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Cracking the Longevity Code: The Role of Telomeres

Aging is inevitable, it’s something that we have no control over. However, how we age- that is entirely up to us! Using lifestyle medicine such as exercise and diet along with targeted supplements such as glutathione and vitamin C have positive implications in the sphere of functional  aging. 

Human life expectancy has gone up. This is generally positive with the caveat that functional and enjoyable years are inversely on the decline. Chronic disease is on the rise, and globally we are seeing an increased incidence of debilitating diseases as the lifespan progresses. Pathologies such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autoimmune conditions take away independence and drastically reduce quality of life. 

By understanding how we age, and factors that contribute to the degradation of human physiology, we’re afforded the luxury of implementing practices that allow us to live full, functional lives well into old age. 

There are many theories on aging, and without a doubt it is a multifaceted process with many factors at play. One leading theory is that of telomere length. In the last decade, research is pointing to a significant correlation between telomere length, lifespan, overall health and the trajectory of the aging process.

What are Telomeres? 

Cells are constantly dividing, and that means DNA is replicating. DNA contains our genetic information and is therefore immensely  important. Telomeres are caps placed on the DNA, to act as a protective mechanism. 

We can think of telomeres like the plastic bits on the ends of shoelaces. The purpose is to  stop the lace from fraying. Likewise, the telomere is in place to stop the DNA from “fraying” or becoming damaged through repetitive replications. Every time a cell divides, the telomere becomes shorter. Once the telomere shortens to a certain degree, it  can no longer protect the DNA. When this occurs, the cell dies to prevent defects in DNA replication from developing. 

Telomeres naturally shorten as we age. Lifestyle factors such as inactivity, consumption of processed foods, alcohol intake, pesticides, smoke, chemical exposures and oxidative stress can cause this shortening to accelerate. 

A shorter telomere length is significantly correlated with pathologies ranging from cardiovascular to neurological diseases. Scientists are finding that they can accurately predict chronic disease in later life, based on the telomere length in middle age. 

Telomere length is maintained and dictated by an enzyme called telomerase. 


Telomerase  

In 2009, the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine was awarded for the discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that regulates telomeres. By regulating telomeres, telomerase controls cellular lifespan and thus individual lifespan. 

Telomerase can often be inactive. By activating telomerase, we generally see an increase in not only telomere length but in their structure and function. Telomeres exhibit plasticity- meaning that they respond to their environment. They can change length and functionality based on the activity of telomerase, which is largely influenced by diet and lifestyle. 

It’s been clinically shown that patients with different diagnoses, have on average, a 50% reduction in telomerase activity than their healthy counterparts. 

When working to upregulate telomerase activity we want to use natural molecules and work with  lifestyle habits as opposed to using the active enzyme. Telomerase increases the lifespan of cells, therefore  too much can propagate cancer cell growth. Natural compounds, such as glutathione and vitamin C,  work with the body to keep telomerase in homeostatic ranges. 

How to Support Telomerase and Telomeres 

Eat more Fiber 

There’s a positive association between fiber intake and the length of telomeres. Our favorite fiber sources are chia seeds, root vegetables, leafy greens and fruit such as apples. We recommend adding 1-3 servings of extra fiber a day! 

Physical Activity 

Physical activity encourages telomerase activity, while physical inactivity has been shown to accelerate the rate of telomere shortening. It’s been shown that adipose tissue also contributes to shorter telomere length, and is a cause of internal oxidative stress, which also harms telomeres. 

Glutathione 

Glutathione is a necessary element in the functionality of telomerase. The body naturally synthesizes  glutathione, but the capacity for the body to produce glutathione decreases with age. In addition to optimizing telomerase function, glutathione serves myriad roles in the body. It’s essential to support the glutathione production so there is enough to support its full spectrum of functions, such as stimulating telomerase activity. 

Vitamin C 

Inadequate levels of vitamin C have been shown to have adverse effects on telomeres, inhibiting their ability to lengthen and reducing chromosome stability. Supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to slow down the rate at which telomeres shorten, indicating its role in functional aging! 

Both glutathione and vitamin C are potent antioxidants. Aside from their individual mechanisms of action, their antioxidant properties positively favor telomere length, structure and functionality. This is because  telomeres are sensitive to the effects of oxidative stress, which glutathione and vitamin C work together to eradicate!  

While there is still a lot science needs to learn in regard to telomeres, we think it’s never too early- or too late to begin to think about telomere health. Your body, now and forever will thank you!

Author: Lisa Kowalyk, CNP, B.kin

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