How to Improve Your Cellular Age

Our bodies are meant to age. They change with each passing year, and we may notice both internal and external signs that things aren’t working the way they used to. But it’s important to note that, although aging is a natural process, many aspects of our modern world can unnecessarily accelerate the process and lead to a much more rapid decline of function and appearance.

The good news is that, with scientific breakthroughs, we’re able to understand better than ever before what types of interventions can slow the aging process and help us walk into the future feeling healthy and confident.

Getting to Know Our Telomeres

Telomeres are like little caps on the ends of our chromosomes that protect genetic information from becoming damaged during cell replication. When the telomeres become too short to allow for replication, the cell eventually dies—a natural part of the cellular life cycle. Because telomeres become shorter as a cell ages, we can test the length of telomeres to gain a picture of the aging process. Chronic diseases like diabetes, insulin resistance, and other inflammatory conditions can all contribute to decreases in telomere length.

Anti-Aging Diet and Intermittent Fasting

There are many lifestyle choices that can lead to an increased loss of telomere length, thus encouraging the aging process. Foods that increase inflammation and oxidative stress (the burden placed on the body by the process of metabolism) are the main culprits, such as those containing refined carbohydrates, artificial and refined sugars, and trans fats. It’s clear that packaged, processed junk foods are going to be the worst for our health because they usually contain all of these ingredients at once.

Studies have shown that a diet rich in phytochemicals from colorful plant foods, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, and teas, can reduce oxidative stress and slow the processes of telomere shortening. Try to “eat the rainbow” every day to get a wide variety of beneficial anti-aging nutrients. Foods like berries, spinach, peppers, cabbage, garlic, and carrots are just some of the amazing options that will start turning back time for your body.

Alternately, fasting and calorie restriction have also been shown to have healthful benefits for our cells. There are several mechanisms behind the helpful effects of restricting calories, including improved cellular turnover, better hormonal balance, and reduced oxidative stress—all of which lead to anti-aging effects. Due to the difficult nature of calorie restriction and the adverse effects of malnutrition if fasting is practiced long term, intermittent fasting is a more balanced approach for most people. This practice of waiting longer periods of time in between meals is associated with drops in insulin and increases in human growth hormone, both of which make weight management more successful. Plus, intermittent fasting provides the same benefits of calorie restriction through reducing oxidative stress and boosting cellular repair.

I usually recommend that people try to fast for at least 12 hours overnight and for six hours between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner. Everyone is different, so some people may need some snacks. Others may find it helpful to start with shorter fasts and work their way up to longer ones. Many people take intermittent fasting a step further, and practice extended fasts with significant calorie restriction a few times per week. It’s important to note that intermittent fasting is not the right approach for everyone—those who are underweight, fatigued, pregnant, breastfeeding, or dealing with an eating disorder should use a different approach to support their nutritional needs. If intermittent fasting is something you are interested in implementing, I recommend that you work with a nutritionist to make sure you are doing it effectively and safely.

The Waist-to-Hip Ratio

Body weight and composition also influence telomere length. Decreasing excess visceral fat (intra-abdominal fat) is helpful for controlling any enhanced aging that might be occurring (due to inflammation) while also reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. An easy way to assess your belly fat is to measure your waist-to-hip ratio. An ideal ratio is less than 0.8 for women and less than 0.9 for men.

Here’s how to take your waist-to-hip ratio measurements:

For your waist, wrap a measuring tape across your back, just above the highest point of the hip bone or halfway between there and the bottom of your tenth rib. Be sure the tape is horizontal to the floor, just above the navel. The tape should be snug but not compressing the skin; you should be able to breathe normally.

For your hips, measure at the widest point, right below the bones of your pelvis and around your buttocks.

Next, divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement.

Measuring this ratio monthly is a great way to track your progress.

Lifestyle Changes

Exercise is an important lifestyle choice that has anti-aging effects, possibly because it produces a compound that acts to protect the telomeres. Including both aerobic and resistance training into your weekly routine is ideal for supporting a lean body composition. It’s also important to get at least eight hours of sound, restful sleep each night, so that your body has time to relax and repair.

Stress-reduction techniques are another valuable tool to slow the aging process in the body. We know that stress increases inflammatory hormonal imbalances, which contribute to oxidative stress within the body. Research shows that meditation can reduce the stress arousal process and may also assist with maintaining healthy telomeres.

Beneficial Supplements

While diet and lifestyle are cornerstones for a healthy aging process, supplements can lend an extra hand in making sure you get all the necessary nutrients for optimal health. I recommend a good quality multivitamin—look for one with the methylated version of folate, instead of folic acid, to support your neurological, cardiovascular, and detoxification systems. A high-quality omega-3 supplement is also really beneficial for the skin, brain, and cardiovascular function while fighting inflammation in the body, and vitamin D—in which many of us are deficient—is a powerful fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in bone health and hormonal balance.

As you can see, there are many accessible and effective practices for slowing the aging process and supporting your body’s ability to stay strong, vibrant, and youthful.

Boost your health in a program with Elizabeth Boham at Kripalu.

Elizabeth Boham, MD, MS, RD, practices functional medicine at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and is on the faculty of the Institute for Functional Medicine.

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