This article is intended solely for informational purposes. It is not meant to be taken as, and should not be construed, as medical advice. Any changes to your lifestyle or diet should be done in consultation with your doctor or health care professional.


In this article I’ll be talking about how to protect your telomeres, improve your health, and, possibly, extend your lifespan. To see the information presented as a video, scroll to the bottom of this page. NOTE: I’ll be adding references to this article soon.

I was out walking with a friend recently, and mentioned that I’d been taking some supplements, and had made some other lifestyle changes, aimed at protecting my telomeres.

Some folks compare telomeres ––– the little protein structures found on the ends of our chromosomes  ––– to the little plastic caps on the end of shoelaces that keep our shoelaces from unraveling. A more accurate way to look at them would be as the “step” a worker stands on when repairing damage to a strand of DNA. When the step gets too short, there’s nowhere for the worker to stand, so they can’t repair the DNA anymore.


My friend asked why it would 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 matter 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 bodies aren’t just built once, then forgotten (by our DNA).  Different parts of them 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 problem is that each time the cells are recreated, they end up with shorter telomeres. This results in an increasing number of genetic errors, and in cells that function more and more poorly as the years go by. The chromosomal blueprint we were made from is still there, but due to telomere shortening, it’s getting frayed and hard to read. Telomere damage leads to DNA damage and to senescent cells.

Some researchers view the shortening of telomeres as more of a symptom of aging, like grey hair, poor eyesight or wrinkled skin. Others view it as a direct cause of aging, leading to physical decline and death. Whether they’re a symptom or a cause, the rate of telomere shortening does appear to be correlated with the pace of aging.


And short telomeres are associated with many forms of cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes and with a higher risk of pulmonary fibrosis and aplastic anemia.

Short telomeres have also been implicated in human reproductive problems, both in the body and in in vitro studies, and some researchers are looking into increasing telomere length as a possible fertility treatment.

One key effect of telomere shortening is that our bodies gets clogged with senescent cells, a.k.a zombie cells, which have badly damaged telomeres. As we age, more and more telomeres get frayed, and more and more of our cells become senescent, leaching out toxins and damaging enzymes into neighboring cells.  


Fortunately we’re not stuck with senescent cells; we can get rid of at least some of them by doing things like prolonged fasting. Going for 3 to 5 days without food puts the human body into a survival mode, in which it seeks out and cannibalizes senescent cells for fuel because no food is coming in. The body actually uses the damaged telomeres to identify which cells to kill and use for fuel during this starvation period.


The researchers who discovered the connection between telomere shortening and aging, 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.

They then went looking for things that could increase the production of telomerase in the body. According to a study which was published in The Lancet entitled “Lifestyle Changes May Lengthen Telomeres, A Measure of Cell Aging” and several other studies, we can increase our telomerase, and telomere length, by:

  1. Exercising regularly
  2. Eating a healthy diet
  3. Maintaining a good body weight
  4. Managing stress more effectively
  5. Taking supplements
  6. Avoiding smoking
  7. Limiting alcohol consumption
  8. and a few other interventions

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.


Even walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week, helps. HIIT and endurance training have also been found found to increase telomere length and inhibit cell death. 


This part’s a little tricky, because you’ll run into some misleading advice online from people who are only telling part of the story, often because they’re trying to promote a particular diet.


Research shows, for example, that diets high in fruit and vegetables are associated with telomere health.


But interestingly, so are diets rich in meat. In fact, a recent study found that the frequency with which we eat meat is directly correlated with an increase in telomere length. The researchers had expected to find that eating red meat resulted in shorter telomeres, but they found the opposite.

It’s not necessarily that the more meat we eat, the longer our telomeres will be, but that the more often we eat meat, the longer they’ll be.

In this sense, it might be better to eat a small amount of meat with every meal, than to eat a large amount just once a day, from the viewpoint of supporting our telomere length. 


Eating fish and other seafood, particularly ones which are rich in selenium, DHA and EPA, is strongly associated with longer telomeres. Researchers from the University of California found that patients with the highest levels of omega 3 fats had the slowest rate of telomere shortening. According to the Mayo Clinic, fatty fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon and lake trout, are most effective in increasing telomere length. Of course it’s a good idea to choose fish low in mercury when possible.

Putting all of these observations together, a diet that includes fish and other seafood along with organic vegetables and fruit, eggs, along with small but frequent servings of meat with most meals, appears to be an ideal one for supporting your telomere length. You could start with a typical Mediterranean diet, add a bit more fish and red meat, and you’d be there.

I’m not saying everyone has to eat this kind of diet. I know that people have all kinds of reasons for making different dietary choices ––– but that if you want to optimize your diet to support your telomeres, a diet like this would be ideal.


We should also look at what shouldn’t be in your diet. Some foods have been found to be associated with SHORTER telomeres. They include:

  • processed meat
  • soda, sugar and sugary beverages
  • soft drinks
  • sport drinks and energy drinks
  • fruit juice (because they’re high in fructose
  • diet sodas


Having too much body fat can create oxidative stress, damaging our telomeres. 

One solution might be to eat foods high in natural antioxidants, or even to take antioxidants.

But a more direct approach would be to make a decision to lose the excess fat. The idea that we can be obese and still be “healthy” by taking the right supplements is really not supported by the evidence.

I’m not saying that weight loss is easy. I was almost 60 pounds overweight at one point; I found intermittent fasting, ketosis, and alternate day fasting worked for me to lose and keep off the excess weight. 

Interestingly, during fasting, the percentage of body cells that have long telomeres increases. So there can be a benefit both to the loss of fat, and to the methods we use to get there.


Vitamins C, E, zinc and NAC (N-ACETL CYSTEINE) appear to protect telomeres and increase telomerase.  (The NAC is helpful because it triggers the production of glutathione.)

Another supplement that can benefit our telomeres is NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide). Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine found that increasing NAD levels  by giving lab animals NMN and activating their sirtuin genes had the effect of stabilized telomeres and reduced DNA damage, which in turn improved liver disease in a mouse model. Their study was published in a journal called Cell Metabolism.

So vitamin C, E, Zinc, NAC and NMN are all good for telomere health. I would add to this list both ASTRAGALUS and ASHWAGANDHA, two adaptogenic herbs which have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine. The anti-aging remedy TA-65 and its imitators all use astragalus extracts as their main components.


The effects of taking astragalus and ashwagandha are so potent that in my opinion, you shouldn’t take either of them during a prolonged  fast. One benefit of fasting is that your body cannibalizes senescent cells. It identifies them by their damaged telomeres.

So a bout of prolonged fasting, or a 3-5 day fasting mimicking diet, is not the time when you want to be repairing telomere damage, because fixing only the telomeres could mask the cells’ problems from your body. Your body will be unable to locate senescent cells to remove them. So I’m a big fan of taking both astragalus and ashwagandha, but not during long fasts.


Some studies have shown that the carcinogens and other toxins in cigarette smoke are directly correlated with shrinking telomeres. But other studies have contradicted that. There are good reasons to avoid smoking, in my opinion, but supporting our telomeres may not be one of them. We should try to avoid breathing heavily polluted air for the same reason.


This one is also a little tricky. Some studies have shown a correlation between drinking alcohol and telomere damage; others have not. Binge drinking does appear to damage and shorten telomeres. There is some evidence that taking vitamin B1 along with alcoholic beverages may help protect our telomeres.


Stress, in particular emotional stress, has been shown to damage and shorten our telomeres. So I’d say, take it seriously. If you’re in a stressful or toxic relationship, give yourself a deadline for either resolving the problems in it, or moving on.

Things like yoga, breathing exercises and some forms of meditation have all been found to heal and lengthen telomeres, possibly because they reduce stress.

I can’t prove it in a scientific sense, but I can say that one of the key things I learned years ago was that it can be helpful to create the space to let yourself feel and process emotions. If you’re sad and need to cry… go ahead and cry. I suspect that a lifetime spent bottling up emotions could be a main reason people get sick and old before their time.


People who made the changes recommended by the Lancet article experienced an increase in their telomere length, over five years’ time, of almost 10 percent. This was remarkable because typically, telomeres actually shorten with the passage of time. Those in the control group who didn’t make any changes had telomeres that were almost 3 percent shorter than they started out at the beginning of the study.

Activities that boost NAD, like taking cold showers and saunas, have also been found to increase telomere length.


A lot of research is currently going on related to lengthening our telomeres, and new information is being turned up over time. A recent study in Israel involved putting elderly patients inside a chamber in which they were given hyperbaric oxygen. This procedure increased the length of their telomeres by 20 percent, more than twice as much as the interventions recommended by the Lancet.


Can there be dangers in increasing our telomerase, the enzyme that heals and lengthens our telomeres? There may be. One concern among some researchers is that higher levels of telomerase may increase the growth of cancer. There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that increasing telomerase will trigger the growth of cancer where it doesn’t already exist, but if I had cancer, I’d stop taking astragalus and ashwagandha till I’d recovered from it.


I feel like my approach to what to do to protect my telomeres is evolving. I do eat lot of fish, omega 3s, and vegetables. I eat some red meat, but I’m not sure if I eat it often enough to help my telomeres. I take vitamin C, zinc, NAC, astragalus and ashwagandha and do HIIT exercise. I try to remember to take some time to relax and enjoy the sunshine. 

© Nils Osmar 2020