We all want to believe that age is just a number—and, well, experts now believe that our chronological age (the number of birthdays we’ve had) may be little more than just that. Of greater interest these days? Our cellular age (the relative health of our cells), which may predict our health risk and lifespan.
Yep, that means it’s time to stop worrying about the number of candles on your cake so much, and focus on keeping your cells youthful, instead.
Let’s Talk About Cellular Aging
Wondering how exactly cells age? Quick biology lesson: Every cell in the human body contains bundles of DNA called chromosomes, explains Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. Both ends of these long chromosomal strands have protective caps called “telomeres,” which function much like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces.
These protective caps help ensure that our DNA gets copied correctly when our cells replicate, Axe explains. However, every time our cells replicate, these telomeres naturally shorten a bit. Eventually, when telomeres get too short, the cell loses its ability to divide, becomes inactive, and eventually dies off.
“The term ‘cellular aging’ refers to the speed at which cells go through this natural process,” says Axe.
Cellular Aging And Your Health
Cellular aging is a natural and normal cellular process. However, recent research published in Journal of Biological Chemistry suggests that its speed reflects your biological age, which may better represent and influence your health than your chronological age.
“Increased speed of telomere shortening is linked with higher incidence of chronic diseases, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, changes in the structure of the brain, and shorter life expectancy,” says Axe.
How To Slow Down Cellular Aging
Though research on cellular aging is still in its infancy, experts like Axe believe that slowing the process down can improve your overall health and lifespan.
As we continue to learn more about the relationships between our telomeres, cellular health, and overall well-being, there are a number of healthy practices experts believe can help keep our cells as youthful as possible. (Good news: You’re probably already doing a few of them.)
1. Exercise (Regularly)
Turns out there’s a specific number of heart-thumping minutes per day that can keep cellular aging at bay. According to a 2017 study published in Preventative Medicine, people who regularly exercised for 30 minutes or more per day, five days a week, had biological aging markers (namely telomeres) up to nine years “younger” than non-exercisers.
The link between increased physical activity and slowed cellular aging shouldn’t be surprising. “We [already] know that regular physical activity helps to reduce mortality and prolong life,” study author Larry Tucker, Ph.D., said in a press release. “Now we know part of that advantage may be due to the preservation of telomeres.”
Meditation is proven to lower stress, which functional nutritional therapy practitioner, Erik Levi N.T.P., says has a particularly powerful ability to age the body.
When you’re chronically stressed, your body’s supply of an enzyme called telomerase (which the body can use to slow down the shortening of telomeres) diminishes, thus speeding up the aging process.
Meditation offers accessible and significant relief from stress. In fact, the researchers behind one Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences study on meditation concluded that a “longstanding practice of mindfulness or other forms of meditation may indeed decelerate cellular aging.”
According to Levi, just 15 minutes of meditation a day can go a long way. If you’re new to the practice, an app like Headspace, 10% Happier, or Calm can help you get started.
3. Experiment With Intermittent Fasting
A recently popular area of research, intermittent fasting may also have beneficial effects on cellular health, says Levi.
One 2019 review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, suggests that alternating between periods of eating and fasting boost cellular repair and maintenance processes. “This potentially elongates a cell’s functional life,” says Axe.
Both time-restricted feeding (in which you eat during just six to eight hours of the day) and 5:2 intermittent fasting (in which you restrict your calories two days per week) have been shown to be efficient, said Mark Mattson, Ph.D., one of the review authors, in a press release.
Mattson advises people to gradually increase the duration and frequency of their fasting periods over the course of several months, and consult with a healthcare provider ahead of time.
4. Quit Smoking And Drink Less
No surprise here: “Smoking and high alcohol intake have been linked to shorter-than-average telomere length,” says Axe.
In fact, one study published in American Thoracic Society found that smoking cigarettes actually induces the inactivity that precedes a cell’s death.
Meanwhile, a 2019 study published Psychopharmacology associated high alcohol intake with “accelerated cellular aging.”
If you haven’t quit smoking, do it. When it comes to the adult beverages, stick to The Dietary Guidelines‘ recommended alcohol intake (no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men).
5. Consume More Antioxidants
“Antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals in the body, which accelerate cellular aging,” says Axe. “A diet rich in a variety of antioxidants seems to offer the best protection against free radicals and disease development.”
The best way to increase your antioxidant intake, according to Axe? Eat a diet rich in whole plant foods. (Think oranges, peppers, berries, dark chocolate, leafy greens, herbs and spices, kale, almonds, and carrots.)
One antioxidant, in particular, which Levi calls “the vitamin fountain of youth” for your cells: niacin (a.k.a. vitamin B3). Most people meet their needs, but foods like like chicken, turkey, brown rice, and legumes are good sources. Supplementation is also an option if your doctor finds you’re falling short.
References & Further Reading
- Journal of Biological Chemistry: Inhibition of nucleotide synthesis promotes replicative senescence of human mammary epithelial cells.
- Preventative Medicine: Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation, In Depth
- Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences: Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres.
- New England Journal of Medicine: Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease.
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