Keeping Your Telomeres Long — The Holy Grail of Longevity?

Here’s another compelling reason why I believe a whole foods, plant-based diet is the key to a healthy body and a lower risk of age-related illnesses and cancers…Telomeres. What are telomeres, you may ask? This is a very important question, so let’s dive right in!

Telomeres and Shoelaces

The National Institutes of Health defines a telomere as: “The segment at the end of each chromosome arm which consists of a series of repeated DNA sequences that regulate chromosomal replication at each cell division. Some of the telomere is lost each time a cell divides, and eventually, when the telomere is gone, the cell dies.” So to put that in layperson terms, imagine a telomere like the plastic end of a shoelace. It protects the shoelace from damage and unraveling. Once the plastic end is worn out or pulled off, the shoe lace dies a horrible death…

Here’s the issue: telomere length shortens with cell division and age. They are the proverbial biologic clock and also protector of our cells. The shorter the telomeres are in our cells, the faster cells die or transform with malignant potential and the more likely we are to develop cancer, heart disease, organ failure and anything else that is impacted by cell death (everything!). Telomere shortening is counteracted by the enzyme telomerase. Higher levels of telomerase mean less cell death.

Shorter Telomeres = Shorter Life

Here’s the bad news: telomeres are prematurely cut short by a number of common factors such as a diet high in saturated fat (i.e. typical Western diet) and sedentary lifestyle. A study from 2008 in the American Journal of Nutrition1 showed that those who ate only one extra serving of processed meat per week as compared to controls, had shorter telomeres (read, shorter lifespans). Another 2008 study looked at ~ 2400 healthy twins and showed much longer telomere length and activity in those who exercised only 20-30 minutes 3-4 times per week compared to those who were sedentary much of the time.2  In the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers showed that those in their study with high meat consumption, low intake of vegetables and fruit and poor social support, had the shortest telomere length and highest likelihood of coronary plaque development.3  Other researchers examined telomere length in sedentary versus endurance athletes and showed significant lengthening in the athletes and an associated protective affect from oxidative stress induced vascular disease.4  Poor sleep habits also impact our telomeres as it has been shown that getting 5 or less hours of sleep significantly shortens telomere length.

Lifestyle Changes

Now for the good news: You can make a difference in how quickly your cells and your body deteriorate and die. Dean Ornish and others published a study that showed that with only 3 months of “comprehensive lifestyle changes,” telomerase activity and telomere maintenance were significantly improved.5 The big question is, what are “comprehensive lifestyle changes.” Well, it’s not what your typical doctor or nutritionist will tell you, that’s for sure. In this study, and others showing improvement in telomere length or stability, lifestyle modifications included a whole foods, plant-based diet low in fat (10%), and high in fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, legumes and low in refined carbohydrates coupled with moderate aerobic exercise (walking 30 min/day, 6 days/week) and stress reduction. Finally, a European group in 2012 published a study with almost 2000 men and women and showed that those who ate less saturated fatty acids (butter) and more fruit had the longest telomeres independent of body size, smoking, physical activity or level of education.6

Here’s the Bottom Line: comprehensive lifestyle changes that include a whole foods, plant-based diet, daily exercise, more sleep, less stress and enhanced social support, improve telomere length and maintenance, leading to healthier cells and a longer and healthier life for you!

1Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Nov;88(5):1405-12.

2Arch Intern Med. 2008 Jan 28;168(2):154-8. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2007.39.

3Am J Cardiol. 2010 Sep 1;106(5):659-63. doi: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2010.04.018.

4Circulation. 2009 Dec 15;120(24):2438-47. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.861005.

5Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70234-1. Epub 2008 Sep 15.

6Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;66(12):1290-4. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2012.143. Epub 2012 Oct 17.