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Nutritionists have long been interested in the dynamics of telomere length in the body, and how telomeres figure in to human health and life expectancy. Telomeres were first discovered in 1973 by Alexey Olovnikov.
He found that the tiny units of DNA at the very end of each chromosome – the telomere – shorten with time because they cannot replicate completely each time the cell divides and they may be the most powerful biological clock that has yet to be identified.
Hence, as you get older, your telomeres get shorter and shorter. Eventually, DNA replication and cell division ceases completely, at which point you die. However, a growing body of research is showing that certain nutrients play a huge role in protecting telomere length; greatly affecting how long you live.
One Way Nutrition Affects Longevity
For example, in one recent studyi, scientists found that the B vitamin folate plays an important part in maintenance of DNA integrity and DNA methylation, which in turn influences telomere length.
Researchers also found that women who use vitamin B12 supplements have longer telomeres than those who don’t. Vitamin D3, zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins C and E also influence telomere length. This supports the findings of an earlier study from 2009, which provided the first epidemiologic evidence that the use of multivitamins by women is associated with longer telomeres.ii According to the authors:
“Compared with nonusers, the relative telomere length of leukocyte DNA was on average 5.1% longer among daily multivitamin users. In the analysis of micronutrients, higher intakes of vitamins C and E from foods were each associated with longer telomeres, even after adjustment for multivitamin use.”
The mechanism by which nutrients appear to affect telomere length is by influencing the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that adds the telomeric repeats to the ends of your DNA. Thousands of studies have been published on telomerase, and they are well-known to maintain genomic stability, prevent the inappropriate activation of DNA damage pathways, and regulate cellular aging.
In 1984, Elizabeth Blackburn PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, discovered that the enzyme telomerase actually has the ability to lengthen the telomere by synthesizing DNA from an RNA primer. She, along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
The Science of Growing Younger
I believe the science of telomeres offers the most exciting and viable possibility for extreme life extension – the kind of anti-aging strategy that can actually allow you to regenerate and in effect ”grow younger.” Naturally, researchers are hard at work devising pharmaceutical strategies to accomplish this, but there’s solid evidence that simple lifestyle strategies and nutritional intervention can do this too. This is great news, as short telomeres are a risk factor not just for death itself, but for many diseases as well.
For example, telomere shortening has been linked to the diseases listed below. But animal studies have also shown that these types of health problems can be reversed by restoring telomerase functioning:
Decreased immune response against infections Type 2 diabetes Atherosclerotic lesions Neurodegenerative diseases Testicular, splenic, intestinal atrophy DNA damage
Top 12 Key Nutrients for Life Extension
The featured study found the following nutrients to have a beneficial impact on telomere length:
Vitamin B12 Zinc Vitamin D Omega-3 Vitamin C Vitamin E
Below, I will review a few of those, plus several additional recommendations for what I believe are among the most important nutrients to maintain and promote telomere lengthening.
Naturally, any attempt at a list like this is bound to fail to some degree as we really need a balance of a wide variety of nutrients. However, I believe it’s possible to make some general recommendations based on the fact that most people are sorely deficient in many of these key nutrients that we know are important for optimal health. Others, such as astaxanthin and curcumin, just have such robust scientific support that it would seem foolish to ignore them when the benefits are so profound. With that said, here are my recommendations for the top 12 anti-aging nutrients, followed by two bonus strategies that do not involve taking supplements that can also help radically increase your lifespan by protecting your telomeres.
I have listed the 12 nutrients below in the order that I believe they have in importance. I personally take the first six every day but the vitamin D is through sun exposure, not through an oral supplement.
1. Vitamin D
In one study of more than 2,000 women, those with higher vitamin D levels were found to have fewer aging-related changes in their DNA, as well as lowered inflammatory responsesiii. Women with higher levels of vitamin D are more likely to have longer telomeres, and vice versa. This means that people with higher levels of vitamin D may actually age more slowly than people with lower levels of vitamin D.
Your leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is a predictor for aging related diseases. As you age, your LTL’s become shorter, but, if you suffer from chronic inflammation, your telomeres decrease in length much faster, because your body’s inflammatory response accelerates leukocyte turnover. Your vitamin D concentrations also decrease with age, whereas your C-reactive protein (a mediator of inflammation) increases. This inverse double-whammy increases your overall risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The good news is that vitamin D is a potent inhibitor of your body’s inflammatory response, and by reducing inflammation, you diminish your turnover of leukocytes, effectively creating a positive chain reaction that can help protect you against a variety of diseases. In essence, it protects your body from the deterioration of aging. Researchers have found that subsets of leukocytes have receptors for the active form of vitamin D (D3), which allows the vitamin to have a direct effect on these cells. This may also explain the specific connection between vitamin D and autoimmune disease.
The absolute best way to optimize your vitamin D levels would be through safe sun exposure. I am fully aware that many will not be able to implement this recommendation due to lifestyle constraints, but I feel I would be reprehensibly negligent if I did not emphasize how superior photo vitamin D is compared to oral. So for those who are able to, I have provided the following video that helps you find the times exposing your skin to the sun will actually produce vitamin D in your location.
2. Astaxanthin (derived from the microalgae Haematoccous pluvialis)
In the 2009 study on multivitamin use and telomere length, longer telomeres were also associated with the use of antioxidant formulasiv. According to the authors, telomeres are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. Additionally, inflammation induces oxidative stress and lowers the activity of telomerase (again, that’s the enzyme responsible for maintaining your telomeres).
Astaxanthin has emerged as one of the most potent and beneficial antioxidants currently known, with potent anti-inflammatory and DNA-protective capabilities. Research has even shown that it can protect against DNA damage induced by gamma radiationv. It has a number of unique features that make it stand out from the crowd.
For example, it is by far the most powerful carotenoid antioxidant when it comes to free radical scavenging: astaxanthin is 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene, and 14 times more powerful than vitamin Evi. It’s also far more effective than other carotenoids at “singlet oxygen quenching,” which is a particular type of oxidation. It is 550 times more powerful than vitamin E, and 11 times more powerful than beta-carotene at neutralizing singlet oxygen.
Astaxanthin crosses both your blood-brain barrier AND your blood-retinal barrier (beta carotene and lycopene do not), which brings antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection to your eyes, brain and central nervous system. Another feature that separates astaxanthin from other carotenoids is that it cannot function as a pro-oxidant. Many antioxidants will act as pro-oxidants (meaning they start to cause rather than combat oxidation) when present in your tissues in sufficient concentrations. This is why you don’t want to go overboard taking too many antioxidant supplements like beta-carotene, for example. Astaxanthin, on the other hand, does not function as a pro-oxidant, even when present in high amounts, which makes it highly beneficial. Lastly, one of its most profound features is its unique ability to protect the entire cell from damage – both the water-soluble part and the fat-soluble portion of the cell. Other antioxidants affect just one or the other. This is due to astaxanthin’s unique physical characteristics that allow it to reside within the cell membrane will also protecting the inside of the cell. To learn more about astaxanthin, please listen to the following interview with Dr. Robert Corish.
3. Ubiquinol (CoQ10)
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is the fifth most popular supplement in the United States, taken by about 53 percent of Americans, according to a 2010 survey by ConsumerLab.comvii. This is a good thing as one in every four Americans over 45 is taking a statin and every single one of these individuals needs to be taking it.
CoQ10 is used by every cell in your body. In fact, it is so important for your body’s daily functions that it is also known as “ubiquinone” because it’s ‘ubiquitous’ in the human body.
What you may not know, however, is that to benefit from the form of the nutrient needed to produce cellular energy and help you reduce the typical signs of aging, your body must convert the ubiquinone to the reduced form, called ubiquinol – and research is showing that this reduced form may actually be superior for your health in a number of ways. If you’re under 25 years old your body is capable of converting CoQ10 from the oxidized to the reduced form. However, if you’re older, your body becomes more and more challenged to convert the oxidized CoQ10 to ubiquinol.
Premature aging is one primary side effect of having too little CoQ10 because this essential vitamin recycles other antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E. CoQ10 deficiency also accelerates DNA damage, and because CoQ10 is beneficial to heart health and muscle function this depletion leads to fatigue, muscle weakness, soreness and eventually heart failure.
In a previous interview with Dr. Stephen Sinatra, he recounts an experiment from the mid-90′s on aging rats. The average lifespan of a rat is two years. Rats given CoQ10, at the end of their life, had more energy, better coats, and better appetites, compared to the rats that did not get CoQ10. The supplement basically had a potent anti-aging effect, in the sense it maintained youthfulness until the very end of their life. In terms of life extension, the effect was minimal.
Dr. Sinatra also conducted his own research and found that CoQ10 given to both younger and older mice resulted in increased energy and vigor. Older mice traveled through mazes quicker, they had better memory, and had more locomotor activity than those who did not get CoQ10. So CoQ10 definitely appears to improve the quality of life, even if it may not significantly increase longevity per say. For more information and dosage recommendations, please see this previous CoQ10 article.
4. Fermented Foods / Probiotics
It’s quite clear that eating a diet consisting of high amounts of processed foods will shorten your life, yet 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed food, and the number one source of calories in the US comes from high fructose corn syrup — a staple ingredient in nearly all processed foods, from frozen dinners, to condiments, snacks, and soda. Researchers have even discovered that genetic mutations and malfunctions that cause disease are created in future generations when highly processed and artificial foods are consumed!
Part of the problem is that these processed, sugar- and chemical-laden foods effectively destroy your intestinal microflora. Your gut flora has incredible power over your immune system, which, of course, is your body’s natural defense system. Antibiotics, stress, artificial sweeteners, chlorinated water and many other factors can also reduce the amount of probiotics (beneficial bacteria) in your gut, which can predispose you to illness and premature aging. Ideally, you’ll want to make traditionally cultured and fermented foods a staple in your daily diet.
You can use a probiotic supplement, but getting your probiotics from food is definitely better as you can consume far more beneficial bacteria, in many cases up to 100X more. Fermented vegetables are an excellent alternative as they are both delicious and simple to make. In the following video, Caroline Barringer discusses the process of fermenting your own vegetables in some detail, so if you’re up for fermenting some of your own foods, please listen to this interview.
5. Krill Oil
According to Dr. Richard Harris, an expert on omega-3 fats, those who have an omega-3 index of less than four percent age much faster than those with indexes above eight percent. Therefore, your omega-3 index may also be an effective marker of your rate of aging. According to Dr. Harris’ research, omega-3 fats appear to play a role in activating telomerase, which, again, has been shown to be able to actually reverse telomere shortening.
Although this research is preliminary, I would suggest that optimizing your omega-3 levels above eight percent would be a good strategy if you’re interested in delaying aging. (Your doctor can order the omega-3 index test from a lab called Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond, Virginia.) After all, you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by doing so, since omega-3 has proven to be extremely important for your health in so many respects.
My favorite animal-based omega-3 is krill oil, as it has a number of benefits not found in other omega-3 supplements such as fish oil. Aside from higher potential for contamination, fish oil supplements also have a higher risk of suffering oxidation damage and becoming rancid. Dr. Rudi Moerck has discussed these risks at great length in a previous interview. Krill oil also contains naturally-occurring astaxanthin, which makes it nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage compared to fish oil.
Additionally, according to Dr. Harris’ research, krill oil is also more potent gram for gram, as its absorption rate is much higher than fish oil. You get somewhere between 25 to 50 percent more omega-3 per milligram when you take krill oil compared to fish oil, hence you don’t need to take as much.
6. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K may very well be “the next vitamin D” as research continues to illuminate a growing number of benefits to your health. While most people get enough vitamin K from their diets to maintain adequate blood clotting, they’re NOT enough to offer protection against more serious health problems. For example, research over the past few years suggest that vitamin K2 can provide substantial protection from prostate cancerviii, which is one of the leading causes of cancer among men in the United States. And research results are similarly encouraging for the benefits of vitamin K to your cardiac health:
In 2004, the Rotterdam Study, which was the first study demonstrating the beneficial effect of vitamin K2, showed that people who consume 45 mcg of K2 daily live seven years longer than people getting 12 mcg per dayix.
In a subsequent study called the Prospect Studyx, 16,000 people were followed for 10 years. Researchers found that each additional 10 mcg of K2 in the diet results in 9 percent fewer cardiac events.
K2 is present in fermented foods, particularly cheese and the Japanese food natto, which is by far the richest source of K2.
According to the featured researchxi, magnesium also plays an important role in DNA replication, repair, and RNA synthesis, and dietary magnesium has been shown to positively correlate with increased telomere length in women. Other research has shown that long term deficiency leads to telomere shortening in rats and cell cultures. It appears the lack of magnesium ions has a negative influence on genome integrity. Insufficient amounts of magnesium also reduce your body’s ability to repair damaged DNA, and can induce chromosomal abnormalities. According to the authors, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that “magnesium influences telomere length by affecting DNA integrity and repair, in addition to its potential role in oxidative stress and inflammation.”
Polyphenols are potent antioxidant compounds in plant foods, many of which have been linked to anti-aging benefits and disease reduction. Here are but a few examples of these potent antioxidant compounds:
- Grapes (resveratrol) – Resveratrol deeply penetrates the center of your cell’s nucleus, giving your DNA time to repair free radical damage. Research dating back to 2003 showed that resveratrol, a powerful polyphenol and anti-fungal chemical, was able to increase the lifespan of yeast cells.xii
Cacao – Quite a few studies have confirmed the potent antioxidant properties, and subsequent health benefits, of raw cocoa powder. Dark, organic, unprocessed chocolate has been found to benefit your glucose metabolism (diabetic control), blood pressure, and cardiovascular health.
Green tea – Polyphenols in tea, which include EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) and many others, have been found to offer protection against many types of cancer. The polyphenols in green tea may constitute up to 30 percent of the dry leaf weight, so, when you drink a cup of green tea, you’re drinking a fairly potent solution of healthy tea polyphenols.
The findings showed that resveratrol could activate a gene called sirtuin1, which is also activated during calorie restriction in various species. Since then studies in nematode worms, fruit flies, fish, mice, and human cells have linked resveratrol to longer lives.
Resveratrol is found in grapes, and there are numerous products on the market containing resveratrol. I recommend looking for one made from Muscadine grapes, and that uses WHOLE grape skins and seeds, as this is where many of the benefits are concentrated.
Green tea is the least processed kind of tea, so it also contains the highest amounts of EGCG of all tea varieties. Keep in mind, however, that many green teas have been oxidized, and this process may take away many of its valuable properties. The easiest sign to look for when evaluating a green tea’s quality is its color: if your green tea is brown rather than green, it’s likely been oxidized.
My personal favorite is matcha green tea because it contains the entire ground tea leaf, and can contain over 100 times the EGCG provided from regular brewed green tea.
9. Folate (aka Vitamin B9, or Folic Acid)
According to the featured study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, plasma concentrations of the B vitamin folate correspond to telomere length in both men and women. Folate plays an important role in the maintenance of DNA integrity and DNA methylation, both of which influence the length of your telomeresxiii.
It is useful for preventing depression, seizure disorders and brain atrophy. In fact, folate deficiency can lead to elevated homocysteine levels, which can be a major contributor to heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. One unfortunate and preventable reason why some believe folate numbers are slipping is the increased prevalence of obesity, which negatively affects the way most peoplemetabolize this important vitamin. The ideal way to raise your folate levels is to eat plenty of fresh, raw, organic leafy green vegetables, and beans.
Please note that it is the natural folate from food that has been found to be beneficial. This may not be true for the supplement folic acid.
10. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is fittingly known as “the energy vitamin,” and your body requires it for a number of vital functions. Among them: energy production, blood formation, DNA synthesis, and myelin formation. (Myelin is insulation that protects your nerve endings and allows them to communicate with one another.) Unfortunately, research suggests about 25 percent of American adults are deficient in this vitally important nutrient, and nearly half the population has suboptimal blood levels.
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal tissues, including foods like beef and beef liver, lamb, snapper, venison, salmon, shrimp, scallops, poultry and eggs. It’s not readily available in plants, so if you do not eat meat or animal products you are at risk of deficiency. The few plant foods that are sources of B12 are actually B12 analogs. An analog is a substance that blocks the uptake of true B12, so your body’s need for the nutrient actually increases.
If you aren’t getting sufficient B12 in your diet, I recommend you begin supplementation immediately with this vital nutrient with either an under-the-tongue fine mist spray or vitamin B12 injections. Ensuring your body has adequate B12 can vastly improve the quality of your life and prevent debilitating, even life-threatening diseases which result from a deficiency of this all-important nutrient.
11. Curcumin (Turmeric)
Curcumin – the active ingredient in the spice turmeric – acts both as an immune booster and potent anti-inflammatory. But perhaps its greatest value lies in its anti-cancer potential, and it has the most evidence based literature backing up its anti-cancer claims of any other nutrient. It affects over 100 different pathways once it gets into a cell – among them, a key biological pathway needed for development of melanoma and other cancers.
The spice actually stops laboratory strains of melanoma from proliferating and pushes the cancer cells to commit suicide by shutting down nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), a powerful protein known to induce abnormal inflammatory response that leads to an assortment of disorders such as arthritis and cancer.
To get the full benefits that curcumin has to offer, you will want to look for a turmeric extract with at least 95 percent curcuminoids that contains only 100 percent certified organic ingredients. The formula should be free of fillers, additives and excipients (a substance added to the supplement as a processing or stability aid), and the manufacturer should use safe production practices at all stages: planting, cultivation, selective harvesting, and then producing and packaging the final product. This previous article can provide you further details on how to use curcumin.
12. Vitamin A
According to the featured study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, telomere length is positively associated with dietary intake of vitamin A in women who do not take multivitaminsxiv. It plays an important role in your immune response, and if you’re deficient, you become predisposed to infections that can promote telomere shortening. However, vitamin A does not appear to have a dose-dependent effect on telomere length, so you don’t need high amounts.
Two Additional Lifestyle Strategies that Affect Telomere Length
While a nutritious diet accounts for about 80 percent of the benefits derived from a healthy lifestyle, exercise cannot be ignored, and there’s evidence suggesting that exercise protects against telomere shortening as well. Yet another lifestyle strategy that can have a beneficial impact is intermittent fasting.
- Exercise – One recent study on post-menopausal women suffering from chronic stress found that “vigorous physical activity appears to protect those experiencing high stress by buffering its relationship with telomere length (TL).” xv In fact, among the women who did not exercise, each unit increase in the Perceived Stress Scale was related to a 15-fold increase in the odds of having short telomeres. Those who did exercise regularly showed no correlation between telomere length and perceived stress!
- Intermittent Fasting – Previous research has shown that you can extend your lifespan by reducing your caloric intake, and I’ve written about this technique in the past. The problem is that most people do not understand how to properly cut calories, because in order to remain healthy, you have to cut out the right kind of calories – namely carbohydrates. Research by Professor Cynthia Kenyon has shown that avoiding carbs will activate genes that govern youthfulness and longevity.
High-intensity exercise appears to be the most effective all-natural approach to slow down the aging process by reducing telomere shortening. In fact, research has shown there’s a direct association between reduced telomere shortening in your later years and high-intensity-type exercisesxvi: Greta Blackburn’s book The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Lifexvii further details the importance of high-intensity exercise to prevent telomere shortening.
But the health benefits of calorie restriction can also be achieved by intermittent fasting (keep in mind you still need to cut out sugars and grains). For more detailed recommendations and guidance on intermittent fasting, or scheduled eating, please see this recent article that greatly expands on this complex topic, and highlights the precautions, as it certainly isn’t for everyone.
- iThe Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry October 2011
- ii American Journal of Clinical Nutrition March 11, 2009: 89(6); 1857-1863.
- iii American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(5), 1420-1425, November 2007
- ivThe Organic & Non-GMO Report July 21, 2011
- vWei Sheng Yan Jiu/Journal of Hygiene Research September 2011;40(5):551-4.
- viUSNutra.com Astaxanthin
- viiConsumerLab.com, Supplement Use Report 2010
- viiiAmerican Beekeeping Federation
- ixNimptsch K, Rohrmann S and Linseisen J. “Dietary intake of vitamin K and risk of prostate cancer in the Heidelberg cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Heidelberg)” Am J Clinical Nutrition April 2008;87(4):985-992
- x Daniels, S. “Vitamin K2, but not K1, effective for heart health benefits: Study” NutraIngredients.com February 12, 2009
- xiThe Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry October 2011
- xii Nature, Red wine ingredient makes yeast live longer, HelenR. Pilcher
- xiiiThe Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry October 2011
- xivThe Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry October 2011
- xvPLoS One. 2010 May 26;5(5):e10837.
- xviMechanisms of Ageing and Development, February 2010;131(2):165-7.
- xvii The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life by Greta Blackburn