If you could look inside every single cell in your body, you would see 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 chromosomes in total). And at the end of every one of those squiggly thread-like things are telomeres. These little caps protect your genetic information from being lost when your cells divide and keep the chromosome from fusing with neighboring chromosomes.
Think of them like the ends on your shoelaces, but they’re not made of cheap plastic. They’re made from a series of DNA segments, or “base pairs,” that repeat thousands of times. In white blood cells, for example, you start out with around 8,000 base pairs at the ends of your chromosomes. Over and over again, that base-pair sequence repeats itself, almost as if you’re winding masking tape around the ends of your chromosomes to keep them snug.
But here’s the catch. When your cells divide, and they will about 50 to 70 times on average over their lifetimes, the ends of your chromosomes—well—they aren’t copied quite as perfectly as you might think. See, every time your DNA replicates itself and divides, it shaves a tiny bit (approximately 20 to 30 base pairs) off your telomeres. Oxidative stress (or the damage wrought by free radicals) messes with things as well and can cause you to lose an additional 50 to 150 base pairs per split.
That adds up and over time, telomeres shrink. And once a telomere becomes too short, it leaves your cell’s DNA exposed. That’s when a series of unwelcome biological actions can occur.
Your broken DNA might try to fix itself either by copying the sequence of another DNA molecule that’s kind of like it or by fusing together two “cap-less” chromosomes.
RELATED: Jillian Michaels’ Total-Body Shred
Neither is always a bad thing and either can temporarily do the trick. But if two chromosomes fuse, the cell can either die or become genetically abnormal. In the latter case, your abnormal cells continue to divide and become potentially dangerous.
But that’s not all. When the caps come off your chromosomes, your cells can no longer divide. Instead, they either die or become senescent cells— which are basically zombie cells that sit inside your tissues and secrete stuff (such as pro inflammatory cytokines) that damages healthier cells.
That’s why the shortening of telomeres has been associated with aging. As skin and pigment cells die, we start to see wrinkles and gray hair. But the really bad stuff is when our immune cells start to die off, and our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, premature death, and a number of age-related issues increases.
However, it turns out that just a few smart lifestyle choices can fortify and even lengthen your telomeres. In one study, participants switched to a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains; walked 30 minutes a day six days a week; and practiced stress-busting techniques such as yoga and meditation. Over time, their telomeres grew by roughly 10 percent!
What to Eat
You can’t go wrong with a Mediterranean-style diet (which emphasizes produce, whole grains, olive oil, legumes, and fish). One of the most eye-opening studies showing its effect on telomeres involved 217 elderly participants who were divided into three groups: those who did a half-ass job with the diet, those who did a mid-level job, and those who stuck to the diet as rigidly as possible. The stricter participants were about sticking to a Mediterranean-style diet, the longer their telomeres were as a result.
Getting an abundance of nutrients—including magnesium and vitamins D, B6, and B12—from foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, lean meats, and fish has been shown to protect telomeres and keep those caps long and strong. And according to researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, alpha lipoic acid—found in spinach and tomatoes, for example— may stimulate telomerase, an enzyme that repairs and maintains telomeres (but so far, only in mice).
It’s also been observed that foods high in beta carotene (think cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, winter squash, broccoli, even watermelon) could play a major role in helping telomeres maintain their length. A four-year analysis of 3,660 participants age 20 years old and up showed that as blood carotenoid levels increased, so did the length of their telomeres—by as much as 8 percent.
Even fatty acids are friends of your telomeres. Several studies point to the protective powers of omega-3 fatty acids. But even better: research out of Ohio State University found that adults who took omega-3 supplements for four months preserved telomere length in their white blood cells—the immune cells that fight off illness and disease.
How to Sweat
Regular exercise doesn’t just build up your strength and endurance—it’s preserving your telomeres. Researchers at Brigham Young University recently discovered that adults who participated in regular physical activity (in this case, 30 to 40 minutes of jogging five times a week) had telomeres that were like those of individuals nine years younger who didn’t exercise.
Others have noticed that obesity may change how your telomeres age. When researchers at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria looked at patients who experienced weight loss as a result of bariatric surgery, not only did their BMIs drop but they appeared to have longer telomeres up to two years later. The thought is that excess adipose tissue places the entire body under increased stress, which negatively impacts telomeres.
Even the length of time you spend either standing or sitting each day could be shaving away your caps. One study involving 68-year-old sedentary, overweight participants found a difference in those who stood more than they sat. The less they parked their butts, the longer the telomeres in their blood cells were after six months.
Recent studies seem to confirm that it’s not just how long you exercise but how active you are when you’re not working out that is part of the solution. A landmark study involving nearly 1,500 women ages 64 to 95 found that those participants who engaged in less than 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, and who remained sedentary for more than 10 hours per day, had shorter telomeres. In fact, it was found that telomere length in the white blood cells of the most sedentary women was, on average, 170 base pairs shorter than telomere length in cells of the least sedentary women which made them biologically older by 8 years.
It’s not just about physical exertion, though. Plenty of research is looking at meditation and other stress-relieving forms of activity that may have a positive e ect on telomere maintenance. One of the most surprising studies involved 39 family dementia caregivers (median age 60), who were given two options: either practice Kirtan Kriya, a type of meditation with chanting involved, or listen to relaxing music for just twelve minutes a day for eight weeks. Those who chose music experienced a 3.7 percent improvement in telomerase activity— not bad, right? But those who opted to chant and meditate improved their telomerase activity by a whopping 43 percent.
Excerpted from THE 6 KEYS by Jillian Michaels with Myatt Murphy. Copyright © 2018. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter