Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
We’ve known for years that cancer and other degenerative diseases involve some kind of harm to your body’s DNA, the genetic code that determines all the characteristics of a living organism. And while a nutrient-packed diet and virtuous lifestyle go a long way toward helping you save your DNA, they aren’t always enough—especially as we age. Here’s why:
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a biological instruction manual for the human body’s growth and development—so its integrity and stability are vital for life. But DNA is prone to damage, every day, from multiple sources. UV rays from sunlight, cigarette smoke, environmental chemicals, toxins in food, even byproducts of the body’s normal metabolic processes can harm DNA. Normally, specialized proteins in the cells detect and repair most damage. But the efficiency of natural repair mechanisms declines with age; and when injury exceeds the body’s fix-it abilities, DNA damage accumulates, accelerating the aging process and increasing the risk of cancer and other serious diseases.
What you eat and how you live are pivotal in protecting DNA, and the right nutrients minimize injury and help the body repair damage. Some, like B vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin E, are common. Others are harder to get—especially if you don’t eat meat, or follow a diet that restricts some fruits and vegetables. That’s where supplements come in: certain minerals, antioxidants and other compounds have been shown to offset damage, save your DNA and protect against disease. Here are seven of the best:
A broad family of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables (like beta carotene in carrots), carotenoids impact specific stages in the body’s DNA defense mechanisms, protecting DNA from damage and enhancing its repair. Results are mixed on beta carotene supplements, but other carotenoids—lycopene, lutein, astaxanthin and zeaxanthin—have consistently been shown to lessen oxidative stress, significantly reduce DNA damage and enhance DNA repair. Lutein, astaxanthin and zeaxanthin are especially protective against harmful UV radiation (including sunlight), minimizing DNA damage and prompting repair. Tomatoes, leafy greens, egg yolks and dark orange fruits and vegetables are high in lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin; astaxanthin—found mainly in salmon, shrimp and trout—is harder to get. If you’re a vegan, or your diet’s lacking in veggies, cover your bases with a mixed carotenoid supplement.
Also known as NAC, N-acetylcysteine is necessary for the production of glutathione—the body’s “master antioxidant” that fights free radical damage and protects DNA. NAC may mitigate genetic changes involved in the development of cancer, and many studies suggest it significantly lessens the risk of various kinds of cancer. It’s also protective against lead and other heavy metals—important, since heavy metal exposure can trigger double strand breaks (the most serious types of DNA damage) and hamper subsequent repair. NAC occurs as cysteine in chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese and other high protein foods. If you follow a plant-based diet, or you’re lacking in protein, an NAC supplement can fill in the gaps.
This mineral plays a powerful role in protecting and repairing DNA, and low levels have been linked with a higher risk of breast, prostate, colorectal and other cancers. Selenium prevents oxidative damage to DNA and boosts the activity of enzymes and pathways involved in DNA repair; some research suggests it may also benefit people who carry the BRCA1 and BRAC2 carriers–genetic mutations that increase the risk of breast, prostate, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Meat, seafood, eggs and some nuts—especially Brazil nuts—are the richest sources. If you’re a vegan, or don’t eat nuts, add a selenium supplement to your daily regimen.
Abundant in broccoli, kale, cabbage and other crucifers, is a potent antioxidant, protecting against DNA damage that can lead to the development of cancer. It works in part by triggering a specific family of enzymes involved in the replication of DNA, and a high intake of sulforaphane is linked with greater protection against DNA strand breaks and lower rates of cancer. Sulforaphane also lessens DNA damage caused by cigarette smoke, and can reduce the risk of lung cancer. If you’re not big on broccoli, or follow a FODMAP or other diet that restricts some crucifers, look for a sulforaphane supplement (important if you’re around cigarette smoke).
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
This antioxidant, naturally produced by the body, protects against DNA damage, enhancing resistance and reducing strand breaks. In studies, supplementing with CoQ10 enhances recovery from DNA damage to lymphocytes—white blood cells critical for healthy immune function. CoQ10 can also mitigate DNA damage involved in the development of cardiovascular disease, and research suggests people with heart disease have significantly lower levels of CoQ10. Organ meats, beef, chicken and fatty fish are the richest sources; if you don’t eat these, CoQ10 supplements can add an extra layer of protection.
Rich in polyphenols, especially oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), grapeseed extract contains powerful phytochemicals whose antioxidant power is 20 times greater than vitamin E and 50 times greater than vitamin C. They play a role in several cancer-associated genes, and research links OPCs with a reduced risk of colorectal and other cancers. Grapeseed extract also protects against the accumulation of age-related DNA damage in the central nervous system and various brain regions–critical in lowering the likelihood of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. These potent antioxidants are found mainly in red and black grapes, blueberries, strawberries and cranberries, but in modest amounts. Bolster your defenses with an OPC grapeseed extract.
This antioxidant is naturally produced by the body and key in protecting DNA from damage that can lead to the development of cancer. In research, supplementing with alpha-lipoic acid reduced DNA damage from chemicals, especially hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing industrial toxin. In other research, alpha-lipoic acid significantly decreased DNA damage from alcohol–when alcohol is metabolized, it forms toxic compounds that harm DNA and, over time, can lead to cell death and cancer. Red meat and organ meats are the highest sources. If you’re a heavy drinker or don’t eat meat, supplements can help. Look for R-lipoic acid, considered the most active form.
Read on for more easy-to-implement lifestyle habits to save your DNA and live longer: