You may have heard of telomeres in relation to aging or DNA, but what exactly are they?
Telomeres are the protective endcaps at the end of each chromosome in your cells. You can think of them like the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces that keep the lace from fraying. In the same way, telomeres may help protect your chromosomes from damage.*
As we age, our telomeres naturally shorten. This process is accelerated by factors like inflammation, stress, and poor lifestyle choices. This process of telomeres shortening may lead to senescence and/or apoptosis (study).
Senescence is the process of cells entering a stage of irreversible growth arrest. This happens when the cells stop dividing and can no longer repair themselves. Senescent cells have been shown to release harmful chemicals that can damage nearby cells and contribute to the aging process.
Apoptosis is a programmed cell death that occurs when a cell is no longer needed or has been damaged. The cells break down and are recycled by the body. This may help to keep tissue healthy and prevents the buildup of senescent cells.*
Shortening of telomeres
When telomeres become too short, cells can no longer divide correctly and may begin to malfunction. This process is considered a potential contributing factor to the aging process and age-associated diseases (study).*
The impact of lifestyle choices on telomeres length
Researchers are currently studying how certain lifestyle choices may have an impact on the length of our telomeres. Some of their current conclusions is that there are certain activities you can do to help support your telomeres and protect your cells.
How do telomeres work?
Every time a cell in your body replicates, the chromosome copies made by the cells' enzymes get shorter. This process may happen because the enzymes can't copy all 3 billion base pairs in your DNA perfectly every time.
The copying process also results in some loss at the very end of each chromosome - like how copying a document on a photocopier loses some words off the edge of each page.
These lost base pairs are called telomeres. They act as buffers, protecting the vital information in our chromosomes from being lost during replication.
Without telomeres, each time a cell replicated, it would lose a tiny bit more of its chromosome until vital genetic information would eventually be lost, and the cell may die.
Telomeres prevent this by getting shorter each time a cell replicates - sacrificing themselves to preserve the critical chromosomal information.
Cells need to replicate frequently. For example, when we heal from a cut or give birth to a baby. If our telomeres were not constantly being replenished, we could age quickly.
Rising levels of inflammation may shorten telomere length*
Chronic inflammation has been potentially linked with shorter telomere length (study). Inflammation is thought to shorten telomere length by damaging DNA and by causing cellular oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is a situation where cells have too many reactive oxygen molecules (free radicals) and not enough antioxidants to neutralize them.
Free radicals can damage DNA, proteins, and lipids (fats), resulting in inflammation.
Telomere shortening caused by oxidative stress has been linked in some studies with age-related diseases such as heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and frailty.*
Some researchers currently think that rising levels of inflammation due to poor diet choices, environmental toxins, and stress might be one of the reasons why the world, in general, is seeing an increase in chronic diseases, even though medical science has advanced so much in the last decades.*
Supporting your telomeres
Based on the latest research, some specific populations could change certain lifestyle habits to help support their telomeres. Some of these factors may be:
- Nutrition might be a contributing factor in some cases (study). Trying an "anti-inflammatory diet" rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Exercise regularly
- Manage stress with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation
- Get adequate sleep
- Reduce exposure to toxins
- Adding 5-MTHF to your regimen.* 5-MTHF is a form of folate, a B vitamin. It is thought that 5-MTHF may partially support telomeres from shortening by protecting them from oxidative stress in certain circumstances (study).*
Speak with your doctor about your telomeres and what they recommend to support them. As always, talk to your doctor as well before taking any supplements to help support your telomeres. Get professional advice if you think you might need a supplement or are already taking one to ensure you're not exceeding the amounts you may need.