Immortality has been an endeavor of mankind since the beginning of human existence. Whether it’s via the Fountain of Youth or Botox injections, the search for ways to maintain our vitality, physical appeal and cognition forever has been and always will be an innate desire.
Until recent scientific history, the concept of limitless longevity has remained a fantasy. As scientists begin to understand the biology of aging, new therapies are being investigated and produced to affect the physiological process of aging. From the information that has been gathered about aging over the past few decades, the natural supplement industry has been able to provide products that can help reduce the effects associated with aging naturally, at the cellular level.
Aging as a Biological Process
The process of aging is well understood, but the specific mechanisms behind the process are under current investigation. Aging begins at the cellular level. At the end of each DNA strand is a telomere, a grouping of the amino acids, adenine (A), guanine (G) and thymine (T), in the following sequence: TTAGGG. This sequence is repeated thousands of times in a young cell. After each DNA replication cycle, a piece of the telomere is lost. As the DNA undergoes more and more replication cycles through cellular division, the telomeres become shorter and shorter.
Eventually, the number of DNA replications is limited by insufficient telomere length. This critical point is called the Hayflick limit. In this sense, a telomere can be thought of as a fuse at the end of a stick of dynamite. Once this fuse reaches its limit, the cell can no longer divide. As more and more cells reach their Hayflick limits, the tissue composed of these cells will begin to age. Over time, this will cause necessary organs to fail (1).
However, through properly maintaining a healthy balance of nutrients and physical activity coupled with a lifestyle free of environmental pollutants, the effects of aging can be ameliorated.
As the baby boomer generation begins to move into their golden years, the demand for constituents that promote longevity and vitality will grow as well. Proper diet and exercise is important for natural and healthy aging. As cliché as that is, it’s the truth. But bear in mind that the key word in that phrase is “proper.” Just as there is a specific diet that should be followed for weight loss, recovery from surgery or muscle gain, there is a specific regimen to be followed for healthy aging as well. Aging affects nearly every system of the body, from sexual drive to immunity. A healthy aging regimen is, therefore, very comprehensive. It demands a level of consciousness to everything one consumes more so than any other type of diet.
In today’s busy world, many people just don’t have time to eat the way they should, so they require supplemental intake. Vitamin supplements do not replace the variety of vitamins and minerals that whole foods contain; but they can help to fill the gap in nutrient ingestion that most people experience. For example, naturally occurring vitamin E is a complex of alpha (a)-, beta (b)-, gamma (g)-, and delta (d)-tocopherols and a-, b-, g-, d-,tocotrienols, which all contribute to the antioxidative effects of vitamin E. However, some supplemental vitamin E contains only a-tocopherol, but at higher doses than in nature (about 400 IU), and is therefore considered to have a more significant impact on the body than natural intake of vitamin E. Yet, research has shown that g-tocopherols also have beneficial effects on the body. Therefore, to receive an optimal dosage and variety of vitamin E constituents, one can consume vitamin E-rich foods plus supplements.
In Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Well-Being, Andrew Weil, M.D., explains that maintaining vivacity and strength while aging can be achieved through eating well and exercising, as well as minimizing stress (2). Dietary supplementation can also help support a variety of the body’s physiological needs as it ages, from antioxidant support to sexual stimulation.
Antioxidant support. Free radicals are ionized molecules that negatively interact with normal cellular function, leading to the development of diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants alleviate the damage caused by free radicals through preventing free radical oxidation (3). These free radical fighters are naturally found in fruits and vegetables, tea, dark chocolate and olive oil, as well as in supplements such as vitamin C, carotenoids, vitamin E and selenium (2). Supplementing the diet with antioxidant-rich products, such as ubiquinone (coenzyme Q10), grape seed extract and alpha-lipoic acid can fill in any gaps missed by dietary intake (2). There have been several studies on ubiquinone and its beneficial effects on cellular function and aging, directly linking the ingestion of coenzyme Q10 to increased lifespan through the reduction of oxidation activities and DNA double-strand breaks in cells (4).
Anti-inflammatory support. Inflammation is a complex biological response to vascular tissue irritants, such as pathogens or damaged cells. It is the body’s natural response to attempt to remove harmful stimuli and to begin the healing process. As aging progresses, cells or tissue become permanently damaged, leading to chronic inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis or even cancer. To prevent “over” inflammation, Weil suggests dried ginger and turmeric. Dried ginger should be taken with a meal to avoid stomach irritation. Turmeric has a bitter taste, often used in curries and mustards, yet the level of turmeric in these food items is not enough to have as much of an impact on anti-inflammation as taking a supplemental extract of it. One promising area of new research is whether turmeric may have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease. Studies indicate it may help reduce amyloid protein plaque in the brain, the build-up of which is linked to Alzheimer’s (5).
For those who have developed chronic inflammation, may physicians recommend aspirin or ibuprofen to down-regulate inflammation. Aspirin works by thinning the blood through reacting with platelets to make them less cohesive. This action is also what causes some of aspirin’s detrimental side-effects, such as irritation and bleeding of the lining of the stomach and lower gastrointestinal tract (2). Those who prefer natural options may consider the research behind resveratrol, which some say also suppresses platelet aggregation and benefits heart health.
Cognitive and sexual stamina. As time progresses, the amount of energy one has diminishes. To regain and retain energy, one useful supplement to consume is ginseng. There are many different types of ginseng whose mechanisms affect stamina in varying ways. Asian ginseng, American ginseng and Eleuthero ginseng (Siberian ginseng) are among the most popular ginseng in the natural supplement market. Although American ginseng and Asian ginseng have similar effects on cognition and overall energy, Asian ginseng has been shown stimulate sexual arousal in men (2). Studies have suggested that ginseng use, even in high doses, is relatively safe (6), though some people experience nausea, diarrhea, headaches, nose bleeds and other problems (7).
Rhodiola (arctic root) is another herb that has been shown to enhance sexual arousal in men, in addition to endurance, mood and memory. Rhodiola works more quickly on the body than ginseng—about two weeks as compared to six to eight weeks for ginseng. Cordyceps is another Asian herbal extract that can be taken as an energizing tonic to improve health status and to augment one’s energy level. Ashwagandha, an Indian herb, is a pseudo-ginseng (as it is commonly referred to as “Indian ginseng,” even though it has no biological relation to true ginseng) that has more of a sedative effect on the body than a stimulating one, yet it still functions as a sexual enhancer for men (2).
Diet and Exercise as a Holistic Approach to Aging
In addition to a well-balanced diet full of whole foods and natural supplements, aerobic exercise is important to maintain efficient metabolism and ensure that nutrients are being transported to all parts of the body effectively. Walking, swimming and cycling are some low-impact activities that induce the skeletal and cardiovascular systems to work co-dependently, keeping nutrient flow and cellular metabolism active. Maintaining hydration is another very important component to keeping the cyclic current of nutrients flowing throughout the body. Balance and flexibility training is also a key activity to reduce the likelihood of falls, which is a major cause for disability or worse in the elderly.
To reduce the loss of bone and muscle mass (osteoporosis), weight training is a good way to use, maintain, or even build skeletal mass as you age. Weil states that it’s never too late to start regular physical activity and that “physical activity is the most important investment you can make in long-term health and healthy aging. It has to be a priority” (2). WF
1. Senescence.info, “Gerontology Information, Biology of Aging,” www.senescence.info/gerontology.html, accessed Feb. 19, 2010.
2. A. Weil, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide of Your Well-Being (First Anchor Books, New York City, NY, 2007).
3. H. Seis, Oxidative Stress: Oxidants and Antioxidants (Institute for Chemical Physiology, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1996).
4. L.S. Coles and S. Harris, “Coenzyme Q-10 and Lifespan Extension,” in R. Klatz, et al., Advances in Anti-Aging Medicine (Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., New Rochelle, NY, 1996).
5. BBC News HEALTH, “Curry May Slow Alzheimer’s,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/1668932.stm, accessed March 1, 2010.
6. S. Dharmananda, “Safety Issues Affecting Chinese Herbs: The Case of Ginseng,” Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR, www.itmonline.org/arts/ginseng.htm, accessed March 1, 2010.
7. D. Kiefer, “Panax ginseng, October 15, 2003,” American Academy of Family Physicians, www.aafp.org/afp/2003/1015/p1539.html, accessed Feb. 28, 2010.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2010