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Telomeres and Longevity
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Researcher Elizabeth Blackburn’s discovery of telomeres (which won her a 2009 Nobel Prize) is still providing cutting edge insight into our longevity. When our telomeres shorten, we age faster, express negative genetic traits, and are more vulnerable to stress and disease. When we de-stress and create favorable conditions, we produce an enzyme called telomerase, which lengthens telomeres, prevents disease, and extends life.
Telomeres are DNA sequences and proteins at the end of a chromosome that protect it from becoming frayed. They are the protective caps that safeguard our genetic code. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, which live in the nucleus of each cell. Each chromosome contains thousands of genes that make up our genetic code. Each time a cell divides, the protective chromosomal telomeres can either shorten, or, if the conditions are right, lengthen.
4 Ayurvedic Ways to Lengthen Telomeres
Here are the top four Ayurvedic dos and don’ts to keep your telomeres intact and your life long.
1. Find Contentment
If I had to distill Ayurveda into one word, it would be sattva—which means to be at peace. It describes a way of being that is compassionate, caring, giving, and kind. It speaks of non-violence, gratitude, generosity, honor, and unconditional love. For most of us, this saintly state of mind comes naturally when we are children, but is easy to lose track of as adults. Our first taste of negative thinking, linked to shorter telomeres, is what Ayurveda calls rajas—where the mind becomes satisfied only by outward stimulation, rather than an internal sense of peace. In the mind’s quest for satisfaction from the outside world, we stress, endure, overwork, manipulate, lie, cheat, and steal. Exhausted, we retreat in search of an emotional safe haven that Ayurveda calls tamas—where we become withdrawn, pessimistic depressed, and resentful. In one study with more than 1,000 older men, pessimism was associated with shorter telomeres and accelerated aging.
Ayurvedic philosophy suggests that werespond to feelings of rajas and tamas with sattva. The next time you feel hurt, angry, or irritated, hit the pause button. Before you react, see if you can look at the situation from the sattvic perspective of compassion and understanding. (We are not suggesting that you don’t express anger—a perfectly healthy emotion, and one that is often justified—or swallow your pain, but instead of letting these emotions control you, notice when you’re reacting to someone else’s rajasic or tamasic stress—not your own.) This awareness becomes an opportunity to break the pattern of being manipulated by the outside world. It allows you to respond from a sattvic place—above the emotional highs and lows.
2. Avoid Chronic Stress
While our telomeres have the ability to recover from stressful events, they are unable to cope with chronic levels of stress. In one study, researchers found that chronic stress not only shortened telomeres, but was also linked to health concerns such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, compromised immunity, heart issues, inflammation, respiratory concerns, and cognitive and neurological deficits.
When Blackburn discovered the link between stress, shorter telomeres, disease, and accelerated aging, she was compelled to study the most popular go-to therapy for stress—meditation.
The benefits of meditation on long-term health have been studied for decades. In one study, 65 volunteers with mild depression were asked to either meditate or perform a relaxation technique for eight weeks. The meditation group saw a 43 percent increase in telomerase levels, compared to a 3.7-percent increase in the relaxation technique group. As for depression, half the meditation group saw mood improvements, while only 19 percent of the relaxation group did.
See also The Psycho-Physiology of Stress
The right kind of exercise may be super-fuel for longer telomeres. It may also lengthen your life, stave of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, and make you happier. The good news is that you do not need a hard body, or be an athlete or a marathoner, you just need to move.
In one study, moderate aerobic exercise performed three times a week for 45 minutes per session doubled telomerase levels. The same increase in telomerase also happened with high-intensity interval training. (Resistance training like weightlifting did not show direct improvements in telomeres, but there are so many other health benefits associated with weight training, it should be included in your regular exercise routine anyway!)
So, whether you go easy for 45 minutes, or do short bursts of intense training, your telomeres will love you for it. The key to healthier telomeres, according to Blackburn, is improving your aerobic or cardiovascular fitness.
Does too much exercise shorten the telomeres? The answer is no, according to research. Ultra-endurance athletes also have longer telomeres, but not more than moderate exercisers.
Think of exercise as having a hormetic effect, meaning “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Exercise increases the use of oxygen, and therefore reduces amounts of oxidation or free radical damage. Our evolutionary survival depended on being able to run, climb, dig, carry, throw, and endure, so it’s not surprising that our telomeres thrive on exercise.
In my book Body, Mind and Sport, I write about research on replicating the feeling of a “runner’s high.” My research team used deep nose breathing as a tool to calm the mind while the body engaged in vigorous exercise. The result: study participants produced meditative alpha brain waves. With practice, training yourself to breathe through your nose during exercise can become effortless. The result is enjoying a boost of parasympathetic repair and rejuvenation while engaging in the physical wear and tear of exercise.
4. Eat the Right Foods
According to Blackburn, our telomeres’ biggest enemies are inflammation, oxidation, and insulin resistance. Each of these can be caused and treated by the foods we eat.
Inflammation has been directly linked to shorter telomeres. Junk foods, and refined and processed foods, are the smoking gun. Do your best to avoid fried foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugary candy, soda, juices, and baked goods.
Instead, eat non-processed, whole foods that are rich in natural anti-inflammatories. Berries, red grapes, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, and sweet onions all lengthen telomeres. Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish have also been linked to longer telomeres. In one longer-term study of more than 600 people with stable heart disease, those who had the highest levels of omega-3s in their blood had longer telomeres after five years.
Oxidation causes free radicals to feast on your telomeres. Luckily, a healthy diet rich in antioxidants provides the DNA protection we need. This is where we talk about eating more leafy greens, fruits, red or purple potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and drinking green tea.
Insulin resistance is linked to the epidemic of our time—type 2 diabetes. Sugar is worse than we thought, especially for telomeres. In another study, those who drank a 20-ounce soda daily had the same damage to their telomeres as chronic smokers. Both result in the equivalent of almost five years of extra biological aging.
Ayurveda recommends a seasonal plant-based diet that includes only 10 percent animal protein in the form of cultured dairy. A small amount of animal protein provides the needed supplements to a fully vegetarian diet in the form of B12, Calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D.
When it comes to the longevity benefits of herbs, numerous studies have found that certain Ayurvedic herbs can lengthen telomeres. At LifeSpa, our Ayurvedic herbs are whole herbs so they carry the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits in the same way antioxidant rich foods do. Studies have found that turmeric, amalaki, and omega-3 fatty acids lengthen telomeres.
A few studies have shown that diet trends and drinking habits may have no impact on telomere length. For example, one study showed that intermittent fasting and calorie restriction did not lengthen telomeres compared to eating a normal diet.
According to Blackburn’s book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, weight loss through dieting is not associated with longer telomeres, while eating nutritious food and being more active may cut the pounds and lengthen telomeres.
4. Get Good Sleep
As we age, we do need more sleep, which makes having a healthy and balanced daily routine a must for a long and healthy life. One study found that getting at least seven hours of sleep each night was linked to longer telomeres. Less than seven hours and telomeres begin to pay the price.
The body’s most potent antioxidant, melatonin, is produced at night to get us to sleep so it can then do its primary job—rebuild, rejuvenate, and detoxify. Sleep hygiene plays an important role here—dim lights after sunset, block blue light from screens in the evening, and possibly supplement with melatonin. Research has shown that melatonin supplementation can lengthen telomeres, slow ovarian aging, increase mitochondrial cellular energy production, and increase telomerase.
There are numerous Ayurvedic strategies aimed at improving sleep. Perhaps the most important is addressing deep levels of adrenal fatigue. The body needs energy to be able to sedate itself and sleep deeply. Ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha provide support for deep rejuvenation and rest.
Download my free ebook The Ayurvedic Guide to the Best Sleep in Your Life