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DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, present in every living organism, is a biological instruction manual that contains all the information needed for your body’s development, reproduction and survival. But this vital little molecule is under constant attack from radiation, air pollution, cigarette smoke, toxic compounds in food, even byproducts of the body’s normal metabolic processes. But you can save your DNA. Cells are able to repair much of this damage, especially when we’re younger; as we age, though, DNA damage accumulates and the cells become less proficient at making the necessary repairs. The result: a build-up of damaged DNA, accelerated aging, and an increase in the risk of cancer and other diseases.
You can’t stop aging—but you can prevent DNA damage from accumulating and even heal existing damage. Try these genius, science-backed ways to save your DNA:
1. Don’t skimp on sleep
Your brain needs plenty of shut-eye to keep DNA healthy. During slumber, chromosomes within DNA appear to be more active, healing DNA faster and more efficiently than during waking hours. Studies suggest lack of sleep is linked with diminished DNA repair and more breaks in DNA—one possible reason why people who are sleep deprived have a higher risk of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Even a single week of less-than-adequate sleep can alter the activity of hundreds of genes. Prioritize slumber: go to bed at the same time every night, turn off electronics (blue light can interfere with sleep) and skip coffee and heavy meals in the evening. Or try melatonin; it supports quality slumber, and research suggests it enhances DNA repair.
2. Eat like a bird
Slashing your daily calories (while still getting adequate nutrients) supports DNA repair and protects against age-related diseases. Even short-term caloric restriction lessens oxidative damage, improves the activities of enzymes involved in DNA repair and significantly enhances double-strand break repair, which plays an essential role in aging. Make it painless: swap sugary lattes for plain black coffee, order salad instead fries for your side, cut portions by a third, skip dessert and finish your meal with fresh blackberries.
3. Minimize meat
Especially processed, cured or red meat; they contain or can generate compounds that make DNA more vulnerable. Diets high in red meat are linked with an increase in DNA damage, while vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with higher antioxidant levels and less harm to DNA. Still, meat, fish and dairy are high in DNA-protective nutrients like carnitine, creatine, NADH and coenzyme Q10. If you do eat meat, focus on fish, especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines; some research suggests their omega-3s can ward off DNA damage in vascular cells.
4. Upgrade your smoothie
That morning blender beverage is the perfect opportunity to pack in DNA-healing vitamins and phytochemicals. Here’s what to include: apples, mango, orange juice, apricots, watermelon, papayas, mangos and leafy greens are all high in nutrients shown to protect DNA. Blueberries are especially powerful; in one study, 10.5 ounces significantly lessened damage to DNA, in only an hour. If you eat dairy, add Greek yogurt; research suggests it can reduce DNA damage in colon cells.
5. Exercise on the reg
Regular physical exercise increases antioxidant capacity, protects DNA and reduces the effects of age-related declines in DNA repair. In one study, 16 weeks of physical exercise dramatically increased antioxidant activity, decreased DNA strand breaks and promoted DNA repair. And it happens fast; some effects were measurable even after a single 20-minute workout. What you do isn’t as important as how often you do it—so make it engaging. Find a routine you love, upgrade your workout wardrobe, make an inspiring playlist, and enlist a workout buddy for fun and accountability.
6. Skip breakfast
Besides restricting calories, outright abstinence from food has a powerful impact on DNA repair and longevity. Periods of fasting, or intermittent fasting practices, reduce oxidative damage to DNA and promote the production of compounds associated with increased longevity. Even a few weeks of intermittent fasting can significantly save your DNA and reduce compounds that promote tumors. The easiest way to do it: skip breakfast and delay eating until 10 or 12, eat a normal (healthy) diet until 8 at night, and stop eating until the next day.
7. Supersize salads
The body’s production of DNA depends on the right nutrients—and of all the foods, antioxidant-rich vegetables reign supreme in safeguarding and repairing your DNA. A daily (giant) salad is the easiest way to up vegetable intake; include the most concentrated sources of DNA-protective nutrients, like B vitamins (lentils, beans and seeds), carotenoids (carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy greens), anthocyanins (red cabbage, red onion, blueberries) and sulforaphane (cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale). Other science-backed salad superstars: in studies, spinach and tomato lessened oxidative damage, steamed broccoli protect your DNA against strand breaks, and watercress decreased DNA damage, even in smokers.
8. Wear sunscreen, every single day
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is one of most significant—and avoidable—threats to DNA. The sun’s UVA and UVB rays trigger various types of DNA damage and can lead to cell death, DNA mutations, premature aging and skin cancer. The easiest way to protect your DNA: use sunscreen religiously, even on cloudy days. Choose a natural, mineral-based formula with an SPF of at least 30, limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and cover up when you can. And while sunscreen can lessen vitamin D production, the effects are marginal; if you’re concerned, take a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement to cover your bases.
9. Eat a Brazil nut every day
They’re rich in selenium, a DNA-protective nutrient, and just one Brazil nut contains the daily recommended value. Selenium indirectly switches on pathways that prompt cells to initiate repair, and in one study, Brazil nuts prevented oxidative damage to DNA. Plus, they’re high in vitamin E, key in preventing oxidative damage to DNA and reducing the risk of skin cancer. If you can’t eat nuts, you’ll find selenium in sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, brown rice, seafood and poultry.
10. Rethink your morning drink
Coffee’s not all bad; some research suggests drinking dark roast can protect DNA. But caffeine can interfere with DNA repair, leaving it more vulnerable. Instead of coffee, consider green tea; it’s rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an antioxidant that increases levels of proteins that save your DNA and destroy cancerous cells. One study found drinking four cups of green tea a day decreased DNA damage, even in heavy smokers. Or try mushroom “coffee” blends; some varieties, like reishi and chaga, may protect DNA and promote repair.
11. Settle down
All that fretting and fuming may be damaging your DNA. Exposure to ongoing anxiety and the subsequent increase in stress hormones like cortisol trigger certain biological pathways that lead to DNA damage, including lowering levels of compounds that save your DNA. Chronic stress may also harm telomeres—protective segments at the end of DNA strands—linked with cellular aging and increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Science-backed ways to lessen stress: take a walk in nature, listen to upbeat music, sniff lavender oil. Or try the 4-7-8 breathing method: inhale to the count of four, hold for seven and exhale for eight.
Read on for ways to save your DNA and live better and longer: