by Nils Osmar. Updated Sept. 16, 2o23
I was walking with a friend recently and mentioned to her that I was taking a supplement called astragalus to protect my telomeres (the little end caps on the strands of our DNA, which protect the integrity of our DNA). I’ll sometimes alternate it with a different herb called ashwagandha, which has a similar telomere-boosting effect.
Some folks compare telomeres to the caps on the end of shoelaces, though this is a little oversimplified. A better way to look at them might be as the “step” a worker stands on when repairing damage in the strand of DNA. When the step gets too short, there’s nowhere for the workers to stand, so they can’t repair that part of the DNA anymore. Eventually there’s nowhere left to stand.
My friend asked an interesting question, which is: “Why does it matter that they’re getting shorter? Our DNA does its work when we’re created, when a human sperm fertilizes a human egg. Based on that genetic information, we grow up to be human beings (not frogs, fish, flowers, or other forms of life). At that point, our chromosomes have done their work. Why should it be an issue if they get damaged after that?”
The answer has to do with cell division. As we go through our lives, our cells are replaced numerous times. Some types of cells are replaced literally every day; others, every four months; others, every twenty years.
The point being, our body isn’t just built once, then forgotten (by our DNA). Different parts of it are rebuilt many times as we go through our lives, as old cells die and new ones are created. Each time this happens, the body uses the same chromosomal blueprint.
The Trouble with Telomeres
The problem is that each time the cells are recreated, they end up with shorter telomeres on the end caps of the chromosomes. Shorter telomeres result in an increasing number of genetic errors, and in cells that function more and more poorly as the years go by. The blueprint is still there, presumably, but it’s getting frayed and hard to read.
The result is that by the time we’re really old, our cells, tissues and organs are functioning poorly. The cells finally reach a point where they can’t reproduce at all, due to the DNA in them having very short telomeres.
One side effect is that our bodies gets clogged with senescent cells –– old, broken, damaged cells which are leaching out toxins and damaging enzymes into neighboring cells.
We’re not stuck with senescent cells; we can get rid of at least some of them by doing things like fasting. Going without food for 3 to 5 days (or doing a 3 to 5 day fasting mimicking diet) puts out body into a survival mode in which it seeks out and cannibalizes senescent cells for fuel because no food is coming in. At that point, our bodies actually use the damaged telomeres to identify which cells to kill and use for fuel during this starvation period.
The connection between telomeres and aging is a relatively new discovery. The researchers who discovered it won the Nobel Prize for medicine a few years ago for the discovery. They also discovered that telomere shortening could be stopped and reversed by an enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase repairs telomere damage and makes telomeres longer, resulting in more cell divisions with more accurate replication of our DNA in each division.
After that, they went looking for things that could increase the production of telomerase in the body. They found that, among other things, eating certain foods did so, and that:
Astragalus Lengthens Telomeres.
- Both astragalus and ashwagandha are immune system stimulators and have other benefits. They’ve been taken for centuries in China, where they’re a part of traditional Chinese medicine. Both are adaptogenic herbs. If you take one or both of gthem, your telomeres should get longer as the years go by, not shorter.
- No one knows if increasing our telomerase will actually increase the human lifespan. (Life extending benefits have been found in silkworms, but not in mammals.) Both do, though, appear to have anti-aging benefits.
- I’m currently taking both astragalus and ashwaghanda supplements from Gaia Herbs, because I like the company and have had good experiences with their products.
Don’t Take Telomerase Boosters When Fasting
One caveat: You should not take astragalus or ashwagandha (or other telomerase boosters) when doing a prolonged fast. This is because the body looks for damaged telomeres so it can identify which cells to cannibalize. Astragalus helps repair telomere damage, but it does not remove old cells from senescence. So a bout of prolonged fasting is not a time when you want to be repairing telomere damage. (Your body will be unable to locate senescent cells to remove them.) (And there is also a concern among some researchers that more telomerase may increase the growth of cancer, if there are any cancer cells in our bodies).
But when we’re not fasting, and assuming we don’t already have cancer, it seems likely that keeping our telomeres shipshape, strengthening them and making them longer, will be something we can do to protect our DNA from more damage and lengthen our lifespans.