The search for the fountain of youth has probably been going on almost as long as humanity itself. And while it’s easy to laugh off this quest as an impossible dream, most of us secretly long for that magic elixir to exist out there—somewhere—just waiting for us to discover it, drink it in, and remain forever young.
Modern science tells us things aren’t that simple—aging is an extremely complex process involving multiple factors. But thanks to the groundbreaking work of scientists including Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, research is beginning to shed light on telomeres as one very important piece of this intricate puzzle.
What the Heck Are Telomeres and Why Do They Matter?
Telomeres are sections of repetitive DNA located at the ends of your chromosomes. These chromosomal “caps” provide protection that keeps your vital genetic material from deteriorating so your cells can reproduce properly. We inherit our initial telomere length from our parents, but no matter what length each of us starts with, our telomeres naturally get shorter and shorter as we get older, offering diminishing protection for our genetic material and overall health.
When telomeres shorten we begin to see the familiar signs of aging, particularly in areas where cells need to reproduce often, such as the skin, immune system, and hair. Once telomeres shrink beyond a critical threshold, the body’s cells lose their ability to reproduce all together, which signals the end of that individual’s life.
If your telomeres are relatively short for your age you may feel old before your time. But if you can find a way to preserve (or even lengthen) your telomeres, you may find yourself looking and feeling so great that everyone wants to know your secret.
Unhealthy Lifestyles Are Tough on Telomeres
Telomeres don’t shorten solely due to the passage of time; it turns out there are also many lifestyle and environmental factors that seem to accelerate this process.1, 2, 3, 4 These include:
• Being Overweight
• Lack of Exercise
• Insufficient Sleep
• High Calorie Diet
• High Protein/Low Fiber Diet
• Exposure to Pollutants and Toxins
• Smoking Tobacco
• Inflammatory Environment in the Body
When these harmful influences are present in your life, your telomeres may shorten more quickly than they would otherwise, which can make you feel older than your years.
The Telomere-Gut Connection
It turns out gut health also seems to have a significant effect on healthy aging and telomeres.5 This is because the gut is made up of far more than just cells, tissues, and genetic material. This region is also home to a vast community of billions of bacteria, known collectively as the microbiome.
Despite bacteria’s unpleasant reputation, not all of these little guys are troublemakers. Ideally about 85% of your microbiome is comprised of friendly bacteria called probiotics. These beneficial microbes crowd out unwanted bacterial strains, and work with your cells and immune system to support health and healthy aging in many areas that are also good for your telomeres. Out of the vast variety of probiotic strains, those from the Bifidobacteria family are considered particularly beneficial as we get older.
Microbial health can help you maintain:
• Healthy Weight: Research indicates that a balanced microbiome supports healthy weight management.6 Not only will that help you keep your attractive shape; you’ll also reduce strain on your telomeres.
• Restful Sleep: Friendly gut flora help raise levels of tryptophan, which the body then converts to serotonin and melatonin to help you feel content and sleepy when bedtime rolls around. These beneficial microbes also help boost the calming neurotransmitter GABA, and they reduce the stress hormone cortisol to further encourage quality sleep time.7, 8, 9 And when you get the sleep your body needs, this has a protective effect on your telomeres.
• Pleasant Mood: The fact that your microbial good guys help to boost levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters while lowering cortisol—while also reducing reactivity to everyday stressors—can improve mood and leave you less likely to respond to life with telomere-damaging stress.10
• Supported Immune Function: Probiotic strains work with your cells to keep out of control immune reactions at bay, so you don't wear down your telomeres too quickly.11, 12
Simple Ways to Support Your Telomeres
Taking care of your telomeres encourages vibrant health at every stage of life. To give your telomeres the TLC they deserve:
• Supplement with a high quality, time-released all-purpose probiotic like PRO-15, and if you’re over age 50, consider a specialized Bifidobacterium formula to introduce your microbiome to just the right microbial strains. If weight management is an ongoing challenge for you, you might want to try a probiotic formula specifically targeted to support this issue.
• Enjoy a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably organic), whole grains, and cultured/fermented dishes. This helps keep your microbiome in top form so it’s able to effectively take care of your general health and telomeres. Certain foods—including apples, bananas, asparagus, and onions—are considered prebiotics because they contain just the right type of fiber to nourish probiotics, but a food-based organic prebiotic powder supplement will give you even more gut-nourishing fibers! Avoid refined sugar, processed foods, artificial additives, and GMOs—these are all harmful to microbial health.
• Find stress reduction techniques you’re comfortable with. Meditation is particularly beneficial to telomeres—regular practice can increase telomerase enzyme by as much as 30%, and may even increase telomere length!13, 14, 15 If sitting meditation isn’t your thing, consider giving meditative movement like yoga, Tai Chi, or Qigong a try.
• Commit to an exercise program that’s fun for you. Whether it’s ballroom dancing, spin class, hiking, or swimming, your telomeres will be glad you got moving. Exercise doesn’t have to be super-strenuous or extreme to have a protective effect on telomeres—even moderate activity like energetic walking can make a real difference.16
• Try to get enough sleep every night to reduce unnecessary telomere wear and tear. The latest wisdom is that eight hours aren’t actually a must, but try to spend at least six-and-a-half to seven hours with the sandman on a nightly basis. And keep in mind that every body is different—what’s important is that you get the amount of sleep that is optimal for your system.
Aging is a multi-faceted process that science is only beginning to understand, but it’s empowering to know that basic lifestyle adjustments may slow the clock down considerably. By giving your microbiome and telomeres a little extra attention you may be able to not only add more years to your life, but more life to your years as well.
1. Shammas, M. A. (2011). Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14(1), 28-34. doi:10.1097/mco.0b013e32834121b1
2. Jackowska, M., Hamer, M., Carvalho, L. A., Erusalimsky, J. D., Butcher, L., & Steptoe, A. (2012). Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Shorter Telomere Length in Healthy Men: Findings from the Whitehall II Cohort Study. PLoS ONE, 7(10), e47292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047292
3. Wong, J. Y., De Vivo, I., Lin, X., Fang, S. C., & Christiani, D. C. (2014). The Relationship Between Inflammatory Biomarkers and Telomere Length in an Occupational Prospective Cohort Study. PLoS ONE, 9(1), e87348.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087348
4. Zhang, C., Lauderdale, D. S., & Pierce, B. L. (2016). Sex-Specific and Time-Varying Associations Between Cigarette Smoking and Telomere Length Among Older Adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 184(12), 922-932. doi:10.1093/aje/kww102
5. Matsumoto, M., & Kurihara, S. (2011). Probiotics-induced increase of large intestinal luminal polyamine concentration may promote longevity. Medical Hypotheses, 77(4), 469-472. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2011.06.011
6. Zhang, Q., Wu, Y., & Fei, X. (2016). Effect of probiotics on body weight and body-mass index: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 67(5), 571-580.
7. Desbonnet, L., Garrett, L., Clarke, G., Bienenstock, J., & Dinan, T. G. (2008). The probiotic Bifidobacteria infantis: An assessment of potential antidepressant properties in the rat. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 43(2), 164-174.
8. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., . . . Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055.
9. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 82(12), 3649-3658.
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.