By Carra Richling
We used to believe that our DNA was our destiny. The exciting news is that our lifestyle choices can impact our DNA.
In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for unlocking the mysteries of telomeres, the end caps that protect our chromosomes. Telomeres have been likened to the plastic tips of a shoelace. When they get damaged, the shoelaces (our chromosomes) become frayed and can no longer do their job well. Telomeres are shortened every time our cells replicate and naturally shorten as we age. They can also be shortened by an unhealthy lifestyle: poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep, smoking, obesity and stress.
Longer Telomeres, Longer Life
Studies over the past decade have shown the association between the length of our telomeres and the state of our health (with regard to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, and anxiety). Longer telomeres have been associated with longer lives. The September 2013 issue of The Lancet featured one of the first studies to determine the effects of lifestyle on telomere length. Researchers Dean Ornish, MD, Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and colleagues reported that a comprehensive lifestyle shift resulted in elongated telomeres in men with low-risk prostate cancer. The lifestyle changes included a low-fat, plant-based diet, moderate daily exercise, stress management and social support. This intervention group increased telomere length by 10 percent while those in the control group had a 3 percent reduction in telomere length after five years.
Nutrition can have a significant impact on the length of telomeres. In The Telomere Effect (2017) by Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn, the researchers recommend a plant-based approach that includes fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes. (Other nutrient-rich foods that are high in antioxidants such as seaweed and green tea have also been linked with longer telomeres and increased lifespan.)
Here are a few more of the top foods that keep your telomeres long and your chromosomes safe:
An easy addition to any salad or smoothie, flax is a great source of omega-3s, which are important for both preventing inflammation and building cell membranes throughout the body. Research shows that omega-3s can prevent telomeres from shortening too quickly. One study published in 2010 in The Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the blood levels of over 600 people with stable heart disease. The study showed that the higher the levels of omega-3 in their blood, the less their telomeres declined over five years. Other great ways to get your omega-3s are soy foods, green leafy vegetables, and high quality algae-based or fish oil supplements.
This crunchy green leaf is as delicious raw as it is tucked into this delicious Ornish Kitchen Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna, which packs in several other top telomere-saving foods noted here. Besides being rich in fiber and antioxidants that protect telomeres, it tops the list of folate-providers. Folate is a B vitamin that’s required for DNA synthesis, repair, and metabolism within the cell. Folate is also imperative to maintain low levels of homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine can cause inflammation and damage our artery linings, which promotes heart disease. Many studies, including one published in 2016 in Clinical Nutrition Research, have linked folate, B12 and high homocysteine with shorter telomere length. Other good sources of folate are broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, lentils and beans (soy, pinto, black, navy and kidney), as well as fortified cereal and whole grain products.
These earthy, light and versatile fungi serve quality Vitamin D, which is associated with telomere length. A study published in 2017 in The Journal of Nutrition showed that those with low Vitamin D (under 50 ) had shorter telomere than those with adequate Vitamin D ( over 50). Other great ways to get your Vitamin D via food are fortified soy and nondairy milks and nonfat dairy and cereals, although supplements may be needed to maintain adequate levels if deficient. See Ornish Living article The Importance of Sunshine to learn more ways to increase your vital Vitamin D.
Nature’s sweetest, most nutrient-rich finger foods are the perfect way to take in antioxidants that fight cell-damaging free radicals. Research shows that those with higher levels of antioxidants such as Vitamin C, E and selenium tend to have longer telomeres. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of antioxidants, which is why a plant-based diet is highly recommended. So don’t stop at berries when seeking anti-oxidizing effects: carrots, sweet potatoes and yams, winter squash and green leafy vegetables are packed with them. Tomatoes, citrus, cantaloupe and potatoes with skins provide plenty of Vitamin C. Soy, nuts, and seeds offer Vitamin E and whole grains provide selenium.
The soluble and insoluble fiber in this traditional breakfast grain promotes blood sugar management and prevents insulin resistance that can damage and shorten telomeres. And paired with the telomere-protective berries, oatmeal offers an added boost of health-promoting fiber. Other ways to get your fiber: whole grains of various types, vegetables, fruit, beans and lentils.
Which delicious, longevity-promoting foods will you choose today?