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What are telomeres, and what do they have to do with stress and aging?

Pretty much everyone agrees, being stressed is a very unpleasant feeling.

And even under normal circumstances (barring global pandemics and economic crises), stress happens. It’s when that stress becomes chronic (and isn’t addressed) that it starts to have a profound impact on our health, and not-so-incidentally, the length of our telomeres.

What are telomeres, anyway?

Telomeres are protective casings made of genetic material that cap the ends of the interwoven strands of DNA that make up a chromosome. These "caps" protect chromosomes from deterioration and fusion with nearby chromosomes (both things best avoided). You might think of them as the plastic tips on shoelaces that keep them from fraying and unraveling.

As we grow older, telomeres naturally become shorter, but some people go through this process more quickly than others. Several factors (including stress and an unhealthy diet) can accelerate this process. And the end result isn’t exactly desirable—faster ageing, visible in the state of people’s skin, and a myriad of associated risks such as higher incidence of certain types of cancer, over 30 different metabolic and inflammatory diseases and a shorter lifespan in humans (and mice).

So now that we’ve established what telomeres are and why they matter in the big scheme of overall health, what can we do to take better care of them?

In a sentence: handle stress. In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Elissa Epel, co-director of the University of California San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism and Emotional Research Center, says:

Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it, but chronic stress and cortisol exposure decrease your supply. When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the ageing process in motion, along with associated health risks.

But are there any specific actions we can take to handle stress and protect our telomeres moving forward?

Taking care of your telomeres (and handling stress)

1. Eat a Mediterranean diet.

Incorporate more vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, unrefined grains and olive oil and fish and consume less dairy, meat and poultry. Studies show eating this way is linked with longer telomeres, not to mention health benefits such as reduced mortality and lower risk of chronic diseases.

Eating healthy fats and vegetables (like those included in the Mediterranean diet) has also been shown to help people manage stress. Read more about how what you eat can help you combat daily stress in our blog post about Stress-fighting foods.

2. Embrace mindfulness.

Not only is this centuries-old practice clinically proven to help people handle stress, psychologists have found that it changes our brains and biologies in positive ways that improve our mental and physical health. Meditation has even been directly associated with increased telomere length.

A meta-analysis of mindfulness-based therapy showed it to be especially effective in reducing stress. If you need help getting started, try Foundations' Mindful minutes to engage your senses and find some calm by focusing on the present moment.

@itsmiki5 via Unsplash

3. Exercise regularly:

Beyond the obvious physical benefits, according to Harvard Health, regular exercise lowers levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in your body. It’s also been linked to the reduced weakening of telomeres, known as attrition.

Last but not least, exercise stimulates the production of your body’s natural pain relievers and mood elevators, aka endorphins. And pretty much any type of physical activity will bring you some benefits—a short walk or a vigorous session on the elliptical or even an impromptu dance party in your living room will all do the trick.

4. Get more rest.

To be able to handle the day-to-day stresses of your job, your obligations at home, and life in general, your body needs sufficient high-quality restper medical evidence, around 7 to 9 hours nightly. Without it, not only are you more likely to feel fatigued and fuzzy-headed, you’re putting your telomeres at risk, as sleep deprivation affects your body all the way down to a cellular level.

According to Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn’s The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, people who get 7 or more hours of sleep have significantly longer telomeres than people who get 5 or less. If you’re having persistent problems getting proper rest, you may want to look into calming audios, or sleep techniques—there are lots of useful, evidence-based options in the Foundations library.

Are stress and aging issues you’re concerned about? What are you doing to take care of your telomeres and handle stress? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.