Do You Know Nutrition: Telomeres, protective caps for human chromosomes

By Phylis Canion
April 16, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 15, 2013 at 11:16 p.m.

I have been under an undue amount of stress, and I can feel the effects of it. What is it about stress that can be so damaging to the body, and what kind of effect does it have on telomeres?

First, it is important to understand that stress is an experience when you feel overwhelmed by events happening in your life that generate emotions that become difficult to handle.

When you become stressed, an alarm signals the hypothalamus in your brain to release hormones to stimulate part of your adrenal glands, which increases your blood sugar and reduces the efficiency of your immunity and reduces your allergic response.

Telomeres are protective caps at the end of human chromosomes. It is normal for the body to release stress hormones in stressful situations, but when the condition persists and the stress hormones are present in the bloodstream for a prolonged period of time, they can lead to shorter telomere length.

In the largest study of telomere length, 10 percent of people with the shortest telomeres were almost 25 percent more likely to die in three years than people with longer telomeres.

What is not known is whether telomere length is a passive marker of health and aging or if it actively determines if you will be susceptible to heart disease or illness, according to Dr. Catherine Schaefer, director of research on genes at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif.

Aging as well as chemical food additives can shorten telomeres. Telomeres are like the little caps on the ends of shoelaces that prevent the laces from unraveling. Reducing stress helps avoid the "unraveling" as well as avoiding food products that have wording stated on food labels such as "natural flavors," "flavor enhancers" and all of those words that you cannot pronounce.

Look for foods that say Non-GMO, no additives, no preservatives and no hormones. In a study published in the Lancet Oncology, Dr. Dean Ornish found that healthy lifestyles inclusions of a low-fat, plant-based diet significantly increased telomerase activity. While more research is being conducted on the effects of stress on aging and the role telomeres may play, one fact is known: Reducing stress, changing lifestyles and eating healthy are all components to leading a healthy life.

Thought for the week: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do." - Mark Twain

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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