The science behind accelerated ageing and how we can age well
-Dec 16, Sara Palmer Hussey, PhD , Health -
Age and getting older isn’t a simple case of each year since you were born ticking by. The science behind why we age and what can speed it up is fascinating. Sara Palmer Hussey, PhD, explains the main causes of accelerated ageing and natural ways to slow it down.
Scientists have diligently worked for decades to reduce the cause of ageing to one sole factor; to identify the one master trigger that tips us over the hill from our prime and downhill into old age.
The aim of such motivated research is that, upon discovering the one culprit of ageing, it would be easier to deal with it one-on-one and call a halt to physical degeneration once and for all. However, the more we try to simplify the way our bodies work with the hope of controlling them, the further away we move from actually understanding them.
The body is not a simple phenomenon; it is an infinitely intelligent, flowing network of interrelated systems and, if we isolate just one process that is on-going in our bodies, without taking into account all the other processes that affect and are affected by that one process, the conclusion we draw may be tidy and easy to explain, but it no longer bears any relation to the reality of the vastly complex system that the body really is.
Therefore, in order to understand and address ageing in the body, we must not reduce our focus to one cause, but instead leave all the causes involved in ageing on the table and seek to hold this multi-faceted perspective as we look at ways to stem this seemingly unstoppable tide.
By taking this approach of maximum breadth, we acknowledge not only the complexity of the human body, but also its superior intelligence. Could any of us ever imagine creating the intricate multi-tasking, maximum productivity and excellent communication involved in just one cell let alone over thirty trillion of them all carrying out different and simultaneous roles in perfect harmony? If not, then should our approach hinge upon supporting how the body works, bowing to its superior intelligence, rather than seeking to substitute or correct any shortfalls we see?
I think the answer should be a resounding yes as we retain a sense of awe and respect for the wondrous masterpiece before us: the human body.
So, let’s look at how this wondrous masterpiece succumbs to ageing and degeneration and if there is anything we can do to help it stave off or slow down this seemingly inevitable progression.
In youth, all cellular processes tend to work at optimum efficiency, but, as we age, there is a gradual loss of efficiency, which creates an accumulation of issues that exacerbate one another and manifests as the signs we associate with ageing, including wrinkled skin, greying hair, tiredness, a weaker immune system, hormonal imbalance and poor sleep.
The free radical theory of ageing
Let’s start with one contributing factor to this loss of efficiency that forms the basis for the free radical theory of ageing. Ageing according to this theory is caused by free radicals.
The production of energy within cells produces reactive by-products, such as free radicals, which can cause damage to the cell’s components and structure. Free radicals are neutralised by antioxidants. For this constant process to be efficient, the cell must receive the correct anti-oxidising nutrition.
Antioxidants can come in the form of vitamins, such as vitamins A, C and E, and are aided by minerals, such as selenium and zinc. The body also synthesises its own recyclable antioxidant army, glutathione, to disarm free radicals. Low glutathione levels are characteristic of ageing tissue, therefore, supporting the body’s glutathione supply is an effective way of keeping free radicals at bay. Glutathione is not efficiently supplemented, but a nutrient that effectively upgrades the supply of glutathione in the body is L-Cysteine. L-Cysteine is a natural substance not found in adequate abundance in food that, when taken as a supplement, directly and measurably replenishes glutathione concentrations in all of our cells, thus supporting glutathione’s unparalleled antioxidant action.
When free radicals are not neutralised and eliminated quickly and efficiently, they can wreak havoc on a cell’s components and structure. A free radical has an electron missing in its molecular structure and so is unstable and reactive. An antioxidant will donate an electron to the free radical in order to neutralise it. However, if there are not sufficient antioxidants, the free radical will not be neutralised and will certainly cause damage. If it damages the DNA of the cell, it can permanently affect a cell’s ability to replicate successfully and sustain health.
DNA damage can lead to the expression of age, decline and degenerative diseases over youthful health. Antioxidants are key to protecting DNA. Other substances that positively influence DNA and healthy gene expression are sirtuin-activators. Turmeric and omega 3 fatty acids are examples of sirtuin-activators that switch on healthy genes making normal cells more resilient, and silence disease-promoting genes.
Scientists have recently identified the length of telomeres, the protective caps at the end of chromosomes where DNA is housed, as a biological clock that controls the rate of ageing. With each cell cycle, telomeres shorten; when telomeres become too short, the cell dies.
In the presence of telomerase, the enzyme that helps maintain the length of telomeres, each dividing cell can replace the lost bit of DNA and any single cell can then divide unbounded. While this possibility of unbounded lifespan has excited many researchers, caution is warranted in exploiting this property, as exactly this same unbounded growth is a crucial step in enabling cancerous growth.
There are, however, two key nutrients that have been associated with longer, healthier telomeres without interfering with the body’s self-regulation of telomerase levels: they are omega 3 fatty acids, such as those contained in flaxseed oil, and vitamin D.
Cellular energy decline and the accumulation of cellular debris
Other cell components at risk of free radical damage are the mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing organelles. If the mitochondria of the cells are affected by free radical attack, the cell’s ability to produce sufficient energy for all its tasks will be diminished. Once the cell’s energy turnover has been compromised, the cell no longer operates in optimum efficiency, but instead has to prioritise the importance of its tasks. Elimination of waste products gets relegated to the bottom of its list of things to do and so debris begins to accumulate, which in turn begins to further hamper the clean efficiency of the cell’s processes. The cell will wait for sufficient energy to take the rubbish out, but if energy levels continue to dwindle, this situation becomes a vicious circle.
One nutrient that greatly aids the transport of fuel into the cell and the efficient production of energy within the mitochondria of the cell is l-carnitine. As energy levels increase, the cell is able to reverse the degenerative process created by the accumulation of debris and move back towards efficiency. L-carnitine’s ability to boost the elimination of debris and restore energy turnover in all cells offers tangible improvements to fatigue.
Coenzyme Q10 is also an essential component of healthy mitochondrial function. Ageing humans have been found to have over 50% less Coenzyme Q10 on average compared to that of young adults. This finding makes Coenzyme Q10 one of the most important nutrients for people over 30 to integrate.
The energy produced by the mitochondria must be bound to a magnesium ion in order to be biologically active. Sufficient magnesium is, therefore, essential for youthful energy levels. Magnesium is essential also to the permeability of the mitochondrial membrane and to the transfer and, therefore, utilisation of energy. Iodine is another nutrient that is essential for sustaining normal energy-yielding metabolism.
Insulin resistance is also a factor responsible for blocking the entry of fuel into the cell and impeding the generation of energy. Insulin is the hormone secreted by the pancreas that lowers blood sugar by promoting its transport from the blood stream into the cell.
The modern diet, often too high in glucose, is responsible for an over-activation of insulin, which makes cells progressively resistant as a form of self-protection against persistent bombardment.
If glucose is not allowed into the cells then it remains in the blood stream, which prompts the production of more insulin in a vicious cycle that exacerbates the problem. Insulin resistant cells cannot take in glucose, amino acids or fatty acids. This inhibits energy production by stifling the fuel supply to the cell. Such fuel-starved cells will age much faster.
Nutrients such as l-carnitine. coenzyme Q10 and omega-3 fatty acids, such as those in flaxseed oil, help increase insulin receptiveness by increasing the fluidity of the cell membrane.
Another major player in ageing is inflammation. Acute inflammation is essential. However, chronic inflammation, often silent, involves the perpetuation of the pro-inflammatory response. This persistent low-grade attack on all body tissues caused by chronic inflammation precedes and characterises most degenerative diseases. It impairs the functioning and repair of tissues and cells and accelerates ageing.
Increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids generally decreases inflammation, whereas increasing dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids increases inflammatory markers. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the typical Western diet is about 16:1. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed oil is 1:4, which helps redress the balance.
Turmeric is also a potent anti-inflammatory. Turmeric has been proven to counteract inflammation more effectively than many drugs, yet it is a natural substance and one of the safest compounds ever discovered. As inflammation is central to cancer initiation, promotion and metastasis, turmeric is a powerful ally not only against ageing, but also against cancer.
Glycation is another process that causes ageing in the body. It is defined as the haphazard bonding of proteins or lipids with sugars to form non-functioning structures called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). Some AGEs are very reactive and have been implicated in diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
Glycation damages collagen, an essential component of healthy skin, by reducing its regenerative ability and increasing its breakdown. This results in the wrinkling, creping and sagging common in ageing skin. Glycation also depletes the skin of its natural moisturiser, hyaluronic acid, to cause dry skin, which further exacerbates the ageing process.
So, how does the body itself deal with glycation? It calls upon a unique dipeptide called carnosine that interferes with the glycation process. Carnosine levels in the body decline with age rendering the body more vulnerable to the damaging effects of glycation.
Carnosine supplements are ineffective as they are broken down in the digestive tract and not absorbed; a more efficient way of upgrading stores of carnosine in the body is by providing its essential building blocks in the form of the amino acid alanine. Alanine is also a powerful antioxidant, a major part of connective tissue, an immune system booster, an important source of energy for muscle and the primary amino acid in sugar metabolism.
Blocking the actual formation of AGEs rather than focusing solely on undoing the damage caused by AGEs once it has already occurred, is far more effective in promoting and maintaining healthy collagen, which ensures the firmness and elasticity of the skin.
Repair and regeneration is essential to maintaining youthful health and appearance. In youth, a healthy surge of human growth hormone (HGH) released while we sleep takes care of all the repair, renewal and regeneration needs of the body’s tissues. However, as we age, falling levels of HGH correspond to a loss of youthfulness and vitality and result in extra body fat, reduced muscle tissue, slow healing, lack of elasticity in the skin and reduced immune function.
Many people have advocated the benefits of hormone-replacement therapies. However, the use of substances such as GH (Growth Hormone), DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and Pregnenolone does nothing to actually improve the body’s own natural hormonal production, but instead actually results in lower natural hormonal levels leading to the need for higher supplementation.
What the body actually needs to sustain youthful levels of HGH is a unique amino-acid combination that promotes HGH release from the pituitary gland by providing the building blocks for hormone synthesis and by removing an impediment to HGH release, somatostatin, that increases with age.
This combination is l-arginine, l-lysine and l-glutamine. These three amino acids taken before sleep help restore youthful levels of HGH release to give tangible benefits, including healthy, more youthful skin; healthy lean muscle; greater strength and endurance; a stronger, more responsive immune system; stronger energy levels, especially in the morning upon waking up; and improved mental clarity and alertness.