How to Protect Your Telomeres
The Key to Better Health and Longer Life
You may have heard that free radicals can be harmful to health, leaving you unnaturally tired instead of vibrant – and that antioxidants fight free radicals. You may have heard that free radicals can unnaturally shorten a lifespan by disrupting telomeres. But what does all that mean? What are telomeres? How do free radicals cause damage? And, most important, what can you do to control free radical damage and improve chances for a longer, energetic life?
Marketers advise you to forget those vexing questions and just buy products that say antioxidant. However, that is poor advice, for two reasons among many. It encourages you to let others make decisions about your health – and worse, it conveniently ignores the fact that not all antioxidants are created equal.
Better to understand the mechanisms of free radical and antioxidant activity at the molecular level. With that understanding, you will feel more in charge and be better equipped to make good decisions about how to protect your own health. What’s more, there is evidence that people who understand the body’s mechanisms take an active part in maintaining their own health and have much better health outcomes. Here’s how I explain the action of free radicals to my patients.
Though aspects of it remain under debate, the bottom line is that emotional stress and environmental toxins trigger free radical production that overwhelms the body’s naturally-occurring antioxidants. The excess free radicals attack and shorten telomeres – the cap ends of DNA; then we’re older sicker faster.
The full story starts with telomeres as they influence healthy cell reproduction and longevity.
Telomeres and Life Time
Many of the cells in your body undergo replication regularly. Skin cells, digestive system cells, bone cells, all these systems renew themselves cellularly approximately every 15 years.
The replication process starts with chromosomes – strands of tightly woven DNA. The strands separate, and two new identical cells form. The number of replications is finite, being pre-programmed by genetic inheritance. So replications continue until the cell has copied its pre-set number of times. Then, it stops replicating – the scientific term for that is senescence – and dies.
Telomeres, the cap ends of DNA strands, manage the replication process, protect DNA from damage and maintain DNA’s ability to make the best possible copy each time a cell divides.
At the start of life, telomeres are long, strong and robust, and new cells, exact copies, are healthy. Ironically, with each DNA copy, the telomere shortens that tiny bit, slowly but steadily diminishing its capacity to produce intact copies.
So, over time a new cells may have mutations that may somewhat (or greatly) disrupt it’s functioning – and in a seemingly endless variety of irregularity. This we call aging and we may experience the changes as, for examples, arthritic joints, osteoporosis, degenerative illness such as Parkinson’s, atherosclerosis, diabetes, or growth gone wild called cancer.
What’s important here is that emotional stress and environmental toxins can cause overproduction of free radicals that damage telomeres, shorten the cell’s reproductive life and thereby hasten senescence. This is what happens.
Enter free radicals and antioxidants.
Free radicals, called oxidants, are molecules that have an incomplete ring of electrons in the outer shell. Being unstable, they seek to become stable by stealing electrons from stable molecules with complete rings, leaving their victims then unstable.
Under ordinary circumstances, free radicals are protective. The immune system releases free radicals to attack invading micro-organisms and render them powerless to reproduce and infect. When they’ve done the job, the body produces powerful anti-oxidants that break down the free radical molecule into benign elements.
However, when asked to cope with unnatural invaders such as air pollution, pesticides and other toxic elements in food, tobacco smoke, alcohol and chronic emotional stress, for examples, free radical production goes into overdrive and the body’s antioxidant is like a flea punching an elephant. When the army of free radicals outnumbers the army of antioxidants, the body suffers oxidative stress.
One particularly aggressive free radical, called super oxide, attacks telomeres. Super oxide pulls electrons from the stable outer rings, causing telomeres to shorten, which then inhibits repair when DNA suffers fissures or breaks. And chronic oxidative stress – most often from unnatural elements in diet and chronic emotional distress – causes inflammation which results in none other than a proliferation of super oxide along with other free radicals.
So, can we write our own story? Can we really slow down the aging process and close some doors to devastating illnesses? Most certainly we can write a large part of it. We can shore up short telomeres and probably even lengthen them. We can reduce oxidative stress and increase the body’s natural production of antioxidants.
Specifically, and in our view most importantly, we can address sources of chronic emotional stress. Our systems were built to handle stress in short bursts, to effectively get us out of the grasp of hungry tigers, or similar. Unfortunately in our modern world, our stress response is on low hum most of the time. The stress we experience regularly has devastating biochemical results. There is continual release of hormones which in turn lead to chronic inflammation, and therefore oxidative stress. Finding ways to actually calm the body are of paramount importance to your aging process.
Laura encourages her patients, and we encourage you, to discover ways to reduce emotional stress. Some people find that gardening is relaxing; some people benefit from mindful meditation. Spending time with people you trust and being emotionally open all alleviate the stress response. Also, I hope you will take steps to stop ingesting toxic chemicals from pesticide-laden food, household cleaning and personal care products, and toxic water, all of which spur the body to keep up a steady production line of free radicals that vanquish natural antioxidants. And I encourage you to proactively ingest plant foods that target super oxide’s bonding power and cut off their path to our telomeres.
We encourage you to explore and find your own best way to assist your DNA, your telomeres, and yourself to enjoy a longer, stronger life.
This article is Part I of II. In the next article we explain how plant-based foods and certain teas act to minimize free radical damage – and specifically how plant-based foods and teas call up super oxide dismutase, SOD, our body’s strongest endogenous antioxidant, which raises the levels of an enzyme that breaks down super oxide into less harmful elements.