Longevity

Longevity; Telomeres and the Vagus for a long life

Cell division is longevity

As an engineer I always want to understand how the components form the whole.   When examining longevity, the components are the cells.  If our cells don’t live long and they stop dividing, then we die young.  

There are between 25 and 35 trillion ‘adult human’ cells in our bodies (not counting the microbiome).   Each cell type has its own life span.    Red blood cells live for about four months and white blood cells can live more than a year.  Skin cells live only about two or three weeks and at some point, they stop dividing.  That’s bad news if you want to look young.    It is the reason for women’s fascination for creams because if enough of them are dying, then the ‘valleys of death’ become deep and these valleys – in everyday language – are called wrinkles.

Colon cells are short-lived: they die off after about four days.  Sperm cells are also short-lived, their life expectancy is three days.   Immune cells have varying life-spans from weeks to a half year.   Scientists constantly work on this cell-division- longevity issue for instance now when they are trying to find new cures for Covid-19.  If the ‘memories’ §of for instance T-cells that are formed from Coronavirus vaccinations are ‘dying off’ too quickly, then we will need new vaccinations more often.  

Neuronal cells in the brain belong to the rare group of cells that are built to last a lifetime.  They don’t do refreshing resets by self-initiated death, division and rebirth.   That’s very lucky for us because otherwise we would lose a lot of our memories and ‘ourselves’ if they would constantly die and get reborn with new synaptic connections.   Their longevity though has a downside which for instance occurs if one has a stroke in the brain.   When the stroke is in large blood vessel, then about 2 million neurons die every minute – and that’s permanent.  It is therefore extremely important quickly get proper care.   This ‘speed to care’ is the most important factor in how much damage is incurred from a stroke.

In a sense we live only 7-10 years because within that time, the vast majority of our own human cells have died and been ‘reborn’.  So basically, a part of us dies each day but luckily, we also miraculously are reborn every day.   Like a cat, I hope to have at least seven lives – hopefully double that.  

I found it rather scary when I realized that when I ultimately die, then it will take hours and up to a day before all my ‘human’ cells will die.  Luckily the neuronal cells die quickly due to the lack of oxygen so I won’t be aware of my own ‘delayed death’ process.  But to be on the safe side, I have instructed my family not to bury me too quickly.  Let all of me die in peace 😊.

But let me come to the point.  Cell-division is life for us humans.  So why not have unlimited cell division to have eternal life?  Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.  One example is cancer – those nasty buggers usually have unlimited rebirth capacity and we don’t want that.   We want controlled long-term cell division of the ‘good, and healthy’ cells.  Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.   And here comes the ‘key = DNA’ which naturally is the determining this process.  It’s also when we come closer to Vagus.

Telomeres

In the early 1970s a Russian scientist called Alexei Olovnikov suggested that DNA sequencies lost a piece at their ends every time the cell replicates.  Cell division could occur until this ‘end part’ loss reached a critical level, at which point cell divisions ends and the cell finally dies.   In 1975–1977, Elizabeth Blackburn, working as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University with Joseph Gall, discovered that this was really happening with the telomeres.  Blackburn,  Greider, and Szostgak were then awarded the Nobel prize in 2009 for this discovery of how the chromosomes are protected by telomeres and a enzyme called telomerase.

Telomeres are like a ‘counting’ system that ensures that each cell has a limited life-span.  For a long time, it was thought that this ‘amount’ of telomere counters was fixed but Blackburn proved that it was not true.  Luckily, she was right because otherwise we would not be able to do anything to have a longer life.  Our cells would have to die out within a fixed time-span regardless of how much salad we eat.  We would have been able to do some DNA tests and the doctors would tell us that we have for instance 13 years, 3 months and 4 days left to live.  It would have made ‘life’ a bit meaningless.    But, as I said – thanks to telomerase and epigenetics – we have a uncertain future which is quite much up to ourselves … and the Vagus nerve of course 😊

The length of telomeres can be altered and it is done with telomerase.   Here is when the Vagus nerve comes into the picture.   One very important ‘player’ in telomerase is the Vagus nerve activity.   Hence the Vagus nerve nowadays is considered a key component for longevity.

Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel wrote an excellent book about this in 2017 called ‘The Telomere Effect’.  I sincerely recommend to read it if you are interested in having a long, healthy and happy life.   I love it because it is like a handbook about the importance of raising your vagal tone.  I here try to summarize some findings and connect dots about the ‘Vagus and Longevity’.

 Telomerase

Telomerase is the enzyme responsible for restoring DNA lost during cell division.  Telomerase is stuff that makes and replenishes telomeres.  It re-creates new endings at the chromosomes tips and replaces telomeres that have been worn down.  Essentially telomerase counteracts telomere shortening by adding DNA and building back the chromosome end each time it divides.   Telomerase can thereby slow, prevent or even reverse the shortening of telomeres and enable a longer life-time for the cells.  It is the closest to ‘the fountain of youth’ that science has discovered this far.   It is easy to understand that people got very enthusiastic after Blackburn’s discovery.  Everyone wanted to have this ‘elixir of immortality’. 

But it was quickly realized that artificially increasing telomerase was dangerous.   It is because its dark side is called cancer and we don’t want more of that.  Cancer is cells that doesn’t stop dividing – they have ‘too much’ telomerase.   We definitely don’t want cell renewal to run amok by taking a glass of telomerase every morning.   People were very disappointed that it really was ‘back to the starting point again’.   

One has to get the telomerase the ‘natural way’ and not keep destroying DNA and telomeres.   Old wisdoms prevailed – getting more telomerase must be done through food, proper stress management, exercise, good immunity and keeping the vagal tone high.   Humanity though finally had scientific proof on how these extend our lives.  Blackburn definitely deserved her Nobel Prize.   In her book, one can see that she roughly divides ‘telomerase care’ into four groups:

  1. Stress
  2. Exercise
  3. Immunity
  4. Food

I hope you recognize these subjects.  Yes – they all are ‘Vagus nerve’ stuff 😊

Stress is a big influencer on telomere length

In the book ‘The Telomere Health’, Elizabeth Blackburn is quoting a lot of research proving that different forms of stress are very important factors in cell longevity and telomerase production.   (You can read more about stress also in my ‘Stress and Vagus blog: https://vagus.co/stress-good-bad-and-the-vagus-nerve/

There are both good and bad stress but for lets for now just list the ‘bad’ stress because we want to avoid reducing our natural telomerase stock. 

As I concluded before, stress is negative and reduces telomeres when:

  1. Oxidative Stress
  2. The person perceives stress as negative
  3. The stressors are chronic and the Vagus nerve cannot regain homeostasis
  4. The stress is disease-, injury- or inflammation- (also autoimmune-) based and the molecular and/or cholinergic immune system is in progress and has not been able to regain homeostasis in the body.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidation is the process whereby important molecules lack electrons in their atoms. Oxidative stress occurs when the body has more pro-oxidants than anti-oxidants and molecules such as DNA become damaged.  A major adverse effect of modern life is air- and other kinds of pollution which induce oxidative stress.  It is linked to for instance cardiac death and respiratory or other types of low-grade inflammations.  One major important adverse effect from pollution is subsequent DNA damage.    It is obvious that pollution also is a contributing factor in carcinogenesis.  Looking at mental stress; lifestyle and work stress are also associated with higher oxidative stress.   Blackburn and Epel showed in their 2012 study that different forms of chronic stress are related to reduced telomere length [1].  The reduced telomere length predicts diseases and earlier mortality.

Mental Stress

Our way of thinking and how we react to stress are very important for cell longevity and epigenetic reactions.  As I described in my last blog, people who have a negative thought of stress, usually have more negative health outcome from stress. than those who perceive stress as mostly positive.     

Kelly McGonigal (Stanford), in her book ‘The upside of stress’, is describing a multitude of stress studies with hundreds of thousands of persons.   The common conclusion in these is the surprising finding that mental stress is only harmful if the person ‘believes’ that it is harmful.  She is also describing how ‘successful’ people in general perceives stress as positive – compared with those who think it is detrimental to their life and health.  The negative placebo effect is very strong in how we respond to stress.   Blackburn & Epel has shown that this effect also extends to telomere length -and maybe this telomere shortening effect is the main cause of McGonigal’s findings.   Personally, I considered it to be a very good explanatory link for instance to why ‘worried’ people generally live shorter lives and are sicker than those who ‘do not worry’.  Here is what Blackburn says about how ‘stress gets into our cells’:

It’s not just from experiencing a stressful event, it’s also from feeling threatened by it, even if the stressful event hasn’t happened yet.  People with chronic stress have shorter telomeres, and short telomeres can lead to prematurely aging immune cells, which means worse immune function.

Food & Gut

According to Blackburn, cutting down on sugar maybe be the single most beneficial change you can make to your diet.  She also notes how alcohol and other ‘inflammatory’ enhancing foods and drinks are shortening telomeres.   Obesity naturally is very bad for telomerase and telomere length.  

As positive foods, she quotes a study that showed that more Omega-3’s in the blood cells was beneficial for telomere length.  It also reduced cardiovascular health risks.  Traditional ‘healthy’ foodstuffs such as oily fish, nuts, flaxseed and leafy vegetables were all beneficial.  As oxidative stress is bad for telomerase, then antioxidants such as vitamin C, fruits, vegetables and green tea all contribute to longer telomere length.    I was also very happy when she noted a study that found that those who drank caffeinated coffee were likely to have longer telomeres.  Caffeine also reduced the risk for cognitive decline.  I will keep on enjoying my daily coffees 😊

The Vagus nerve is the nerve connecting the gut with the brain.   It plays a vital role in how the gut functions and absorbs nutrients.  It then naturally plays a important role in how food influence telomerase in cells.   For more information about the gut and the Vagus nerve, read my blog about it at: https://vagus.co/gut-and-the-vagus-nerve/

Inflammation

The current discussions about Covid-19 immunity and how long vaccinations are effective, are essentially about immune cell longevity.  As we are trying to understand how long ‘immunity’ lasts, we essentially ask how long for instance memory immune T-cells stay alive, divide and are active.   This again requires an understanding of their telomere lengths.   If immune cell has ‘lousy or very little’ telomerase, then we have lousy immunity and we are sicker than those with longer living immune cells.   Short telomeres have been proven to promote inflammation (particularly in the CD8 T-cells). 

Those with the shortest telomers often suffer from chronic inflammation.   The cause-effect is though difficult to prove for each person but both genetic and environmental roles play a part.   It is an empirical fact that with increasing age, we have increased inflammations.  This is also called ‘inflamm-aging’.   There are of course many reasons for this but the common cause of ‘inflamm-aging is telomere shortening and DNA damage.  Longer-term low-grade inflammations are causing degeneration of our tissues and we ‘naturally’ get more diseases from ‘ageing’.    The inflammations destructive effects can also easily be seen in cardiac- and brain diseases, Crohns’, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, hepatitis and cancers. 

For instance, in heart disease the endothelium (cells lining the small arteries) needs to replenish themselves, protect the lining and keep immune cells from entering the arterial walls.   When a person has short telomeres in the white blood cells then the endothelial cells also are more prone to have short telomeres.  This leads to increased cardiovascular problems.

Personally, I am very interested to see what the coming studies will show of telomere length among Long Covid patients.   I suspect that it will show that they have shorter telomeres than the healthy recovered control groups.

The Vagus nerve is the home of the neurological immunity.  This is the Vagus nerve-based system which is called the cholinergic immune reflex.   The cholinergic immune reflex connects many of the dots in immune health and aging.   As I have shown earlier in the text, the Vagus nerve must be active for telomerase to keep telomeres long.  The Vagus nerve is the direct link between immunity, the gut, the mind, breathing and for instance exercise.   The Vagus nerve is the most important ‘reachable’ part in the puzzle of biological age.  It is our fountain of youth – if we take good care of it

Read my blog on inflammation if you want to learn more about how it works and what to do about it:  https://vagus.co/inflammation-exercise-and-the-vagus-nerve-cholinergic-immune-system/

The Vagus nerve

The Vagus nerve is the main and most important part of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system and its main ‘work’ is to adjust physiological and mental processes to keep homeostasis. Thereby it is the main active part that is reducing stress (imbalance).    Empirical evidence show that the Vagus nerve inhibits oxidative stress, inflammation and sympathetic activity [2].  Different types of stimulation can inhibit all of these three major disease-promoting biological factors.    To measure the Vagus nerve is therefore essential for understanding its influence on longevity.   

Measuring telomeres and the Vagus nerve

As telomere length is part of DNA, it is possible to have for instance red blood cell telomere lengths.  The problem is ‘its’ meaning because telomere lengths can vary depending on many issues like for instance where and when the blood sample was taken.   New generations of blood cells are created all the time by stem cells and they take their time to divide and reduce telomere length.  The average length might not be informative of biological age because much depends on other circumstances.  

Elizabeth Blackburn: ‘Telomere length is just one biomarker.  It is likely that algorithms including many biomarkers and health status variables will be more beneficial for personal use once they are better developed.’

As you can guess, I consider my invention -the VAGUS® ECG test – such a biomarker about health status and longevity.

The aim of Vagus nerve monitoring in longevity is to understand when the body and mind has achieved homeostasis and is producing telomerase for the cells to live longer.   This level and state of the Vagus nerve activity is called Vagal tone and it consists of many parts.   The VAGUS® ECG test measures several of these components, mainly the heart rate variability (HRV), the respiratory control, the cardiac/respiratory synchronisation, the timing and minimum pulse changes achieved during the standard test protocol of controlled breathing.  I naturally recommend it since I invented it to accurately monitor my own stress levels.  

The body relies on a wide range of molecules and neurological pathways to recover from stress.  Here the Vagus nerve is the main ‘player’ for stress recovery.  It initiates immune response via the Cholinergic immune system, activates internal organs and makes molecular neurotransmitters to restore balance.   Other parts naturally also play their part and for instance the brain and neural pathways are trying to actively remember and rewire to learn from the stressful instance.  Activating the Vagus nerve is speeding up recovery.   Easy methods are controlled breathing, splashing cold water on the face or doing yoga/mediation.

According to Stephen Porges ‘Polyvagal theory’ the ‘ventral vagal’ part of the Vagus nerve is very important for having good health. The VAGUS ®ECG test is primarily measuring this ventral vagal tone.

The Telomere Manifesto by Blackburn & Epel:

Blackburn & Epel, The Telomere Manifesto from the book ‘The Telomere Effect’

Summary

  • Longevity is primarily determined by DNA telomere length
  • Telomere length is mostly determined by an enzyme called Telomerase
  • Telomerase ‘health’ is maintained essentially by keeping the vagus nerve healthy.
  • The Blackburn & Epel book on Telomeres and ‘how to lengthen them’, is essentially a Vagus nerve activation handbook.
  • The Vagus nerve is the most important component in telomere lengthening and hence can be considered as our ‘longevity’ nerve and fountain of youth.
  • The VAGUS® ECG test is a biomarker which can be used together with DNA testing to evaluate biological age and telomerase interventions.

Be happy and live long 😊

Gustaf

Recommended reading and watching:

TED Talks:

Books:

– A) The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackbrun and Elissa Epel

– B) ‘The Upside of Stress’ by Kelly McGonical,

Research:

  1. Blackburn; Epel, Telomeres and adversity: Too toxic to ignore. Nature 2012, 490, 169–171.
  2. The Vagus Nerve Can Predict and Possibly Modulate Non-Communicable Chronic Diseases: Introducing a Neuroimmunological Paradigm to Public Health. Gidron, Velkeniers et Al, 2018

© Gustaf Kranck

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