Telomeres: Have We Discovered the Secret to Staying Young?
Raise your hand if you’d like to be young forever. If you’re like me, your hand stopped mid-air.
You’re thinking, wait. Young forever? What about all the stupid mistakes I made and hurt I experienced along the way to becoming the fabulous, midlife version of me?
No, we don’t need to be young forever. We’ve been there, done that. What we want is to feel youthful, at every age.
Here’s the great news—we can.
Telomeres—a Guide for the Scientifically-Challenged
Researchers have known for about 30 years that the secret to slowing down the body’s aging process exists inside each one of us. These built-in fountains of youth are called telomeres—tiny DNA strand end caps that can be compared to those little plastic doodads on the ends of our shoelaces. Taking care of our telomeres will keep the cells in our body regenerating longer and help us to feel young, regardless of our chronological age.
Pretend your shoelaces were capable of regenerating, like Dr. Who, whenever they got dirty or frayed. Those plastic caps at the end would shed just a cell or two each time your laces needed repair, keeping your laces sparkly white and intact for the life of your shoes. When shopping for shoelaces, you’d pick the ones with the longest doodads on the end, right? And you’d take care of those doodads—maybe by tucking them inside the tongue of the shoes so they wouldn’t chip or get damaged. You might wash them with special, organic detergent guaranteed to keep doodads moist and supple. The point is that longer, better cared-for doodads would increase the life of your sneaker laces, making your sneakers more attractive and durable.
In this analogy, you are the shoe. The doodads are your telomeres, keeping your DNA strands from fraying and protecting their ability to regenerate new cell growth. Your telomeres may have started out a bit longer or shorter than mine, but that is less important than what happens to them over time. The speed at which they deteriorate (and can no longer protect your DNA’s cell-dividing ability) depends on how well you nourish them.
How Do I Nourish My Telomeres?
Okay, we are no longer shoes. We are fabulous, grown-up women with telomeres on the ends of our repetitive DNA chromosome strands, doing their job nicely. Our telomeres may cover up to 15,000 base chromosome pairs that are ready to split off new versions of themselves whenever a cell is damaged or has outlived its function. The protective coating also keeps these pairs from getting stuck together.
Here’s the thing: every time a chromosome split occurs, we lose a portion of our telomeres. Eventually, our telomeres are too short to protect the chromosome, which can no longer divide. This causes the cell to die in a process known as apoptosis.
We want to know how to take good care of those little end caps, so we can remain healthy and youthful as we age. This brings us back to science (just a bit), in the form of an enzyme called telomerase, or telomere terminal transferase. The function of telomerase is to add chromosome sequences to our DNA ends. This is mostly pre-programmed during our body’s development, meaning there is a lot of telomerase activity found in stem cells and virtually none occurring in the cells of our grown body—with two exceptions. Fully-developed germ cells and tumor cells are full of telomerase activity, which is why they can replicate so quickly. The health of a telomere depends upon how often the chromosome it’s protecting must divide and the level of telomerase activity in our cells.
The Trouble with Telomerase
We are not programmed to stay young forever. Our cell-division capability is limited by the length of our telomeres. When the doodad on the ends of our chromosome repeater disintegrates too much to support chromosome division, the cells associated with that strand of DNA stop dividing, allowing the cell to die. That is Nature’s plan.
However, to quote Kate Hepburn, in The African Queen, “Nature… is what we were put on this earth to rise above.”
When the word got out that telomerase activity might be the key to eternal youth, allowing cells to endlessly reproduce and slowing—or perhaps reversing—the aging process, there was an instant demand for products that would boost the enzyme in our bodies. Pharmaceutical companies and health food marketers were quick to comply, and there are dozens of websites and stores that now sell supplements that claim to assist in making our cells immortal.
Wait— Don’t Click that Mouse Yet!
Research has demonstrated it’s possible to increase telomerase activity—and strengthen the telomeres—in our chromosomal end sequences. The problem is that we would need to know how to regulate cell regeneration, or we might end up with an over-abundance of cell-divisions, which is how tumors happen. Increasing the level of telomerase can feed cancer cells in the body, allowing them to propagate endlessly. That’s not good. Without active telomerase, though, our cells are doomed to die and are more susceptible to disease. That’s not good, either.
So, what can we do with our newly-acquired wisdom and the science we learned?
How to Take Care of Our Telomeres—the Old-Fashioned Way
Though scientists are working to discover the correct amount of telomerase necessary to balance healthy cell regeneration with a reduced risk for tumor growth, as of this writing, the technology isn’t there yet to turn us into eternal beings with a pill or shot. We can, though, reduce degeneration of our telomeres by slowing down the cell-duplication. We do this by taking good care of the cells we already have and making them last longer.
Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for her discovery of telomeres, named three types of stressors that age cells prematurely. These include:
Stress Hormones—Cortisol, epinephrine and other hormones are released in your body to alert you to danger. They are part of the endocrine system and are designed to provide quick jolts of energy to your muscles by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure and disarming systems that are not immediately necessary, such as your immune system, digestion, reproductive system, and cell growth. When your endocrine system is over-stimulated, you can experience depression, anxiety, and hypertension. None of these are good.
Oxidative Stress—Damage to your DNA, fatty tissues, and bodily proteins happens when you have more free radicals (oxygenated molecules with an uneven number of electrons) than antioxidants (molecules capable of stabilizing free radicals) in your body. This imbalance can reduce the body’s ability to fight off pathogens, increasing the chance of diseases like diabetes, cancer, atherosclerosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and inflammatory disorders. Telomeres hate oxidative stress.
Inflammatory Stress—Many things can contribute to chronic inflammatory stress. Environmental toxins, food intolerances, chemicals in foods, infections, and even toxic emotional states can create inflammation in your body and cause stress in your cells.
Blackburn cautioned that high levels of any types of stress cause destruction to our body’s cells and, subsequently, to our telomeres. In fact, she posited that any type of severe stressor can trigger another, and we can end up with a sort of multi-cell kamikaze syndrome. The worse the stress, the quicker we age. When it comes to youthfulness, she said chronological age is less important than our lifestyle.
The secret to aging gracefully? Eat healthy, exercise, and—most importantly—relax. This is equally important during perimenopause and postmenopause.
Whether you’re just starting to dip your toes into perimenopause, continuing to experience symptoms into postmenopause, or simply looking for some guidance on what to expect in the coming years of life, we’re here for you! For more information and support around your menopause journey, as well as ideas for symptom relief, join us over at Lisa Health.
Dr. Hemalee Patel, DO, is board certified in internal medicine and currently practices at Sutter Health, Stanford University Hospital & Clinics, and Crossover Health-Facebook Headquarters. Known as a thought leader in the lifestyle medicine movement, Dr. Patel is a frequent speaker and advisor on topics related to empowering and educating individuals using the latest advances in health and wellness so they can prevent and control the development of chronic diseases and achieve balanced lifestyles.