To begin to answer this first we must examine what aging is. Aging is a really complex process, however, there is now a significant body of evidence suggesting the creation of reactive oxygen species and the ability to respond to this oxidative stress as key factors determining longevity (Toren and Holbrook, 2000). This has led some to suggest consuming more anti-oxidant containing foods will increase life span (Packer et al., 1995). In addition, from various studies it has become clear that chronic inflammation has a serious role in a wide range of age related diseases, including; diabetes, cardiovascular, and autoimmune diseases (Khansari et al., 2009). Inflammatory processes are also known to cause oxidative stress and reduce anti-oxidant capacity. Over produced free radicals tend to damage DNA and be a predisposing factor in cancer development. Heart disease, depression, aging, and cancer are characterized by an increased level of interleukin-1, a proinflammatory cytokine (Simopoulos et al., 2002). In summary, inflammation and oxidative stress are strongly linked to developing disease, disease severity, and reducing lifespan.
Vegetables and fruits are known to be rich in anti-oxidant activity and are strongly implicated in reducing the risk of cancer (Gundgaard et al., 2003). The anti-oxidant and anti-tumour activities of vegetables and fruits are thought to be related to additive and synergistic effects of many phytochemicals in them (Liu et al., 2003). These phytochemicals such as flavonoids and anti-oxidants have been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and markers of inflammation (Holt et al., 2009). This leads one to ask, are there other natural products that can increase lifespan? We already know omega3 is effective against reducing the severity of many conditions such as autoimmune diseases, through its anti-inflammatory activity (Simopoulos et al., 2002). Increased intake of fish is linked to living longer and is especially evident in Japan (Mizushima et al., 1997). However, in the diversity of the natural world, it is likely other such naturally occurring compounds exist which can naturally fight inflammation, oxidative stress, and so disease and therefore increase lifespan.
This is when it is appropriate to introduce the concept of tonic herbs in Indian and Chinese medicine. In Indian herbal medicine, or Ayruveda, which dates back 7000 years, one of its 8 branches is called Rasayana Tantra (Puri et al., 2003). Rasayana medicine is rejuvenating medicine. In Ayruveda it is considered it the path to restore youth, alleviate disease, and bestow longevity (increase lifespan). Rasayana plants are said to have the following properties; anti-aging, life strengthening, brain and mind strengthening, and disease preventing. A similar approach can be observed in traditional Chinese medicine with the superior tonic herbs (Teeguarden et al., 1998). These superior herbs are understood to work towards health and strengthening the body, they are also supposedly completely non-toxic even at higher doses. They are thought of as being similar to foods and to work in the long term to give cumulative wide ranging beneficial effects to the body. Both Ayruvedic and Chinese tonics have become known as adaptogens in the West, a term that means they can resist stress and normalise various functions (Winston, 2007). This terminology was coined by Soviet scientist, Nikolai Lazarev, and was based on extensive research conducted in the USSR from the 1940s through to the 1960s. This work began as the USSR sought tonics to strengthen and improve the function of the Soviet people. I will now turn to cover two important tonic herbs closely linked to increasing lifespan.
An example of a Chinese tonic herb indicated for longevity is reishi (Castleman, 2001). It is known as the mushroom of immortality and was thought by Chinese doctors to increase the duration of lifespan (Babu, 2008). Reishi is known for anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumour effects (Jones et al., 2000; Akihisa et al., 2007). However, it is more complex than being an anti-inflammatory agent as it has been found to stimulate the immune system in humans (Jin et al., 2012), which is hypothesised to be the reason why it is popular in Japan and China for cancer treatment. This phenomenon of both stimulating the immune system and repressing excess inflammation is a typical property of the adaptogens and a reason why they are such powerful balancing tonic herbs. One study recently found that a reishi containing extract increased the lifespans of mice (Wu et al., 2011), this supports the traditional view in China of reishi, that it promotes longevity and overall health.
Another explanation for why reishi may be a longevity promoting agent is it’s effect on the heart and blood pressure. Reishi has been found to lower blood pressure in hypertensive rats (Kabir et al., 1988). Furthermore, beta blockers, which lower blood pressure and stabilize heart arrhythmias have been found to increase the lifespan of mice (Spindler et al., 2013). β1-adrenergic receptors which are blocked by beta blockers tend to become more active as the aging process continues and their activation results in higher blood pressure and heart instabilities. A logical conclusion from this would be reishi may act in a similar, but more sophisticated manner to beta blockers, by lowering blood pressure and stabilizing the heart to confer longevity.
An example of a Ayruvedic tonic herb (a rasayana/ rejuvenator), indicated for longevity is gotu kola. Gotu kola is a weedy creeping herb native to tropical areas of India, Sri Lanka, and southeast Asia (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). It is said long ago, the native Sinhalese of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) observed that elephants, renowned for their longevity, loved eating the round-lobed leaves of gotu kola (Castleman, 2001). Thus, the herb gained a reputation as a longevity promoter, a Sinhalese proverb said, ‘Two leaves a day keeps old age away’. Gotu kola has anti-oxidant and neuroprotective activities that could be linked to why traditionally it is used to treat cognitive disorders and confers longevity (Kumar and Gupta, 2003). Similar to reishi, it has the dual properties of being able to reduce inflammation, but also stimulates the immune system (Jayathirtha et al., 2004; Punturee et al., 2005). Gotu kola has similar balancing properties to reishi I think result in protecting the body from stress and so being able to increase lifespan.
Of relevance to this article is the mythical character Li Chin Yuen, a Chinese herbalist and martial artist, who is reported to have lived from 1677 to 1933 (http://www.bionity.com/en/encyclopedia/Li_Ching-Yuen.html) some 256 years. The article ‘Tortoise-Pigeon-Dog’, from the May 15, 1933 issue of TIME magazine described his history. He is said to have born in 1677 in Chyi Jiang Hsie, in the Szechuan province of China. He spent most of his life dwelling in the mountains gathering precious herbs and knowledge of longevity methods. In 1748, when he was 71, he moved to Kai Hsien to join the army as teacher of the martial arts. In 1927, Li Ching-Yuen was invited by General Yang Sen to see him in Wann Hsien, Szechuan. The general was fascinated by his young appearance, strength and abilities despite his advanced age. After his death, a year later, General Yang Sen decided to investigate the truth about his background and age. He wrote a report that was published later. In 1933, people interviewed from his home area recalled seeing him when they were just children, and said that he hadn’t aged much during their lifetime. Some others reported that he had been friends with their grandfathers. While it is unclear how much of this is true, Li Chin Yuen was said to have used gotu kola, reishi, fo-ti, and Asian ginseng during his lifetime and to have practiced a lot of qi-gong.
My view is, I suspect that Li Chin Tuen did live a very long time and this partly was due to him keeping down excess oxidative stress and inflammation, while protecting the various systems of the body (e.g. the heart) using diet and tonic herbs. He also seemed to keep a calm and relaxed body and mind with qi-gong, living in a natural environment, and in his own words he, ‘slept like a dog’. So increasing lifespan and protecting yourself from disease requires a holistic approach. Perhaps Li Chin Tuen’s most important lesson is that he lived a long time while cultivating a calm mind.
Note: This article is speculative and any adaptogen use should be accompanied with good lifestyle habits. Certain adaptogens are better suited for certain individuals according to their constitution. They also can cause insomnia in some persons and sometimes are better taken in the morning or dosage needs to be adjusted. We recommend reading this PDF by Paul Bergner, an herbalist highly experienced with using the adaptogens if you are thinking of using them on yourself or on others (link).
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