This book is written by two of the most badass women in science; health psychologist, Dr. Elissa Epel, and molecular biologist, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn.
I became aware of Elizabeth Blackburn’s work in college. As an eager biology major I wrote about her groundbreaking, Nobel Prize winning work on telomerase for a class project. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to discover that Elizabeth Blackburn had partnered with Elissa Epel to write a guide for lay people on how to protect your telomeres and build overall health.
In the Telomere Effect, they take a holistic approach discussing various factors that impact telomeres, including socioeconomic status, psychological factors, diet, exercise, sleep, and more. This is the perfect read for holistically minded health practitioners who want a treasure-trove of practical, science-based wellness tips.
To begin, I’ll define a few terms. Telomeres are the segments of noncoding DNA at the end of your chromosomes. Telomerase is the enzyme that can add base pairs back to your telomeres. Telomeres shorten with each cell division and are thought to be a marker for biological age. When your telomeres get short enough, they become senescent, which means they stop dividing and can create pro-inflammatory signals that contribute to the aging process. While it is, of course, slightly more complicated than this, there is some thought that the length of your telomeres is a rough proxy for biological age. Thus, there is a lot of interest in discovering interventions that either maintain or increase telomere length, and presumably also increase healthspan.
I would recommend that everyone buy and read the whole book but as a teaser, here are two of my favorite take-aways:
Changing your stress response style determines whether stress is good or bad for you.
Stress is an inevitable part of life. How we view the stress in our lives goes a long way to determine how it impacts our physiology (including our telomeres). In the book they say, “chronic stress does not inevitably damage our telomeres” and our stress response style largely determines whether stress is friend or foe.
Our predominant response to threat is determined by a number of things (including our trauma history) but it can be changed with a few techniques.
More specifically, in response to chronic stress, we can either have a threat or a challenge response. A threat response essentially prepares us to shut down and handle the pain of a life-threatening encounter by constricting blood flow. A challenge response helps you gather your resources for a big event.
Which response gets initiated is largely determined by your appraisal of the stress in your life.
Here is how to adopt a challenge response and diminish the negative impact of stress in your life:
How to elicit a challenge response :
Next time you notice the physical sensations of a stress response (no matter what the stress response is initiated from), say to yourself, “this is good stress, energizing me so I can perform well!” If that is not totally appropriate phrase for the situation, you can also say, “Bring it on!” knowing your physical response is helping you rise to the challenge at hand. These mantras help you reappraise your body's signals and state of high arousal as a source of fuel that will help your brain and body work more efficiently, rather as something to be feared and avoided.
If the source of stress is nerves associated with performance anxiety, you can tell yourself, “I’m excited” instead of, “I’m terrified”. Telling yourself that you are calm in this situation is not a good strategy as it is much easier to switch to another high arousal state - like excitement - rather than to a low arousal state like calm.
2. Exercise protects against the negative impacts of chronic stress
It is true that stress in itself is not necessarily harmful. We are meant to experience small bursts of stress followed by periods of recovery. Stress becomes a threat to our health when it is chronic and unrelenting over time.
The book talks about how chronic stress does indeed shorten telomeres, but they also offer some hopeful news.
Even if you are experiencing chronic stress, exercise can protect you from its damaging effects.
They show this by citing a study of stressed-out female caregivers. Generally, women who had high levels of perceived stress had shorter telomeres. But the women with high levels of stress who also exercised regularly no longer showed this pattern. It appears exercise protected against the telomere shortening impacts of stress! (for the scientific paper that shows this link here).
It’s such a great reminder that even when we feel like it least, small amounts of exercise can be a vital tool for discharging stress (both mentally and on a cellular level)!
For more incredibly intriguing tools and the science behind why they work, I’d highly recommend buying the book.