Are Your Telomeres Depressed?

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

November 7, 2014

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It never ceases to surprise me how many of my new patients are taking antidepressant drugs. Some of them haven’t even been to their previous doctor in a year or more. But the refills keep rolling in like clockwork.

Sadly, these meds – like Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Cymbalta, Wellbutrin and others – are the first line of defense most doctors use to combat depression.

As a functional physician, I really don’t like the idea of prescribing antidepressants. They’re addictive. They cloud your thinking. And, they can leave you feeling tired, dizzy and nauseous. They can also play havoc with your sex life – from lack of stamina to erectile dysfunction to massive weight increases.

I don’t know about you, but these side effects would make me feel even more depressed than I was to start with. Maybe this is one of the reasons why antidepressants are also linked to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide.

Now, I’m not saying depression should go untreated. Depression is a very serious health threat. People who are depressed are more likely to suffer from age-related disease, like diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke and dementia.

They’re also likely to age faster than people who don’t have depressive symptoms.

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You see, it turns out depression shortens telomeres. The more severe the depression and the longer in duration, the shorter your telomeres will be.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that telomeres are the protective strands of DNA at the end of your chromosomes. The more quickly your telomeres shorten, the faster you age. Longer telomeres, on the other hand, are associated with robust health and a longer lifetime.

Well, here’s something you’ll find interesting. Many of the best all-natural ways to put the brakes on depression can also preserve – and even lengthen – your telomeres!

The first line of defense when it comes to combatting depression, stress and anxiety should be exercise. Now, it’s not a magic bullet. However, it does increase the production of chemicals called endorphins. These hormones trigger a positive feeling in the body that improves your mood and makes you feel better.

But that’s not all exercise does for you. People who get moderate levels of physical activity tend to have longer telomeres than those who are inactive or highly active. They also have a smaller proportion of shortened telomeres. And, you get a boost in BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor).

I know it can be hard to get moving when you’re in a melancholy mood. That’s why I suggest using the buddy system. Or, you can set up a structured workout (like yoga or pilates with an instructor). The concept is simple: When you know somebody else is expecting you, you’re more likely to participate.

Diet is just as important as exercise. A diet loaded with processed and fried foods, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products increases your odds of depression. Eating more whole foods, like organic vegetables, fruits, and wild-caught fish high in omega-3s cuts those odds by almost half.

A diet filled with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is also key to preserving – and even lengthening – your telomeres. These types of foods are mainstays of the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with health and longevity. The more closely you stick with this type of diet, the longer your telomeres will be.

These two changes alone will go a long way when it comes to warding off depression. They’ll go even further when it comes to reversing some of the damage depression causes to your telomeres. But I have even more ammunition to share with you…

Low vitamin D levels can greatly increase your risk of depression. And guess what else happens if you aren’t getting enough of this vitamin? Your telomeres appear to be up to five years older than they should be.

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Unfortunately, this is one nutrient we’re severely lacking here in the U.S. A whopping three out of four American adults are deficient in this vitamin. But it’s easy enough to boost your levels of vitamin D to protect your telomeres and fight off depression.

Just 15 minutes of sunlight a day can help restore your precious vitamin D stores. If you choose to supplement, look for a formula that contains vitamin D3 in the cholecalciferol from. This is the most absorbable type you can buy. Take up to 5,000 IU each day, especially if you’ve been diagnosed as deficient, then recheck your blood levels in about three months.

People who are depressed or have mood disorders have something else in common, too. Reduced levels of folic acid and vitamin B12. And I’ll bet you’ve already guessed that low levels of these two B vitamins can also lead to telomere shortening and dysfunction.

But you can still regain an upbeat attitude and keep your telomeres from running down. Just supplement with 800 mcg. of activated folic acid and 1,000 mcg. of B12 daily. Look for a form of folic acid that contains folate from organic, dark-green, leafy veggies or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF).

The most important nutrients of all are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. These are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Low levels of these fatty acids are linked with both depression and an increased risk of suicide.

Just as importantly, omega-3 fish oil may be one of the most essential nutrients for telomere support. Omega-3s not only slow down telomere shortening, but can also help lengthen them. And it can happen in as little as four months.

I suggest investing in a high-quality fish oil supplement. They aren’t all created equal. Look for one that contains oil from fresh, wild-caught, deep sea fish. And make sure it’s been molecularly distilled and tested for purity (i.e., no mercury). Aim for 1,200 mg. of EPA and 800 mg. of DHA daily for telomere lengthening.

When you make these changes to reduce your depressive symptoms, you’ll also be gaining control of your aging process. And who doesn’t want to live a happier, healthier and longer life?

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Savela S, et al. “Physical activity in midlife and telomere length measured in old age.” Exp Gerontol. 2013 Jan;48(1):81-4.

Akbaraly TN, et al. “Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age.” Br J Psychiatry. 2009 Nov;195(5):408-13.

García-Calzón S, et al. “Longitudinal association of telomere length and obesity indices in an intervention study with a Mediterranean diet: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA trial.” International Journal of Obesity (2014) 38, 177–182.

Boccardi V, et al. “Mediterranean Diet, Telomere Maintenance and Health Status among Elderly.” PLoS ONE (2013) 8(4): e62781.

Hoang MT, et al. “Association between low serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and depression in a large sample of healthy adults: the Cooper Center longitudinal study.” Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 Nov;86(11):1050-5.

Richards JB, et al. “Higher serum vitamin D concentrations are associated with longer leukocyte telomere length in women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Nov;86(5):1420-5.

Coppen A, et al. “Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12.” J Psychopharmacol. 2005 Jan;19(1):59-65.

Moores CJ, et al. “Telomere dynamics: the influence of folate and DNA methylation.” Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 Jul;1229:76-88.

Lewis MD, et al. “Suicide deaths of active-duty US military and omega-3 fatty-acid status: a case-control comparison.” J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;72(12):1585-90.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, et al. “Omega-3 fatty acids, oxidative stress, and leukocyte telomere length: A randomized controlled trial.” Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Feb;28:16-24