Stress is hard on you and your brain. Chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, poor decision-making, sleeplessness, and impaired memory. It can literally cause your brain to shrink!
But now it looks like the damage done by stress is even more serious than most people realize. Stress actually leads to premature aging on a cellular level causing cells in both your body and your brain to commit suicide prematurely.
To understand how this happens, we need to take a look at a part of your chromosomes called telomeres.
Telomeres – the Key to Aging
You may recall from high school biology that when a cell divides, it passes on the genetic material to the next cell via chromosomes. Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.
To the left is an image of real chromosomes with the telomeres dyed red.
Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter. They act as a built-in clock with a suicide switch. When they reach a critically shortened length, they tell the cell to stop dividing and the cell dies.
Age is considered the greatest risk factor for many diseases, but it’s not how many years you’ve lived but your biological age that matters. And telomere length may be the most important indicator of biological age and disease risk.
According to University of California researcher Calvin Harley, telomere length is a better predictor for your risk of getting age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than most conventional diagnostic tools. Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells and longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells.
The implications of this are HUGE! If you could stop telomere shrinkage, could you stop aging and avoid age-related diseases?
Stress and Telomere Length
The body is amazingly resilient. It turns out that yes, you can reverse telomere shrinkage. According to Elissa Eppel, another UC researcher, there is a strong mind-to-cell health relationship. Letting stress get the better of you is one of the worst things you can do if you want to keep your telomeres long.
Eppel’s definition of stress is what she refers to as “time traveling” — either dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Multi-tasking, ruminating, and exaggerating dangers, especially threats to the ego all increase cellular aging and shorten telomeres.
Her research has found that staying in the present has actually has been found to slow cellular aging and lengthen telomeres. Meditating, which specifically trains your brain to stay in the present, has been proven to increase telomere length and slow cell aging! Some proponents of meditation have considered it the fountain of youth, perhaps these claims weren’t so far out after all.
Here’s an enlightening and thought-provoking TEDMED video featuring Harley and Eppel discussing how psychological stress causes our cells to age by decreasing telomere length.
Following this talk, the audience submitted over 200 questions! You can get the answers to a few of them in their brief follow-up video.
Reversing Telomere Shrinkage
Besides stress-reduction, how else can you increase the length of your telomeres?
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD won the 2009 Nobel Prize for her research in this area. She reports that in studying the habits of people who have longer telomeres, research consistently shows that diets high in omega-3 essential fatty acids and physical exercise lengthen telomeres. (1) The exact process isn’t known, but exercise may help by mitigating the effects of stress.
Numerous other nutrients have been found to keep telomeres long.
- Individual vitamins such as B12, C, D and E have been shown to promote telomere length, but cover your bases with a good multivitamin supplement. Taking a multivitamin has been shown to improve telomere length. (2)
- Telomeres have been found to be particularly sensitive to free radical damage, so taking a potent antioxidant supplement can help. Astaxanthin has emerged as one of the most potent and beneficial antioxidants currently known, with potent anti-inflammatory and DNA-protective capabilities. (3)
- Magnesium is a mineral largely lacking from the modern diet. Adequate magnesium is necessary DNA replication and repair has been shown to positively correlate with increased telomere length.
- Polyphenols found in green tea protect DNA from oxidative stress and protect telomeres from damage. (4)
Protect Your Telomeres, Protect Your Brain
Unless you are new to this site, you’ll notice that the advice for protecting your telomeres sounds very similar to that for taking care your brain, so when you take steps to help one you’ll be helping the other. I think that’s what is referred to as a “two-fer”
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