Accessing the Fountain of Youth
Anti-aging medicine is evolving quickly, but let’s not forget what actress Bette Davis pointed out: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
Simply living longer isn’t enough—we want vibrant, productive lives unmarked by cancer, heart disease, dementia, osteoarthritis, and other ailments. Researchers are still learning how diet, lifestyle, environment, and other elements affect the aging process, and new data is helping to shed light onto this ancient search for the fountain of youth.
We do know that aging is a complex process influenced by pathways such as inflammatory responses, mitochondrial function (the essential engines of our cells), and genetic expression. One exciting area of research is the fast-growing field of epigenetics, which shows that our genes can behave differently depending on external factors such as diet, exercise, stress levels, and environment. This means we have more control over our genetic destiny than previously thought.
Approximately 20 years ago, researchers started to notice that turning certain genes on or off in C. elegans worms could make these tiny roundworms live longer. More importantly, the worms lived healthier. C. elegans is one model organism for humans because we share many of the same genes; however, activating or deactivating those youth-enhancing genes in humans is obviously not as simple.
One approach to activating “youth” genes may be caloric restriction. Researchers have found that reducing the number of calories an animal eats can help it live longer and healthier. However, a problem with caloric restriction in humans is that it’s hard to do. We don’t live controlled, monitored lifestyles, and we have access to many different calorie sources. But breakthrough research may have found some alternatives. One of the genes associated with longer life in worms and other organisms is the SIR2 gene, which also relates to mitochondrial efficiency—a direct measure of the aging process. Humans don’t have SIR2, but rather a close cousin called SIRT-1.
Studies have shown that resveratrol—a potent antioxidant derived from sources like red grapes and wine—can interact with SIRT-1 to delay aging, at least in animals. But before you reach for the pinot noir, remember that there’s an entire alphabet soup of genes and related proteins that can modulate aging: mTOR, p53, and AMPK. Researchers are just beginning to understand how these genes function and how we can influence their expression to delay aging and prevent chronic diseases such as cancer and dementia.
THE TELOMERE DEBATE
At the end of each chromosome, short DNA sequences called telomeres help protect our genetic material. However, telomeres get shorter with each cell division, reducing their ability to preserve our chromosomes. In time, telomeres fail, chromosomes degrade, and cells can no longer divide, leading to cell death.
Telomeres provide interesting insights into aging. If we can preserve them, we could extend longevity and improve health. An enzyme called telomerase rebuilds telomeres, so there’s a lot of interest in compounds that naturally activate telomerase.
There are arguments on both sides as to if this would work, but the verdict is still out. Some people are concerned that too much telomerase might boost cancer because malignant cells could use the enzyme to grow uncontrollably. Some researchers are investigating telomerase inhibitors to fight cancer.
However, research suggests healthy ways to protect telomere length. One study found that women who take multivitamins have longer telomeres. Another paper showed that the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA protect telomeres in patients with cardiovascular disease. A third study found that people who drink three cups of green tea per day had increased telomere length. Regular meditation practice and diets rich in nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods have also been linked to longer telomeres. On the other hand, chronic stress, toxins, and even eating preserved meats have all been associated with shorter telomeres.
There is also evidence that curcumin, resveratrol, and other botanical compounds may preserve telomeres. One interesting argument suggests that these compounds are beneficial because they help fight cancer while simultaneously promoting telomere length in healthy cells, among other important effects. Indeed, science continues to uncover the numerous mechanisms that power some of our most precious natural health agents.
TELOMERES, MITOCHONDRIA, & P53
There is a reason the protein p53 is one of the most important proteins in the body: It guards the cell reproductive cycle. Cells divide and reproduce every day, and that means DNA and its three billion bases divide as well. This is an amazing feat of bioengineering because DNA must replicate perfectly. Errors mean mutations, which can lead to disease.
This is where p53 comes in. In concert with other proteins, p53 looks for errors and stops cells from dividing so it can correct them. If the errors can’t be fixed, p53 helps the damaged cell self-destruct.
One theory is this: In response to shortened telomeres, aging cells produce more p53, which in turn puts more oxidative stress on mitochondria, our tiny cellular engines. If mitochondria are running sluggishly, aging accelerates. So another strategy to deal with stressed telomeres and aging in general might be to actively support mitochondria.
There are a number of natural ways to boost mitochondrial function and help combat aging. Mitochondria can become damaged due to free radical oxidation, toxic body burden, lack of nourishment, sedentary lifestyle, and other problems. The supplement coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10 ) helps mitochondria make ATP, the fuel that powers most cellular functions. CoQ10 is also a powerful antioxidant that helps control oxidative stress.
Pyrroloquinoline (PQQ) is a micronutrient that similarly performs a number of useful functions. Like CoQ10, it can help mitochondria produce ATP. Another important benefit is that it increases the number of mitochondria. PQQ is available as a supplement and is also found in foods such as Natto, parsley, and green tea.
Another useful supplement is L-carnitine, which ensures mitochondria get enough fuel to produce ATP. As we age, our natural L-carnitine levels tend to decline, impairing cellular functions. Alphalipoic acid also supports mitochondria.
Certain medicinal mushrooms— particularly cordyceps and reishi—are excellent for mitochondrial health. Aerobic interval exercise and a nutrient-dense, low glycemic (low sugar) diet support mitochondria, too.
By now it’s well known that chronic inflammation accelerates aging, much in the same way that repeated friction creates heat and wears down materials. Environmental toxins, poor diets, inactivity, and lack of sleep can all contribute to inflammation that damages DNA, impairs mitochondrial function, and wreaks havoc on other areas of health. Virtually every disease associated with age has a chronic inflammatory component: cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, and arthritis, among others.
But there is a switch that can turn inflammation on and off: a protein called HMGB1.
When we are injured, HMGB1 and other proteins send inflammatory cytokines to the area needing attention. This creates acute inflammation, which recedes as we heal.
Unfortunately, acute inflammation has a dark side: ongoing, chronic inflammation. Sugar, alcohol, processed foods, grilled meat, stress, weight, inactivity, prolonged illness, and environmental toxins can all contribute to chronic inflammation, accelerating the aging process and increasing our risk for disease.
Researchers are finding that controlling HMGB1 can help us fight chronic inflammation. From a dietary standpoint, there are two excellent foods that have been shown to control HMGB1: mung beans and green tea.
Another protein in the body that should concern us is galectin-3. Known for its pro-inflammatory, pro-fibrosis effects, excess galectin-3 circulating in our bodies has been linked to metastatic cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, arthritis, gastrointestinal diseases, and a variety of other conditions related to chronic inflammation and uncontrolled scar-tissue build up (fibrosis). Galectin-3 blood tests are now used to screen for cardiovascular disease and other degenerative conditions.
Fortunately, there’s a way of dealing with galectin-3: modified citrus pectin (MCP). Made from the pith in citrus peels, MCP binds to galectin-3, helping reduce chronic inflammation, fibrosis, and cancer metastasis.
SUPPORTING OUR CELLS
By taking measures to reduce inflammation, support mitochondrial health, and promote healthy genetic expression, we’re directly supporting the health of our cells. Optimal cellular health is the basis for long-term vitality and healthy aging, and there are a number of habits we can adopt to secure this foundation.
My first suggestion is detoxification, starting with diet. Steer away from processed foods, trans fats, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Emphasize high quality protein, sprouted whole grains, nuts and legumes, healthy fats, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, should be high on your list. In addition to supporting detoxification, these vegetables contain a compound called DIM (diindolylmethane), which helps support healthy hormone balance, another anti-aging key for both men and women.
I also recommend supplementing with MCP, which, in addition to blocking the effects of galectin-3, has been clinically proven to safely remove heavy metals from the body.
Gentle, regular exercise is critical to support mitochondrial health, remove toxins, boost cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and provide other critical benefits. Get at least 30 minutes a day—walking, yoga, or t’ai chi are excellent choices; they all positively influence gene expression. I also recommend a stress management program such as consistent meditation. Anxiety generates stress hormones, which in turn cause inflammation and oxidative stress, fueling unfavorable genetic expression and mitochondrial damage.
Aging can be a very general term regarding the condition of our physical, mental, and emotional systems. And as we know, everything is connected. From digestion to circulation to immunity, and from hormone balance to metabolism and much more, the health of one organ system depends on the function of others. Lifestyle habits and strategies that promote balanced wellness can help slow the aging processes. For decades, we’ve known that a nutritious diet, exercise, and stress relief foster a longer, healthier life. But now that we understand more about how our complex cellular and genetic functions relate to aging, we know about how to better optimize these factors for greater longevity and vivacity. Specific foods, nutrients, and lifestyle practices can help address not only genetic and mitochondrial health, but also overall wellness and longevity, delivering greater vitality into our golden years and beyond.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has an MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.