The genetic “blueprint” for your body is contained within 23 tiny X-shaped structures inside your cells called chromosomes. Intact chromosomes provide the instructions your body needs to grow and function properly. Over your lifetime, your cells divide approximately 10 quadrillion times, creating new cells that support normal growth, development, and replenishment of damaged cells. However, with each cellular division, small pieces of DNA are broken off of chromosomes, causing them to shorten. Fortunately, your chromosomes have tiny caps of genetic material at their ends that buffer the interior of your chromosomes during cell division. These microscopic “caps” are called telomeres.
By protecting your chromosomes, telomeres maintain the integrity of your DNA and the health and function of every cell in your body.
Having trouble envisioning what telomeres look like? Think of your chromosomes like shoelaces; telomeres are akin to the little caps of plastic (called “aglets”) at the ends of your shoelaces. Just as the aglets protect your shoelaces from fraying, telomeres protect your chromosomes from coming apart. But it’s important to know that your telomeres are not invincible! These tiny protective caps suffer wear and tear as we age, compromising our chromosomal integrity and our health.
Our Telomeres “Fray” As We Age
Telomeres are not static structures. With each cell division, they shorten slightly, bearing the brunt of chromosomal shortening to protect the inner regions of your chromosomes. Most of the cells in your body lack a mechanism for maintaining and protecting telomeres; in other words, once the telomeres are shortened, it is difficult for them to rebound. In the scientific literature, the process of telomere shortening that occurs with age is called “telomere attrition.” Telomere attrition is a marker of biological aging, or the gradual deterioration of physiological functions independent of your chronological age, or age in years. Thanks to new testing methods, telomere length can be measured and used as an assessment of biological age. (1)
The good news is, there are a few human cells that produce telomerase, an enzyme that elongates telomeres by tacking a short, repetitive DNA sequence onto existing chromosomes. The discovery of this enzyme was so exciting that, in 2009, the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine was awarded to the three scientists who discovered the role of telomerase in maintaining telomere length.
Unfortunately, only a minimal number of adult cells have telomerase, such as sperm cells, skin cells, and immune cells. This means that the majority of your telomeres are shortening at a rapid pace, with no means of repairing themselves.
Telomeres and Aging
Age isn’t the only factor that triggers telomere shortening. Excess body fat, elevated blood sugar, and chronic stress can accelerate telomere attrition by oxidatively damaging telomeres and inhibiting telomerase activity. Many people experience an accumulation of body fat and elevations in blood sugar with age, compounding the adverse impact of biological aging on telomere attrition. (2, 3) Chronic stress, which is unfortunately familiar to most people, also accelerates telomere shortening. (4)
Minimizing your exposure to toxins by eating organic foods, reducing your use of plastics and cleaning chemicals, and regularly detoxifying your body may support resilient telomeres and aging well.
Telomeres are more than just a surrogate marker for biological aging. Telomere shortening is a hallmark of the aging process and may be both a cause and effect of the physical changes associated with aging.
Shortened telomeres are associated with an array of age-related health concerns, including declines in brain and immune function, loss of visual acuity, and weakening of the heart and blood vessels. (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
It sounds pretty ominous, but there is hope for protecting our precious telomeres! Research indicates that specific supplements, diet, and lifestyle strategies can support telomerase activity and put the brakes on telomere shortening.
The Connection Between Telomeres and Senescence
Telomere shortening relates to another critical aspect of aging – cellular senescence. Cellular senescence is a stable form of cell cycle arrest that has both positive and negative effects on our physiology. When we are young, acute cellular senescence regulates our growth and development by targeting specific populations of cells in tissues. Throughout our lifespans, cellular senescence also assists with wound healing and inhibits the proliferation of malignant cells. However, as we age, senescent cells can also go rogue; upon ceasing to divide, they accumulate in tissues and indiscriminately secrete an array of inflammatory substances that damage neighboring cells. The inflammation elicited by chronic senescence plays a causative role in the aging process. (15) Several factors initiate chronic cellular senescence, one of which is telomere shortening.
Telomere shortening is sensed as a ‘danger signal’ by cells because it initiates DNA damage. When cells recognize this danger signal, they stop dividing in an attempt to inhibit the replication of the damaged cell, which could have devastating effects on the body. However, the downside is that telomere shortening accelerates cellular senescence, which inflames the body and promotes biological aging. (16) Senescent cells have been described as key drivers of aging, making regulation of telomere shortening all the more important for facilitating healthy aging.
Adaptogenic Herbs to Support Telomeres
Astragalus membranaceous is a time-honored botanical within the Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal compendium, used for millennia for its vitality-enhancing properties. Astragalus is a source of two potent phytochemicals classified as “astragalosides” – Astragaloside IV and Cycloastragenol – with a myriad of health benefits. (15) Astragaloside IV and Cycloastragenol show particular promise in the realm of anti-aging for their ability to support healthy telomerase expression, maintaining the protective caps on our chromosomes and thus the integrity of our DNA. (16)
By supporting telomerase activity, Astragaloside IV and Cycloastragenol promote the healthy functioning of numerous cells and organs.
Astragaloside IV supports telomerase expression in critical immune cells and may stave off the decline in immune function that occurs with age. (17) Cycloastragenol supports telomerase expression in neuronal cells, potentially offering benefits for cognitive acuity and mental and emotional wellbeing. (18) Both Astragaloside IV and Cycloastragenol support telomerase activity in kidney cells, maintaining healthy kidney function with age. (19) Through their regenerative effects on telomeres, astragalosides may restore tissue and organ function compromised by telomere shortening.
Optimize Your Diet & Lifestyle to Manage Telomeres
Research indicates that diet and lifestyle factors significantly influence telomere shortening. A healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and regular exercise help protect telomeres putting the brakes on the telomere shortening process. (20, 21) Healthy lifestyle practices may diminish telomere shortening by supporting a healthy inflammatory response and enhancing antioxidant defenses, protecting telomeres from harm. While it is unclear whether specific diet and exercise routines exert more powerful effects on telomere integrity than others, a good rule of thumb is to eat a whole foods diet rich in colorful vegetables and fruits and to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
It’s universally known that healthy lifestyle habits support weight loss and stress reduction, but did you know that according to recent research, these same habits may also lengthen telomeres? In one study, adolescents who went through a multidisciplinary intervention to promote weight loss experienced a statistically significant increase in telomere length after the weight loss intervention. In another study, participants on a meditation retreat experienced a considerable increase in telomere length after three weeks of daily meditation. (22, 23) These findings suggest that maintaining a healthy body weight and engaging in a consistent mindfulness practice, such as meditation, may be key for supporting the health and longevity of telomeres.
Supporting telomeres is just one aspect of taking charge of how we want to age. As we continue to educate ourselves in natural preventative care and the body’s influential longevity biochemical pathways, we can become more and more empowered in our personalized health journeys.