Sugary Sodas Speed Aging, Reversed by Healthy Diet

telomere length and diet

Photo by Jannes Pockele

By Case Adams, Naturopath

Turns out that what we eat and drink directly affects how fast we age – and this can be measured precisely and specifically.

This specificity is accomplished through the measurement of telomere length and telomerase activity – which relate directly to how long our bodies will survive.

Telomeres and sugary soda consumption

Researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco conducted a study of a population of 5,390 people in the U.S. who were aged between 20 and 65 years old. The research, led by Dr. Elissa Epel, who is a professor of psychiatry at UCSF, analyzed data collected from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys between 1999 and 2002.

The population had no history of heart disease or diabetes during the period of study. During a three-year period the subjects were surveyed for their diet and intake of beverages.

The researchers found those who drank more sugar-sweetened soft drinks had shorter chromosome telomere length – linked to a shorter lifespan.

The data indicated that drinking one eight-ounce sugary soda per day will decrease lifespan by nearly two years, while drinking 20 ounces of soda per day will shorten lifespan by more than four and a half times (4.6).

The researchers also found that people who drank more fruit juice had marginally longer telomere length. This is associated with a longer lifespan.

Findings on non-carbonated soda and diet soda less clear

However, the researchers did not find any associations between telomere length and non-carbonated sugary soda. Nor did they find associations between diet sodas and telomere length. These, however, may not be significant findings because the study was conducted from diets of nearly 15 years ago, when sugary non-carbonated soda and diet soda consumption had not reached popularity as they have today.

In other words, 15 years ago, nearly all popular sodas were sugary and carbonated, while a larger percentage of fruit juices were 100% fruit juice. A cursory review of the shelves today finds a larger selection of diet sodas and non-carbonated beverages that are a mix of sugar and fruit juice – and a corresponding popularity of these soft drinks.

Telomeres are DNA proteins that cap the ends of our chromosomes, which indicate how many times a cell will divide. The shorter the telomere length, the fewer times that cell may divide. This of course means the cell tissues will not have as long a lifespan.

Other research has found shorter telomeres among those with greater stress, those with cardiovascular diseases, liver diseases and other fatal diseases.

Telomeres can be lengthened by healthy lifestyle

Other research has found that telomere length can in fact be increased with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Other research from UCSF – this led by Dr. Dean Ornish – found that a person’s relative telomere length could be increased after as little as three months of lifestyle changes.

The researchers studied 35 men with low-risk prostate cancer, who were tested between 2003 and 2007. Ten of the men underwent healthy lifestyle changes, by eating more whole wheat grains, less saturated fats, and less sugary foods along with stress reduction. The other 25 men were tested as control subjects.

After five years, the researchers found those who participated in the healthy lifestyle change protocol had significantly longer relative telomere length than those who did not participate in the healthy protocol.

In a related study, UCSF researchers found that changes in telomerase enzyme activity began in as little as three months of the healthy lifestyle changes. Here telomerase activity was measured before and after three months.

Those participating in the healthy lifestyle change had increased telomerase activity compared to before the change and compared with the control group. Their increase went up from an average of 8.05 units to 10.4 units after three months.

How telomerase activity relates to aging

Increased telomerase enzyme activity relates to a lengthening of telomeres, because telomerase helps replace the DNA proteins that are lost during cell division. The greater the telomerase activity, the longer the telomeres remain.

Note that the healthy lifestyle group still saw a gradual shortening of telomeres – typical among everyone as we age. But the healthy lifestyle group’s telomere lengths were not shortening as fast as the control group, nor as fast as would take place during typical aging.

The researchers also found those with increased in telomerase activity – who participated in the healthy lifestyle intervention – also had reductions in LDL-cholesterol and decreased stress levels.

Why sugar and carbonation shortens lifespan

The unspoken issue relating to our health and carbonated sugary soda consumption is the health of our probiotic populations. Sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria, which grow larger and overwhelm our probiotic bacteria – which feed off of whole grain foods and plant fiber polysaccharides called prebiotics.

These pathogenic bacteria produce endotoxins which increase the body’s levels of oxidative free radicals. This, like stress, decreases the health of each cell, in turn decreasing telomerase activity, causing decreased telomere length.

Learn more about probiotics.



Leung CW, Laraia BA, Needham BL, Rehkopf DH, Adler NE, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Epel ES. Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Am J Public Health. 2014 Oct 16:e1-e7.

Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, Epel E, Kemp C, Weidner G, Marlin R, Frenda SJ, Magbanua MJ, Daubenmier J, Estay I, Hills NK, Chainani-Wu N, Carroll PR, Blackburn EH. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2013 Oct;14(11):1112-20. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70366-8.

Ornish D, Lin J, Daubenmier J, Weidner G, Epel E, Kemp C, Magbanua MJ, Marlin R, Yglecias L, Carroll PR, Blackburn EH. Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70234-1.

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.” Case connects with the elements by surfing, hiking and being a beach bum.

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