- May 13, 2016
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Omega-3s Might Turn Back the Clock
New research pools together all the relevant studies on how fish oil and omega-3s affect your DNA. The findings will leave you gobsmacked.
Fish Oil and ShoelacesRemember the last pair of frayed shoelaces you had? The little plastic thingies at the ends of the laces – known as aglets – gradually flaked away, leaving you with a clump of unruly fibers that made it hard to thread the laces through the eyelets of your Chucks. If you have ever had that experience, you’re on the cusp of gaining an understanding of how chromosomes age and deteriorate.
Here’s why: At the end of each chromosomal arm or “lace” is a specialized structure known as a telomere 22 that’s composed of a specific sequence of nucleotides and associated proteins. In effect, it’s one of the chromosome’s “aglets,” and every time a cell divides, this mock aglet gets shorter.
If they get too short, they can start to unfold. It’s the biological equivalent of that frayed end of a shoelace, only instead of causing you to trip and fall into a canal, they wreak havoc on your health.
On average, each cell is gifted with about 15,000 base pairs (the pairs of nucleotides connecting complementary strands of DNA or RNA), and each time a cell divides, we lose about 250 of them. This phenomenon is called the “end-replication problem.”
In effect, the chromosomes are being worn down to the nub. The short telomeres that caused the chromosomal fraying lead to something called “replicative senescence,” which means the cell’s too damn old to divide. Genetic instability ensues, possibly leading to cancer, cellular old age, or programmed cell self-destruction (apoptosis). Tissue growth or repair is handicapped, if not completely knee-capped.
If enough of these cells reach replicative senescence, the organ or system to which they belong might fail, leading to disease or death.
Too bad you can’t just swap out frayed telomeres with a fresh set of laces and brand-spanking new aglets from The Shoe Barn and reset this biological clock. But there’s hope. Scientists don’t know if it’s possible to lengthen telomeres, but they do know that we can at least prevent them from shortening.
One thing that keeps coming up long-telomere-stemmed roses in regard to attenuating shortening is omega-3 fatty acids, of which fish oil is a primary source.
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A Real-Life Version of Blade Runner“The degree of telomere shortening is proportional to the risk of death…” So said the authors of a new paper on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on telomeres. (Ogluszka, et al, 2022)
You need to understand that this wasn’t some weak paper reporting the results of omega-3 fatty acids on a single group of three or four down-on-their-luck mice who had volunteered to be part of a scientific study. Nope, this was one of those elegant studies that looks at all the studies on a particular subject, including humans and animals.
Before they presented the research, though, the authors first had to tackle the question of exactly how telomere length relates to senescence. The news is humbling. They offered that all human non-reproductive cells (everything except eggs and sperm) are slaves to something called the Hayflick limit.
Named for scientist Leonard Hayflick, the Hayflick limit says that human cells can only divide a certain number of times. In the case of fibroblasts (cells that form connective tissue), they can only divide about 50 times, plus or minus 10 or so. Once the cells are shortened beyond a critical length, the whole process of division falls apart.
The idea that we’re all nothing but sophisticated wind-up clocks is humbling. It’s like the movie Blade Runner brought to life, and we’re all just replicants with a pre-programmed lifespan. However, rather than tacitly accept our fate and say, “Time to die,” there appear to be some things that at least slow down the clock and possibly turn it back, omega-3s among them.
Old People, Chinese People, Fat Kids, and Testicles TooOgluszka and her colleagues offered a sizeable mound of evidence supporting the role of omega-3s on telomere length, starting with a study of more than 600 patients with coronary artery disease (CAD). (Farzaneh-Far et al. 2010) The scientists found strong evidence for an association between omega-3 fatty acid consumption and telomere length.
Likewise, a Chinese study compared 711 patients with CAD to 638 CAD-free controls and found levels of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, positively correlated with telomere length. (Chang, et al. 2020)
“What about fat kids?” is probably what you’re asking. Maybe not. Still, omega-3s seem to affect their telomere length too. A study involving forty-six obese 3 to 4-year-olds found that they had shorter telomeres (in leukocytes, aka white blood cells) and lower intakes of DHA than age and sex-matched children of normal weight. (Liu, 2021)
Still another study showed that telomere shortening in whole blood can be remedied by the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. (O’Callaghan, et al. 2014) Forty-four elderly people were divvied up into three groups: a diet rich in omega-6s, an EPA group (1.67 g of EPA plus 0.40 grams of DHA daily), and a DHA group (1.55 g of DHA plus 0.40 g of EPA daily).
Positive changes in telomere length were seen in the group that had the greatest increases in red blood cell DHA levels. And there are plenty of other corroborating studies, too.
To be fair, several studies found no correlation between telomere length and omega-3 fatty acids, but Ogluszka’s group was unshaken in their beliefs about the association, reasoning that these outlier studies used different methods to assess the effects of omega-3s (food-frequency questionnaires, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, etc.), any of which could have resulted in discrepancies.
Several rodent studies have also been conducted on the association. I won’t test your tolerance for minutiae further, but I do want to point out two interesting findings. One was from a study on omega-3s and telomere attrition on rat testicles that found a positive association between the two.
I only include that because the idea that omega-3s might extend the health of my testicles is comforting to me and possibly you.
More importantly, though, that same rodent study found that omega-3 supplementation not only reduced the rate of telomere attrition, it also elongated hepatic (liver) telomeres. Yeah, you read that right – omega 3s might reverse the aging process.
Do Certain Things Accelerate Telomere Shortening?Everybody with an IQ that has a fightin’ chance of hitting three digits knows that smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, and lack of exercise are contrary to the goal of living above ground for a long time.
One of the reasons all those aforementioned abuses of your body are bad is because they all cause inflammation and oxidative stress, each of which contributes to telomere shortening. What happens is that inflammation spurs the production of “radical oxygen species” (ROS) and they, in turn, shorten telomeres. One theory, tossed out by Ogluszka and her team, is that this oxidative stress puts the kibosh on cells, causing the survivors to undergo more cell divisions, thereby getting closer to their Hayflick limit.
Another theory is that ROS attack the telomere directly, causing breaks in individual strands, which messes up the whole replication process and leads to additional telomere shortening.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially omega-3s, however, are associated with lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers (IL-6, IL-1ra, TNF, and CRP), along with higher levels of several anti-inflammatory markers, among them soluble IL-6r, IL-10, and TGF-beta.
Lastly, omega-3s might just plain slow down the rate of cell division, as several studies seem to indicate.
Death From All CausesClearly – unless you’re a chronic skeptic or naysayer – it’s a good idea to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of omega-3s in your diet. Not only do they appear to preserve or even lengthen telomeres, they also appear to extend life in the following ways:
- High levels of omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and triglycerides while making platelets less “sticky” (thus making strokes less likely).
- High levels of omega-3 fatty acids lower chronically elevated levels of mTOR, thus showing benefits against metabolic syndrome and other conditions/diseases (in addition to depression 3).
“In summary, in a global pooled analysis of prospective studies, LC (long chain) n-3 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids) levels were inversely associated with risk for death from all causes…”
What’s the Best Way to Get More Omega 3s (Along with One Piece of Important Advice)?The predominant source of omega-3s is the oil from cold-water fish. You could probably do acceptably well just by eating a can of salmon or tuna every day, assuming you could somehow ensure you were, in the case of the latter, buying a brand that had low levels of mercury (which could, if it accumulates in your body, negatively affect your health).
Suffice it to say that, in practical terms, it means that popping a couple of fish oil capsules after eating your low-fat breakfast of oatmeal, egg whites, and blanched asparagus nibs isn’t going to let fish oil do its job. Instead, take it with your highest-fat meal of the day, which is usually dinner. Alternately, take it with a morning, mid-day, or evening protein shake 14 that’s been laced with a tablespoon or two of olive oil.