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What Are Telomeres? (And Why & How to Protect Yours!)

Want the secret to a long, healthy life? Telomeres might hold the key - here’s what to know!

What Are Telomeres? (And Why & How to Protect Yours!)


Humans and many scientists are infatuated with immortality, or at least discovering the tools to live long. As of now, the key to this achievement points to telomeres. 

Not only do telomeres promote longevity, but they are also implicated in vitality - which is equally important.

So if curious about telomeres, discover how their telling codes might contribute to a long, healthy life!

Basic Genetics

To fully comprehend telomeres and how they affect health, it is important to understand the basics of genetics. Otherwise known as deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA is the hereditary material that contains unique codes in the form of bases. These bases are the basic units of genetic information and instruction - coded by adenine (A), cytosine [C], guanine (G), and thymine (T).

Found within the nuclei of chromosomes, genes are created from DNA and act as instructions for the body. They help dictate traits like height, hair color, disease risk and metabolism, and weight to some extent.

In addition, these instructions essentially mute or activate certain bodily processes. For example, they can induce an autoimmune condition related to an environmental trigger or help maintain optimal cholesterol and blood pressure with help from a healthy lifestyle.

Because chromosomes possess such critical responsibilities, their protection is vital, and this is where telomeres enter the picture.

What Are Telomeres?

Technically, a telomere is the end of a chromosome made of repetitive sequences of non-coding DNA that protect chromosomes from damage. Specifically, telomeres are composed of the sequence 'TTAGGG' and repeated about 3,000 times, though they can reach up to 15,000 base pairs in length. 

Just like the end of a shoelace (also known as aglets), telomeres prevent chromosomes from becoming frazzled. They help organize chromosomes, prevent chromosomes from sticking to each other and facilitate correct cell division. 

Each time a cell divides, chromosomes shorten. However, thanks to telomeres, the DNA is unharmed. Yet, this process is interrupted if telomeres become too short.

The Risk of Short Telomeres

If the telomeres become too short, that cell can no longer divide, and it typically loses functionality. While cell division is normal, rapid division can cause the shortening of telomeres, leading to:

• Cellular malfunction
• Increased risk of disease
• Shortened lifespans 

In reality, the telomere shortening process has been associated with accelerated aging, cancer, and a higher likelihood of premature death.

Now, do not be fooled… Telomeres certainly do not act alone! 

Introducing Telomerase Function

Undoubtedly, telomeres are vital for genetic preservation, but they require the assistance of an enzyme called telomerase. This enzyme is composed of proteins and RNA that elongate chromosomes by adding bases onto telomeres. This process creates new patterns on its own biochemical sequence, which restores the DNA lost during cell divisions.

The volume of available telomerase significantly impacts the fate of telomeres. An abundance of telomerase encourages cellular division while insufficiency causes division to stop prematurely. 

All in all, telomerase replenishes telomeres by adding telomeric DNA to them. This helps prevent, slow, or even reverse the shortening of telomeres that is inevitable with cell division.

But why are telomeres and telomerase all the health rage right now? Many scientists will say they are the key to vitality and longevity. 

What's more, is that nearly every lifestyle choice impacts their functionality. In turn, they affect almost every aspect of health - wild, to say the least!

The Impact of Telomeres and Telomerase

Maintaining ample, healthy telomerase and thus telomeres reduces cell death and offers them opportunistic renewal. The more often that cells divide and renew properly, the healthier one will fare. Ultimately, cellular health determines vitality and longevity.

Conversely, cellular aging - otherwise known as senescence - is a process where cells become old and essentially die. This happens due to the shortening of chromosomal telomeres to the point of a critical length. 

Telomeres, Telomerase & Clocks

Think of this mechanism as a wind-up clock. If the clock stays wound, the cell is immortal and continuously produces new cells. But if the clock winds down, it stops dividing and producing newer, better cells.

When cells stop dividing and regenerating, they lose their ability to function properly. This increases the risk for chronic disease and accelerated aging. Basically, the result of aging cells is an aging body that generally decreases the quality of life.

To maintain optimal vitality, it is important to generate "immortal cells" by creating an internal environment for telomerase and telomeres to surge. So, how does one achieve this?

By avoiding the telomere toxins and adopting healthy lifestyle habits. 

Top Telomere Toxins

From consuming too much refined sugar to being exposed to pesticides, learn what may disturb telomeres and how to protect them.

Excess Sugar

The link between a high-sugar diet and health is well-known, including the risks of weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Not only can overconsuming sugary products increase these risks, but may shorten telomere length. 

Alcohol

Although red wine does show to have positive outcomes for longevity, too much alcohol may negatively impact health and telomeres. 

Cigarettes

Cigarettes are undeniably harmful to health, and even beyond the rising risk of lung disease and cancer. Individuals who smoke may be shortening their telomeres and taking precious years off life that much quicker. 

Airborne chemicals and heavy metals found in cigarette smoke, including cadmium and polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs), may also compromise telomere health.

Stress

While "sweating the small stuff" may not considerably disturb health, ongoing stress can shorten telomeres. Chronic stress can also lead to a sluggish immune system, in turn increasing vulnerability to colds and other illnesses.

Environmental Exposures

According to the Telomere Effect, seven pesticides have been linked to significantly shorter telomeres, including:

• Metolachlor
• Trifluralin
• 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (also known as 2,4-D)
• Permethrin
• Toxaphene
• DDT

Their exposure is related to their initiation of oxidative stress, as when the stress accumulates, telomeres are shown to shorten. 

Additional environmental exposures include arsenic common to drinking water and some foods, BPA (Bisphenol-A) found in water bottles, and dioxins and furans released from industrial processes.

How to Protect Telomeres

Short telomeres are one of the primary reasons human cells grow old, though the natural aging process can be counteracted with basic tips to lengthen telomeres.

1. Eat Colors of the Rainbow

Produce is colorful in nature and offers rich phytochemicals that are shown to protect telomeres, all thanks to the potent antioxidant effects they offer. Antioxidants are suggested to protect cells and their telomeres from damage. 

Snack on naturally-sweetened berries when the sweet tooth knocks and enjoy a veggie at all core meals. Also, become adventurous by trying new colorful produce!

2. Cut Out Processed Meats

The worry about processed meats heightened when the WHO published the link to cancer risk. As if this was not concerning enough, add on their effects on telomeres. 

According to The Telomere Effect, "Telomeres hate processed meats like hot dogs, but fresh, whole foods are good for them." To reap the significant benefits of protein, place the emphasis on lean and plant-based protein sources

3. Consume Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids not only protect against its well-recognized role in heart disease but telomeres, too. Really, including more omega-3's could be key in lengthening telomeres and life expectancy!

Rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, such as tuna, herring, and salmon; flaxseeds and flaxseed oil; walnuts; and olive oil. 

4. Exercise Regularly

The American Heart Association encourages aerobic exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

But being physically active is not only beneficial to the heart but pumps its benefits to telomeres. This is because exercises that promote cardiovascular fitness are suggested to be great for telomeres. 

So, dismiss a sedentary lifestyle and step to the benefits of walking, get active with LISS cardio, or any enjoyable movement. 

5. Practice Stress-Relieving Techniques

Some days may entail more stressful moments than others. No matter the stressor or stress level, it is imperative to set stress-relieving techniques in place for whenever they may be needed. 

Meditation and yoga are particularly encouraged to reduce stress and lengthen telomeres. Devoting "you" time, whether it be taking a walk or listening to music, is also helpful.

6. Get Adequate & Quality Sleep

Telomeres can get tired, too! 

In fact, particularly in older individuals aged 70 and above, less than 7 hours of sleep each night has been shown to shorten telomeres. On the flip side, longer sleep hours showing to lead to longer telomeres. 

Sleep has also been touted to combat accelerated aging, along with other benefits to health.

7. Stop Smoking

Smoke cessation is hyped across the board when it comes to health, including telomeres. And while smoking can have a laundry list of health problems, the effects on telomeres were varied up until recent data. 

A 16-year-old study posted in the American Journal of Epidemiology found a stronger link between smoking and telomere health. It further helped explain the inconsistencies in previous data like flaws in self-reporting and fluctuating smoking patterns and behaviors.

8. Reduce Toxin Exposures

According to The Telomere Effect, one should reduce intake or exposure to the following toxins: 

• Animal and dairy fats
• High heat cooking methods
• Pesticides in produce
• Harmful household cleaners and paints. 

Short-term exposure or sporadic practice may not immediate consequences. However, they are worth nothing to lessen compromised telomeres and health.

9. Relish in Social Support

Sensing social support and strong relationships is imperative throughout life's entirety. Feelings of loneliness and isolation may facilitate depression and start impeding telomere health. 

Continue nurturing connections already established and seek additional support wherever and whenever needed.

In Summary

Telomeres comprise the end of chromosomes and function to protect them from frazzle and damage. With the help of the enzyme telomerase, telomeres ensure proper cellular division which is vital to creating newer and better cells. 

Ultimately, cellular health determines the quality of life and longevity. Thus, telomeres hold important and massive power. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits is the best way to harness this power. 

References:

Segre JA. Telomere. National Human Genome Research Institute. https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Telomere.

Shay, Jerry. Facts About Telomeres and Telomerase. UT Southwestern Medical Center. https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/labs/shay/research/facts-about-telomeres-telomerase.html.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on November 30, 2017. Updated on July 06, 2022.

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