Yes, I know, the long version of that title is “7 ways you can be as healthy as a woman whose body doesn’t make enough blood to keep her alive”.
Why on earth should you read on? What could you possibly learn?
Let me explain…
When I was last at King’s College Hospital, the nurse took a dozen vials of blood from my arm.
It was the marathon of blood tests.
When we were halfway through, to cut the atmosphere, he quipped: “Aplastic anaemia patients are so protective of their blood. Isn’t it mean for me to take this much out of you?”
I heard him clearly but continued to look blankly at the wall.
After all these months, I never look at the needle. When someone has a needle in my vein, I always stare stone-faced in the opposite direction.
The nurse took my expressionlessness as a sign that I didn’t like his joke, and he shut up.
What you don’t know about your health
Some weeks later, the results started to drip in.
Everything came back normal, aside from the discovery that I have an ‘RTEL1 variation’ – a mutation in the gene responsible for maintaining telomere length.
Your telomeres encase the tips of every chromosome in your body. Each time a chromosome replicates, these telomeres get infinitesimally smaller. When you’re a newborn they are long and lush; and when you’re an oldie they are frazzled and frayed.
Who’d have known that mine have been compromised for all this time?
Who knows what underlying genetic quirks you may be walking around with?
What does it mean to be ‘normal’?
“So, how do my telomeres look?” I was on the phone to the nurse and cut straight to the obvious question.
“Well, that’s the strange thing – they look normal for someone of your age.”
After we’d spoken, he sent me a scatter graph to illustrate my result. I was represented by a little red square, swimming in a sea of dark blue diamonds (the control group).
When I laid eyes on the red square, I smiled and winced simultaneously.
I was uncomfortably close to the bottom of the normal range. That jarred me.
But I also realised something special. Despite a genetic propensity for short telomeres, I was right there, in the mix – jostling for position alongside all the genetic non-mutants in town.
How did I do it?
Back in 2009, two Nobel prize winners identified specific lifestyle traits that protect and lengthen telomeres. Inadvertently, I’ve folded many of these into my life over the years.
Below are 7 tips for optimal telomere health – a mix of research-backed insights from world renowned scientists and my own anecdotal and unacademic musings:
1. Sleep more
As a chronic insomniac, tiredness has driven me to nap on park benches, in the hub of raucous parties and on the floor of public toilets. There’s no shame in passing out whenever and wherever you need to rest. Your telomeres will thank you for it.
2. Stress less
Apparently, due to the stress of child-rearing, women with kids have shorter telomeres than women without kids. Meditation helps (if you have time in between nappy changes and wiping snot off the furniture).
3. Be selfish – go vegan
Even if you couldn’t care less about animal exploitation, remember that the Nobel prize winners recommend a primarily plant-based diet as a linchpin to a long life. If you won’t do it for the animals, do it for yourself.
4. Say thank you
Being consciously, consistently grateful is like putting on a pair of Maui Jim glasses. It instantly draws the ubiquitous and vibrant beauty of the world into crisp focus.
5. Gracefully accept the bad times
A good friend was trying to come to terms with my diagnosis.
“Why couldn’t Donald Trump have got it instead?” she implored.
“Why not me?” was my simple reply.
We all want to be well – but we all meet misfortune at some time in our lives. The more readily we sit with the shit, the sooner we can start to wade through it.
6. Be your own advocate
When the doctors said: “Take prophylactic antibiotics every day for the next 18 months”, I said “No”.
When they said “ATG”, I said “stem cell transplant”.
Be vocal. Bend the rules until you like their shape. Because despite the experts’ tests and training, you know truths about yourself that they will never see.
7. Mind over matter
Every time I speak with my consultant, he starts the conversation in the same way: “Any infections? Any bleeding?”
Every time I answer “No”.
He thinks I’m lucky.
I think that my determined and powerful mind is protecting my body, giving it the space to heal.
Can telomere training really save me?
I now need to be healthier than ever.
I’ve learnt that ‘immune suppressed’ doesn’t just mean ‘wash your hands for 20 seconds, so you don’t catch a cold’. The immune system runs much deeper than that.
Every time a cell replicates, there is a window for mutation. A fully powered immune system will pick up these mutations and quash them before they develop. A sleepy immune system may let some mutations float by unnoticed.
So, if I sleep in public and defy social norms… If I press my palms together in thanks before every meal… If I lie down on the grass to meditate… it’s because these lifestyle hacks are what will bolster up my telomeres, and this is what will return me to full health.
Maybe telomere training could add years to your life too.