Throughout history, people in Asia known as Taoists searched for the secrets of longevity and immortality. They studied the human body, mind and spirit, which they called San Bao, or Three Treasures. By preserving the Three Treasures, Taoists believe they can achieve longevity and, possibly, find the door to immortality.
Many scientists, herbalists, nutritionists and physicians in the Western world are preoccupied with a similar search to slow the aging process and increase lifespan. It seems that almost daily a new youth cocktail rears its head on the already crowded anti-aging market. From drugs to designer nutrients, elixirs of youth to water fasts, we are a culture obsessed with aging — or, more accurately, with trying to avoid aging.
It is likely that as long as humans have roamed the earth, we have searched diligently to slow the effects of the aging process and find the secrets to a long and healthy life. While scientists concoct high-tech solutions in their test tubes and surgeons attempt to reduce the outward effects of aging, Mother Nature gently offers powerful anti-aging remedies in the form of phytochemicals and antioxidants found naturally in foods and herbs.
The Link to Free Radical Damage
Many factors can contribute to the body’s formation of substances called free radicals. Some free radicals are produced normally during metabolism. Sometimes the body’s immune system creates free radicals to neutralize viruses and bacteria. Other factors that may spur the production of free radicals include exposure to radiation; air pollutants; fungicides, pesticides and insecticides; prescription and over-the-counter drugs; petroleum products; excessive sunlight; fried, charbroiled and barbecued foods; alcohol; coffee; sugar; industrial chemicals found in our air and water; and stress hormones. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that bind to and destroy our bodies’ cellular compounds — even our genetic material — and speed the aging process.
Detoxify the Years Away
Because toxins damage cells and are linked to premature aging, it is imperative to lessen the toxic load of your organ systems by reducing your exposure to harmful substances such as pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, sugar, cigarettes, coffee, chemical food additives and trans fats, found in fried foods and processed foods.
Due to the damaging role toxins play in our bodies, it is not surprising that regularly engaging in a cleansing program can protect cells from damage and even help reverse cellular damage. In numerous studies, scientists found that short-term detoxification may help people extend their lives. During one study on mice, researchers at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, found that mice who fasted for four consecutive days every two weeks had a significantly longer lifespan than the mice fed a typical North American diet. The National Institute on Aging also found that detoxification increases a person’s lifespan as well as or better than caloric restriction, a common strategy to slow the effects of aging.
Processed, packaged, fast or fried foods typically contain large quantities of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and trans fats, all of which can cause free radical damage in the body and burden our body’s detoxification systems.
Turn Back the Clock
It may seem basic, but high-quality air, water and food are essential to prevent free radical damage and slow the aging process. Exercise and deep breathing techniques help supply our cells with fresh oxygen to keep them healthy and cleansed. During exercise, we breathe deeper, allowing our lungs to take in more oxygen that is needed for every function.
Every cell in the body also requires adequate water to function properly. The cells need water to transmit important brain messages; eliminate environmental toxins, free radicals and cellular waste products from the body; rejuvenate and nourish the skin; and help ensure that every other bodily function works properly. Drinking suboptimal amounts of water on a regular basis results in cells that simply cannot function adequately. Our bodies are 70 percent water, making water one of the most critical, yet often overlooked, anti-aging nutrients.
Mother Nature offers protection against free radicals in the form of antioxidants. Antioxidants are powerful nutrients that combat free radical activity. Often referred to as free radical scavengers, antioxidants neutralize these otherwise unstable and highly reactive molecules. Antioxidants are found in many foods, especially green leafy vegetables. As a general rule, the greener the vegetable, the more antioxidants it contains. Normally, our bodies can handle free radicals. But if antioxidants are in short supply, or if the formation of free radicals becomes excessive, damage can result.
Almost daily, scientists discover new phytochemicals (natural substances found in plants) that fight aging and disease. The best way to obtain these hundreds of substances is to eat a plentiful and varied amount of fresh fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a scale of foods called the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) to identify superfoods that have high levels of antioxidants. Two human studies published in the Journal of Nutrition and the American Journal of Nutrition found that eating high-ORAC fruits and vegetables raises the antioxidant power of the blood between 13 and 25 percent and may help slow the processes associated with aging the brain and body.
Rats fed high doses of blueberry extract for six weeks before being subjected to pure oxygen suffered substantially less damage to the capillaries in and around their lungs than rats not fed the blueberry extract. Other studies, documented in the Journal of Neuroscience, of middle-aged rats fed diets with added spinach, strawberry extract or vitamin E for nine months found that spinach proved most potent in protecting nerve cells in two parts of the brain against the effects of aging.
Additional anti-aging, nutrient-rich foods include avocados, carrots, cabbage, citrus fruit, green tea, legumes, garlic, seaweed and tomatoes. All of these foods contain many powerful and potent plant chemicals and antioxidants that help protect cells
The body also needs healthy fats to protect the brain and nervous system from the effects of aging. Some of the best sources of omega essential fatty acids include raw nuts and seeds; cold-pressed oils like flax and hemp; avocados and olives; and fatty fish like mackerel and wild salmon. Unlike the harmful fats found in fried and processed foods, these fats support healthy skin, increase immunity against disease and protect against damage to the brain and nervous system.
It is a tremendous irony. People spend so much time and money searching for ways to slow aging but the way has already been given to them in the form of delicious, nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs. Try pure air, water and lots of healthy fruits, vegetables and herbs and you’ll be giving your body potent medicine to turn back the clock, or at least slow it down.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is an award-winning author, doctor of natural medicine, doctor of acupuncture, holistic nutritionist and author of the books The 4 Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan (Wiley, 2006) and Healing Injuries the Natural Way (Your Health Press, 2004). Visit her website at www.EnergyEffect.com.
Mother Nature’s Anti-Aging Herbs and Nutrients
Why pop expensive pills and potions or succumb to surgeries that only disguise the effects of aging when Mother Nature has a vast array of herbs and nutrients that slow the aging process from the inside?
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA). ALA is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect your body from free radical damage. It also helps to recycle vitamins E and C, giving you greater protection against free radicals. It lowers cholesterol levels, protects nerve tissues, helps deactivate free radicals and detoxifies the liver of heavy metals — all of which make it a great anti-aging supplement.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Instead of taking a synthetic hormonal supplement of human growth hormone (HGH), you can assist your body to make greater amounts of this anti-aging substance by supplementing with GABA. Declining levels of HGH are associated with many of the symptoms linked with aging: fat gain, muscle loss, loss of energy, poor sleep, skin changes, bone density loss and a decline in libido. Supplementing with GABA, a natural amino acid, helps maintain levels of HGH, lessening these unwanted symptoms. Avoid GABA if you are prone to seizures.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). There is solid scientific research that supports the use of ginkgo to increase blood flow to the brain, one of the areas commonly affected by aging. European research shows ginkgo’s capacity to help people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia to become more sociable and alert. James A. Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 2000) and world-renowned botanist, recommends taking 60 to 240 mg of standardized ginkgo extract a day.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Among the Chinese, ginseng is considered the Fountain of Youth, especially for men. According to Duke, it tones the skin and muscles, improves appetite and digestion and restores sexual energy.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Because the liver has more than 500 functions, including processing andfiltering medications and environmental toxins, it can suffer from the stresses of the modern world. Silymarin, an active ingredient in milk thistle, stimulates liver cell regeneration to help the liver rebuild after it has been damaged. A standardized extract of 140 mg of silymarin per day is suitable to help protect and repair the liver.
Peppermint (Mentha xpiperita). In addition to helping with digestion and gastro- intestinal problems linked with aging, peppermint contains antioxidants that help prevent cancer, heart disease and other age-related disorders.
Garlic (Allium sativum). Garlic is renowned for its potent effects on viruses and bacteria, but it also reduces cholesterol levels and helps lower blood pressure. In one Japanese study, garlic slowedage-related memory loss in animals.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). Loaded with the mineral silicon, which often declines with age, horsetail plays a role in increasing the silicon in arteries, skin, bones, cartilage and connective tissues.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Packed with antioxidants, bilberry is potent medicine against many age-related concerns. It is helpful to preserve vision and prevent degenerative eye diseases.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Research shows turmeric is a more effective anti-inflammatory than steroid drugs when dealing with inflammation. Curcumin, its active ingredient, suppresses pain through a similar mechanism as drugs like COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors (without the harmful side effects). Turmeric is powerful against many types of pain and inflammation associated with aging.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica). Frequently used in India to improve memory and extend longevity, gotu kola is excellent when made into an herbal tea.
With the exception of ginkgo and milk thistle, which are best taken as standardized extracts, doses vary depending on the herb’s form. Follow the manufacturer’s suggested dose for tinctures, capsules or tea, or consult a qualified herbalist. Consult your doctor before taking any herbs or combining them with medications.