Regardless of past lifestyle habits, you can positively influence your health and longevity right now.
Many cultures have had stories and legends of the elixir of life, claiming to keep one young forever. The Romans searched for the River of Immortality. The mythology and poetry of the Greeks was likewise filled with yearnings for a long life. While many sought a long life on remote islands or in bubbling streams and steaming pools, others discovered longevity with healthy living and spiritual discipline. The Chinese Taoists, for example, tried to conserve their vital energies so that life became essentially effortless. They practiced tai chi to keep their bodies cleansed, learned how to reduce their breathing rate and ate very minimally. Fruits and roots were their staples, leaving no room for meat, alcohol or even grains.
Even today, there are cultures whose members have managed to achieve long, healthy lives, many living beyond 100 years. The Hunza people (of northern Pakistan), the Vilcabamba (of Ecuador), the Abkhasia (of an autonomous republic of Georgia) and the Okinawans (of Japan) have maintained extraordinary life spans, the majority living to be at least 100 years old. A low-calorie diet based on plant sources; regular exercise; a clean environment; and vibrant, socially supportive communities all are characteristics of these cultures.
Some people believe that following the example of these indigenous people is useless because of the role that genes play. Yet according to John W. Rowe, M.D., coauthor of Successful Aging: The MacArthur Foundation Study and one of the foremost experts on the relative importance of lifestyle choices and genetics, “Only about 30 percent of physical aging can be blamed on genes and as we grow older, genetics become less important.”
For that 30 percent, Rowe says, genetic testing can be performed. Take some time to compile a family medical history. Common life-threatening illnesses with a genetic component include osteoporosis; hemochromatosis; kidney disease; diabetes; cardiovascular diseases (atherosclerosis, heart disease, hypertension and stroke); and a laundry list of cancers (kidney, stomach, endometrial, skin, colorectal, prostate, ovarian, breast, lung and brain). These illnesses are uncommon in Okinawa, Hunza, Vilcabamba and Abkhasia, where synthetically created drugs are unheard of. The natural surroundings and lifestyles of these cultures decrease the incidence of age-related diseases and offer a variety of natural treatments.
Nature has given us a wealth of remedies and treatments that can help our bodies heal and prevent us from getting sick as we age. Certain herbs and supplements are known for their life-giving and life-enhancing effects. Coenzyme Q10, for example, is necessary for the basic functioning of cells. Occurring naturally in the body, CoQ10 diminishes with age, and low levels have been associated with chronic ailments, such as heart conditions, as well as fatigue and muscle weakness. Supplementing your wellness routine with CoQ10 also can prevent premature aging of the skin. Alpha-lipoic acid is another important compound that the body requires. A potent antioxidant, it might prove useful in thwarting Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and diabetes. For decades, alpha-lipoic acid has been used in Germany to treat diabetic neuropathy.
Ginseng (Panax ginseng), long revered in Asia, can enhance the body’s ability to combat stress and help normalize bodily functions. Many research studies demonstrate that ginseng can increase energy, boost the immune system, protect the liver and heart, normalize blood sugar levels and improve cognitive functioning. Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and echinacea (Echinacea spp.) have been shown to fight colds and flu while royal jelly, propolis and bee pollen are known for their rich supply of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids, as well as antibiotic properties. Probiotics, such as acidophilus and lactobacillus, are microorganisms that promote the good bacteria in the gut needed to digest food and to enhance immune functioning. Probiotics often are used to offset the side effects of antibiotics, which kill both unfriendly and friendly bacteria in the gut.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs), found in flaxseed, walnut, borage and hemp seed oils, reduce inflammation in the body and help prevent many conditions including heart disease, allergies, cancer and osteoporosis. Turning to these remedies in times of need can strengthen the body as it relies on itself to heal from the inside out.
Environmental factors can contribute greatly to how long we live. Clean water, good air quality, tight-knit social communities and low stress can be found in all the places around the world where many centenarians live. While most of us will not pack up and relocate to a tiny town tucked away in the Andes or to a remote village in the Himalayan foothills, we can take measures to improve the quality of our surroundings, which directly affects the quality of our everyday lives.
When we clean our homes, we should use supplies that are free of harmful chemicals. Vinegar and baking soda are excellent substitutes. Fertilizing our lawns with organic compost or manure will eliminate chemicals that are toxic to our bodies. When we kill pests in our home, we should choose a chemical-free pest controller, such as a sticky trap. The use of a home air-purifying system will filter mold, pollen, dust, pet dander and mites. We also can, as much as is practical, try to ensure that the area in which we live is far from hazardous waste sites, nuclear power plants or polluting factories. When this is not possible, establish healthy regimens of diet and exercise to help mitigate the environmental hazards of living in a polluted area. For instance, if you live in a big city and enjoy running or walking, go early in the morning before the fumes of rush hour fill the air.
Understanding the effects of stress on the body is another crucial factor in the longevity department. While short-term stress can affect our health in relatively minor ways, long-term stress can do major damage. Practice stress-relieving techniques that have been used by other cultures for centuries. Yoga, meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs, massage, acupressure, acupuncture, tai chi, qigong and, most important, exercise, all are wonderful ways to alleviate stress levels and heal the body, mind and spirit.
Try aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, running or swimming. Dancing is a wonderful way to enjoy exercise, music and companionship, while gardening cultivates patience and strengthens the muscles. As a weight-bearing exercise, it also lowers instances of osteoporosis while providing a sense of reconnection to Mother Earth. Regular exercise encourages good sleep, another key to longevity. Sleep deprivation can lead to myriad problems, so make seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep a priority in your life.
Being socially and spiritually connected is one of the best lifestyle choices we can make for ourselves. Companionship is essential to good health. Surround yourself with loving individuals. A supportive spouse, caring friends and family, and loving pets all are relations we as humans cannot and should not live without. Heightened levels of spiritual faith are related to higher immune system function and lower incidence of heart disease. In fact, one of the most common characteristics shared by centenarians around the world is a strong spiritual faith.
Hippocrates urged us to “Let food be thy medicine.” Experts, such as the American Institute for Cancer Research, believe approximately 30 to 40 percent of all cancers are related to diet. What you eat and how you eat both are parts of the equation. A variety of legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds are the dietary staples of those who have lived long lives. An adequate amount of pure, clean water, at least eight to 10 glasses a day, also is necessary for optimum health. When buying food, opt for organic when possible to ensure that the food which nourishes you actually is nourishing and free from harmful chemicals and pesticides. Most important, eliminate the habit of smoking from your life altogether.
• Apple cider vinegar helps balance the body’s pH. It has antiseptic and antibiotic properties and is an overall maintainer of good health.
• Apples are a good source of pectin, which can lower cholesterol and help prevent colon cancer.
• Artichokes have a protective effect on the liver.
• Beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas are valuable sources of vegetable proteins. They are good sources of minerals; can improve intestinal health; have detoxifying properties; and help lower cholesterol. The soybean is perhaps the most nutritious of all beans because it contains the omega-3 fatty acids and has the highest content of phytoestrogens.
• Blueberries have the highest amount of antioxidants among the berry family. They also have neuroprotective properties that can delay age-related memory loss.
• Broccoli and cauliflower contain phytonutrients that help cleanse the body of cancer-causing substances.
• Brown rice contains more than 70 antioxidants and is a good source of fiber.
• Burdock is a regular part of the Japanese diet, a culture known to have the longest lifespan in the world.
• Celery can be juiced to combat high blood pressure. The Chinese have been eating and drinking celery for centuries to help prevent stroke, kidney failure and heart disease.
• Cherries balance blood-sugar levels and help fight heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
• Garlic contains compounds that have been shown to inhibit cancer, protect against atherosclerosis, lower cholesterol, reduce blood clot formation and stimulate the pituitary gland.
• Ginger is known to help relieve pain, inhibit migraines, prevent blood clots, fight cancer and prevent digestive stress.
• Honey helps heal wounds internally and externally and is popular for its antibiotic properties.
• Nuts and seeds contribute to muscle tone and circulation. They also contain arginine, an amino acid that helps fight heart disease, impotence and infertility.
• Oats contain soluble fiber, which can reduce colon cancer risk, balance blood-sugar levels and help move cholesterol quickly through the intestines.
• Olive oil contains essential fatty acids that are essential to brain development, skin health, immune function, fertility and vascular health.
• Orange juice, aside from being rich in vitamin C, is great for your bones when fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
• Pine nuts give the body a powerful antioxidant known as pycnogenol, which protects endothelial cells (those which make up the lining of the blood vessels and heart) from free radical damage, preserves healthy skin structure and is anti-inflammatory.
• Pineapples contain the anti-inflammatory enzyme bromelain.
• Sea vegetables, such as kelp, dulse, nori and Irish moss, are rich sources of micronutrients.
• Sesame oil is a kidney and liver tonic, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. It also helps build the blood and regulates bowel movements.
• Shiitake, maitake and reishi mushrooms have many anti-aging properties. They help protect the body from viruses and cancer, boost immunity and lower “bad” cholesterol levels.
• Spices, such as turmeric, basil, rosemary, cayenne, oregano and onions help improve circulation and prevent blood clots.
• Spinach, when sautéed in olive oil, is a tasty dish for promoting good eyesight.
• Teas (black, green and herbal) contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help fight cancer and diabetes. They also inhibit free radicals from wreaking havoc in the body.
• Tomatoes are high in lycopene, a potent antioxidant that may protect against certain cancers, heart disease and cataracts.
• Wine keeps the blood from thickening, contains the powerful antioxidant resveratrol and has anti-inflammatory properties that can fight cancer and reduce cholesterol. However, a little wine goes a long way. One glass a day is enough.
• Yams contain more beta-carotene and vitamin C than carrots, more fiber than oat bran and more protein than wheat and rice.
Aimee Christine Hughes, N.D., is a freelance health writer based in Kansas City, Kansas.
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