People always talk about how different factors affect lifespan. Some blame a shorter than average stay on planet Earth almost entirely on bad genes, while others credit lifestyle factors like stress, bad nutrition, or lack of exercise. Maybe it's just bad air or pollution in general. Or bad juju.
Regardless of which macro factor or factors you credit for premature aging and shortened lifespan, it's likely they're related to the same micro factor, and that micro factor has to do with telomere shortening.
You've probably heard of telomeres somewhere along the way. They're tiny strands of species-specific DNA sequences located at the distal ends of chromosomes, but unlike most DNA sequences, they don't code for any proteins. Instead, what they do is prevent chromosomes from "unraveling" so they don't fuse with other chromosomes and cause mutations and/or accelerate aging.
Famed telomere pioneer Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, likes to compare them to aglets, which are the plastic thingies on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from fraying.
The problem is that we're born with a finite number of these biological aglets. On average, each cell is gifted with about 15,000 base pairs (the pairs of nucleotides connecting complementary strands of DNA or RNA) and each time a cell divides, we lose from as little as 10 to as many as a thousand of them.
This phenomenon is called, in what seems like a rare case of biological-science understatement, as the "end-replication problem."
What science is referring to is that as far as division goes, cells are limited to a fixed number of divisions. Use up all the telomeres in a cell – wear the chromosomes down to the nub – and the cell commits apoptosis, otherwise known as cellular suicide.
If too many cells commit apoptosis, you get old and sick and your family says things like, "What are we gonna' do with Pops?" even though you're standing right there, trying to stifle a tear from your normally desert-dry tear duct. Then you die.
So yeah, all those "macro" causes of aging I led off with could, in one way or another, lead to premature telomere shortening or, equally bad, the inability of your cells to restore telomere length and/or integrity.
Take heart, though. We know plenty about the care and feeding of telomeres so that you can increase your chances of living a long, healthy life.
Tell Me More 'Bout Telomeres
The main predator of telomeres, as I kind of hinted at earlier – the things that tie macro and micro causes of premature aging together – are inflammation and reactive oxygen species (ROS), more commonly known as free radicals. These free radicals not only damage the constituent DNA of telomeres, but the DNA building blocks that might lengthen them.
Inflammation itself can further increase ROS-mediated DNA damage and thus increase the formation of cell "senility," which creates what scientists call a "circulus vitiosus," otherwise known as a vicious circle in which these "senile" cells further aggravate inflammation and speed up aging.
The sad fact of biology is that telomeres are an exhaustible resource, but there's something that can rejuvenate them by growing more base pairs. It's called telomerase, and it's a ribonucleoprotein that adds telemetric "repeats" to the ends of chromosomes.
Unfortunately, the telomerase activity peters out after birth. There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this cruel rule. One is stem cells. The other is cancer cells, in which approximately 90% of them exhibit an up-regulation of telomerase, while the other 10% use some other method of extending the warranty on telomeres.
That explains why cancer is so pesky – if cancer cells can keep their number of telomeres stable, they no longer have an expiration date. They can continue to divide practically forever.
If we could mimic cancer's action on telomeres, only without all the tumors and death and stuff, we could theoretically live a lot longer.
To do so, it appears that there are, as far as telomeres are involved, two obstacles to preventing premature aging and a truncated lifespan. One is increased damage of DNA and, consequently, accelerated telomere attrition. The second is low or non-existent telomerase levels.
Both can be addressed by lifestyle changes and proper diet and nutrition.
Grow Me Some More Telomeres!
Let's be clear here: We're not going to arrest telomere attrition and give humans the lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise with the added benefit of the soft, creamy skin of a supermodel, but we can definitely slow the rate at which telomeres are whittled away and even increase dead or dying telomerase levels through lifestyle and diet changes.
If you smoke, don't do that. If you drink more than a TV detective, stop that. Exercise. Breathe clean air and cut down on stress.
But you're no dope. You knew all that. It's the diet stuff you might not know that might make all the difference.
Four Things Proven to Lengthen Telomeres and Help You Live Longer
1 – Fiber
During the years 1999 to 2002, scientists collected 5,674 DNA samples from a broad spectrum of U.S. men and women, age-wise, race-wise, and even income-wise. All were required to provide complete data on such factors as body mass index, energy intake, physical activity, alcohol and tobacco use, and fiber intake.
While the DNA samples were collected between 1999 and 2002, it wasn't until 2014 that the researchers released any of their telomere data. When they did, it turned out that fiber intake was linearly related to the telomere length of leukocytes (white blood cells) – adults that had higher fiber intake had longer telomeres than their counterparts, suggesting less biologic aging.
The scientists found that for each 1-gram of fiber intake per 1,000 calories of food eaten, telomeres were 83 base pairs longer. On average, every year of chronological age shortens telomeres by 15.5 base pairs, but the inclusion of, say, 10 grams of fiber for every 1,000 kcal you eat, would corresponded with telomeres that were 83 base pairs longer. On average, this equated to 5.4 fewer years of biological aging.
That's a big pay-off for just adding some extra Metamucil or oatmeal to your diet.
2 – Three Specific Minerals
Certain minerals, a couple of which, tragically, Americans are generally deficient in, have proven to have profound effects on telomere length.
For instance, according to the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Study), every 20 mcg. increase of selenium in the diet was associated with a 0.42% increase in leukocyte telomeres.
Likewise, Nemoto et al. (2000) found that adding additional zinc to a cell culture medium increased telomerase activity. Later on, Bao et al. (2003) corroborated Nemoto's work and found that zinc sulfate did indeed significantly increase telomere length and telomerase activity, along with reducing hTERT expression (an enzyme that rate limits telomerase activity).
The third mineral in our telomere-friendly mineral triumvirate is magnesium. Rather than directly lengthening telomeres, magnesium's role is more of a nurturing one, as it appears to help maintain telomeres and help regulate the activity of telomerase.
Unfortunately, 70 to 85% of the American population is deficient in magnesium and between 12 and 40% is deficient in zinc, but when you add working out and sweating to the equation, it gets even worse as these minerals tend to leave the body via perspiration.
Selenium deficiencies are relatively rare, but taking extra amounts may, in addition to adding length to telomeres, also help regulate testosterone levels and improve exercise tolerance.
All of these minerals, in addition to chromium and vanadium, two scarce minerals that help, among other things, to regulate blood sugar, are found in Biotest's Elitepro™ Mineral Support formulation.
The product was built in conjunction with Albion Labs, the ultimate mineral research group and manufacturer. Each serving of Elitepro Mineral Support contains the following:
- Magnesium (as glycinate chelate): 400 mg.
- Zinc (as arginate chelate): 30 mg.
- Selenium (as glycinate complex): 200 mcg.
- Chromium (as nicotinate-glycinate chelate): 200 mcg.
- Vanadium (as nicotinate-glycinate chelate): 100 mcg.
Using the supplement or, alternately, getting these minerals by paying assiduous attention to your intake of whole foods, can help ensure telomere viability, along with providing optimal protein synthesis, hormone production, energy production, and carbohydrate utilization, among other things.
3 – Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Inflammation is one of the main predators of telomeres. Put the kibosh on inflammation and you're well on your way to raising a happy crop of base pairs.
Chief among the things that extinguish inflammation are omega-3 fatty acids, commonly associated with plain old fish oils. The reference libraries are filled with studies confirming fish oil's anti-inflammatory effects, but one study, in particular, examined how it affected telomere length.
Kiecolt-Glaser, et al. (2012) found that taking either a 2.5 gram or 1.25 gram dose of fish oil was enough to lower the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio in test subjects, which led to reduced levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an inflammatory cytokine. This lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio was, in turn, clearly associated with lengthened telomeres.
It definitely works, but the challenging thing about fish oil is in finding one with the following attributes:
- High concentrations of DHA and EPA.
- A product that's been purified by molecular distillation and stringently tested for PCB's, dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metal contaminants.
- A product that includes a self-emulsifying delivery system so they're virtually odorless, better absorbed, and don't result in a fishy aftertaste or "fish burps."
Biotest's Flameout® checks all those boxes. It's so highly concentrated, you'd have to double or triple the dosage of similar products to get even close to one serving of Flameout. Likewise, it's meticulously tested for any chemical contaminants.
Each serving contains the following:
- Total free fatty acids: 4,625 mg.
- DHA: 2,200 mg.
- EPA: 880 mg.
- CLA (a fatty acid found in the milk of grass-fed cows that keeps fat cells from getting bigger): 352 mg.
Clearly, this isn't something you just buy from a Walgreen's, a big box store, or even your average local vitamin shop.
4 – Antioxidants
Pollution, smoking, stress, alcohol, lack of exercise, too much exercise – all of these cause the formation of free radicals and free radicals accelerate telomere shortening. Numerous experiments have shown that an excess of free radicals can be offset with antioxidants and the best antioxidants are largely polyphenols – plant chemicals that seemingly have inexhaustible beneficial effects.
Well-known polyphenols include curcumin and resveratrol, both of which have been tested independently and found to have antioxidant (and anti-inflammatory) properties (among many other beneficial things).
But let's just stick with telomere "extenders" with the most bite, i.e., supplements with the most anti-oxidant capability like Superfood, which is a blend of 18 strategically chosen freeze-dried fruits and vegetables. Its ingredients include polyphenols from wild blueberries, acai, pomegranate, spinach, kale, green tea, wild yam, and many others.
Each powdered serving, mixed into water, juice, protein drinks, or just about anything else you might eat, has an ORAC rating of 5,315.
In case you're not familiar with the ORAC scale, it's how the USDA measures the Total Antioxidant Potency of foods and nutritional supplements. The term stands for "Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity," and the measurement is expressed as ORAC units per 100 grams of a given compound.
For instance, the USDA determined an "average serving of fruits and vegetables" has an ORAC rating of between 400 and 500. That means that just one teaspoon of Superfood has the antioxidant equivalency of between 10 and 12 average servings of fruits and vegetables.
The free radicals that affect telomeres and telomerase don't have a chance.
8-10 Fewer Years of Biological Aging
I know of other supplements you could take to combat telomere shortening and telomerase activity in general, but I get it, choosing which ones to take can be daunting and not all of us want to emulate futurist Ray Kurzweil who takes, by one account, 150 longevity pills or capsules a day comprising 70 to 80 substances.
That's why I've limited my list to just four things, one of which is a dietary strategy rather than a supplement. Here's how much of each you should take per day to help optimize the health (and length) of your telomeres:
- Fiber: 30 grams a day
- Elitepro™ Mineral Support : 7 capsules a day
- Flameout®: 4 softgels a day
- Superfood: 2 to 4 scoops per day
The additive effects aren't unlimited, of course. You can't live forever by just eating more and more of the telomere-friendly foods or supplements. You top out.
However, if you were to take/do all four things I've listed, in conjunction with living what most people define as a healthy life, I guesstimate that it would equate to around 8 to 10 fewer years of biological aging.
Whether you'd actually live that much longer is anyone's guess, but you'd most likely postpone many of the ailments of aging, and that ain't bad.
Related: Eat This to Protect Your DNA
Related: Grow Muscle, End Disease, Live Longer
- Wei Bao, et al., "Effects of sodium selenite on telomerase activity and telomere length, 2003, Dec;35(12):1117-22.
- Raheleh Farahzadi, et al., "Zinc sulfate contributes to promote telomere length extension via increasing telomerase gene expression, telomerase activity and change in the TERT gene promoter CpG island methylation status of human adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells," PloS 1 2017; 12 (11).
- Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, et al. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Oxidative Stress, and Leukocyte Telomere Length: A Randomized Controlled Trial," Brain Behav Immun, 2012, Feb;28:16-24.
- Donogh Maguire, et al., "Telomere Homeostasis: Interplay with Magnesium," Int J Mol Sci, 2018, Jan; 19(1): 157.
- Nemoto K. et al. Modulation of telomerase activity by zinc in human prostatic and renal cancer cells. Biochem Pharmacol. 2000; 59(4):401–405.
- Yanling Shu, et al., "Association of dietary selenium intake with telomere length in middle-aged and older adults," Clinical Nutrition, January 31, 2020.
- Ligi Paul et al., "Diet, nutrition and telomere length," Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 22 (2011) 895-901.
- Dimitris Tsoukalas, et al. "Association of nutraceutical supplements with longer telomere length," International Journal of Molecular Medicine, May 10, 2019, pp. 218-226.
- Tucker, Larry. "Dietary Fiber and Telomere Length in 5674 U.S. Adults: An NHANES Study of Biological Aging." Nutrients 2018, 10(4), 400.