The idea of a fountain of youth has been dreamed of since the beginning of time. It is said to be a mythical spring that can restore the youth of anyone who drinks its waters. Stories from ancient Ethiopia tell of special waters that, when consumed, lead to exceptional longevity. Alexander the Great was said to have crossed the deep forests of present-day Turkey in an attempt to find a restorative spring. Even today, films like the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise feature a quest for a fountain of youth.
Though this concept seems like a daydream from a creative imagination, we are far closer to a fountain of youth than most care to realize. In fact the Chinese have had a powerful tonic at work for them for thousands of years, doing something that western science has only just put its finger on.
What keeps us all alive and ticking is cell division. All the different cell types in our body are dividing constantly, as old worn out cells replace themselves with new and healthy cells. Chromosomes are the blueprint of our physical lives; they contain the recipe for our genes in the form of DNA. Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of those chromosomes (similar to the plastic tip of a shoelace).
Each time an old cell divides to create a new one, a small piece of that tip breaks off and the “plastic tip” begins to fray. This leaves the DNA of our cells vulnerable to genetic damage and dysfunction. Consequently, every cell in our body has a limited number of times it can replace itself. Once the protective telomere breaks down, you start to see the symptoms of aging appear.
All of the major factors associated with the aging of our cells can be linked to the shortening of telomeres. These include: high blood sugar, free radicals, inflammation, and mental stress. All play a role in the shortening of that protective barrier on our genes.
In dealing with telomere shortening we have two options, prevention or reversal. If we want to prevent the rapid loss of our telomeres, we have options that are not just good for our cells but our bodies as a whole. To regenerate new telomeres we need to promote the generation of an enzyme called telomerase. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine for their discovery of the enzyme telomerase and its relationship to aging. Many of the preventive steps to protect our telomeres also generate telomerase and help promote healthy new cells.
Strategies for Protecting Telomeres
Diet and Supplementation: one way that our body maintains healthy DNA is through the process of methylation. In simple terms, methylation is a process by which certain chemicals called ‘methyl groups’ are added to various constituents of proteins, DNA, and other molecules. These chemical groups are used to keep them in good ‘working’ condition by preventing telomeres from getting too short; this prevents genetic mutations to DNA.
- Researchers reporting in The Journal of Nutrition found that high blood levels of folate (800 mcg each day), plus vitamin B12 (500 to 1000 mcg daily) along with all of the B vitamins are linked to longer telomeres.
- In addition, proteins from nuts and seeds can be potent methyl group donors. (Editor’s note: For maximum benefit, raw nuts are better than roasted because heat damages the volatile oils and other nutrients in nuts.)
- Vitamin C has been shown to slow the shortening of telomeres at doses between 1 – 3 grams daily.
- Research on the minerals zinc (25-50 mg per day) and magnesium (400-800 mg per day) show that they are vital to DNA replication during cell division. A lack of these nutrients can lead to DNA damage and telomere shortening.
- Mixed tocotrienols (a full spectrum form of Vitamin E) at a dose of 400 to 800 IU per day can actually restore the length of telomeres and prevent their loss by helping produce the enzyme telomerase.
Green tea: a 2010 study of elderly Chinese subjects found that increased green tea intake may be associated with a potential increase in lifespan through regulating telomere length. In this report, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, a total of 976 men and 1,030 women aged 65 and older were initially assessed in 2006. In addition to questions regarding lifestyle habits and diet, the blood of these research volunteers was tested for telomere length.
Following measurements of the average difference in telomere length between those who consumed the highest amount of green tea and those who consumed the lowest, the researchers determined a potential lifespan difference of five years between these two groups. The results of this study mainly favoured the telomeres of men, with less significant results being found in the female tea drinkers.
Chinese herbs: after screening over 250,000 different compounds in an attempt to find a way to boost telomerase production, scientists discovered a chemical in a Chinese herb that seems to fit the bill. Named TA65, this plant compound has preliminary research that is very promising, but with a price tag of $600 per bottle only those with deep pockets are able to purchase the capsules, while others are holding out for more research. The good news is that the herb that TA65 was isolated from is a common longevity tonic.
Astragalus membranaceus, commonly called Huang Qi in Mandarin, is an age old herb that the ancient Chinese used to put a spring in their step and boost resistance to illness. This is the herb that TA65 was isolated from, and every year something new comes out about the power of this plant. With its sweet taste and relatively mild overall flavour, it blends easily into soups and teas. Though the level of TA65 in a preventive daily dose of 10 grams of Astragalus is likely pretty small, it still works well in the prevention of a list of diseases. If combined with the previously mentioned diet/supplements, regular tea consumption, and meditation, Astragalus could go a long way to boost your lifespan and resistance to disease.
Meditation: the positive mental shifts that happen during a meditation session have been associated with greater production of telomerase. A study called the Shamatha Project measured telomerase levels as the end of a three-month intensive meditation retreat. Telomerase activity was about a third higher in the meditation group in comparison to a control group of individuals who did not meditate. The meditation group also found many beneficial psychological effects from meditation including a better sense of control, mindfulness, and a stronger understanding of long-term goals and values. Members also experienced a decrease in negative emotions and neurotic behaviour. The Shamatha Project is one of the most detailed studies to have ever been done on meditation.
As the old Chinese proverb goes, reading thousands of books is not as useful as walking thousands of miles. Knowing what we know about telomeres and health, let’s take steps to a better life for years to come. Pick up a good multivitamin, eat nutritious vegetables, fruits and nuts, sip a few cups of high quality green tea with extra Astragalus extract added, and ease your mind with a few moments of meditation daily. You never know what you might be giving to your mind, body, and cells.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Oct. 2012 issue