Illustration by Maheen Eatazaz

Your Cells are Listening

Let’s talk science and how our cells are affected by our college habits.

Sep 26, 2022

Alright, let's establish something: our cells are not creepy stalkers listening to every conversation, nor do they have ears. But they do track our every move, emotion and contribute to everything we do.
The way your hormones and nerve activity automatically change when you constantly stress about something determines something called your telomere length, which changes your body's inner response to a difficulty.
In this article, I will briefly explain the essentials of how telomeres work, how stress affects them and what possible steps you can take to help your cells remain healthy.
One thing we are probably all very familiar with coming to the UAE is sunscreen. Telomeres are like the sunscreen of your DNA (the genetic code of instruction that dictates how your cells work). It essentially protects DNA from wearing out because when your cells replicate, your DNA ends up losing some of its length.
The ends of each of our chromosomes (X-shaped bundles of DNA) contain a small portion of more DNA, which doesn't include any instructions for our cells, but they increase the DNA length so that it doesn't end up losing too much important information. That might lead to our cells getting cancer (just like if you do not wear sunscreen) or dying and not being able to make more cells, meaning you age faster.
In the early 2000s, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn studied female caregivers of people suffering from chronic illnesses. There was a small division between these caregivers, with some of them looking genuinely worn out and seemingly aging faster, while the others appeared livelier.
Epel and Blackburn conducted tests to check how scared and anxious they felt daily and measured their telomere lengths. When the results came in, they were shocked as there was a clear correlation between stress and telomere base pair count. This experiment motivated the researchers to delve deeper into the world of telomeres, along with others who performed studies on cells, to see what factors affect our lives at the cellular level.
Many factors affect your telomere health long term, according to their book backed with research — The Telomere Effect. The length of the telomeres of your parents and even grandparents or the amount of soda and processed sugar you consume can affect your telomere length.
Also, some practices help maintain cell health, like exercising consistently. Practicing meditation, eating well, drinking coffee (I know, another excuse to have a cup), and getting ample sleep can help your cells age well over time.
Both processes (cell division and telomere filling) help regenerate the cells that you lose. Our cells grow and divide all the time, which happens in the DNA replication stage in the cell cycle of growth and division.
The Telomere Effect explains that having too much or too little telomerase may turn your cell into a cancer cell. But it also shows that having a good balance of telomerase helps keep your telomeres long naturally. Longer telomeres can conserve your important instructions inside your cells, which can grow multiple times before they age, giving you a long time of good health.
Hence, as university students surrounded by change and in the process of trial and error, it's essential to acknowledge the presence of these challenges and that you are here because you can do this.
No matter what your brain tells you or how often you fail, there is always a chance of things working out. It is important to practice mindfulness and understand that your response to situations affects your body down to the cellular level, so just as you depend on your body, it depends on you.
Iman Lalani is a columnist. Email her at
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