With the recent surge of interest in telomere shortening as an underlying cause of aging, it’s no wonder scientists are enthusiastically researching how diet and lifestyle can influence telomere length. Now, Ligi Paul, Ph.D., of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, has reviewed the latest literature associating telomere length with nutrients, bioactive compounds, and lifestyle factors.
Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes from fusing with each other, Dr. Paul reminds us, and their length is an indicator of biological aging. Although shortening is a normal part of aging, oxidative stress and inflammation can speed up the process of telomere shortening.
“Of interest to nutritionists, telomere length has been shown to be associated with nutritional status in human and animal studies. Healthy lifestyles and diets are positively correlated with telomere length,” Dr. Paul wrote. And according to his review, the most recent studies have found that the following nutrients may influence telomere length:
Vitamins and Minerals
- Folate – This B vitamin is important for DNA and RNA structure and function.
- Vitamin B12 – In conjunction with folate, this B vitamin is important for the methylation, or detoxification, of homocysteine. Higher levels of homocysteine are associated with increased oxidative stress.
- Niacin (nicotinamide) – Can influence telomere length through its multiple regulatory and coenzymatic activities.
- Vitamin A and beta-carotene – These antioxidants reduce concentrations of harmful signaling molecules and increase beneficial ones to help reduce oxidative stress.
- Vitamin D – Higher levels of vitamin D lower levels of c-reactive protein (CRP), a protein with harmful effects and associated with shortened telomere length. Vitamin D appears to inhibit some of CRP’s harmful effects.
- Vitamins C and E – These antioxidant vitamins are widely acknowledged for limiting oxidative stress and its damage on DNA and telomeres.
- Magnesium – The mineral required for the activity of a number of enzymes involved in DNA replication and repair. Low amounts of this mineral are also associated with higher concentrations of CRP.
- Zinc – This mineral is necessary for a variety of enzymes including DNA polymerases, which are important for DNA and telomere maintenance.
- Iron – In contrast to the other nutrients, iron supplementation is associated with shorter telomeres. This is likely because of iron’s pro-oxidant ability to stimulate free radical generation. While iron supplements may increase oxidative stress, iron from diet or multivitamins (containing less iron) is not negatively associated with telomere length.
- Curcumin and turmeric – Turmeric, and its primary component curcumin, are common dietary spices that stimulate synthesis of antioxidants, thereby protecting against oxidative stress. Mice fed diets containing curcumin had a trend for longer telomeres compared with controls.
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) – Higher plasma levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may protect against oxidative stress by enhancing activity of the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase.
- Polyphenols – Polyphenols from grape seed and green tea provide additional protection for DNA and telomeres from oxidative stress. Those who drink tea regularly have longer telomeres while mice fed grape seed polyphenols had longer telomeres compared to controls.
Each of the mechanisms by which these nutrients and bioactives work may help explain why taking multivitamins is associated with longer telomere length. Those who take multivitamins, Dr. Paul notes, are also more likely to follow a healthy lifestyle. For example, they are more likely to combine a diet high in fruits and vegetables with exercise, to not smoke, and to maintain a healthy weight—factors all associated with longer telomeres.
“Since diet and lifestyle can influence inflammation, oxidative stress and psychological stress, all of which cause telomere attrition [shortening], they could also influence telomere length,” Dr. Paul wrote.
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Reference: Paul L. Diet, nutrition and telomere length. J Nutr Biochem 2011. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2010.12.001