It's hard to talk about the topic of anti-aging without mentioning telomeres. Each of our chromosomes has little collections of DNA at each end called telomeres, and they are unable to reproduce entirely every time a cell divides. The result is that our telomeres get shorter as we age causing our cells to age too.
The good news is that scientists have discovered some nutrients that can help protect your telomeres, which in turn can contribute to a longer life. These nutrients have an ability to affect the activity of an enzyme called telomerase, which helps lengthen telomeres. They also act on telomeres as antioxidants (important because telomeres are susceptible to oxidative stress) and anti-inflammatories.
Here are seven nutrients and nutritional factors that have a positive effect on telomeres or other effects on cell damage, and thus can help stop or reverse aging.
Collagen. Collagen is a fibrous protein that is found in your skin, tendons, bones, cartilage, and other connective tissues. It also helps heal and repair damaged cartilage and bone while also supporting the integrity of your joints and connective tissues. Therefore, collagen is critical for fighting the aging process. Collagen can be taken as a supplement and you support collagen production by drinking bone broth daily (from beef marrow bones). Eating foods can also support the body's production of collagen. These include berries, lean meats, beans and legumes, and foods rich in vitamin C (e.g. citrus, leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers, kiwi). Collagen supplements can help support the skin and connective tissues and support your body in making its own collagen (note: there are two types: type 2 for joints, and types 1&3 for everything else).
Folate. This B vitamin has been shown to indirectly affect telomere length in both women and men. More specifically, folate has been shown to help maintain the integrity and development of DNA, which in turn impacts the length of telomeres. Folate is found primarily in leafy green vegetables and beans. The form of the vitamin used in supplements (folic acid) may not provide the same advantages.
Omega-3 fatty acids. If you are not getting essential omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fatty fish consumption several times a week, you may want to consider taking a fish or krill supplement. Adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with lower inflammation (by lowering levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines) and more robust telomere length. A study from Ohio State University College of Medicine noted that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids for four months to healthy sedentary overweight middle-aged and older adults resulted in a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which in turn had a positive effect on immune cell aging.
Probiotics. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is characterized by refined, processed foods that play havoc with our intestinal microflora, our immune system, and the aging process. Providing your body with sufficient amounts of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in the form of supplements or fermented and cultured foods can help halt premature aging. Include fermented vegetables, kefir, tempeh, or other foods with active beneficial bacteria in your diet on a daily basis or take a probiotic supplement (1 billion CFUs or more) containing at least four to five different strains.
Vitamins C and E. Both of these antioxidants have demonstrated an ability to lengthen telomeres in women. In the laboratory, researchers have observed an increase in life span when concentrations of vitamins C or E are added to culture media, and both antioxidants have demonstrated an ability to limit cell damage that can cause shortening of telomeres. The best sources of vitamin C are citrus, bell peppers, berries, tomatoes, and leafy greens. Get your vitamin E from almonds, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, wheat germ, and butternut squash. You can also take a supplement but make sure it from from a reputable company that sources quality ingredients.
Vitamin D. Telomeres decrease in length much faster in the presence of chronic inflammation. Vitamin D helps inhibit the body's inflammatory response and thus can reduce inflammation and deterioration of telomeres. For example, a National Institutes of Health study reported a significant association between vitamin D deficiency (blood level less than 30 nmol/L) and short telomere length. An earlier study from Harvard found that higher plasma levels of vitamin D may be associated with longer telomeres. Many people have low or deficient levels of vitamin D, so it's a good idea to have a blood test to identify your levels before beginning a supplement regimen. Although vitamin D can be found in some foods, supplementation and exposure to sunlight are the best ways to get this nutrient.
Image via Ken Brown
Kiecolt-Glaser JK et al. Omega-3 fatty acids, oxidative stress, and leukocyte telomere length: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 2013 Feb; 28:16-24Liu JJ et al. Relationship between plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D and leucocyte telomere length by sex and race in a US study. British Journal of Nutrition 2016 Sep; 116(6): 953-60Liu JJ et al. Plasma vitamin D biomarkers and leukocyte telomere length. American Journal of Epidemiology 2013 Jun 15; 177(12): 1411-1