Cellular damage is at the root of all aging. Author and National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, who has done extensive research about aging for his book “The Blue Zones Solution,” argues that avoiding cellular damage is the best way to protect against signs of aging. This sounds like common sense, but many of us aren’t always aware of what damages our cells the most, and what factors cause cellular damage to take place.
Our cells are constantly reproducing, fending against toxins and generating energy. They do complex work for our bodies and express the codes found in our DNA. One indicator of cellular health and aging is the length of our telomeres—the caps found at the end of our DNA. Telomeres protect our DNA so they can properly express our genes, allowing cells to do their specific jobs within the body.
Scientists have found that the length of telomeres is a good indicator of age. The longer we live and the more damage is done to our cells, the shorter our telomeres become. So what impacts telomere length and cellular health and, consequently, aging?
What—and how much—we eat
What we put into our bodies has a huge impact on cellular health. Think about it in simple terms: Our cells have to harness energy from everything we eat, and this work can take a toll. Mice put on restricted-calorie diets live significantly longer than those that eat to satiety, which experts believe is related to the free radicals generated by energy metabolism. Unfortunately, our cells’ ability to fight free radicals declines with age. This is why eating fewer calories (within healthy limits, of course) is easier on both your waistline and your cells.
However, some foods take a smaller toll on our cells than others. Glucose, a sugar found in carbohydrates, may be a great sources of energy, but metabolizing it isn’t always easy.
“Glucose molecules can stick to proteins, forming ‘cross-links’ that stop the proteins from working properly,” explains the Science Museum of London. “Cross-linking can gradually lead to hardened blood vessels, cataracts, damaged nerves and kidneys—all problems of old age.”
Glucose is an important source of energy, but it’s important not to overdo it. When you consume starchy foods that require your body to break them down into glucose, your body does so by producing insulin—and most of us are aware of the growing problem of insulin resistance (and, down the line, Type 2 diabetes) in our country. People with short telomeres are more than twice as likely as people with longer telomeres to develop Type 2 diabetes, according to a study published by the American Diabetes Association.
Most of us have been warned about the effects of sun exposure on our skin. Overexposure is linked to prevalent types of skin cancer as well as premature wrinkles and aged skin. The major culprits behind this phenomenon are—you guessed it—free radicals.
Free radicals are a result of energy synthesis, as explained above. A free radical is simply an atom that is lacking an electron, which causes the atom to bind to all kinds of cells where it doesn’t belong. Antioxidants are compounds that provide electrons to these unstable atoms, mitigating against cellular damage.
Sleep patterns and quality
How well you sleep is also an important factor in telomere length. A study published in the National Institutes of Health’s library titled “Cellular Aging and Restorative Processes: Subjective Sleep Quality and Duration Moderate the Association between Age and Telomere Length in a Sample of Middle-Aged and Older Adults” examined the relationship between telomere length and sleep quality in older adults.
The study found that people whose sleep quality was compromised, whether from simply not getting enough sleep, waking up frequently, suffering from sleep apnea or other sleep quality factors, had shorter telomeres than those with healthy sleep patterns. Numerous restorative processes occur within the body during sleep, which makes it incredibly important for cell protection.
Tips for protecting against cellular damage
With all this new knowledge, what are some simple steps to take to protect against cell damage?
- Don’t binge on starches: Glucose is directly related to cellular damage, so be sure to consume starchy carbohydrates in moderation. When you do consume carbs, choose whole grains and fruits, which have a steadier impact on blood sugar than refined carbs and sugary products, which tend to cause sharp spikes and falls.
- Consume antioxidant-rich foods: Antioxidants play a key role in protecting against free radicals. Berries are a great low-sugar, antioxidant-rich source of energy. Nuts, fish, leafy greens, sweet potatoes and tea are also great choices.
- Wear sunscreen: This one’s a no-brainer. Protect your skin from the sun’s rays by wearing a high-quality, non-toxic sunscreen.
- Exercise: Moderate exercise is great for circulation, promotes restful sleep and helps maintain brain health. Get a moderate amount of physical activity every day.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes: This one requires little explanation. Smoking is bad for pretty much every cell in your body.
- Get enough sleep: Though this is perhaps the most elusive tip, do what you can to get a good night’s sleep every night. The NIH study found that senior adults who got at least seven hours of sleep per night had telomere lengths comparable to those of middle-aged adults, shaving the equivalent of up to 20 years of damage off their cells.