By: Dr. Alwyn Wong, BSc, DC, ART, Med. Ac.
We need to look no further than Hollywood or the realm of professional sports to see that humans are thriving at ages that were once deemed over the hill.
Hollywood starlets and action heroes are, dare I say, toned and jacked even into their late 40s and 50s. The world bore witness to the greatest quarterback of all time winning yet another Super Bowl at a time many succumb to back pain, arthritis, and receding hairlines. We’ve seen an actor play our favorite claw-yielding superhero on the verge of turning 50. Do the rich and famous know something that we don’t? Are they privy to the coveted fountain of youth, the elixir that gives life to our years?
Luckily for us, the answer is no. And I’m not referring to special supplements, fancy diets, or workout regimes only available to the rich and famous. In fact, anti-aging techniques are available to everyone. That includes you.
And most importantly, while they get paid millions to throw a ball or play a superhero on screen, the real superheroes are you. The first responders. The ones that we, the public, put our faith and trust into.
What is Aging?
As defined by Rose in the book Evolutionary Biology of Aging, aging is described as the persistent decline in age-specific fitness components of an organism due to internal physiological deterioration. What’s to be noted in this definition is that aging does not include diseases caused by foreign pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria.
If we dig deep into the internal physiological deterioration mentioned above, what we’re dealing with is the deterioration of our cells, the basic functional unit of the body. When cells deteriorate, they no longer function properly. Nerve cells fire more slowly, resulting in memory loss and lack of coordination; muscle cells lose their ability to contract resulting in weakness; hair cells lose their color, leading to greying and loss; and kidney cells lose their ability to detoxify the body, resulting in a building of toxic waste products of metabolism. These are just a few examples, but you get the picture.
Here’s where things get interesting. And promising. The process of aging doesn’t progress until death. Cessation of aging is a genuine phenomenon. Some processes deteriorate, while others stagnate, and others improve. What ultimately determines how well we age is our ability to adapt. More on this later.
Stress and Aging?
At the most fundamental level, we age due to our exposure to repetitive or chronic mild, and non-damaging stresses that eventually overwhelm the body’s adaptive mechanisms.
Stressors come in all shapes and sizes. They can be life changing. They can be relative inconsequential. They can be disguised as physical, chemical, psychological or emotional. Regardless of the shape or size, the stress response is constant and predictable. Described by Hans Selye, the father of stress, in response to a stressor, the brain will release CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) from the hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates another part of the brain, known as the pituitary gland, to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic releasing hormone).
The resultant cascade is the release of adrenaline and cortisol from two organs that are perched on the kidneys, known as the adrenal glands. And it is cortisol that is the culprit when it comes to aging and disease.
In a normal response to stress, the body will undergo temporary or transient changes to mitigate the results of this stress. As a result, the body will undergo changes that ultimately increase its ability to resist stress. This is known as our adaptive range. In other words, our adaptive range allows us to respond to stress without negative effects.
When the body is overwhelmed with too many, too much of, or repeated stressors, it will break down. More specifically, the cellular components will break down. Remember cortisol that we mentioned earlier? It acts as anti-inflammatory breaking down the components of inflammation. Additionally, cortisol breaks down cellular components as well. Think of too many cortisone injections. Doctors advise against receiving too many cortisone injections as they can tissue breakdown. Excess cortisol, similar to cortisone, is detrimental to tissues.
When a cell breaks down and loses its function, it is known as a senescent cell. A senescent cell is essentially an aged cell. The breakdown of cell membranes and proteins will cause the cell to react with other cells and protein, forming plaques and causing the body’s tissues to take on abnormal configurations and functions.
Additionally, senescent or aged cells leak pro-inflammatory fluid. This fluid not only causes bloating and pain, it causes neighboring cells to break down. This latter process is known as paracrine senescence. As they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch.
How Do We Not Only Reduce Stress, But Reduce the Effects of Stress To Combat Aging?
To reduce the effects of aging, we can follow a simple, three-step approach. First, widen your adaptive range. Next, reduce the stressful response. And finally, clear your body of aged, senescent cells.
Widen Your Adaptive Range
Stress is inevitable. In fact, stress is required to grow and thrive. But why do some people handle stress better than others? We all have those friends or coworkers that don’t get sick, never age and live as if nothing bothers them? What’s different about this laissez-faire crowd?
The first clue may be that while being exposed to the same stressors, their bodies can respond to such stressor without the negative effects. How is this possible? The answer lies in their ability to adapt without producing negative side effects.
In response to a stressful event, our body will initiate a series of reactions to maintain homeostasis or to bring us back to normal. If the stressor is too great or there are too many stressors or we have faced a lifetime of stressors without fully recovering, our body may not be able to adapt without bearing negative consequences. There is a price to pay.
Similarly, if we’re under chronic stress, even mild, our body’s reactive mechanism may be inadequate to deal with the new stressor.
Fortunately, there are methods to increase our adaptive range.
- Develop a healthy sleep routine that involves a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night.
- Reduce your consumption of processed foods to less than three servings per day.
- Perform a minimum of two and half hours of moderate cardiovascular activity each week.
- Engage in a minimum of two days of moderate to high intensity that involve all major muscle groups resistance training each week.
Increase Rest and Digest Activity
We often hear about the flight-or-flight response. This response, dominated by a part of the nervous system known the sympathetic division is what Hans Selye was referring to. But there’s another division of the nervous system that is essentially the opposite of this. It is the parasympathetic division and it drives rest-and-digest activities. And this is the key.
While reducing fight-or-flight activity is ideal, it is not always possible. Instead, focusing on increasing rest-and-digest activity will do wonders to control how our body responds to stress.
Here are some simple methods of reducing stress and increasing rest-and digest.
- Slow your breathing rate to six breathes per minute.
- Take a 30-minute walk in nature daily
- Drink a half liter of cold water every 2-3 hours
There are many more methods, but these are three simple steps that everyone can do.
As our bodies are exposed to chronic stressors, they will inevitably succumb to the effects of stress. That being the breakdown of healthy cells, creating senescent, aged cells. We discussed briefly the danger of having these damaged cells hanging out in our bodies. Let’s talk about how we can get rid of them.
To prevent further damage caused by senescent cells and their influence on nearby healthy cells, our body needs to eliminate them. And this is most effectively accomplished through fasting. Not intermittent fasting. Just fasting. A fast long enough that our bodies actually start consuming themselves in a process known as autophagy.
Fasting for a minimum of 24 hours is a great place to start. In order to be effective, the fast has to eliminate all dietary protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Water is ok, as is black coffee and black tea. Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider prior to starting a fast.
If you want to power up your fast, avoid animal protein the day prior to the fast and do not engage in resistance training during the fast. Why? Consumption of animal protein and weight training turn on genes that prevent autophagy. And autophagy is the goal.
Whenever possible, attempt to reduce the stressors in your life. And this could mean just dealing with the problem at hand. When this not possible, interjecting rest-and-digest activities into your day will break the stress cycle, allowing your body and brain to heal. Exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet will all increase our ability to deal with stress. Finally, getting rid of those pesky aged or senescent cells can halt and reverse the aging process.