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The process of aging can be one of the biggest fears in life, fraught with negative expectations of a precipitous decline in function and quality of life. However, if we are fortunate we may know people who managed to break the rules and cheat the spectre of old age.
As we watch parents, friends and colleagues get older, the difference between chronological and biological age can get blurry. How is it possible for a sixty-year-old woman to look and feel fifty or younger, while another woman of similar age looks and feels seventy?
Many people attribute to genetics their favorable or unfortunate health status in the golden years, but this is only partially true. Current research suggests that our genetic inheritance contains many possibilities, rather than a singular fate.
Gene expression may in fact be also strongly influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors. Epigenetics, literally meaning “above” the genes, refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes on or off. Epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequence, but rather determine how cells “read” the genes.
Epigenetics may offer some explanation for why two individuals with a similar genetic profile such as twins can have very different health trajectories over the course of their lives. The choices we make in life matter more than we knew, and can radically alter our genetic destiny in a positive way, if we are smart about aging.
The stress of modern living
Since the dawn of the industrial age in the eighteenth century, humans have been living in a state of accelerated change driven by technology, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. While more of us enjoy unprecedented wealth and comfort as a result, there are many stressors associated with modern living that previous generations have never experienced.
Human physiology, in contrast, is relatively slow to adapt to changes in our environment. As a result our society has been beset by a virtual plague of chronic and degenerative diseases, many of which were rare or unheard of a hundred years ago.
While people are living longer into old age, quality of life is often tied to a dependence on pharmaceutical drugs and invasive procedures.
Remarkably the body is quite capable of self-regulating and healing when provided adequate support. We don’t have to resign ourselves to a life of drug dependency or declining function.
How we age matters
To answer the question of why some people look and feel younger than they are, we need to examine what is happening at a cellular level. The cell is the basic unit of living organisms. When cells wear out they divide and replace themselves with new cells. However, as we get older our cells become less efficient at replacing themselves.
Duplicate cells wear out faster or have errors that inhibit energy or enzyme production within the cells. After around age twenty-five the number of newly formed cells is less than those that are dying, and so begins the process we call aging.
There are numerous theories to explain what causes cells to wear out faster than normal. Free-radical damage is perhaps the most relevant concern for anyone wishing to slow aging down.
Free radicals are groups of atoms with an odd number of elections formed when certain molecules interact with oxygen. The number of electrons in its outer shell determines an atom’s behavior. When the number of electrons is uneven, the atom becomes reactive and attempts to shed an electron or steal one from other molecules to stabilize itself.
This reaction ultimately results in damage to structures in the cell, including RNA and DNA. Free radical damage and inflammation are major precursors to cancer, heart disease, dementia, arthritis and most other degenerative diseases.
While we can’t do much about our genetic inheritance, we can do a lot to control and mitigate the lifestyle and environmental factors that control how our genes are expressed.
Celebrities and the super-rich invest thousands of dollars every year on stem cell injections, hormone replacement, cosmetic surgery, serums and creams in a vain attempt to look younger.
The following seven strategies are intended to help counter the negative effects of free radicals and rejuvenate the body at a cellular level, naturally and without breaking the bank in the process.
Intermittent fasting and calorie restriction
Fasting is a long and noble tradition within many of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. In the ancient world ritualistic withdrawing from food was used to mark important events like the vernal equinox or the passage of adolescence into adulthood. Symbolizing death and rebirth, fasting promotes physical and spiritual renewal.
The effects of fasting have been studied extensively on animal models showing that a reduction of 30 to 40 percent of caloric intake can increase life span by a third or more. Calorie restriction also significantly reduces the risk factor for many common diseases.
Fasting has many benefits besides weight loss. The process of metabolizing food generates free radicals in the body. Regular calorie restriction lowers oxidative stress on the body and helps to curb inflammation. Short fasts also improve insulin sensitivity, helping to regulate blood sugar and metabolism.
There are many approaches to fasting, but the one of the easiest and most beneficial ways is to consume your daily caloric intake within an eight-to-ten-hour window. This usually entails skipping or having a light breakfast or dinner. When possible it is also best to avoid eating three hours prior to bedtime.
Food as medicine
We all know that what we eat matters, but with so many diets to choose from it can be confusing which is the right one for us. Ultimately, this is a personal choice, but it is important to see food as medicine, as well as a source of enjoyment.
Author and food activist Michael Pollan offers this advice to the common quandary about what to eat to be healthy – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
There is little doubt that the Standard American Diet (SAD), which favors simple carbohydrates (especially sugar and fructose), poor-quality fats and copious amounts of animal protein, is driving an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease.
Most of us would do well by following the footsteps of our ancestors by regularly consuming fermented foods, healthy fats, minimal grains, small portions of lean protein and loads of fresh (preferably organic) seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Check out a local farmers market for the freshest, most nutrient-dense produce.
Close to a third of Americans over fifty report struggling with sleep. Sleep is important for obvious reasons, and the lack of it can have disastrous health consequences.
Sleep deprivation takes its toll particularly on mental performance and prematurely ages the brain.
Most people do best with 6–8 hours of sleep a night. To get a better night of rest, practice good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation. Try to avoid stimulants and limit screen time before bed.
Blue light from smart phones and computers interferes with melatonin production and the body’s natural circadian rhythm. You can install f.lux on your home computer to modulate blue light in the evening.
Keep your bedroom environment cool (below 70 degrees) and free of electronic devices like cell phones, wifi and other sources of electromagnetic frequencies (EMF).
Exercise smarter, not harder
Many health experts now put excessive sitting on par with smoking when it comes to negative health habits.
Regular exercise is perhaps the greatest form of preventative medicine to stay vital and happy into old age. However, like other medicines it is dose-dependent. Too much of the wrong type of exercise can actually accelerate aging.
Such is the case with endurance running, which can result in irreversible wear and tear on the major joints of the lower extremity. Running also floods the body with oxygen, resulting in oxidative stress and free-radical damage in the body. Overexertion during workouts and inadequate recovery time can also contribute to adrenal fatigue.
After age forty the best forms of exercise are yoga, resistance training and High Intensity Interval Training (HITT), which builds functional strength and stimulates Human Growth Hormone.
Try to incorporate some exercise and movement into your daily routine, even if it is just a thirty-minute walk or standing up from your desk every twenty minutes.
Conservative estimates suggest that more than 80,000 new types of chemical pollutants have been released into our environment since the industrial revolution. Add to the list heavy metals from coal-fired power plants, chemtrails and geoengineering, and radiation from Fukushima and decades of nuclear testing.
Toxins can also be generated internally through poor digestion and lingering bacterial or fugal infections.
Toxins suppress immune function, interfere with hormonal balance and promote free radical damage.
The body is constantly processing and eliminating toxins via the immune system, liver, lungs, kidneys and the bowels. However, when one or more of these detox channels gets overwhelmed, the body attempts to neutralize the threat by storing toxins in fatty tissue, including the brain and nervous system. Like a ticking time bomb, toxic accumulation can eventually result in a breakdown in health.
As we age not only do we accumulate more toxins, but also the body gets less efficient at removing them.
Detoxification is an essential health habit in the modern world, but should be approached with caution. A quick Google search will quickly reveal a plethora of radical/fanatical cleanses, many of which can do more harm than good.
As a rule a “slow and steady wins the race” approach is best when attempting detoxification. Avoid quick-fix kits, packages and extreme fasting, unless medically supervised. In addition to implementing a sane diet and intermittent fasting, start with adding cleaning foods like micro-greens, cilantro, cruciferous veggies, sauerkraut and fresh juices to your daily diet.
Raw foods tend to be more cleansing, but avoid overdoing it. Raw food is also hard to digest and can make you feel cold especially in the winter. Abstaining from animal products like meat and dairy, grains and sugar also encourages the body to detoxify.
An easy and safe cleansing option would be to do a juice fast or eat only brown rice and steamed veggies for 1–3 days. This can be done once a week, once a month or annually around the spring and fall equinoxes.
Please consult a trusted health advisor before doing any kind of cleanse.
Supplement what is missing
As we get older the body becomes metabolically less efficient. Our cells accumulate more waste, produce less energy and demand more nutrition. The hormones that once kept us young and sexy dry up or begin to work against us.
Because the digestive system weakens as we age it gets harder to provide the body with the essential building blocks it needs. Ideally we should be able to get our basic needs from sunshine, food and water. However, even if you eat a good diet, you are what you digest.
Pay attention to how you are digesting food. Do you get bloated and gassy after meals? Do you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), constipation or diarrhea? Consider supplementing your diet every day with probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and miso to support healthy gut flora.
The microbiome of the gut is composed of a variety of bacteria and fungi, most of which are beneficial. However, due to the widespread overuse of antibiotics, chlorine and poor dietary choices, the ratio of good to bad microflora is tipped in the wrong direction.
Microflora in the gut do a lot more than digest food. They also produce vitamins, serotonin and other neurotransmitters and comprise 80 percent of our immune function.
If fermented foods are not convenient or available, digestive enzymes and probiotics in pill form are a good second option.
Vitamin D is another essential supplement to include daily. Normally our skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. However, in northern countries the sun is all but absent six months of the year.
Some studies correlate higher incidences of cancer and heart disease in the northern latitudes to a lack of vitamin D.
To get enough vitamin D daily from the sun you need to expose 40 percent of your skin to direct sunlight for at least half an hour. Otherwise you can take vitamin D in liquid form. It is important to get your vitamin D levels tested before supplementing, but generally 2000–4000 IUs is considered safe. Higher doses can be used therapeutically for colds and the flu.
Hormone levels in both men and women fluctuate over the course of life. Sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone tend to plummet after age forty, leading to weight gain, mood changes and low libido.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) produced by the pituitary gland stimulates repair and regeneration in youth but declines exponentially by age thirty. Many of the manifestations of aging are due in part to an absence of HGH.
Hormone replacement therapy is a billion-dollar industry, but not without risks including heart disease, strokes, and certain cancers. Fortunately there are natural and cheaper options to maintain healthy hormone levels into old age.
As a rule, strength training promotes testosterone production, whereas endurance training lowers it. Regular moderate exercise also regulates estrogen levels, which is important for menopausal women. High levels of estrogen are a risk factor for breast cancer.
High Intensity Interval Training and resistance training have been shown to increase Human Growth Hormone production. The amino acids L-glutamine, L-arginine and L-lycine taken before workouts or bedtime can increase HGH production.
Get serious about stress reduction
Stress is a natural part of life and if handled well can be a positive force spurring growth and change. However, modern life is filled with new and often unpredictable stressors that accumulate over time. The nervous system never fully resets to a para-sympathetic state (rest and digest) after a stress event, resulting in Adaptive Stress Syndrome.
Stress engages the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, which creates a feeling of hyper vigilance. The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in response to an imagined or real threat. If there is no break between stressors the adrenal glands eventually become fatigued or “burn out.”
The list of chronic stress symptoms is extensive, impacting virtually all aspects of physical and emotional wellbeing. There are few illnesses that don’t involve some component of stress.
One has to wonder why stress reduction is not foremost in our mind when seeking help for a health crisis. The answer to this question has to do with the nature of change. Very few of us are willing to make important or life-altering changes until it is absolutely necessary or unavoidable.
Change is associated with uncertainty, which itself is a big existential stressor. Our lives are made up of habits, both good and bad. Habits provide a sense of continuity and comfort that can be hard to give up, even if those habits cause us pain.
Stress management begins with making friends with uncertainty and letting go of control of outcomes. This approach can be cultivated by mindfulness meditation. By learning to recognize the patterns of thoughts that drive anxiety and stress and letting them go, it is possible to take control of the stress response at the root – in the mind.
Body and mind are intimately woven together. Stuck emotions like fear, anger and sadness get locked in the body in the form of muscle tension. Yoga, acupuncture, bodywork and other somatic-based therapies can help to loosen emotional armoring and induce a powerful relaxation response.
Stress reduction isn’t a technique, it is a lifestyle. We live in a very challenging time, where geopolitical and environmental changes only promise a crazier and more uncertain future.
Adaptability and resilience must be cultivated as a daily practice.
The greatest things in life aren’t things
Some of the greatest predictors of health relate to the quality of our relationships. Social connectedness with family, friends, colleagues, and community not only enrich us emotionally, it can also help us live longer and healthier.
The purpose of life is not to accumulate things or be an immaculate corpse, well preserved but never having lived. Work/life balance, following the right diet and the perfect exercise routine don’t guarantee happiness or wellbeing, but they can help us feel more available to others and connected to life.
Ultimately it is one’s approach to the journey of getting old that matters. Overcoming limitations, maturing innate gifts and character, and uplifting others and the world – these are the true marks of health and a life well lived.