The fountain of youth has been sought after since the beginning of time. People have searched for potions to prolong life, and restore youthful energy and beauty. With substances ranging from powdered gemstones to mercury and tiger bones, not much has escaped scrutiny as a longevity elixir.
Most of these reputed life enhancers have turned out to be simply wishful thinking — and some have been downright deadly. But through the process of trial and error, several have emerged that actually do restore vitality, maximize well-being and improve the chances that you will live to a healthy old age. Many of these life-enhancing substances hail from the herbal kingdom and include the humble garlic and the exotic maitake mushroom (once reserved only for royalty). One of the benefits of living today is that these longevity tonics are available to everyone.
Since the early 1980s, we’ve learned an enormous amount about how to maintain physical and mental vitality throughout life. It’s not possible to stop growing older. But it is possible to slow down the changes that we associate with aging by adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle and using specific herbs to support optimal health.
The choices you make on a daily basis about how to live and care for yourself determine to a great extent how healthy and fulfilling your life will be as you age. In the suggestions that follow, you’ll discover how you can be vitally healthy at mid-life and beyond.
Increase Your Vitality
Vitality — especially after the age of 40 — is directly related to how well you care for your body, mind and spirit. On a psychological and spiritual level, vitality comes from doing what you want to do in your life — the things that make you want to get up in the morning. Physical vitality comes from nourishing your body with a healthful diet, finding a form of regular exercise you enjoy and getting plenty of rest and relaxation.
Some of the biggest energy robbers include caffeine and sugar, which many people rely on to get through the day. Occasionally, a quick pick-me-up can be helpful. But when used to excess, these substances stress the body and accelerate the aging process.
Instead of relying on short-term energy boosts provided by caffeine and sugar, try tonic herbs such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) or eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian ginseng. These herbs replenish vitality and help the body adapt more easily to physical and emotional stressors by strengthening the adrenal glands.
Asian ginseng is the most potent form of ginseng and is recommended for those who suffer from serious debilitation. In some people, the herb may cause irritability, insomnia and increased blood pressure. American ginseng and eleuthero are less stimulating and therefore are generally regarded as safer for most people.
Ginseng is available in a variety of forms, including liquid extracts, capsules and tablets. Because products differ greatly in potency, follow the dosage instructions on the manufacturer’s label. You’ll probably need to take ginseng for a month or longer before you notice an appreciable difference in your vitality, but then you can expect to feel increased energy and an overall sense of well-being. If you’re taking Asian or American ginseng, take it as directed for one month, and then take a one-month break before resuming the dosage. Repeat the cycle up to three times, as needed. If you’re taking eleuthero, it’s safe to take the herb continuously.
Enhance Your Immunity
As your body ages, immunity begins to flag and harmful microorganisms and mutant cells can escape the internal surveillance mechanisms of the immune system. Keeping your immune system strong is one of the most important steps you can take to ward off common illnesses such as colds and flus, as well as more serious degenerative illnesses such as cancer.
You can support your immune system by eating a diet rich in cell-protecting antioxidants, found abundantly in deep yellow-orange fruits and vegetables and dark leafy greens. Eat at least five servings of vegetables and two fruits daily. Cultivate the habit of seasoning your food with liberal amounts of culinary herbs and spices. Many, including basil, garlic, parsley, ginger, fennel, oregano, cumin, rosemary and cilantro, have potent antioxidant activity.
Tonic herbs such as astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and the medicinal mushrooms maitake (Grifola frondosa), shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) strengthen the immune system and, when taken regularly, can bolster resistance to everything from colds to cancer.
These herbs are available in a variety of forms. Shiitake and maitake mushrooms can be found fresh or dried in many grocery stores and are delicious added to soups and stir-fries. Astragalus is tough and inedible, but whole, dried root slices can be simmered in soups or made into a mild, pleasant-tasting tea. Reishi is hard and woody with a bitter flavor but can be made into a tea. All of these immune-enhancing herbs are available as liquid extracts and powdered in capsules. Follow the manufacturer’s label directions for dosages.
An Herbally Healthy Heart
It’s probably not news to you that you can control your risk factors for heart disease by eating a diet low in saturated fats, exercising regularly and managing your stress. But you may not realize there’s a lot more you can do to lower your cholesterol levels, keep your arteries flexible and reduce your blood pressure — all with herbs. Two of the most important herbal tonics for the cardiovascular system are garlic and hawthorn.
Garlic (Allium sativum) decreases the harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while increasing the beneficial HDL cholesterol. It also lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of dangerous blood clots that can clog arteries. It takes only one or two cloves of garlic per day to protect the cardiovascular system. Raw garlic has more powerful properties than cooked, but both forms are helpful. If you can’t tolerate fresh garlic, take an extract that provides a daily dose of at least 10 mg of alliin, which is equal to approximately one clove of fresh garlic.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) contains potent antioxidant compounds that have a special affinity for the heart and arteries. These beneficial compounds increase blood flow to the heart, strengthen and steady the heartbeat, dilate the arteries and reduce blood pressure. Hawthorn can be taken as a tea, liquid extract or in capsules. To make a tea, pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried berries. Steep for 15 minutes, strain and drink 2 to 3 cups daily.
If you have cardiovascular disease, work with your health-care provider to determine whether taking a liquid extract or standardized extract (stronger forms of the herb) would be beneficial for you. If you’re taking any drugs for heart disease, be sure to consult your health practitioner because your medication may need to be adjusted.
Build Your Bones
Although bones may seem to be rigid and dense, they’re actually active, living tissue. Because your body is continually breaking down and rebuilding bone tissue, you can increase bone strength through diet, weight-bearing exercise (such as moderate weight lifting and gardening) and mineral-rich herbs.
The most important mineral for maintaining bone health is calcium, but dairy products are not the only source, nor are they the best. Many people have difficulty digesting dairy, and dairy is also high in phosphorus, which can interfere with calcium absorption. Nondairy foods that are excellent sources of calcium include dark leafy greens, sardines, almonds, tofu and sesame seeds.
Although herbs alone cannot prevent osteoporosis, they can contribute to building and maintaining bone strength. Many herbs are good sources of bone-building nutrients. For example, dandelion greens, parsley and watercress are rich in calcium as well as trace minerals. In fact, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is one of the most nutritious leafy greens — the leaves contain more calcium and iron than spinach and are also a good source of magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. They have a hearty, mildly bitter flavor and are delicious sautéed, steamed or raw in salads.
Two other herbs that can help strengthen bones include nettle (Urtica dioica) and horsetail (Equisetum arvense). Nettle contains calcium, magnesium, trace minerals and easily absorbable amino acids. The dried herb makes a good-tasting tea, and if you have access to fresh nettle, it makes a wonderful vegetable dish when lightly steamed (cooking removes nettles’ sting; wear gloves and protective clothing when harvesting the plant). Horsetail is high in calcium and trace minerals, including silica, which aids in calcium absorption and is important for building bone.
Maintain Youthful Skin
Many of the outward changes we associate with aging are the result of insufficient exercise and rest, lack of essential nutrients and too much stress. The more attention you give to eating healthfully, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and reducing stress in your life, the better you will look and feel. You can also greatly improve the appearance of your skin by using natural treatments that stimulate cellular rejuvenation.
Among the best topical skin treatments are alpha-hydroxy acids, natural substances derived from foods such as citrus fruits, yogurt, grapes, sugar cane and apples. These gentle acids work by loosening the glue that binds the outermost layer of surface skin cells together, which increases the shedding of dead skin cells and encourages the formation of new skin cells. Alpha-hydroxy acids improve skin texture and color, lessen fine lines, reduce age spots and make pores appear smaller. For best results, you need to use these products for two months or longer to see a significant improvement in skin quality.
Specific herbs are also helpful for treating mature skin topically. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) contains allantoin, a compound that encourages the formation of new skin cells. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and rose (Rosa spp.) stimulate cellular rejuvenation.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall, 1998) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).