Eternal youth, the commodity sought after so intensely by so many; the commodity on which billions of dollars, pounds, rands are spent every year; the source of billions in income for companies specialising in anti aging, vitamin therapy, spa treatments and the list goes on and on.
Is the process of senescence, the ageing process in other words, modifiable or even avoidable? Looking back over the past 150 years the upper limit of life expectancy has exceeded all previous predictions to the tune of about 2,5 years per decade (1). We are living longer, mostly due to the wrong reason, unfortunately. Medical science has progressed to such an extent that the ability now exists to keep people alive, even after nature has attempted to intervene.
The ageing process has come at a price, however. Researchers have estimated “that the cost to our (American) Society resulting solely from the triad of coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity is nearly half a trillion dollars” (2). Much of this money is spent in the last 1/3 of an individual’s life in an attempt to force the natural boundaries.
There are, however, many who believe that there is an alternative, “in the ideal case, the healthy citizens of a modern society will survive to an advanced age with their vigour and functional independence maintained, and morbidity and disability will be compressed into a relatively short space before death occurs” (3).
Is it then possible to turn back the hands of time? Well, yes and no. The answer to this depends on whether you are looking chronologically or physiologically. Obviously, the time warp machine, as exciting a concept as it may be, is a little on the sci-fi side. On the other hand, looking at a physiological model, it definitely appears feasible, that by modifying lifestyle and behaviour patterns, health outcomes can be improved. Our goal, in other words, should be to age healthily.
According to Dr Bruce Lipton, in his book, “The Biology of Belief” our genetic blueprint (genotype) accounts for somewhere between 2 and 10% of who we really are (phenotype). This means that the other 90 to 98% of how we turn out at the end of the day is determined by other external and environmental factors.
One of the predominant theories around ageing is Harmon’s Free Radical theory of ageing(4).
This theory supports the idea that many environmental factors contribute to the production of free radicals cells, also known as Reactive Oxygen Species, in the body, producing oxidative stress. Without launching into a complicated biochemical explanation let it just be said that ROS’s are toxic, “pro-death” cells that speed up the ageing process.
The causes of overproduction of these ROS’s include, but are not limited to:
- Poor diet: more specifically, refined sugars, saturated fats, excess coffee and tea, processed foods, alcohol, preservatives, additives and colourants. This pretty much covers the SAD (South African Diet!). From a very early age children are bombarded with toxic substances found in the everyday foods that they eat. It is no wonder that the incidence of ADD/ADHA, food allergies and intolerances, learning disabilities and the trend towards the ultimate “ager”, obesity, are so prevalent.
- Foods are actually chemical messengers relaying messages from the outside of the cell to the inside of the cell. These messages essentially fall into 2 categories – pro life or pro death messages. Science has now proven that the constant influence of pro–death chemical message, which can actually alter the genetic structure with in the nucleus, potentially leading to chronic degenerative disease and hence accelerated aging.
- High stress levels – “I’m so stressed” is perhaps one of the more common affirmations that I hear in clinical practice today. I say affirmation, because, by constantly acknowledging that you are stressed, even when the initiating stressor is something trivial, you cause the release of additional stress chemicals, further aggravating ROS release and further programming yourself for chronic stress syndrome. Try to remove the word stress from your vocabulary, or at least use the word appropriately.
- Lack of exercise – exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which are happy chemicals. Feeling good and happy and feeling stressed and wired are mutually exclusive, even if only on a temporary basis.
- While on that point, may I just debunk the myth that exercise helps to the manage stress. Exercise actually does nothing for the stress itself. What exercise does is stimulate the production of endorphins, chemicals that have an opiate like chemical structure and that therefore create a euphoric sort of effect. This is really a “feel good” state, so one feels better, however, once the euphoric effect wears off, typically after an hour or two, guess what, stress is there again!
- Ever heard anyone say, ‘I’m just addicted to running (or which ever sport)?’ They aren’t actually addicted to the sport, they’re addicted to the feeling they get from the endorphins.
- Smoking – smoking is a major free radical generator and will certainly contribute to the aging process, not only internally, but the effects are very often highly visible externally as dry and wrinkled skin.
- Exposure to chemicals – every “foreign” substance that we come into contact with has to be filtered through our liver, kidneys and skin. These substances are often in the form of pollutants, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and the like. Once again this exposure will up-regulate the release of ROS’s
- Unfiltered water – pure, clean water will, probably sooner rather than later, become a highly sought after commodity. Our water sources are becoming increasingly toxic, and being “laced” with higher and higher chlorine levels to kill off organic material in the water, again resulting in upping the release of the ROS’s. Chlorine is highly liver toxic so one has the choice of investing in a high quality water filtration and purification system (e.g. the E-Spring), or becoming the filter yourself!
Our amazing bodies have built in antioxidant safeguards to naturally reduce cellular exposure to the free radicals resulting in a natural slowing of the ageing process. However, due to higher levels of exposure our natural safeguards are often outstripped leading to more rapid cellular degeneration and ageing.
So what can we do to avoid free radical toxicity? Modifying the factors above, that you have direct control over, is an extremely powerful way of directly influencing free radical production.
Furthermore, supplementing with antioxidants is an excellent way to reduce free radical damage. There are a wide range of antioxidants available, however any supplement regime should be from a high quality, food state source and should include vitamin A, E, C and Bata Carotene. Phyto-nutrient complexes from supplementation with food state fruit and vegetable extracts are highly beneficial as well.
Dosages vary depending on different manufacturing protocols and it is therefore advisable to follow manufacturer’s recommendations.
The effects of modifying lifestyle, addressing dietary imbalances, managing stress, exercising, stopping smoking etc. will yield remarkable, measurable and rapid results. Normal body mass index ranges and balanced fat to lean weight ratios (body composition) are associated with decreased risk of chronic degenerative disease and slowed and healthy aging. If one did nothing else but manage these two parameters damage can be reversed, but, at worse, the hands of time will be markedly slowed.
- Oppen J, Vaupel JW, “Broken Limits Of the Life Expectancy” Science, 2002; 296:1029 — 31
- Booth FW, Gordon SE, Carlson CJ, Hamilton MT, “Waging war on modern chronic diseases, primary prevention through exercise biology” J Applied Physiology 2000; 88:774 — 787
- Champion EW, “ageing better” New England J of medicine 1988 : 338(15): 1064 – 1066
- Harmon D, “The Ageing Process”, Proc. Natl. Acad. Of Sc., USA, 1981:78 (11) 7124 – 7128