Stanford University researchers were stunned. In a recent experiment that grabbed headlines around the world, they saw one in three stroke survivors who received stem-cell injections directly into the brain achieve dramatic improvements. One 71-year-old, wheelchair-bound study volunteer even could walk again. While this amazing stem-cell therapy is decades away from widespread use, it got us thinking about the power of stem cells and what you can do to keep yours healthy.
Turns out, stem cells hang out virtually everywhere in the human body, from your brain (the researchers used some from volunteers’ own brains for that study), bones and bloodstream to your muscles, skin, teeth and heart. When needed, they spring into action to repair or replace damaged tissue. But stem cells can die off or become less active as we age, slowing the body’s ability to repair itself.
Protecting or even lengthening your telomeres — the protective caps on the ends of the DNA in cells, including stem cells — can help your stem cells remain more robust. You see, telomeres get shorter with age and from not-so-healthy habits. But the right moves can maintain or even lengthen them, which science suggests could give your stem cells a new lease on life.
While no one has done a study that follows the health of people who’ve lengthened their telomeres yet, as one of the researchers observed: “Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases. We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan.”
The exciting part? There’s plenty you can do to keep your stem cell repair-and-rejuvenation team in tip-top shape. The key: Healthy steps aimed at pampering telomeres.
On the “don’t” list? Smoking, which speeds telomere aging by 18 percent, and being obese, which accelerates telomere aging by a scary 30 percent.
On the do-this-more-often list? Four steps in one study lengthened telomeres by an impressive 10 percent over five years:
▪ Smart food swaps. Banish the Five Food Felons, and start adding more plant-based goodies to your meals. Skip added sugars and simple syrups, most saturated fat, all trans fats and any grains that aren’t 100 percent whole. Load up on vegetables, fruit, plant-based proteins like beans and tofu. Great start: A bowl of luscious summer berries instead of a dessert loaded with saturated fat, refined flour and sugar.
▪ 30 minutes of activity every day. Take a walk or a spin on your bike, swim or stroll on your treadmill. Do it daily; break it into two, 15-minute chunks if time is tight. Great start: A stroll after dinner tonight. If the weather’s not cooperating or if you can’t get outside, march in place in your living room. Exercise may help two ways: It seems to lengthen telomeres and also can help ease mild depression, which can cause telomere shortening.
▪ Melt stress today and again tomorrow. In the telomere study, men spent an hour a day practicing stress-reduction techniques. If you don’t have a spare hour to cultivate serenity, don’t sweat it. We’ve seen evidence that even five minutes of tension-melting meditation can make a big difference. Find a quiet spot, sit comfortably, shut your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Add progressive muscle relaxation, tensing and releasing muscle groups from your toes up to your head. Don’t underestimate this step; research shows that stress reduces the effectiveness of an enzyme that replenishes your telomeres.
▪ Hang out with your favorite people. A growing stack of research finds associations between feeling tense and worried, and shorter telomeres. Feeling loved, comforted and safe can ease anxiety. So spend time weekly (or more often) with the folks who know and love you. Could be friends, neighbors, family, folks from your faith community or making time for tea after the Friday-night bowling league. There’s a reason socializing feels so deep-down good: We’re wired to be healthier when we’re connected.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit www.sharecare.com.