Telomeres: Less Isn’t More

The following is an article, which was kindly contributed by my friend and sports nutrition mentor – Dr. Cory Holly. Cory is not only a brain on the science of sports nutrition, he is also built like a Hercules statue and one of the nicest guys around. At age 55, he just won the Natural Mr. Hawaii contest (pic below).

Cory and his super charming wife Tracy run CHI – the Cory Holly Institute – Online School of Holistic Sports Nutrition. Cory and Tracy can be found all over the beautiful spots of the world but spend quite some time on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, every year.

In this article, Dr. Cory Holly explains about what actually causes aging. Enjoy!

In simple terms telomere length is a genetic factor related to our general health. In fact telomere length is now recognized as a biomarker for predicting the timeline of our individual life expectancy. Shorter telomeres equal less life.

The word “telomere” is derived from the Greek nouns telos meaning ‘end’ and merοs meaning ‘part.’ Telomere regions function to prevent the degradation of genes near the ends of our 46 chromosomes. A chromosome is a single piece of coiled DNA and contains many genes. The entire genome has about 25,000.

A telomere is a special region of repetitive nucleotide sequences or base pairs at each end of a chromosome. Telomeres consist of genes that protect the end of our chromosomes from deterioration or fusion with neighboring chromosomes.

Here’s another way to think of telomeres. They’re a collection of ring-like “caps” that function to protect the end of a DNA strand from being frayed, unraveled or worn out. For this reason telemeres have been compared in action with the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shoelace tips prevent the shoelace string from becoming undone.

Every cell (except red blood cells) contains a nucleus with genes and chromosomes. This is where we can find our personal book of life written in digital language as a genetic code. Chromosomes are made up of DNA molecules that are millions of bases long coiled up like a slinky.

When a cell divides the genetic material inside that cell needs to be copied by a process called DNA replication. During this process enzymes that replicate a strand of DNA are unable to continue replicating all the way to the end. This causes the loss of some DNA.

At birth we have about 10,000 telomeric base pairs but as we burn in the fire of time and due to continuous cell division, our telomeric sequences slowly disappear. At 5000 bases we begin to show evidence of old age. We lose functional lean mass, forget things, need cheaters to read, experience  fatigue more frequently and don’t recover from exercise as quickly as we once did.

Losing telomeres is not cool. Unlike homeopathy, less is definitely not more. When telomeres shorten we are headed in the wrong direction. When cells divide telomeres shorten and bad things happen when telomeres get shorter.

Each time a cell divides, an average person loses 30 to 200 base pairs from the ends of that cell’s telomeres. So we’re talking about a slow gradual decline in telomere length that takes time to occur. Like a lifetime.

So what is the maximum life span of our species? 122 years. That’s how long Jeanne Louise Calment of France lived and she’s someone we know lived that long for sure. Unlike Methuselah (969) or Li Ching Yuen (256), her age was verified by experts who examined her birth records as evidence.

So if our maximum life span is well over a century potentially, why is the estimate of life expectancy in Canada for someone born in 2013 only 81.57? What happens to us? Why do so many of us die prematurely? What happened to those missing 40 years of love and joy? Do they just evaporate? No. Our cells divide, they get damaged, telomeres get shorter faster and nasty things happen.

There are plenty of other factors in life that create our diminishing return. Things like infant mortality, accidents, epidemics, plagues and wars. Fortunately for most of us born in a country with law and order, good sanitation and access to decent whole food, those factors aren’t nearly as relative compared to living in Chad for example, which ranks lowest in the world for life expectancy at 49.07.

Be thankful if you live or were born in a land of prosperity and freedom. Like a place where clean water flows abundantly and crimes like rape and murder are relatively low. Such good fortune provides us with ideal conditions that predispose us from birth to the likelihood of living longer with better health. Hence the higher life expectancy estimates.

Other factors that help prolong life include living in a warm temperate climate isolated from the mob, walking 5-10km per day, speaking your mind, eating clean natural food and taking no prescription medication.

But in spite of such privilege, many of us ruin ourselves by eating the worst diet imaginable and physically moving less in one day than a three-toed sloth or garden variety slug. An important distinction must also be made between length and quality of life. Many of us will be kept alive far too long by the last ditch rescue efforts of modern medicine. Why does the Calvary always show up after the battle has been fought?

Enter Telomerase: Another “New” Miracle Pill?

Telomerase is the body’s natural enzyme that promotes telomere repair. It’s active in stem cells, germ cells, hair follicles and most cancer cells, but its expression is low or absent in non-reproductive cells, meaning most of our 100 trillion cells.

Scientists want to know why telomerase is repressed in most cells because if they can find a way to stimulate telomerase activity in somatic cells without screwing everything else up, as they have apparently done by genetically modifying our food, it’s theoretically possible to keep our cells alive for a very long time.

Here’s what telomerase does in reproductive cells. It adds bases to the ends of the telomeres as they shorten which keeps the ends of our chromosomes stable. Ultimately the rate of telomeric addition is equal to any telomeric subtraction so the net effect is immortal cells that never die. Imagine if we could harness or control this effect.

Do you want to live forever? Ask Dorian Gray. Or better yet watch the movie. His answer will surprise you.

Cells with genes that do not express telomerase gradually lose telomeric sequences as a result of incomplete replication. As telomeres shorten, cells eventually reach their replicative or “Hayflick limit” and progress into senescence or old age. Cells can divide only about 50 to 70 times, after which due to telomere loss, they become unstable and degenerate.

But here’s a key question that remains unanswered. Is telomere shortening the cause of disease, decay and death, or is telomeric loss simply an effect of cellular damage like age spots on the skin, caused by how we live and a complex array of environmental factors such as stress, oxidation, glycation, radiation, gravity and entropy?

Shorter telomeres are recognized as a cause of poor health and accelerated aging. Telomere length to some degree does reflect how well we’re taking care of ourselves, but even if we do a superlative job of self-regulation, our telomeres will still shorten.

Telomeric DNA is reduced more quickly when oxidative stress and glycation is constant and no willful action is taken to buffer, decrease or manage that stress. Glycation is a technical term for a kind of fusion reaction that occurs between proteins and sugars, especially fructose. Consuming lots of sucrose and fructose accelerates telomere loss.

Glycation causes lots of damage and tends to increase over time with age. It’s a haphazard process that impairs the function of living cells. Smoking, excess alcohol consumption and excess body fat all shorten telomeres faster compared to controls. Nature isn’t prejudice. Once we cross a certain biological line reality demands more of our telomeres as a toll.

Fact: Telomere loss occurs less rapidly as a result of intelligent stress management, meditation, fresh air, clean water, regular physical exercise and optimum nutrition. Are we surprised?

 


The Cory Holly Institute is an online school of holistic sports nutrition, health and fitness. Our certification career courses teach students how to live well in the real world. Details at CoryHolly.com

Recovering From Open-Heart Surgery

One of my friends is in pretty impressive condition but when you know what he has gone through, the condition he is in is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Here is the story:

About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with severe mitral valve regurgitation. This means that my mitral valve, the most important of the four valves in the heart, was not closing properly and a significant amount of blood was flowing backwards into the left atrium. This, in turn, forced the heart to work harder and was causing it to enlarge. If left untreated, this would have eventually led to congestive heart failure and an early death. So, basically, I had only one choice: open-heart surgery.

Luckily, my cardiologist had trained at the Mayo Clinic, the finest hospital in the United States, and he referred me to the best heart surgeon at that hospital. While many surgeons treat leaky mitral valves by replacing them with artificial valves, my surgeon used a technique whereby he fixed my native valve by carefully trimming the excess tissue and inserting a ring around the valve to prevent it from enlarging. By repairing rather than replacing the valve, my surgeon saved me from a lifetime of taking blood thinners (which pose a definite risk of stroke and other complications).

I was 39 at the time of my surgery and I was in excellent physical condition, so I was not particularly worried about whether or not I could bear the surgery. And I had an insurance policy that would cover the surgery, which cost a total of US$63,000. Needless to say, as an American, this was no trifling concern.

When I woke from the surgery in the step-down unit, I was literally a different person. You cannot have your sternum sawed down the middle and your heart stopped for 20 minutes without it having some deep effect on your being, even if you have no conscious recollection of it. I was up on my feet 24 hours after the surgery and I remember shuffling to the bathroom in my room and looking at myself. I had a strip of tape down the middle of my chest. And I felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. But, I was alive.

I stayed in the hospital for four days and then I was released to a nearby hotel. I remember stepping out of the door of the hospital for the first time. It was fall and the cold Minnesota wind seemed to blow right through me. I know right then that I was much, much weaker than I had been when I walked into the hospital.

But, when I got home, I started my rehabilitation right away. I went for walks in the woods, going a little further and a little faster each time. I also did breathing exercises with a device that the hospital had given me.

Then, exactly one month to the day after my surgery, I climbed a small 350-meter mountain near my house that I used to climb every day before my surgery. I climbed at a snail’s pace and I stopped frequently for rests, but I made it. For me, that marked a major step in my recovery. From that point on, I stopped thinking of myself as an invalid and started to think of myself as a normal person.

Slowly I stepped up my workouts, adding swimming and biking to my usual hiking routine. While I feel that I have lost about 10% of my former aerobic capacity, most likely due to deformation of the left ventricle that occurred prior to my surgery, I don’t feel any major deficits. And I take no medicine and require no special precautions in any activities.

Since my surgery, I have climbed 4095-meter Mt Kinabalu in Borneo, and I have crossed a 4700-meter pass in the Himalayas with a heavy pack. I felt no unusual strain and I feel like I could probably get up to 6000 meters given enough time to acclimatize.

In closing, my advice to anyone considering mitral valve surgery is this: Find the very best surgeon you can. Go for a repair rather than a replacement. And, whatever you do, don’t think for a moment that open-heart surgery means the end of your active sporting life. After open-heart surgery you can run marathons, climb mountains and live life to the fullest.

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