Tag Archives: genetics

Longer Telomeres for Longer Lives

How do we live longer healthier lives? Is it inevitable that our cells will stop functioning properly and we will get chronic degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia? My goal is to support my body now so that I can delay the “inevitable” for as long as possible.

We can keep our DNA and therefore our bodies functioning optimally by emphasizing healthy diet and exercise. A recent small study by Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated that following a healthy lifestyle plan could actually lengthen our telomeres. Telomeres are the genetic caps on the end of each DNA strand. I think of them like these plastic protectors on the ends of shoelaces.

shoelaces
As our cells divide, our DNA is copied. With each copy, the telomeres get a little shorter. Eventually, we can lose so much of our telomeres that our DNA is not longer protected. The cells produced at this point don’t have all the tools they need to be fully functioning cells and our health can suffer.

The shortening of telomeres has been linked to many chronic diseases including some forms of cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes. Because of this, some people regard telomere length to be the best marker of our true biological age.
In Dr. Ornish’s study, participants followed a plant-based diet, exercised regularly, and participated in stress reduction activities like gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing exercises, and meditation. The 10 men doing these lifestyle interventions had a 10% increase in the length of their telomeres over 5 years. The control group showed a 3% decrease in their telomere length during that time.

Life Style Changes_graphic_v2

This was just a small study using participants who had prostate cancer, so we cannot definitely say that everyone making similar healthy changes will see the same results. We also need more studies that confirm that longer telomeres contribute to longer healthier lives, but we know that these types of beneficial changes make sense anyways. Additionally, another study showed that women who took multivitamins had longer telomeres that their peers the same age who didn’t.
I consider studies like these to be further motivation for us to make these types of healthy changes to our lives. They give us hope that we can even undo some of the damage we might have already done by making better choices today.

Is Methylfolate for You?

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about methylfolate for a while since the genetic variation in how we process folic acid can sometimes have a huge impact on heart, mood, and overall health. I’ve been delaying because it is not a simple topic, but here is a basic introduction to it.

Our bodies use several active forms of folic acid, one of these being methylfolate, or more scientifically 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Methylfolate is necessary to activate B12 and make SAMe, which in turn is necessary for some detoxification processes, neurotransmitter production, and proper genetic expression. Methylfolate is also used to neutralize of homocysteine, an amino acid derivative that is possibly implicated in heart disease. B12 is also needed for this last process.

DNA image courtesy of Svilen Milev

DNA photo courtesy of Svilen Milev

Between 10-20% of the population has a genetic variation in their ability to make methylfolate. Most people with this genetic variation will still have one gene that is functional and probably make adequate methylfolate. Other people have two bad copies of the genes and will be deficient in this active form of folate.

Especially with this last case, these genetic variations can lead to very serious health conditions. These can range from common mood issues like depression to serious mental health disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I also see these genetic differences more commonly in my patients with ADD and autism. Because of the reduced ability to neutralize toxins, people with these genetic issues can have increased rates of autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Another variant in this gene can lead to an increase in conditions that are caused by blood clots like heart attacks and strokes. Finally, this genetic variation can cause an increase in birth defects and miscarriages.

So the solution to this genetic issue can be simple sometimes and more complex for others. Since the eventual end product of this gene is methylfolate (or more precisely 5-methyltetrahydrofolate), we can take this as a supplement and bypass the problem. The dosage can depend on the person so I start low unless there has been adequate testing. Where this gets challenge is that this genetic variation isn’t always the only one. Taking methylfolate can help us make epinephrine, an excitatory brain chemical. For some types of depression, this can be very useful, but others have trouble breaking down epinephrine due to other genetic mutations. For these people, they can build up too much of this stimulating epinephrine and experience anxiety.

For people who are really curious about these possible genetic variations, the good news is that genetic testing in now really inexpensive. For $119, you can get a full panel from 23andme.com, which is then translated by the Sterling App. This approach can help you and your doctor better understand how to balance your supplements for your genes.