Doctor’s Tip: Lifestyle and telomeres
This is the fourth in a series of columns based on Dr. Ornish’s latest book “Undo It: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.” According to Dr. Ornish, these simple lifestyle changes can be summarized as: eat healthy, move more, stress less and love more.
Each human cell has 23 chromosomes, each made up of two strands of DNA. Caps at the tips of chromosomes, called telomeres, prevent DNA damage — they are analogous to the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces. As you age, telomeres gradually shorten, and when they’re gone cells die, and eventually you die.
The oldest living organisms on the planet are bristlecone pines in California, one of which is 4,800 years old and still thriving. A few years ago investigating scientists discovered an enzyme in the roots of bristlecones that rebuilds telomeres — and they named it telomerase. Subsequently this enzyme was found in human cells as well.
Dr. Ornish conducted a controlled study that showed that the aforementioned lifestyle changes lengthen telomeres. His co-researcher was Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a scientist who won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering work on telomeres. They found that shorter telomeres were “associated with an increased risk of premature death from a wide variety of common chronic diseases” including heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and type 2 diabetes, among others. “After only three months on our lifestyle medicine program, we measured, for the first time, a 30 percent increase in telomerase…”
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After five years, people in the control group experienced an expected 3 percent decrease of telomere length. “However, for those in the lifestyle medicine group, telomere length actually increased by 10 percent. The Lancet Oncology editors described this as ‘reversing aging at a cellular level,’ the first controlled study documenting that any intervention could lengthen telomeres.” The study also showed a dose-response —“the more people changed their lifestyle, the longer their telomeres grew.”
Specific factors that increase telomerase and thereby lengthen telomeres are:
• Antioxidant-rich foods such as intensely colored fruit (e.g. berries) and vegetables (e.g. greens, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, red cabbage, red onions, sweet potatoes) are more effective than anything else.
• intensely flavored vegetables — herbs and spices
• stress reduction through activities such as mindful meditation and yoga
Factors that shorten telomeres and hasten aging include:
• consumption of refined grains, soda, meat, fish and dairy
• chronic emotional stress including loneliness (absence of loving relationships)
In summary, telomerase is the fountain of youth. Not that you will live forever if you optimize your lifestyle (most people wouldn’t want to anyway). But you might want to stack the deck in your favor for living a long, disease and disability-free life.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He gives a free presentation at 7 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Third Street Center in Carbondale; and is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718).
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