What are Telomeres?
Our genes are responsible for our health, or are they?
This popular myth has been around for some time and it provides an excuse to not pay attention to what we eat or how much we move. Why bother if your destiny is pre-determined, right?
However, you are not stuck with your inherited set of genes. Your destiny in terms of disease is not a predetermined fate. It is still important to change those bad habits. We must stop blaming our health problems on a set of bad genes and be proactive with achieving good health in spite of our inherited traits.
What are Telomeres and Why Are They Important?
Scientists studying our DNA discovered a sequence that repeated itself hundreds to thousands of times. They labelled this sequence located at the ends of our DNA as "TTAGGG". These ends were given the name "telomeres." The research showed that "the ends" of our DNA played an important role in protecting our cells and our longevity.
In order to understand the role of the telomere just picture your DNA strands as shoelaces. The plastic ends of a shoelace keep it from unravelling. If there wasn't a plastic end to protect it, the shoelace would have a very short period of usefulness!
This is the same with your DNA. The telomere is this protective end. It keeps your DNA strand safe and functioning. You DNA needs to copy its cells in order to sustain life, so your telomeres have a very important role in keeping you healthy and alive.
What is the Telomere's Function?
The telomeres main and only function is to protect the chromosomes within our DNA and without them your chromosomes would become damaged.
Our cells are continually renewing and this is the basis of all life. Cells reproduce at a very fast rate when we are young and this continues until the cells start to age and then they slowly begin to stop reproducing themselves. The cells are still alive but they no longer multiply. What determines this cessation in cell growth? The length of the protective telomeres. The shortening of the protective end is the signal to the the cells to stop renewing.
What Causes Telomeres to Shorten?
The telomere will get worn down naturally over time as cells reproduce themselves as part of our life-cycle. This is the natural process of aging. However, similar to most health issues, it is our lifestyle that can affect the length of our telomeres and speed up this natural wearing. We want to maintain the length of our telomeres for as long as possible. Long, healthy telomeres are crucial to maintain health and longevity. It is our lifestyle habits that keep our telomeres long.
What Lengthens Telomeres?
It is simple to lengthen your telomeres, but it is not easy!
Short telomeres are the result of poor diet, lack of exercise, constant stress and even a negative mindset. These factors will all contribute to their shortening.
It is also important to have good social connections. Humans are social mammals and being isolated from a peer group can cause stress and loneliness.
These factors have been scientifically proven to have a strong correlation in determining the length of your telomeres.
The usual lifestyle recommendations for good health are pretty much the same for lengthening your telomeres. Long telomeres are equal to a long life. Additionally, these lifestyle changes will allow you to maintain good health as you age.
This is not news to anyone and just confirms, at the cellular level, that good lifestyle habits and avoidance of certain conditions are critical to a long, healthy life.
The Long Life List:
- A healthy diet that minimizes meat consumption and maximizes plant based whole foods
- Daily exercise, particularly cardio
- Meditation and mindfulness training
- Healthy and supportive relationships with others
- A positive outlook; reduce the negativity in your life
The recipe is simple but it is not easy. To start this journey pick one item on the list and commit to it. Small habits over the long term have huge effects.
You might start a new diet by eliminating one food item that you know is not good for you. A good example is soda. Stop drinking soda and replace it with water. Does that sound impossible because you are an absolute soda addict? Then just replace one soda a day with a glass of water. Do this for a few weeks before you reduce it again.
Small steps, no matter how tiny, if done consistently will lead to tremendous health benefits.
Another Discovery: Telomeres Can Grow New DNA
It was also discovered that the telomere ends of our DNA were very unique in comparison to other parts of our genetic code. DNA was always thought to be static. You are born with it and you die with the same DNA since the only way it is renewed is by copying the DNA that is already there.
However, new growth DNA was discovered at the ends of the telomeres! This was a fascinating discovery for the scientific commmunity. How was this possible? What was the underlying mechanism?
The Discovery of "Telomerase"
Through more experimentation, an enzyme was discovered that was acting on the telomere and stimulating the new growth of DNA. Telomeres shorten with each cell division which is the basis of all life. This process would keep happening until the telomere became critically short and then all cell replication would stop and basically "die". This newly discovered enzyme was found to act on the telomere and produce new DNA after each cell division and this kept the telomere long. The enzyme was subsequently named "telomerase".
Telomerase: A New Elixir of Youth?
It stands to reason, that upon this discovery that the production of artificial telomerase may just be the answer to immortality. Just drink this potion and your DNA will produce new growth and keep you young and virbrant forever! Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Human physiology soon demonstrated that it was "stingy" with its release of telomerase. As we age, the production starts to slow down considerably. So why not combat this with a dose of artificial telomerase? As with most things too much of a good thing is not always good for you.
Rapid cell division and replication is the hallmark of cancer. Cancer is basically a disease where natural cell renewal goes haywire with life threatening consequences. Basically, it is unwise to fool with mother nature!
The only way to encourage longevity is by working with your body to extend your telomerase production for as long as possible through healthy lifestyle changes.
Elizabeth Blackburn: The Scientist Behind Telomere Research
Blackburn, E. H., & Epel, E. (2018). The telomere effect: A revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer. London: Orion Spring.
Telomeres and telomerase. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/dna-as-the-genetic-material/dna-replication/a/telomeres-telomerase
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Sharon Bellissimo