Science proves that our choices affect our long-term health and can even lengthen our lives. This evidence is found in what science calls telomeres. Telomeres are a vital part of our cells, located at the end of each strand of DNA, that protect and encase the chromosomes within. The condition of telomeres varies from person to person, depending on our health, and directly correlate with the aging and degenerative processes. Regardless of our chronological age, they offer an estimation of our biological age. As we become ill, expose the body to compromising materials or substances, or even as a byproduct of stress, telomeres gradually wear down. As a result, our lifestyles impact the length of these gene-protecting agents, meaning death moves closer on our timeline. In other words, the shorter the telomere, the closer we are to the date of death. However, there is good news. Studies have shown that diminishing of these sleeve-like DNA caps can be either dramatically slowed, halted, or even reversed (dramatic reversal is rarer and depends on the situation). Because they are affected by lifestyle, stress level, diet, activity, individual happiness, sleep regimen, and more, we can begin to reclaim telomere length by making positive changes in our lives.
Understand that, when we discuss telomeres and the issue of decisions, we’re looking at ways to change your well-being that don’t require any special status or financial investment, gym memberships, or specialized medical therapy. You may be surprised to learn that 80 percent of the health of these life-determining gene-sleeves can be changed for the better by the everyday choices that we make.
Have you ever parted ways with a friend, then reunited several years later to see that they somehow looked younger than in previous years? (We touched on this earlier, in our discussion about obesity). Surely, upon inquiring, you learn that the friend made some life changes that increased his or her happiness or relieved stress. We’ve all known people who have been in an abusive relationship, a high-tension or demanding job, or otherwise had a life filled with unhealthy indulgences, and we’ve seen the evidence show on their body and in their countenance. Seeing such people make adaptations to their lives often slows or reverses the aging process.
Another liberating factor when considering telomeres is that we know we aren’t powerless. While we don’t always have a choice in whether we suffer, we can take solace in the fact that we determine whether our suffering will continue to escalate unchecked. This is no anomaly before God. He has placed control of many physical and psychological issues in our very own hands.
Epigenome is another term you may have heard related to health issues. It refers to a construct of proteins and body chemicals that can attach to DNA and literally activate or deactivate genes. Research has shown that “lifestyle…[such as] nutrition, behavior, stress, physical activity, working habits, smoking and alcohol consumption…[and] environmental…factors may influence epigenetic mechanisms.”[i] In short, the decisions we make and the way we live can turn on certain parts of our genetic makeup while subverting others completely. The indication is that, even if we fear the worst for our genetic alignment, we can alter by making choices that cause it to turn on positive, immune-supporting genes, while suppressing those that cause excessive inflammation, chemical or hormone imbalance, or leave us vulnerable to illness. This literally gives us the cognitive power to influence the expression or depression of our own gene extension.
Another term you’ll hear throughout this book is “mitochondria.” These are sack-type structures in cells that convert materials to energy, process fat, and initiate cell regeneration. The inner lining of the mitochondria has many “folds,” for lack of a better word, and within these folds dwell proteins that help create energy through a complicated chemical exchange process called the Krebs, or citric acid, cycle.[ii] One cell could have hundreds or even thousands of mitochondria within, and these fascinating elements work with seeming autonomy within our bodies to keep us healthy. They can destroy neighboring damaged mitochondrial cells, even by functioning independently or networking together. They contribute to muscular, neurological, cognitive, hormonal, and metabolic stability and health, and their dysfunction can compromise well-being or even cause fatality.
As we age, our mitochondrial functions deteriorate. The more rapidly this drop occurs, the more quickly we age. This contributes to why some folks may appear physically older or younger than their age: mitochondrial care, function, and activity largely dictates our youthfulness and well-being throughout adult life. Similarly, as these microorganisms age, they often experience a decline in energy production, malfunction, or even mutate, lending vulnerability to the onset of disorder or disease. Preserving the health and stability of our mitochondrial genes ensures the same for our overall health.
However, studies have shown that in the early processes of aging, the communication between mitochondria and the host cell is disturbed as a result of chemical degradation over time. To put it into everyday language, the cell sends inadequate signals to the mitochondria requesting energy, which results in the mitochondrial output being less than requested.[iii] This causes a rundown state to perpetuate within cells, opening the door to aging and illness. But, if we can maintain our mitochondrial well-being and open lines of communication between these entities and their hosts at an early enough stage, we can potentially delay or even reverse the aging process.[iv] Many researchers are looking into ways of replenishing cell chemicals that would bolster this communication, but mitochondria respond to the conditions of our daily lives. If we practice healthy living, we preserve the vitality of these important microorganisms, and vice versa.
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WHAT HAPPENED TO SHARON GILBERT!? THESE SIMPLE CHOICES DID THIS!?
Our bodies are capable of initiating a process called mitochondrial biogenesis, which refers to shedding damaged or unhealthy mitochondria and regenerating new ones. This is induced by placing just enough stress on the system that it triggers what is known as mitohormesis, the body’s response to an element that, in small doses, is beneficial, but in larger quantities can be detrimental. Exercise is a prime example of this. When the mitohormesis response has initiated, the body produces a protein called PGC-1 alpha, which then deploys mitochondrial biogenesis.[v] The body rejuvenates cells, removes dead or dying cellular tissue, and refurbishes it with a new, healthy supply. This prevents illness and keeps the quality of life high by helping us feel vibrant, youthful, energetic, healthy, and emotionally balanced. Other ways of inducing mitochondrial biogenesis—such as cold shock, heat shock, fasting, and ketones—will be discussed at more length throughout the book.
The Answers Simplify
Interesting to note in searching for the keys to good health is that the more we seek answers, the simpler they become. The large, life-changing revelations that we often look for are usually so small that they can only be seen with a microscope. So many people are looking to heal organs such as the liver, lungs, heart, pancreas, and so on, but all too often we overlook the very building blocks those organs are made from. When we take interest in healing our bodies on a cellular level, we find ourselves, again, seeing redundantly basic and yet often overlooked themes: sleep, diet, and exercise. It is blissfully liberating that such guileless answers are at the center of our search. Essentially, we can obtain much of the relief we seek via our own choices. By focusing on fostering healthy cells, we receive the benefit of having vigorous bodies. If the cells that make up our organs are in good shape, then these tissues are inclined to follow suit.
Meditation and Prayer
There is an increasing interest in the scientific and medical fields regarding the power of prayer and meditation. In fact, a study released by the University of Rochester stated that more than 85 percent of people facing serious illness pray. Some experts assert that prayer and meditation are powerful tools, while others scoff, placing placebo-type labels on these activities. (Ironically, the very fact that a placebo has an effect is, in itself, validation of the point.) However, as we’ve discussed, just as the defense response triggered by the body causes inflammation, compromised immunity, and imbalance of body chemicals and hormones, prayer and meditation have been discovered to trigger an opposing response. This is known as “the relaxation response…[wherein] the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and… [breathing] becomes calmer and more regular.”[vi] Genes that would dispatch inflammation throughout the body are disabled, and brainwaves that occur during the relaxation response are correlated with feelings of empowerment, tranquility, and control. Considering that more than half of the visits to American doctors’ offices are for treatment of illnesses to which stress, depression, and anxiety greatly contribute, it becomes clear that “the relaxation response” can be seen as a type of preventative medicine for chronic illness.
University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Andrew Newberg conducted a study on prayer and meditation and found that those who pray/meditate experience increased levels of dopamine, the hormone and neurotransmitter associated with happiness and a sense of well-being. Furthermore, the National Institute of Health funded a study that revealed that people who pray are “40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure”[vii] than those who do not, which contributes to better relaxation, stress management, and quality and quantity of sleep. Dartmouth Medical researchers indicate that patients who persistently hold spiritual values are “three times more likely to recover” than those who don’t have such values.[viii] The list of studies linking prayer and meditation to wellness and healing abound, and, whether or not a person believes in God, these revelations support an argument for such practices.
Prayer sets the mind on the positive and fills it with hope. Faith grows when we pray, and stress is relieved when we realize we’re not alone, and that we have a higher force to lean on and ask for help. Likewise, prayer relaxes the body, remedies inner turmoil that contributes to illness, and gives us better control over our thought patterns. The benefits are spiritual, mental, and physical.
The subjects we’ve discussed so far in this series are the primary steps to creating a new life for yourself and your loved ones. You can implement them while you begin to learn more about how your body interacts with nature in the upcoming entries. We prayerfully hope you’ll start to make these changes and find healing in Jesus’ Name.
UP NEXT: THE SECRETS OF Circadian Rhythm
[i] Alegria-Torres, Jorge; Baccarelli, Andrea; & Bollati, Valentina. “Epigenetics and Lifestyle.” NCBI US National Library of Medicine: National Institute of Health. August 26, 2013. Accessed January 29, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3752894/.
[ii] Long, Jeremy; Tymoczko, John; & Stryer, Lubert. Biochemistry, 5th Ed. (New York: WH Freeman, 2002). Ch. 17. Retrieved on March 4, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21163/.
[iii] Serious Science. “The Role of Mitochondria in Aging and Disease.” March 6, 2014. YouTube Video: 13:27. Retrieved March 4, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3ncUYKme4k.
[v] Dabrowska, Aleksandra; Venero, Jose Luis; Iwasawa; et. al. “PGC-1a Controls Mitochondrial Biogenesis and Dynamics in Lead-induced Neurotoxicity.” US National Library of Medicine. September, 2015. Accessed March 4, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4600622/.
[vi] Schiffman, Richard. “Why People Who Pray Are Healthier Than Those Who Don’t.” Huffpost Online. January 18, 2012. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-people-who-pray-are-heathier_b_1197313.
[viii] Wommack, Keith. “Column: Do You Have a Healthy Attitude?” Midlothian Mirror. September 17, 2013. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.midlothianmirror.com/article/20130917/Opinion/309179969.