Life can sometimes unravel—many times due to circumstances beyond our control. Likewise, nerves can fray in the wake of deadlines, packed schedules, the holidays and other pressures. Did you know, however, that your chromosomes can start to unravel, too? It’s true, and it can have dire consequences.
Here’s what happens. At the end of our chromosomes that contain our DNA are repetitive sequences of DNA called telomeres that protect our chromosomes from fraying. Their function is often likened to the plastic tips of shoelaces that prevent them from unwinding. Each time a cell divides, the telomere gets a little shorter. When telomeres get too short, however, they no longer have the ability to protect our chromosomes and cells—paving the way to the ravages of aging and unhealth.
Cell division isn’t uncommon—as our cells divide about 50 times during our lifetime. At conception there are about 15,000 base pairs of DNA making up the telomeres, but that number goes down to about 10,000 base pairs of DNA at the time of birth. That means we lose about one-third of our telomeres by the time we’re born! As we progress through our lifetime, our telomeres get shorter by another 5,000 to 7,000 base pairs, which leaves us with a balance of approximately 3,000 to 5,000 base pairs. It’s at this point that our telomeres are no longer able to protect chromosomes and cells. That’s when either the cell dies or it becomes nonfunctioning.
Either way, it’s not positive.
Even though that’s not good news, it’s great to know that there are ways to slow down the rate of telomere shortening. In fact, regular exercise, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and supplementing with a multivitamin all do much in the way of slowing down telomere shortening.
As for exercise, scientists in Germany looked at cell life spans of young and middle-aged sedentary men and women vs. those of young and middle-aged runners. The young runners were in their 20s and ran about 45 miles a week, while the older runners had an average age of 51 and ran about 50 miles per week. So, they were very active—to put it mildly.
The researchers found that the older sedentary people had telomeres that were on average 40 percent shorter than those of the younger people. That’s not so surprising. What was unexpected, however, is that the older runners had young telomeres that were only about 10 percent shorter than the young runners’ telomeres. In fact, the researchers found that telomere loss was reduced by about 75 percent in the aging runners.
The burning question is: Do you have to run that much to get this benefit? One of the researchers, Dr. Werner, doesn’t think so. He says, “One could speculate that any form of intense exercise that is regularly performed over a long period of time will improve telomere biology.”
Likewise, scientists at the Georgia Health Sciences University have recently discovered that vitamin D given at a rate of 60,000IU per month for four months—an average of 2,000IU per day—can increase telomerase activity by 19 percent. The study’s authors concluded, “Our data suggest that vitamin D may improve telomere maintenance and prevent cell senescence.”
Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people who take multivitamins had younger DNA. The study found that those who took a daily multivitamin had 5.1 percent longer telomeres than those who didn’t take a multivitamin.
And let’s not forget about omega-3s. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) says that omega-3s, especially DHA and EPA, slow down the shortening of telomeres. The researchers discovered that those with the least amount of DHA and EPA had the most rapid rate of telomere shortening, but those with the highest levels of DHA and EPA had the slowest rate of telomere shortening. The study’s authors observed, “Levels of DHA plus EPA were associated with less telomere shortening before and after sequential adjustment for established risk factors. Each 1-standard deviation increase in DHA plus EPA levels was associated with a 32 percent reduction in the odds of telomere shortening.”
So, if you want to slow the fray, make sure you get enough exercise, vitamin D and omega-3s—and take your multivitamin daily.