Dr. Elissa Epel on Telomeres and the Role of Stress Biology in Cellular Aging – Found My Fitness with Dr. Rhonda Patrick

Check out the Found My Fitness Episode Page & Show Notes

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Key Takeaways

  • The Background
    • Telomeres are structures comprised of short sequences of DNA nucleotides present on the ends of our chromosomes
      • They protect the chromosomes/genome from damage
    • Telomere length is a useful biomarker associated with aging
      • Telomeres shorten every year of your life as a function of cell division
  • What kinds of things accelerate the shortening of telomeres?
    • A negative environment (excess stress – resulting from things like job loss, financial difficulties, trauma, or domestic violence)
    • Excess chemical exposure to BPAs, Roundup, and heavy metals
    • Exposure to high levels of air pollution
  • How can you delay or even reverse telomere shortening?
    • Avoid eating processed meats, sugary drinks, and high-sugar foods
    • Eat more fiber
    • Exercise frequently
    • Avoid smoking 
  • It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to consider the health of both the mother AND father prior to conceiving a child
    • Stress (resulting from things like job loss and financial difficulties) during pregnancy (as well as the year prior to giving birth) is associated with shorter telomeres in the offspring
    • One study found that the expression of over 500 genes in the sperm of obese men was altered compared to that of healthy men (genes having to due with metabolism, cognitive function, etc.)
    • Why does telomere length at birth matter?
      • It’s one of the biggest determinants of telomere length later in life
  • In Summary
    • Small, moderate health behaviors add up over decades to improve longevity, contribute to better telomere length, and reduce inflammation

Intro

  • Dr. Elissa Epel (@Dr_Epel) is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco
    • She serves in many roles, including Director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center
    • Elissa is also the co-author of The Telomere Effect

What are telomeres?

  • Distinct structures comprised of short sequences of DNA nucleotides present on the ends of our chromosomes
    • They protect the chromosomes/genome from damage
    • (Think of them like the plastic end caps of shoelaces that keep shoelaces from fraying)
  • Telomere length is one of the useful biomarkers associated with aging
    • Telomeres shorten every year of your life as a function of cell division
  • Telomerase is a special telomere rebuilding enzyme

Lifespan vs. Healthspan

  • Healthspan – how long you’re “healthy”
  • Lifespan – how long you live
    • On average, men in the Unites States live until 78 while women live until age 83 (this is seen across all cultures and countries)
  • Why do women live longer than men? …
    • It’s thought that higher levels of estrogen may be protective to the heart
    • Men tend to partake in more risky behaviors
    • Women have longer telomeres starting at birth and in general just age slower
    • Estrogen upregulates telomerase and improves mitochondrial health

You Need to Treat the Root

  • We’re doing okay at preventing death from a variety of diseases (like heart disease)
    • BUT obesity is on the rise – there’s no denying it and we can’t control it
  • “If you’re living a toxic lifestyle, if you’re sedentary and eating a junk food diet, the medication you’re taking won’t outweigh those lifestyle factors”
    • (Like taking metformin – a drug for diabetes) – You HAVE to treat the root
    • You can’t take metformin as a diabetic and continue drinking 3 Mountain Dews a day

What is the “aging process”?

  • From the day you’re born, there are cellular processes and mechanisms going on that wear down with poor health and age
    • Aging biology = the difference between how quickly these processes wear down vs. chronological time
  • When it comes down to it – aging is one of the main causes of many diseases developed later in life

What controls how fast we age?

  • Your activity, nutrition, and stress levels
    • These add up over time, so they’re important to manage well
    • Just avoid the toxic things – smoking, sitting too much, and leaving stress unchecked
  • A healthy lifestyle in midlife predicts longer telomeres and longevity decades later

Telomeres and Aging

  • As we age, our telomeres shorten
    • When telomeres get too short, they prevent a particular cell from dividing (so telomere length is essentially a window into how long a particular cell can continue to divide)
  • In general, long telomeres predict less metabolic disease
    • BUT longer telomeres are associated with a greater risk of certain cancers (glioma, melanoma, and several others)

The Telomerase Enzyme

  • This is an enzyme that can rebuild telomeres by adding back base pairs
  • The level of telomerase you have in your blood cells correlates to your metabolic health
  • Cancer cells have 10x the amount of telomerase as normal/healthy cells
    • Hence, they’re essentially “immortal” and can keep on dividing

How the Environment Affects Telomere Length

  • A negative environment is associated with shorter telomeres (a poor neighborhood, a poor diet consisting of junk and processed food, being exposed to lots of stress or domestic violence, etc.)
  • There’s growing research showing that excess chemical exposure is associated with shorter telomeres – what kind of chemicals?
    • BPAs
    • Roundup
    • Heavy meals such as cadmium and lead
      • (These tend to be high in both chocolate and rice)
  • Exposure to high levels of air pollution is also associated with shorter telomeres

Food and Telomere Length

  • “Whole foods and eating a healthy diet are directly related to longer telomeres”
  • What types of food should you avoid to optimize telomere length?
    • Processed meat
    • Sugary drinks
      • “Liquid sugar has more of an effect than sugar in food”
      • “If you’re drinking sugary drinks every day, you should expect to have your biological aging process accelerated”
    • High-sugar foods
  • Frequently consuming caffeinated coffee is associated with longer telomeres

Stress

  • Toxic stress is causing disregulated health and depression (and shorter telomeres)
    • NOT necessarily the mild stress associated with work (like time pressure, having too much to do, etc.)
    • Toxic stress = trauma
      • “Having traumatic experiences as a child sets you sets up to feel threat responses much more in your brain and body”
  • To add…
    • Elevated “perseverative thought processes” accelerate biomarkers of aging, telomere length, and inflammation
      • This is when you wake up and you’re already worried about the day/feeling anxious
      • Compare this to people who wake up in a positive mood/are looking forward to the day
      • You might also think of this as waking up in a pessimistic state
        • “Pessimism is related to shorter telomeres”
      • Rhonda has found that intense exercise tends to alleviate anxiety/pessimism 

Why the Health of BOTH the Mother and Father Matters Before and During Pregnancy

  • It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to consider the health of both the mother and father prior to conceiving a child
    • Telomere length at birth is impacted by the mother’s physical and mental health
      • Stress (like job loss, financial difficulties, etc.) during pregnancy (as well as the year prior to giving birth) is associated with shorter telomeres in the offspring
    • The health of the father when conceiving also plays a role in the offspring’s telomere length
      • A study published a few years back examined the sperm DNA of obese vs. healthy men
        • The expression of over 500 genes in the sperm of the obese men was altered (genes having to due with metabolism, cognitive function, etc.)
  • Prior to getting pregnant, Rhonda and her husband focused on:
    • Getting adequate micronutrients
    • Getting enough protein
    • Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids
    • Exercising
    • Mitigating stress
  • A bit about sperm:
    • Sperm cells are a little different – the longer they’re around and replicate, the longer the telomeres
      • Older father have sperm with longer telomeres (resulting in longer telomeres in the offspring)
  • Why does telomere length at birth matter?
    • It’s one of the biggest determinants of telomere length later in life
      • So in effect – the longer your telomere length at birth, the better chance you have at living a longer, healthier life

How can you delay or even reverse telomere shortening?

  • There are telomerase-activating supplements like TA 65 (but it hasn’t been studied)
  • Omega-3 supplements should help (they also aid with reducing depression and inflammation)
  • Optimal serum vitamin D levels (40-60 ng/mL) is positively correlated with longer telomeres
  • There is a good amount of research showing that getting good nutrition, adequate exercise, and adequate sleep is positively correlated with longer telomeres
    • With exercise – do what you can of course, but make sure to fit it in in whatever way possible
  • Eat healthier – aim to reduce fluctuations in blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity by eating less simple sugars and MORE FIBER
    • As background – fiber tends to reduce spikes in blood sugar
      • This is why your blood sugar will spike more by drinking a coke compared to eating an apple
      • “The quicker the brain gets the hit of sugar, the faster it’s going to be pleasurable and addictive. So the more fiber you have, the slower the process. The more fiber they take out of processed foods, the better they sell.”
    • (Higher BMI is associated with shorter telomere length)

What about meditation?

  • If it reduces stress, it probably has a positive impact on telomere length 
  • The best meditation is the one you stick to
    • “Do something every day that’s small and manageable that you can paper clip to other behaviors”
      • For example – if you have a stressful commute, use part of it to do some sort of breathing exercise 

Wrapping Up

  • “Small, moderate health behaviors add up over decades to improve longevity, contribute to better telomere length, and reduce inflammation”
    • DO WHAT YOU CAN

Additional Notes

  • Some people, when they eat dietary fat, experience a spike in their blood glucose levels (this is thought to be genetic)
  • There is a positive correlation between your level of education and telomere length
  • It hasn’t yet been studied how microbiome health is related to telomere length
  • To learn more about testing your telomere length, read this
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