The Telomere Effect
Updated: May 29, 2021
These are some of my notes and personal thoughts on the book The Telomere Effect by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Dr. Elissa Epel(2017). This is not a book review or anything like that. These are literally the things that I bookmarked when I was reading along. These are the concepts that I found interesting and information that I might want to refer back to / dive deeper into at a later date.
This book covers cellular aging and provides insight on how you can adjust your lifestyle to live a long and healthy life.
Before getting into anything, it would helpful to know what the heck a telomere is and where they are located. The telomere is the end cap portion of a chromosome! This is all you need to know for now. Basically, you have your cell. Inside the cell is a nucleus. Inside the nucleus you will find chromosomes(among other things). Chromosomes are made up of genes. Genes are made up of DNA molecules. You can say then, that chromosomes are tightly coiled strands of DNA. A telomere is a segment of DNA at the end of the chromosome. Again, this is not crucial for understanding the underlying message of this book BUT after reading this post and coming to the understanding that everything from the thoughts you have and the decisions and actions you take in your life affect your body on a cellular level...it's really quite something to ponder on.
Healthy Cell Renewal and why you Need it
Telomerease: Telomeres can Grow!
Telomerase: No Elixir of Immortality
Start your Day with Gratitude and have Self Compassion
Telomere Maintenance (Meditation)
Protecting Yourself from Depression and Anxiety
Where you Place Your Attention Matters
The Cellular Benefits of Exercise
Shorter Telomeres are Handed Down
Health Span and Disease Span
Our lives can be segmented into two parts; a health span and a disease span. We all have a disease span. This this context disease refers to declining health. The disease span is an inevitable fate for everyone, it just depends on when you enter the disease span. Some people have a disease span that is condensed to the end of their life. They are able to enjoy a healthier quality of life for a longer period of time and decline is condensed into a shorter period. This is not referring to the length of life. Take 2 individuals that both live to 100 years old.
One might enter the disease span in their 50s, where as one might enter the span at 75. The individual who entered later is enjoying more healthier years. They both live to 100.
Nature vs. Nurture The real question is: Why do people age differently?
There are two schools of thought. Nature vs. Nurture
Nature is the idea that your health is mostly controlled by your genes. Some people believe that nature is the sole factor that determines aging. Conversely, there are many people who feel that "nurture" is more important than nature—meaning it’s not what you’re born with, it’s your health habits that really count. Which is correct? Nature or nurture? Genes or environment? Both are critical. It’s really the interaction between the two that matters most. You’re born with a particular set of genes BUT the way you live can influence how your genes express themselves.
It's important to consider your health on the cellular level because it gives you a better understanding of what premature cellular aging looks like and the damage it does to your body. These things are very much out of our awareness and most of the times people don't look at their health on this level.
Deep in the genetic heart of the cell you will find the chromosomes. This is where you’ll find telomeres. Telomeres are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes. Telomeres, which shorten with each cell division, help determine how fast your cells age and when they die, depending on how quickly they wear down. I know what you're thinking "I'm already (insert your age here) years old....my telomeres have been shortening this whole time!" Fear not, the ends of your chromosomes can actually lengthen. Aging is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed. Some aspects of aging can even be reversed. Aging doesn't have to be slippery slope toward insanity and decay. So we're going to get older but how we age is very much dependent on our cellular health.
Healthy Cell Renewal and why you Need it Two things to understand:
Cells reproduce by making copies of themselves
Normal human cells can divide a finite number of times before they die
Eventually after diving a bunch of times the cells get tired. These tired cells reached a stage called senescence. The cells are still alive but they had all stopped dividing, permanently. This is called the Hayflick limit. It is the natural limit that human cells have for dividing and the "stop switch" happens when telomeres become critically short.
Not all cells are subject to the Hayflick limit. Our bodies have cells that renew—including immune, bone, gut, lung, liver, skin, hair, pancreatic cells; and the cells that line our cardiovascular systems. They need to divide over and over and over to keep our bodies healthy. Renewing cells include some types of normal cells that can divide like immune
cells. There are also progenitor cells, which can keep dividing even longer
and stem cells, which can divide indefinitely as long as they are healthy. Cells don’t always have a Hayflick limit because they have telomerase.
In some way, its good that cells eventually stop dividing. If they just keep on multiplying, cancer can ensue. The tired cells(the ones that divided a bunch of times) are not harmless—they are bewildered and weary. They get their signals confused and they don’t send the right messages to other cells. They can’t do their jobs as well as they used to. This is when your tissues start to age.
Shoelace Analogy The protective tips at the ends of shoelaces are called aglets. The aglets are there to keep shoelaces from fraying. Imagine that your shoelaces are your chromosomes (the structures inside your cells that carry your genetic information). The aglets are your Telomeres! Your telomeres are measured in units of DNA known as base pairs. They form little caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. They are the aglets of aging. But telomeres tend to shorten over time.
Telomerease: Telomeres can Grow!
Telomerase is the enzyme responsible for restoring the DNA lost during cell divisions. Telomerase makes and replenishes telomeres. Telomerase replenishes telomeres by adding telomeric DNA to them. Each time a cell divides the telomeres gradually shorten until they reach a point that signals cell division to stop. BUT telomerase counteracts this telomere shortening by adding DNA and building back the chromosome end each time a cell divides. This means that the chromosome itself is protected and an accurate copy of it is made for the new cell. The cell can continue to renew itself. Telomerase can slow, prevent, or even reverse the shortening of telomeres that comes with cell division.
Telomerase: No Elixir of Immortality When I was reading this book my first thought was "I need more telomerase!" and "If I can get more telomerase I can prolong my life!" because so far what I've learned is that longer telomeres and more telomerase delayed premature cellular aging, and shortened telomeres and less telomerase speed it up.
It’s natural to wonder if we could extend our lives through artificial methods of increasing telomerase. Telomerase is not a magical life extender. Contrarily, if you try to extend your life by using artificial methods of increasing telomerase you are putting your health at risk.
If you get too much telomerase in the wrong cells at the wrong time, the telomerase begins to fuel the kind of uncontrolled cell growth that is a hallmark of cancer. Cancer is, basically, cells that won’t stop dividing.
Can the way we live change our telomeres and telomerase?
Our life experiences and the way we respond to those events, can change the lengths of our telomeres. We can change the way we age at the most elemental, cellular level.
Start your Day with Gratitude and have Self Compassion
It was observed that women who wake up with feelings of joy have more telomerase in their CD8 immune cells. Also, their waking cortisol peak is lower than women who wake up without joy or with dread. Start the day with gratitude. Upon waking take a minute or two to feel an elevated emotion like love, joy, inspiration and experience gratitude.
“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.”
Telomere Maintenance (Meditation):
Research suggests that meditation may help your telomeres grow. When practiced regularly, it can help soothe negative thought patterns, help you connect more deeply with other people, and in some cases increase your sense of life purpose. People who practice meditation or loving-kindness meditation have longer telomeres than nonmeditators. Though it is not certain if it is the meditation that is causes this or if meditators generally have different values, lifestyles and behaviors. A range of mind/body activities— like yogic meditation and Qigong have both been found to promote better telomere maintenance.
Depression and Anxiety: Depression and anxiety is not all in your head. Diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease develop earlier and faster in people with depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety reaches far beyond your mind, beyond the systems of your body, beyond your organs, beyond your bloodstream -- it affects you on a cellular level.
Anxiety: Anxiety is excessive dread or worry about the future.
People who struggle with anxiety tend to have significantly shorter telomeres. The longer someone struggles with anxiety, the shorter the telomeres. However, when the anxiety is resolved and the person feels better and telomeres eventually return to a normal length.
Depression: People with depression, like the people with anxiety show similar cellular effects. The more severe and prolonged the depression the shorter the telomeres. I found the next part quite interesting. There are a few studies which suggest that short telomeres may directly lead to depression. People with depression have shorter telomeres in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays an important role in depression. They don’t have shorter telomeres in other parts of the brain, just this part that is so crucial for mood.
Stress can lead to less telomerase in the brain’s hippocampus and less brain cell growth(neurogenesis)….which makes you more likely to develop depression. When telomerase is increased there is more brain cell growth and depression lifts.
Thus, cell aging in the brain may be one pathway to depression.
Protecting Yourself from Depression and Anxiety
If you want to protect your telomeres you need to protect yourself from the effects of depression and anxiety. These disorders ARE partially influenced by genes but that does not mean everything is out of your control.
Depression is a complex illness that lives in the emotions, thoughts, and body. For better understanding, lets deconstruct this a bit... depression is partly a dysfunctional response to stress. Instead of just feeling the stress, depressed people tend to cope by using some of the negative thought patterns. Take an example of an adult that was constantly put down as a child by their parents. The child was made to feel like they are inadequate and unworthy. This child becomes and adult now. The adults brain is more developed is now capable to processing some of the hurtful experiences from their childhood. They try to suppress the feelings of sadness so that they won't be deeply felt, or they keep their problems alive by ruminating about them over and over and over. In those quiet moments when they are not preoccupied with something, they will replay those events from their childhood in their head.
They might criticize themselves and tell themselves they are inadequate / unworthy. They set up road blocks for themselves and convince themselves that they can't achieve certain things. They feel irritable and angry, not just at whatever circumstances have caused their sorrow and stress, but at the fact of feeling sorrow and stress. For example, they might feel stuck in life because they want to move forward in life but they are unable to due to being paralyzed by sadness. Even if the opportunities and conditions for betterment are there. It is a cycle that spirals downwards.
This is a set of dysfunctional responses. Completely understandable but dysfunctional. Negative thoughts are like micro toxins. In low quantities they are relatively harmless. In high quantities they are poisonous to your mind. Negative thoughts are not signs that you are truly unworthy or a failure. They are the substance of depression itself.
Where you Place Your Attention Matters
"What if nothing is really wrong with you, except your thoughts that are insisting otherwise? "
When you're feeling sad, you naturally try to think your way out of it. You notice the gap between how you feel and how you want to feel. You start to live in that gap. You wish things could be different. This book suggests that mindfulness practices are very powerful in the fight against this great threat to your telomeres, major depression. It’s been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant. I didn't pick up too much about cognitive therapy from this book but I do believe in the power of mindfulness. Mindfulness has many aspects: focusing on the now, selective attention, decreasing rumination, decentering(putting distance between thoughts and feelings) and enhanced self compassion. Things like meditation, hatha yoga, and breathwork are very important.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist who studied grief and mourning, once said,
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
The Cellular Benefits of Exercise
When you exercise you spend less time in the toxic state known as oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress begins with a free radical(a molecule that is missing an electron).
A free radical is unstable and craves the missing electron, so it swipes one from another molecule— which is now unstable itself and needs to steal a replacement electron of its own.
Oxidative stress is a state that can propagate through a cell’s molecular population. It’s associated with aging and onset of the disease span: cardiovascular disease, cancer, lung problems, arthritis, diabetes, macular degeneration, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Our cells also contain antioxidants, which offer natural protection against oxidative stress. Antioxidants are molecules that can donate an electron to a free radical but still remain stable. When an antioxidant gives an electron to a free radical, the chain reaction ends.
In an ideal situation, your cells have enough antioxidants to keep up with the need to neutralize free radicals in your body. Free radicals will never be completely eradicated from our bodies. They are continuously being made by the very processes of life—they occur normally through metabolism.
Radicals can also be created in excess when you’re exposed to environmental stresses like radiation and smoking, or to severe depression. The danger seems to occur when free radicals build up. And when you have more free radicals than antioxidants, you enter an imbalanced state of oxidative stress.
That’s one reason exercise is so valuable. In the short term, exercise actually causes an increase in free radicals because you’re taking in more oxygen. Most of those oxygen molecules are used to create energy from special chemical reactions in the mitochondria in your cells, but a by-product of these vital processes is that some of them also form free radicals. The body steps up by producing more antioxidants. The physical stress of moderate-intensity regular exercise ultimately improves the antioxidant–free radical balance so that your cells can stay healthier. Your cells soak up the benefits of exercise in other ways as well. Regular exercise causes the cells in your adrenal cortex (located inside your adrenal glands) release less cortisol (stress hormone). With less cortisol, you feel calmer. Regular exercise causes the cells throughout your body become more sensitive to insulin, which means your blood sugar will be more stable. You can avoid the midlife trifecta (stress, belly weight gain, high blood sugar) by exercising.
Exercise and Immunosenescence
Exercise can keep you in the health span longer. Immunosenescence is a part of aging. Remember that cellular senescence is when the cell gets bewildered and tired and becomes incapable of division and growth. I mentioned it above, but the senescence cells are not harmless. Senescent cells cause higher circulatory levels of proinflammatory cytokines which are molecules that can spread inflammation through the body. Yes, this will happen to all of us eventually but people who exercise may be able to delay it until the end of life. Take a look at my diagram at the start of this post showing the two health span / disease span scenarios, a person that exercises will likely be leaning towards the first scenario.
It’s not just that exercise is helpful; it is also known that sedentariness itself is terrible for metabolic health. Several studies have found that sedentary people have shorter telomeres than people who are even a little more active.
Why types of exercise?
The recommendation in this book is HIIT and moderate aerobic endurance exercise 3 times a week. However, all forms of exercise led to improvements in telomere associated proteins (such as telomere-protecting protein TRF2) and reduced an important marker of cellular aging known as p16. They also found that regardless of exercise type, those who increased their aerobic fitness the most had greater increases in telomerase activity. This tells us it’s the underlying cardiovascular fitness that matters most.
Exercise Switches on Autophagy Another reason exercise is good for telomeres because it prevents stress from causing some of its usual damage. The stress response can leave behind cellular damage and debris—but exercise switches on autophagy, the housekeeping activity in the cell that eats up those damaged molecules and recycles them.
People with belly fat are more likely to have more insulin resistance and diabetes.
Inactivity, stress and poor nutrition are all associated with belly fat and higher levels of blood sugar. Interestingly, people with belly fat develop shorter telomeres over time and it’s very possible that these short telomeres worsen the insulin resistance problem. There is a well established connection between short telomeres and diabetes.
Belly fat can lead to diabetes via chronic inflammation. Abdominal fat is more inflammatory than other fats in the body. Belly fat cells secrete proinflammatory substances that damage the cells of the immune system, making them senescent and shortening their telomeres. Senescent cells can’t stop sending out proinflammatory signals of their own so it starts a nasty cycle.
This is how type 2 diabetes develops: in a healthy person, the digestive system breaks food down into glucose. The beta cells in the pancreas make a hormone(insulin) which is released into the bloodstream and allows glucose to enter the body’s cells to be used as fuel.
Insulin binds to receptors on the cells (like a key fitting into a lock). The lock turns, the door opens, and glucose can enter the body’s cells. Too much belly or liver fat can cause your cells to not respond to insulin the way they should (insulin resistance). The locks(insulin receptors)— get gummed up; and the key(insulin) no longer works. Nothing opened the doors so its difficult for glucose to enter the cells. The glucose floats around in the bloodstream. Your pancreas makes more insulin and the blood sugar continues to float around in the bloodstream. Type 1 diabetes is related to failure of the beta cells in the pancreas; they can’t produce enough insulin. You’re at risk for metabolic syndrome. And if your body can’t keep glucose in the normal range, diabetes results.
Sugar People used to think all nutrients had similar effects on weight and metabolism.
“a calorie is a calorie”—this is wrong. Reducing sugars, even if you eat the same number of calories, can lead to metabolic improvements. Simple carbohydrates wreak more havoc on our metabolism and control over appetite than other types of foods. I can certainly attest to this from personal experience with keto. I've cut sugars for 1 year and 200 days and my weight and overall wellness has improved tremendously.
Three Cellular Enemies:
These things are toxic for cellular health and telomeres.
Avoid sugars and alcohol.
Eat your leafy greens because they contain flavonoids and/or carotenoids, a broad class of chemicals that gives plants pigment. They are also especially high in anthocyanins and flavonols, subclasses of flavonoids that are related to lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress.
Shorter Telomeres are Handed Down How your parents lived before you were conceived affected probably their telomeres. It may have also affected yours. If your parents’ telomeres were shortened by chronic stress, poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, chemical exposures, or other factors, they may have passed their shortened telomeres to you through direct transmission in the womb. There is even the possibility that you, could pass those shortened telomeres to your own children. Your choices have effects that echo through the generations.
Protein Animal research suggests that modest protein deprivation in pregnancy causes accelerated telomere shortening in the offspring in a number of tissues, including the reproductive tract, and can lead to earlier mortality. The effect was again seen to transmit through generations.
This book mentions that CoQ should be put on the list of nutrients for further study due their potentially positive effects on telomeres. It doesn't really get into too much detail but I am making a note of it because it's something that I have supplemented in the past. CoQ is a natural antioxidant that is found mostly in our mitochondria. A CoQ deficit has been associated with faster aging of the cardiovascular system.
We all strive for a long life of good health and wellbeing. Lifestyle, mental health, and environment all contribute significantly to physical health...we all know this. What this book is saying is that telomeres are impacted by these factors. The fact that we see the generational impacts of these influences makes the message of telomeres all the more urgent. Our genes are like computer hardware; we cannot change them. Our epigenome, of which telomeres are a part, is like software, which requires programming. We are the programmers of the epigenome. By controlling those lifestyle factors, we control the chemical signals that code the changes. Our telomeres are responsive. They are listening and calibrating to the current circumstances in the world. Together we can improve the programming code.
Key Points / The Manifesto
At the end of the book they did a really good job of bringing all the key points together in one place.