It seems we’ve always had a fascination with living forever. Folklore abounds with tales of finding the fountain of youth and other anti-aging secrets. Here’s one that has actually been scientifically proven.
Telomeres. Did you know that you are absolutely riddled with them? That’s a good thing. You see, telomeres are the caps at each end of your DNA that ensures that chromosomes aren’t damaged when cells divide.
If you imagine a strand of your DNA like a train track and the train is a special protein molecule that copies the track as it moves over it. When the train comes to the end of the track, it can’t copy the track beneath it. In your chromosomes, it would mean that they would grow shorter each time.
In comes the miracle of nature to place protective caps on the end of each of our chromosomes, like the plastic protectors on the ends of shoelaces. This means that our DNA can be replicated perfectly….until our telomeres start to fray.
There had to be a catch!
Yes, sure enough those telomeres gradually wear down until the cells can no longer divide and aging and decay ensue. Fun stuff! It is estimated that our DNA replicates 50-70 times before it stops (reaches its Hayflick limit). Theoretically, this allows humans to live for up to 120 years.
The science world has known about the existence of telomeres for a while and it was always believed that we had no control over our telomere lengths, given that we are all born with a unique length.
Introducing Nobel prize-winning, Tasmanian-born, molecular biologist, Elizabeth Blackburn. Along with two associates, she discovered an enzyme called ‘telomerase’ which actually helps to protect telomere length. So, whilst we can’t directly control our telomere length, we can certainly look after them by increasing our telomerase levels.
First, let’s look at the factors that reduce telomerase. Guess…… STRESS! Yep, 100%. Stress in all its forms is the most detrimental factor. Studies show that people in stressful situations such as abusive relationships, loneliness, caring for family members and childhood trauma, have markedly reduced telomere length. In fact, in one study, researchers compared a group of mums with autistic children with one with healthy children. The more frazzled mums with autistic children showed telomeres that looked 10 years older.
So we know that stress is the major contributing factor for the decline in our telomeres. Other lifestyle factors include a poor diet, not enough movement and lack of sleep, but these are only minimal effects when compared to stress, and could all quite likely be caused by stress anyway.
The good news…and it literally is good news….is that the way you can improve your telomeres is simply to be happy!
Telomerase has been shown to increase when we experience feelings such as love, gratitude, optimism and in particular, purpose and meaning. It has been shown that having a purpose and feeling connected to a community are extremely important factors. Isn’t it interesting to see what happens to people after they retire?
Now, none of us live in a perfect world that is completely without stress (I wish), but it’s not so much having the actual stress in your life that’s important. It’s all about how you deal with it. Just by incorporating some simple strategies and techniques into your life you can build an inner resilience to outside stresses. Techniques such as gratitude practices, mindfulness and particularly meditation have a huge effect. Even more, studies show that if you engage in meditation whilst ON RETREAT, the effects are even better! I kid you not. Do you need a better excuse to come and join me on the next retreat?
Your telomeres will thank you.