Inside each cell, our genes are arranged on a strand of DNA called a chromosome. At each end of the chromosome are “caps” of DNA called telomeres. These telomeres protect our genetic code as cells divide to create new skin, bone, blood, etc… In other words, telomeres allow our body to create new cells without losing any genes and they also control how fast our cells age. Telomeres have been compared to the plastic tip on shoelaces, because they keep the chromosomes ends from fusing together and corrupting the cells genetic blueprint which can cause early aging, cancer or cellular death. Each time a cell divides, these telomeres get shorter and when they get too short the cell can no longer divide and it dies. This shortening process is expected as we age. However, an accelerated shortening process is associated with cancer, aging and a higher risk of death.
Scientists have discovered that critical nutrients are needed for healthy telomeres. In a recent study, scientists found dysfunctional telomeres more frequently in cells deficient in folate. The lack of folate frays the telomere leaving the genetic blueprint exposed to outside influences and resulting in DNA damage. Another important factor for healthy telomeres is Vitamin B12. A study was done with 60 elderly humans who were supplemented for 1 year with either Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, folate, calcium and Vitamin D or only calcium and Vitamin D. Then they tested homocysteine levels. At the end of a year, they found that the participants with lower Vitamin B intake and elevated levels of homocysteine had reduced methylation and shorter telomeres. Their methylation cycles had been impaired and they were literally aging faster.
Telomerase is an enzyme that add bases to the ends of telomeres. In young cells, telomerase keeps the telomeres from wearing down too much, but as the cells divide again and again, the telomerase runs out and the telomeres shorten. As cells become cancerous, they start to divide more frequently and the cancer spreads quickly as the new cells being made have been given the blueprint of a contaminated cell. The telomeres of these cells also shorten at a rapid pace due to the frequent division. If the telomeres get too short the cell may die, but it often escapes death by producing more telomerase enzyme which prevents the telomere from getting any shorter. Scientists have been able to use telomerase in the lab to keep human cells from dividing at their normal rate without having those cells become cancerous.
For the first time, a study published in The Lancet Oncology, showed that lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support may results in longer telomeres. For 5 years, the study followed 35 men with localized, early-stage prostate cancer to assess the relationship between comprehensive lifestyle changes and telomere and telomerase activity.
Ten of the men incorporated lifestyle changes that included a plant based diet, moderate exercise, stress reduction and a weekly support group. They were compared to the other 25 men who were not asked to make major lifestyle changes. The group that participated in lifestyle changes showed a “significant” increase in telomere length of approximately 10%. Of note, it was shown that those who adhered more strictly to their new lifestyle showed a greater improvement in their telomere length. In contrast, the men who did not make lifestyle changes had measurable shorter telomeres – 3% shorter – at the end of the 5 year study.
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