How to Hack Your Telomeres to Slow Aging and Live Longer
What Are Telomeres?
You can control how young you look and feel simply by tapping into little-known power sources in your cells, new research reveals. Telomeres, tiny protein sheaths on the ends of your chromosomes, help keep your DNA in prime condition; studies have linked longer telomeres with better brainpower, a reduced risk of diseases, and a longer life.
But factors like chronic stress, a lack of exercise and sleep, and a poor diet can cause your telomeres to deteriorate. "If they wear down too much, the genetic material in your chromosomes is no longer protected," says Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., a coauthor of the new book The Telomere Effect. This inhibits your cells' ability to function properly, which speeds up the aging process, she says. (Related: 10 Everyday Things That Can Age You)
Happily, you can easily and quickly strengthen your telomeres. "Studies show that within just weeks of making small changes to your lifestyle, your telomeres improve," Blackburn says. Read on to learn about the strategic moves that will lengthen yours and make you even healthier.
Have Sex Often
People who had sex at least once in the previous week tended to have longer telomeres according to a study Blackburn's coauthor, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., helped conduct. Epel and her team aren't sure why, but other research has shown that couples who have sex weekly are happier overall. (P.S. Did you know your personality might actually influence how often you have sex?)
Close friendships are also beneficial. Besides reducing stress, being with friends and loved ones causes your cells to produce fewer C-reactive proteins, pro-inflammatory substances that have been linked to shorter telomeres and conditions like heart disease and depression. (See also: Having a workout buddy will make you feel less stressed.)
Eat Your Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids and fiber help fight chronic inflammation, which makes your cells divide faster, prematurely wearing down your telomeres. Your body converts omega-3s into hormones that moderate inflammation, Epel says. And fiber prevents the insulin spikes that fuel inflammation. She suggests getting at least 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids a day from fish like salmon or an algae-based supplement and 25 grams of fiber a day from foods such as legumes, produce, and grains. (Read the Guide to Getting Enough Omega-3s Fatty Acids.)
In addition, eat vitamin C–rich citrus fruits, berries, and bell peppers daily, Epel says. Vitamin C protects cells from oxidative damage, which can shorten telomeres, and builds bones and muscles.
If you're getting less than seven hours a night, tossing and turning, or going to bed and getting up at different times every day, you're more likely to suffer from inflammation and oxidative stress, which can shorten your telomeres, Epel says. To get better sleep, build transition time into your routine. Most of us tend to do work or watch stimulating TV shows right up until we turn in. "The mind needs a slow descent into slumber," Epel says. Put your phone on airplane mode and read or listen to a relaxing podcast for a few minutes, and you'll fall into a sounder sleep faster—or you can eat more fiber during the day. (And BTW, here is how you know you're getting a good night's sleep.)
Do More Cardio
"Exercise increases levels of telomerase, making telomeres longer and healthier," says Eli Puterman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia School of Kinesiology. (And by now you know it also has serious health benefits.) But be sure to switch up your routine—so if you're a runner, do some cycling— and add in some strength training and walking or yoga, too. People who participated in two, three, or four types of activities a month were, respectively, 24, 29, and 52 percent less likely to have short telomeres compared with those who did none, according to a University of Mississippi study. Different forms of exercise may affect telomeres in different ways; a range will have the biggest impact on telomere length.
Chronic stress can increase the odds that your telomeres will deteriorate. But people who practiced just 12 minutes a day of Kirtan Kriya, a meditative yoga practice that incorporates chanting, experienced a 43 percent increase in their activity of telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres, research from the University of California, Los Angeles found. Chanting not your thing? Regular meditation, hatha yoga, and pretty much any kind of exercise will reduce chronic stress. (Try these restorative yoga poses to nix stress.)
For every additional hour people sit in front of a screen per day, they have a 7 percent increase in their odds of having short telomeres, research from the University of Mississippi showed. The solution: Spend more time on your feet throughout the day, the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports. Take your phone calls standing up, go for short walks every hour, or get up and do a few stretches or yoga moves. (Here's how to hang up your phone addiction.)
Clear the Air
Certain indoor pollutants like benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can stretch your telomeres in unhealthy ways, which can increase your risk of cancer, research shows. Get an air purifier to help filter out these chemicals, or bring more plants into your home or office. There's evidence that certain types, like Boston ferns, peace lilies, English ivy, and philodendrons, can help clean the air. "Two plants for every hundred square feet is supposedly enough for keeping your air filtered," Epel says.