic, stirring occasionally until garlic is soft and anchovies are dissolved, about 4 minutes.
- Add onion, celery, mushroom and thyme, seasoning with salt and pepper (remember, the anchovies are salty, so just season to taste). Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very soft and golden brown, 8-10 minutes..
- Add parmesan rind, beans, water and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally. Add more water if needed. Cook until beans fall apart, 3-4 hours.
- Mix in kale and spinach. Cook until greens are wilted, about 8 minutes.
- Divide stew among bowls, top with shellfish of your choice and sprinkle lemon with lemon wedges on top.
Note– I used leftover crabmeat we had in the freezer, but shrimp would work well also. The recommendation is for a shellfish because it compliments the umami of the anchovies perfectly.
*Recipe adapted from Bon appétit
**Anchovy filet paste comes in a tube, or you could buy the whole filets, packed in olive oil, use 4 filets and drain the oil for this option.