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We live in a world that prizes youth, for better or for worse. Market research shows that anti-aging trends will reach $216 billion by 2021. (source) We’re looking for that anti-aging fountain of youth. But the truth is you won’t find it in the plastic surgeon’s office or in all the expensive serums and products on store shelves. The anti-aging secret starts inside your cells.

A Tale of Two Ages

Did you know that humans actually have two ages? Your chronological age (which you can fudge) and your biological age (which doesn’t lie). Chronological age is the number of years you’ve been alive, and biological age refers to how you’re aging on the inside: how fast your body is breaking down. Aging is influenced by genetics, but your biological age is also dependent upon your lifestyle factors, including diet, exercise, stress levels, sleeping habits, smoking, drug use, etc.

How do we determine biological age? The answer is via the little protective caps on the ends of the chromosomes inside your cells. They’re called telomeres.

Long Telomeres = Younger Age

Quick refresher: chromosomes are threadlike structures in the nucleus of cells. They carry genetic information in the form of genes.

This image shows the cell with the nucleus inside (the purple blob) and the chromosomes inside the nucleus which carry genetic material.

Telomeres are often compared to the caps on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from fraying. The age of your cells is based on your telomere length. And the health of your cells determines the rate at which you’re aging. Telomeres keep your cells young and keep them from losing genetic information when your cells divide. Laymen’s terms: they help your cells divide “crisply” and without fraying.

Telomere length is arguably the best marker of biological age. Shorter telomeres are associated with increased risk of heart disease, obesity, cancer, stroke, dementia, and premature death. (source)

Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. If telomeres get too short or disappear, a cell’s chromosomes can fuse or rearrange, which can lead to genetic damage. Genetic damage = disease. Exceptionally short telomeres are found in most cancers, suggesting that cells with dysfunctional telomeres can lead to tumor growth. (source)

BOTTOM LINE: Short telomeres are bad. Long telomeres are good. Telomeres are the mark of your biological age.

Lengthen Your Telomeres

Though telomeres naturally get shorter with age as the cells divide, the rate at which they shorten can be increased by poor lifestyle factors.

Habits that shorten telomeres:

  • Smokiing
  • Booze
  • Oxidative stress (an increase in free radicals and not enough antioxidants to counter the damage)
  • Poor diet (think processed foods, artificial ingredients, sugar, not enough antioxidant-rich plant foods)
  • Stress
  • Inactivity
  • Obesity (not a habit, but bodyweight is a factor)

How to lengthen your telomeres:

  • Diet: eat an anti-inflammatory diet that’s especially rich in the antioxidants that counter free radical damage. The antioxidants are vitamins A, C, E, zinc, and selenium. Think lots of brightly colored fruits and veggies like the purple, red, orange, and greens. The most antioxidant-rich foods include berries, pomegranates, dark green leafy veggies, sweet potatoes, citrus, carrots, green tea, dark chocolate, carrots, and cruciferous veggies. There’s evidence that a plant-based diet lengthens telomeres, but participants of the study also meditated and engaged in other healthy lifestyle factors. (source) Regardless, the base of your diet (50 percent or more) should be plants.
  • Stress relief: perhaps the most influential habit that lengthens telomeres. I ran across a few studies touting meditation as a practice that reduces telomere aging. This is the first one. Meditation is a powerful form of stress relief and actually changes your brain. Here’s how I do it.
  • Mind your mitochondria: the little nuggets inside your cells that produce energy are called mitochondria. When they become inactive and/or die, you experience fatigue and inability to lose weight as your system down-regulates to conserve energy. Boosting mitochondrial function keeps you AND your cells young and running efficiently.
  • Exercise lengthens your telomeres. (source) Exercise keeps you young at a cellular level. Burst training or high intensity interval training (HIIT) offers the best bang for your buck. You’ll alternate between high and low intensity activity for 15-20 minutes. I do sprints. While any exercise is beneficial, make sure you’re getting some cardio vs just walking your 10,000 steps in a day. I recommend 3 days of cardio or HIIT training and 2 days of strength training per week. Add in a day of yoga and pilates for good measure, and make sure to take a rest day. Too much exercise isn’t better, so find what works for you. You don’t need to pound the pavement for hours to see results!
  • Get good sleep: the single cheapest thing you can do to improve your health right away. Your brain detoxes at night; your immune system is active, destroying abnormal cells; and sleep regulates your weight and hormones. There’s a reason for the term beauty sleep. Sleep keeps you young and energetic. Read my sleep tips here.
  • Reduce exposure to toxins, including pollution, cigarette smoke, household chemicals. Pollutants create free radical damage and oxidation (remember, the enemy of telomeres) and damage your endocrine system. Switch to natural bodycare and cleaning products. Here are 10 ways to reduce toxins. Also consider the health of your home: Indoor air quality can be 10 times worse than outdoor air! (source) Consider an air purifier/HEPA filter to ionize air and destroy spores. Himalayan salt lamps are said to help clean the air, though I can’t tell much of a difference with mine, other than I love its ambient glow.
  • You can actually test your telomere length, but I haven’t researched tests enough to recommend a specific company.

These lifestyle habits are the fairly typical anti-aging tips. More proof that there’s no magic bullet. Anti-aging truly does start at a cellular level. Staying young starts with being healthy.

There are a few supplements that support healthy cells to slow the aging process:

  • PQQ protects the mitochondria from oxidative stress and acts as a powerful antioxidant in your body. Basically it keeps your cells young. Read more about it here.
  • CoQ10 is an enzyme that acts as an antioxidant. Great for cardio function and protects skin from aging when taken internally (source). Also seems promising when applied topically. CoQ10 is also critical for mitochondrial function.
  • A multi with a good spectrum of antioxidants will cover the bases you may be missing from diet. You especially want to focus on B vitamins, amino acids (get via dietary protein, not in a multi), and minerals to feed your cells and keep them young.
  • I like this collagen supplement to keep skin and hair youthful. Bonus: it supports gut and joint health.

The biggest and most encouraging takeaway here is that your genetic code is not your destiny.90 percent of the signs of aging and disease are caused by lifestyle choices, not your genes. Healthy lifestyle habits can absolutely lengthen your life, combat aging, and reduce disease risk.

Read more: Younger, by Sara Gottfried

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