How your lifestyle can actually *change* your genes

By Alive & Well


In 2009 an Australian-born, American-based biological scientist, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, won a Nobel Prize for her discovery, with two other researchers Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Photographer: Ibai Acevedo

What’s that, you say?

In normal language, your DNA is your blueprint. It’s what makes you YOU and not your sister, cousin or Whoopi Goldberg.

In every cell in your body you have your entire blueprint, which consists of approximately 3 billion DNA ‘letters’ (namely C, G, A and T) in special sequences, formed into 23 pairs of chromosomes.

The chromosomes are kind of like your instruction manual and, in different parts of your body, they turn different parts of the blueprint on, allowing each cell to play its role as a liver cell, heart cell, muscle cell, eye cell etc.

At the end of every chromosome stands a telomere, protecting those vital DNA letters. Dr Blackburn compares them to the aglets on your shoelace – you know those little plastic sleeves at the end of each shoelace? (Did you even know they have their own name? I didn’t!) They protect the shoelaces from fraying. The telomere is just like that, keeping the chromosome nice and safe.

Length of telomeres = length of life

Each time a cell divides to make a copy of itself (which is a continual process throughout our entire lives), the telomere shortens a bit. In the natural aging process, the telomeres eventually get too short and the cell dies. But with the help of an enzyme, called telomerase, that continually fixes and lengthens the telomeres, the cell renewal process can last a really long time.

So the upshot is – the longer the telomere, the more telomerase you have in your body, the better your DNA can work, the healthier you are, the more likely you are to live long and strong.

Specifically, research has shown that:

  • If you are chronically sick, your telomeres shorten faster [1]
  • The same thing happens if you are chronically stressed – and the stress need only be perceived, i.e. the same situation can be experienced by two different people (one with great coping mechanisms, one without) and result in two different stress outcomes, and two different impacts to the telomeres [2]
  • Other lifestyle factors like diet and exercise are big influencers too – you can shorten your telomeres by eating unhealthy food, being overweight and smoking, and you can stretch them out with exercise, fruit and vegetables, a lower body mass index and no smoking [3]

The critical thing about Blackburn and her colleagues’ discovery of telomeres and telomerase is that it gives us another scientific way to measure the effects of lifestyle on health, using undeniable biological markers. So we don’t need to rely on qualitative data to evaluate the positive impact of yoga or meditation or healthy eating – which is great, because modern day science is all about quantifiable data. Qualitative data does not hold the same value.

More recently, a doctor named Dean Ornish led some research into the effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on men with prostate cancer [1], and he found that in just 3 months their telomeres had lengthened by an incredible 30% (that’s a huge difference in only 3 months – no medication can achieve that). They had also brought on more than 500 changes in the men’s DNA – specifically, activating disease-preventing genes and ‘turning off’ genes associated with chronic diseases like cancer.

Now, I realise I’m a science nerd, but this stuff is truly remarkable.

You can change your genes by adjusting your lifestyle

That includes things like nurturing, supportive, loving relationships. Healthy foods – the real wholefood stuff that comes from the Earth. Positive attitudinal coping mechanisms. Stress reduction and spiritual connection techniques like yoga or meditation.

These so-called ‘soft’ changes make quantifiable, long-lasting changes to every cell in your body.

Can you feel the difference when you make lifestyle changes? What do you do to reduce stress (and lengthen your telomeres)?

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[1] Ornish D, Lin J, Daubenmier J, Weidner G, Epel E, Kemp C, Magbanua M, Marlin R, Yglecias L, Carroll P, 2008, Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study, The Lancet Oncology, 9 (11): 1048-1057
[2] Epel E, Blackburn EH, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Adler NE, Morrow JD, Cawthon RM, 2004, Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 101 (49): 17312-17315
[3] Mirabello L, Huang W, Wong JYY, Chatterjee N, Reading D, Crawford ED, De Vivo I, Hayes RB, Savage SA, 2009, The association between leukocyte telomere length and cigarette smoking, dietary and physical variables, and risk of prostate cancer, Aging Cell, 8 (4): 405-413