01 Oct Keys for Healthy Aging; Mitochondria and Telomeres Explained
Have you ever wondered how or why it is that some people appear to be 5, 10 or even 15 years younger than their actual age while others appear to look and act years older? We often attribute to this phenomenon to genetics, however did you know that studies have shown that genetics actually only account for 10 to 25% of our overall health picture? That’s right folks; lifestyle and environmental factors have been shown to account for 75 to 90% of our overall health picture! In other words- we are largely in control of how we age and the ailments that will affect us along the way (1).
Today I’d like to take a deep dive into the underlying processes in the body that can either slow down, or speed up the aging process. To do this we’ll be examining two very important factors responsible in determining just how quickly the body will age- Mitochondria and Telomeres.
Mitochondria have been termed the “powerhouses” of our cells. They are responsible for producing our primary source of energy- adenosine triphosphate or ATP. Studies show that when mitochondria are functioning optimally, energy potential of the cells is also heightened and both of these characteristics are linked directly to life span (2). Basically, those striving for a long and healthy life should be focusing on maintaining large amounts of healthy functioning mitochondria within their cells.
Free radicals (a normal byproduct of the energy produced by the mitochondria) are unstable atoms that can build up in the body when not properly neutralized. Impaired mitochondrial function is linked to increased free radical production, as are certain immune responses, pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and toxin exposure. Free radicals are thought to be neutralized in the body with antioxidants (3) as well as with direct contact with the earth’s surface (grounding). (4) As we age, our body’s ability to neutralize and counteract the damaging effects of these free radicals begins to decline, which essentially begins a vicious cycle leading to further oxidative stress, additional mitochondrial deterioration, and ultimately an acceleration of the aging process.
With mitochondria health directly linked to life span, one can easily see the importance of keeping these little powerhouses healthy. As mentioned above, some studies suggest that an antioxidant rich diet can be extremely beneficial in mitigating free radical production and supporting mitochondrial health. Many studies are also pointing to a ketogenic diet as a way of supplying a cleaner form of energy (ketones), while actually increasing mitochondrial volume and function in a way that reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. (5) Fasting is another dietary technique strongly linked to longevity as it has been shown to activate autophagy or the process of cellular recycling and regenerating. Some argue that the reason that the keto diet is so beneficial for longevity is actually because it essentially mimics a state of fasting in the body. Dr. Valter Longo of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology suggests that the presence of ketones in the blood signifies that the body is “regenerating” itself on a cellular level; essentially protecting itself against disease. (6) Regardless, it seems that one of the best ways to rid oneself of those pesky dysfunctional mitochondria mentioned above is to simply implement some form antioxidant-rich ketogenic or routine fasting dietary regimen while reducing exposure to environmental and lifestyle toxins.
While having an abundance of highly functioning mitochondria is one prediction on lifespan, another even more accurate indicator of biological health is Telomere length and integrity. Telomeres are segments of repeating DNA at the ends of chromosomes (being that our chromosomes carry our genetic material we can see why we want to keep these little guys happy). Telomeres are often compared to the protective plastic caps at the ends of our shoelaces. If the caps were to wear down or “shorten”, the shoelace would start to unravel and become dysfunctional. Each time a cell divides the telomeres in our chromosomes get shorter until eventually the cell is no longer able to divide and eventually becomes dysfunctional or dies. Telomerase is an enzyme that has been shown to actually repair telomeres, and essentially chromosomes. Some studies suggest that it is actually the telomerase enzyme rather than the telomere length that is most critical in the anti-aging equation. (7) Telomerase has also been shown to have a positive effect on mitochondrial function as well as cell survival and stress resistance. Thus coming full circle, we can see that while telomerase is able to repair telomeres it can also improve mitochondrial function.
Interestingly, all of the lifestyle exposures mentioned above that affect mitochondria, also have a negative effect on telomeres and telomerase activity. In addition, lack of physical activity, stress, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, poor sleep, increased oxidative stress, and poor diet all increase the rate of telomere shortening. (8) Inversely, specific compounds including folate, vitamins B, D, E, and C, zinc, resveratrol, grape seed extract and curcumin have all been shown to support telomere length. The ancient Chinese herb astragalus root (specifically a propriety extract of the root called TA-65) has some rather profound data supporting its ability to actually promote telomerase enzyme production (and thus telomere regeneration). (9) Likewise, similar to mitochondria, caloric restriction and fasting have also been suggested to increase telomere length and integrity in animal models. (10) While much of the research regarding telomere health is linked to caloric restriction, I would surmise that for those who can’t decrease calories, simply decreasing the eating window (via fasting) would be an excellent start.
Thus, if I had to summarize a few basic steps that I feel are essential for the process of healthy aging these would include:
How to Slow the Aging Process
- Implement an antioxidant rich Paleo, ketogenic or regular fasting dietary routine. Personally I’m a big fan of the 16/8 fasting protocol with an abundance of leafy greens, colorful vegetables, healthy grass fed/organic fats, and omega 3 fatty acids consumed during the eating window. While a ketogenic diet works for many, I don’t necessarily advocate everybody follow a low carb diet; for those incorporating regular periods of fasting a simple Paleo diet can be perfect and much more maintainable.
- Quit smoking, limit alcohol intake, limit exposure to environmental toxins
- Reduce stress, including less suspecting causes such as excessive exercise and food allergies
- Supplement accordingly- While I advocate getting the majority of our daily vitamins and nutrients through diet when possible, I’m also a big fan of supplementing when necessary. Many have likely heard me promote the benefits of daily Vitamin D supplementation as well as Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Assessing dietary intake of vitamins D, C and E as well as resveratrol, curcumin and even astragalus root can be beneficial for many. CoQ10- is another promising supplement as it has been shown to optimize mitochondrial function and protects them from free radical damage.
- Connect with the earth- The Earth’s electromagnetic field is essential for life and has been shown to have a profound effect on everything from immune health to sleep and pain reduction in addition to neutralizing free radicals, thus supporting mitochondrial health. This one is simple and free- take off your shoes, go outside, and walk around as often as possible.
- Aim for daily sun exposure- Benefits of regular sun exposure range from improved bone density and brain function to better sleep and hormone regulation. While too much sun exposure over the course of a lifetime can actually accelerate the aging process of the skin (ie wrinkles and sunspots) we can’t deny the internal benefits of a little sunshine each day.
Although this is a very simplified summary of just a few of the underlying mechanisms that affect the aging process, I find it interesting to pinpoint the relationship between mitochondrial function and telomere integrity. Likewise, I feel that it is important to address the concern that many have around “inheriting bad genetics”- having parents or grandparents with poor health does not necessarily guarantee the offspring will also suffer with lifetime of illness. We are largely in control of our own destinies and I really can’t help but feel like a broken record as I once again promote the importance of healthy diet, stress management, daily movement or exercise, and managing toxic exposures; for overall health and longevity.
Christensen K, Johnson TE, Vaupel JW. The quest for genetic determinants of human longevity: challenges and insights. Nat Rev Genet. 2006;7(6):436–448. doi:10.1038/nrg1871
Lanza IR, Nair KS. Mitochondrial function as a determinant of life span. Pflugers Arch. 2010 Jan;459(2):277-89
Shammas MA. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011;14(1):28–34. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834121b1