We are each a collection of chromosomes. As life would have it, our chromosomes age and degenerate.
Yet it turns out we have some power over our chromosomes — power over how we age.
I perked up when I learned this while working on a Yoga Journal
magazine issue that mentioned a 2017 study
showing yoga, breath-work and meditation
improved markers of cellular aging by keeping a little science-y something called “telomeres” from shrinking, and by increasing telomerase
, an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres.
It's hard to say how many people have heard of these tiny wonders. Telomere science is somewhat recent. Worried that her discoveries on telomeres were stuck in academic circles, Elizabeth Blackburn, the molecular biologist who in 2009 won a Nobel Prize for her research on telomeres, later cowrote a book
about them to reach people who aren't nose-deep in scientific journals (she reached me!). Still, telomeres don't pop up in everyday health-and-wellness chats.
What are telomeres?
Despite their relative obscurity, telomeres are easy to explain with a simplified, though still valid, explanation: Telomeres (pronounced tee-lo-meres) are essentially the ends of your chromosomes, and they help your chromosomes from coming apart. You don't want your chromosomes to fray; it's much better if their structure stays intact and their genetic goods stay protected. Scientists who study telomeres describe them as “caps,” much like aglets, those sheaths at the end of shoelaces that keep laces from unraveling so you don't go nuts trying to get them into your sneakers' eyelets.
All our cells have telomeres, and as we age, telomeres wear down. It happens every time a cell divides and renews, as it’s wont to. Over time, telomeres can get so short that a cell can't divide anymore. And so, longer telomeres are better than shorter telomeres because that means a cell gets more chances to divide, and thus, be hearty for longer.
You can find a clear four-sentence definition of telomeres from the National Institutes of Health
, which also offers a colorful drawing and 90 seconds of narration, should you want more quick-hit intel.
“Healthspan” vs. “diseasespan”
Aging isn't a terrible thing
. I've never understood the movement to fight aging, because, first off, who wants to fight, in general? There are far more pleasant things to do. Second, fighting aging is like fighting the natural order of the universe, which seems like a colossal waste of time and a little bit pathetic.
Premature cellular aging, though, I get. That's what happens when telomeres shorten before due time. Taking care of our telomeres helps us have healthier lives, even as the years pile on. Otherwise, as our telomeres shrink, our risk of getting life-threatening disease increases. We're talking cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease.
How to maintain strong telomeres and lengthen telomeres, extending your healthy lifespan:
All the suggestions below come from Blackburn (our Nobel Prize winner on telomere research) and Elissa Epel (coauthor with Blackburn of The Telomere Effect)
, and studies back them. Consider this list a small sample.
Keep stress levels reasonable.
Small doses of everyday stress aren't awful for telomeres. We all have stress; it's unavoidable. And small doses can actually be good for you, mentally and physically, boosting cellular health.
High doses of chronic stress that lasts for years can be bad. It might be very hard to avoid this kind of stress: Maybe your job has long felt like a terrible fit, but it hasn't been feasible to leave. Maybe you have a child with anxiety who needs lots of care. Maybe you're experiencing trauma or the effects of trauma.
Even with issues like those, there’s hope: Your response to a stressor often matters more than the stressor itself. You can become more resilient to stress through various methods.
, which has been shown to lower stress hormones. What you're doing here is being nice to yourself, acknowledging how you feel and telling yourself helpful and supportive things, instead of criticizing yourself.
And if you happen to be conscientious, you’re likely to be more resilient. Conscientiousness means following through and being disciplined, organized and efficient.
Shift away from pessimism.
Pessimism has been shown
to correlate with shorter telomeres. It can be tough to reprogram this trait, a tendency some are born with, but it's worth a try.
Here's one way around negativity: Instead of feeling threatened by circumstances (I can't handle this),
recast what you feel as fuel (Fire me up! I'm ready!)
. That's a shift from “bad stress” to “good stress.”
“Our thoughts urge us to express through action and words,” says Lobsang Chunzom, a Buddhist nun and founder of Limitless Health Institute
, a nonprofit organization based in New York City that aims to help people experience the link between their own health and happiness and how they care for others.
Put another way: “An optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty. A pessimist sees a difficulty in every opportunity.”
More than one person is credited with some version of this saying, but I first heard it credited to Swami Sivananda, the father of one of the first yoga lineages to come to the West, during the many years I was affiliated with a Sivananda center. I've found it extremely useful when I'm headed on a downward thought spiral.
Tall order, perhaps. If so, simply create some stillness, which can transform into meditation: Lie on your back and do nothing. Or engage in “soft fascination” by observing nature: Watch clouds roll by, notice the wind moving branches, listen to birds chirping.
“A general way to define meditation is ‘to habituate,’ bringing an object to mind repeatedly, in order to get used to it. As the mind becomes accustomed to concentrating on a single object for longer durations of time, a stable state of mind is developed,” Chunzom says. “This kind of equilibrium keeps the mind balanced, and free of extreme mental dullness or mental agitation … brainwaves become familiar with new patterns of processing thoughts.”
And those thoughts can make you more resilient to stress. But also, studies show that meditation stops telomeres from shortening, lengthens telomeres and increases telomerase.
Exercise — and make it cardio, in particular.
Telomeres and telomerase responded particularly well to cardiovascular exercise
in studies — but they didn't do well with weekend warrior action or overtraining. They like
moderate aerobic activity and high-intensity interval training
. They also like variety
, so bike, walk, jog, head up and down stairs.
For a more structured regimen, walk or run at about 60 percent your maximum ability, a pace where you breathe hard but can still have a conversation. Do this 40 minutes a day at least three times a week.
Eat more whole plant-based foods and fewer processed foods and meats.
Whole grains, veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, seeds and seaweed
are associated with longer telomeres, as are foods with omega-3s (salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds
). Algae-based omega-3 supplements can help.
Vitamins B-9 (folate), C and E have also been associated with longer telomeres.
Keep in mind:
Supplements aimed at lengthening telomeres are ill-advised. Telomeres can lengthen in bad cells too — cancer cells, for example, and certain chemicals can amplify that. In contrast, the healthy lifestyle suggestions featured here are a natural way to support your telomeres.
Mitra Malek is a former daily newspaper reporter and former Yoga Journal editor.