by Bianca Garilli, ND
Telomeres are the DNA-protein caps found at both ends of eukaryotic chromosomes. They serve to protect the chromosome from degradation, unnecessary recombination, deleterious repairs at the chromosome ends, and interchromosomal fusion.1-3 In summary, they function to preserve the stability of the genome.1-3
The length of the cell’s telomeres shorten with every cell division and, upon reaching a critical length, trigger the cell to either undergo the process of apoptosis (programmed cell death) or senescence (cells stop dividing and enter state of permanent growth arrest). This natural cycle indicates that cells possess a limited number of divisions. Telomeres, in essence, serve as a cell’s “biological clock,” influencing the lifespan of the cell and the organism overall.2,4 The shorter the telomere, the shorter the remaining lifespan, and, in humans, shorter telomere length is associated with an increased risk of chronic illness development, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancers.1,2
Diet and lifestyle are known to also play a major role in the development of these aforementioned chronic diseases begging the question: Do diet and lifestyle influence the timeframe of telomere shortening?
In fact, there is a rapidly growing body of evidence supporting the idea that the way one lives their daily life and particularly the dietary quality one regularly consumes will influence how long they live and their quality of life. Hippocrates observed over 2000 years ago, “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”5 Today, research continues to validate Hippocrates’ statement, underscoring the value of following a back-to-nature, common sense approach to living.
Recent research demonstrates the significance of foods, food groups, or specific nutrients in foods in supporting telomere health, by facilitating a deceleration of telomere shortening.4,6-10 Below are several studies to consider as “food for thought” on this subject, which examine how individual dietary factors influence telomere length, positively or adversely.
Dietary Components and Telomeres
In a cross-sectional study of 5,582 nationally representative women and men participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2002, DNA was obtained through blood samples to assess telomere length; 24-hour diet recalls were reviewed to estimate nut and seed consumption. Analysis indicated a positive association between the consumption of nuts and seeds and telomere length.Each 1% of total energy derived from nuts and seeds correlated with a telomere length that was 5 base pairs longer than participants who were not consuming the same amount of nuts and seeds. Given this relationship, with 5% of total energy from nuts and seeds, an individual would expect to have >1.5 years of reduced cell aging.
Dietary, lifestyle information, and telomere length were assessed in 56 healthy Italian adults. Higher consumption of vegetables was significantly related to higher telomere length. Study researchers found additional associations between the micronutrient content of the diets and telomere length, with a focus on the important role of antioxidant intake, particularly beta-carotene, on telomere length maintenance.
In a recent cross-sectional NHANES study published in Nutrients utilizing a sample of 5,674 US adults, fiber consumption (quantified via a 24-hour dietary recall) and telomere lengths of individuals were measured and analyzed. The relationship between fiber intake per 1000 kcal and telomere length was positive and linear: each 1 gram increment in fiber intake per 1000 kcal was associated with an increase in telomere length of 8.3 bases. Each year of chronological age was associated with a shortening of telomeres by 15.5 base pairs, so researchers extrapolated that a 10 gram increase in fiber intake per 1000 kcal would be equivalent to telomeres that were 83 base pairs longer, corresponding to 5.4 fewer years of biological aging. Even when the results were adjusted for smoking, BMI, alcohol use, and physical activity, it was still found that each 10 gram increment in fiber per 1000 kcal corresponded to telomeres that were 67 base pairs longer, pointing to 4.3 fewer years of biological aging. Results from this study underscore the importance of high fiber intake as a critical component of diet for long-term health and longevity.
Information derived from 5,309 healthy adults participating in NHANES analyses indicates that each daily 8-ounce serving of sugar sweetened soda (SSS) is roughly comparable to 1.9 years of aging; this relationship was observed across sociodemographic groups and when considering other health-related variables. In the US it is estimated that typical servings of SSS are 20 ounces, and >20% of the adults in this study reported consuming at least this amount of SSS per day.
Other lifestyle factors have also been considered for their impact on telomeres. For example, moderate or vigorous levels of physical activity is associated with longevity (4.4 years of fewer years of aging)9 and smoking is associated with less life (4.6 years of additional years of aging).10
Diet quality and telomeres
But, back to food…diets are composed of a multitude of foods, some of which may be beneficial to telomere length, while others detrimental. People consume diets, not singular foods or food groups, thus research on the impact of dietary patterns and their quality on telomere length would be advantageous to create actionable recommendations.
To that end, a recent publication in The American Journal of Epidemiology studied data on diet quality (via 24-hour dietary recall) and leukocyte telomere length in a nationally representative sample of 4,758 healthy adults aged 20-65 years.1 Four evidence-based diet scores were examined: Healthy Eating Index 2010 (HEI-10), Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 (AHEI-2010), the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) score, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) score.1 Although each dietary pattern uses its own scoring system (HEI-10 is scored out of 100 points, AHEI-2010: out of 110 points, MedDiet: out of 55 points, DASH: out of 50 points), in all diets, the higher the score the more healthful and higher quality it is considered.1
Interestingly, outcomes between dietary quality scores and telomere lengths varied by gender.1 In women, higher diet quality scores in all 4 dietary patterns were significantly associated with longer telomere lengths (recall, longer is better), and these associations persisted when BMI and waist circumference were controlled for in the analyses. In contrast, there were no significant associations observed in men, although a non-significant, positive trend with DASH scores and longer telomere lengths was shown.1
Using the age-associated rate of telomere shortening of 14.6 base pairs per year, the data demonstrated that improvements in diet quality scores corresponded to healthier cellular aging (i.e., longevity) in women, specifically:1
In summary, the current literature on diet quality and patterns and deceleration of telomere shortening indicates the positive influence of increased consumption of “healthful” food choices including high fiber, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and plant-based proteins; and lower intake of red and processed meats, sodium, and added sugars.1,4,6,7 These results may hold particular merit for women, but further research will shed more light on potential gender differences in telomere science.1 Partnering with a HCP to create and implement a personalized, sustainable diet plan is the ideal goal.
Bianca Garilli, ND
Dr. Garilli is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor (ND). She works in private practice in Northern California as well as running a consulting company working with leaders in the natural and functional medicine world such as the Institute for Functional Medicine and Metagenics. She is passionate about optimizing health and wellness in individuals, families, companies and communities- one lifestyle change at a time. Dr. Garilli has been on staff at the University of California Irvine, Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and is faculty at Hawthorn University. She is the creator of the Veterans for Health Initiative and is the current President of the Children’s Heart Foundation, CA Chapter.