Have you wondered why some 60-year-olds look and feel like 40-year-olds and why some 40-year-olds look and feel like 60-year-olds? While many factors contribute to aging and illness, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn discovered a biological indicator called telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres, which protect our genetic heritage. Authors Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn’s and Dr. Elissa Epel’s research shows that the length and health of one’s telomeres are a biological underpinning of the long-hypothesized mind-body connection. They and other scientists have found that changes we can make to our daily habits can protect our telomeres and increase our health spans (the number of years we remain healthy, active, and disease-free).
Their book, The Telomere Effect, reveals how Blackburn and Epel’s findings, together with research from colleagues around the world, cumulatively show that sleep quality, exercise, aspects of diet, and even certain chemicals profoundly affect our telomeres and that chronic stress, negative thoughts, strained relationships, and even the wrong neighborhoods can eat away at them.
Telomeres are like the caps at the end of your shoelaces that protect them from fraying, Blackburn explained, but on the tips of our chromosomes. People with longer telomeres have lower death rates from cancers and some diseases. Long-term stress or negative thinking can actually shorten your telomere length, while different types of meditation appear to strengthen them, Epel said. Telomeres appear to respond to what’s going on in your life, the authors say.
“Telomeres are listening to your thoughts,” Blackburn said. Which is why, of the approximately 65,000 thoughts our mind processes a day, it helps to be aware of the negative and positive styles of thought.
“So if we actually become aware of our style and these thoughts, we can laugh at them, we can take away their power to stress at ourselves,” Epel said. “So pessimism, hostility, these make us more vulnerable to all of these negative thoughts. So short telomeres are related to these styles.”
If telomeres are the canaries in our cells, and like those caged birds, they are captive in our bodies and vulnerable to our environment and life habits. What can you do to help keep your telomeres healthy? Try some of Blackburn’s and Epel’s tips:
- Telomeres tell us not to focus on weight. Instead, use your level of belly protrusion and insulin sensitivity as an index of health. (Your doctor can measure your insulin sensitivity by testing your fasting insulin and glucose.)
- Obsessing about calories is stressful and possibly bad for your telomeres.
- Eating and drinking low-sugar, low-glycemic-index food and beverages will boost your inner metabolic health, which is what really matters (more than weight).
- Simply reducing sugars, even if you eat the same number of calories, can lead to metabolic improvements.
- Get enough sleep!
- There are so many chemicals in our lives – in the air, soil, food, and products we use. Create healthy, supportive environments in your home and in your neighborhood.
- Meditate or find ways to relax and destress.
- And don’t try to make too many changes at once. Take small steps each day to make permanent changes in your habits.