Telomeres are a region of repeating nucleotides at the ends of chromosomes. They are present at the end of each arm, or chromatid, of the chromosome. The function of telomeres is to protect the ends of chromosomes during cellular division. In this process, enzymes read the makeup of the chromosome section by section to create a copy. However, these enzymes cannot complete this process all the way to the end of the chromosome. The telomeres function as a buffer and are shortened with each cell division while the chromosomes are copied correctly.
Every person is born with a specific telomere length that is dependent on the health and nutrition of their mother while they are in the womb. The length of our telomeres at birth is a key factor in the way that we age. Because telomeres are shortened every time cell division occurs, there is a critical point where cells can no longer divide and they either age or self-destruct. This limit on the number of times that cells can divide is known as the Hayflick limit, and on average this limit is between 40 and 60 times. But for people with a healthy, balanced diet, telomeres shorten at a slower rate.
Research shows that it is possible for good nutritional habits to positively influence telomere length, and by extension, fight the effects of aging. In 2009 a study was conducted by the National Institutes of Health to determine the effects of taking multivitamins on telomere length in women. It was found that women who took multivitamin supplements daily had 5% longer telomeres on average than those who did not. Another study in 2007 by St. Thomas’ Hospital of King’s College London School of Medicine, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Addenbrooke’s Hospital of the University of Cambridge found that telomere length is shorter in individuals with low levels of folic acid. This is because these individuals have a higher level of homocysteine in their blood, an amino acid responsible for accelerating cell senescence (aging). By maintaining high levels of folic acid, the homocysteine levels in the subjects’ blood was reduced and the negative impacts on telomere length negated.
Antioxidants are another class of nutrients that are known to have an impact on telomere length. An antioxidant is any molecule that inhibits oxydation in other cells. In oxydation chemical reactions, an electron is transferred from a substance to an oxidation agent. An oxidation agent can be any substance that is capable of accepting electrons. The substance that is reduced, or loses an electron, is often highly chemically reactive due to the extra electron slot in its outer energy level. These reduced substances, known as free radicals, can cause damage and death to surrounding cells due to their reactive nature. By inhibiting oxidation reactions, antioxidants reduce the chance of cell and telomere damage as a result of free radicals.
An example of an antioxidant that has directly been linked to the length of telomeres is Magnesium. Magnesium stabilizes DNA and promotes DNA replication and transcription, while low levels of Magnesium allow for increased amounts of amino acids known as catecholamines. Catecholamines cause DNA instability and shorten telomeres. Zinc, Vitamin C and Vitamin K are all other antioxidants that will result in a shortening of telomeres if they are deficient.
A wealth of research has been done to study the effects of telomere length on the human lifespan. It has been proven that maintaining a balanced, nutritional diet will help to inhibit the natural shortening of telomeres and reward you with a long and healthy life.
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