1. The Problem: Ageing And Disease
I am going to write about the underlying causes of ageing and disease and how we can go about protecting ourselves against it using natural means to improve and sustain quality of life. I became interested in longevity as I realised that it was highly inter linked with reducing the likelihood of chronic disease and pain in my life. Our society is consumeristic and the system we exist in does not nurture good physical and mental health and we are largely left to learn how to manage mental and physical health on our own. I have come to believe through my own research it is possible to extend lifespan, prevent, and treat many diseases using a combination of diet, lifestyle changes, and tonic herbs. Traditional Chinese and Indian (Ayurvedic) physicians have long sought to understand the secrets of longevity and to prevent disease. I think many of their lessons are still relevant today. I will discuss this in more detail later. First, let us examine the causes of mortality from the World Health Organisation.
Top Ten Causes Of Death
1.Ischaemic heart disease
3.Alzheimers disease and other dementias
4.Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers
5.Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
6.Lower respiratory tract infections
7.Colon and rectum cancers
9.Cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, endocarditis
We can see that diseases of the heart, cognitive decline, tumour development, and infections are among the leading causes of death. I think we need to move towards a model instead of waiting for these problems to arise, to prevent them occurring in the first place. We will now examine some of the fundamental processes associated with these diseases.
2. The Causes Of Ageing And Disease
Some people simply get unlucky, there is a bad combination of genes and there you have a disease from birth. However, for many people the disease results because of a series of poor lifestyle decisions combined with genetic predisposition. For example, let’s take cardiovascular disease. The risk of developing cardiovascular disease is associated with poor diet, being overweight, not exercising, and smoking (Pearson et al., 2002). Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is associated with lower cardiovascular and overall mortality (Wang et al., 2014). Low vitamin D is associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders (Holick et al., 2004). Poor sleep is associated with developing cardiovascular disease (Wolk et al., 2005). Finally, psychological stress is linked to deleterious effects on the heart (Dimsdale et al., 2008). So just from this knowledge we already get the clear impression, living a more natural lifestyle, attending to the innate requirements of our organism is very beneficial for health and therefore increasing lifespan.
To try and simplify this again, we can associate two fundamental destructive processes with cardiovascular disease. The first is inflammation, raised inflammatory markers have been found to correlate with the risk of cardiovascular disease (Ridker et al., 1997), and aspirin, an anti-inflammatory drug, has been found to confer a protective effect from this disease (not without its side effects though). The second is oxidative stress is also increased in cardiovascular disease (Ceriello et al., 2004). Scientific studies have found a decrease in the likelihood of cardiovascular disease associated with intake of anti-oxidants (Diaz et al., 1997).
It isn’t just cardiovascular disease, increased oxidative stress and inflammation are associated generally with the ageing process and a range of diseases from cancer to autoimmune problems (Khansari et al., 2009). Furthermore, although still controversial, the free radical theory of aging and its extension, the mitochondrial free radical theory of aging, are very popular in the field (Gruber et al., 2008; Hekimi et al., 2011). This theory states that as organisms age they accumulate a degree of oxidative damage in all their cells due to metabolic processes in the mitochondria producing free radicals (Ames et al., 1993). The sum of this damage over time contributes to the aging process and development of disease. So, the ability to respond to increased oxidative stress that causes this damage is a key factor determining lifespan (Toren and Holbrook, 2000). Dietary fruits and vegetables are the primary source of ascorbate and carotenoids which display anti-oxidant properties (Ames et al., 1993). Low dietary intake of vegetables and fruits doubles the risk of most varieties of cancer and also increases the risk of heart disease.
It isn’t just about what we put into our bodies, maintaining health, preventing disease, and increasing lifespan is clearly an art that involves integration of different factors, including diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes. All of these interplay and interact together to either sustain and improve health or cause imbalance and misregulation.
3. Ways To Protect Your Health And Increase Life Span
So now having established some of the causes of disease and ageing we can now move on to discuss the potential solutions; 1) Diet, 2) Lifestyle, 3) Tonic herbs. Broadly speaking this approach is based as much as it is on ancient traditional teachings as it is on science.
The Paleo diet has gained increased popularity in recent years with its philosophy ‘eat the foods you were designed to eat’ (Cordain, 2012). I think we can learn a lot from this diet. Briefly, the diet involves eating foods similar to those our Paleolithic ancestors would have eaten when we were evolving some 4 million years ago. The concept is because 4 million years is long enough in evolutionary time to adapt to eating an herbivorous diet, we are best to keep roughly to the same foods we eat whilst evolving. In the last 40,000 years man’s diet has changed considerably, initially with the addition of grains and dairy (10,000 years ago), then later with bread, cakes, muffins, refined sugars, and a myriad of processed foods. Writing in the New England Journal Of Medicine in an article about the Paleolithic diet, Bovn Eaton, stated, ‘Physicians and nutritionists are increasingly convinced dietary habitats adopted by Western society over the past 100 years make an important contribution to coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and some types of cancer.’ (Eaton and Konner, 1988). He then goes on to say these, ‘Problems are virtually unknown among the few surviving hunter gatherer populations whose way of life and eating habits most closely resemble those of preagricultural human beings’.
The most obvious results of this change in diet to include breads and dairy are celiac disease (Kaukinen et al., 2002) and lactose intolerance (Swagerty et al., 2002). Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, that involves the adaptive immune system (Fasano et al., 2015). To make things more complicated, there are also people with allergies to gluten that also involve the adaptive immune system. However, it has become apparent that gluten can cause digestive upset in patients without celiac disease or gluten allergies (Biesiekierski et al., 2011). Non celiac gluten sensitivity is a more recent term and refers to a non-allergic response to gluten, possibly driven by the innate immune systen (Fasano et al., 2015). This can lead to a number of problems, including IBS, and is also linked to psychological illnesses and autoimmune diseases. This has led to the popularity of the gluten free diet, but I suspect as Bown Eaton did, that this diet does not go far enough and the problems are more deep rooted. Breads are far from the types of foods we consumed when evolving and tend to be hard to digest. Far worse is the overwhelming number of high refined sugar foods in the shops and artificial additives placed into a number of foods by companies seeking increased sales.
The Paleo diet I have found most useful is no (or only very little) breads, no (or very little) dairy, no refined sugar, no processed foods, no red meat, and inclusion of legumes and rice. I exclude red meat because it is linked to inflammation and colon cancer (Montonen et al., 2013). If you must include bread, it is best to consume good quality whole grain which is linked to lowering inflammation instead of raising it like overly processed breads. I also think it is best to consume in small amounts because of its hard to digest nature. If possible including wild oily fish that contain omega3 is sensible, if not supplementing with omega3 is a very good idea (Mori et al., 2004). I think it is important to continue consuming a little fish or white meat because it contains B vitamins that are helpful for the nervous system. If you are vegetarian some light supplementation with b vitamins is sensible as deficiencies are more common in these people (Pawlak et al., 2014).
Turmeric and ginger are useful to cook with because they are linked to reducing inflammation and also have many other health benefits (Panahi et al., 2014; Altman et al., 2001). I have to note here, that diet is to some extent a personal thing, for instance, you may react badly to legumes so including these would be a bad idea. However, the overall concept of the Paleo diet, ‘eat what you were designed to eat’, is useful for all people.
For increased longevity and decreased risk of disease I think it is essential to learn to manage stress. The best way to do this is through meditation (Grossman et al., 2004). Mindfulness can be cultivated throughout one’s lifetime to calm the mind. A good way of getting into meditation is going to stay at a monastery or retreat centre (link). I have found the Thai forest tradition very useful, but there are many suitable traditions. Alongside diet, mindfulness I would say is a vital pillar of longevity. Another is yoga or qi-gong.
Yoga includes asana, pranayama, and meditation. Asanas are excellent for maintaining the health of the physical body. It is not necessary to do vigorous yoga or stand on one’s head for many hours, but to learn a gentle style, for example from Swami Ramdev on youtube or indeed from many other places. Swami Ramdev also teaches Pranayama or control of the breath, this can be very helpful for the mind and the body, especially I think the deep breath is linked to greater calm and longevity. There is also Chinese qi-gong which I don’t practice, but is very much along the same lines of meditation and yoga. It also is important to get some exercise like walking and, ideally, spend time in nature this will help calm the mind and body. Otherwise listen to your body and its inbuilt reactions, it communicates with you on a regular basis.
3. Tonic herbs
Now, having discussed diet and lifestyle, I’d like to introduce the tonic herbs from Indian and Chinese medicine. In Indian traditional medicine, or Ayurveda, which dates back some 7000 years to early days of civilisation, one of its 8 branches is called rasayana tantra (Puri et al., 2003). In Ayurveda, rasayana is considered it the path to restore youth, alleviate disease, and bestow longevity (increase lifespan). A very similar approach can be observed in traditional Chinese medicine with the superior tonic herbs (Teeguarden et al., 1998). Both the Ayurvedic and Chinese tonic herbs have become known as adaptogens in the West, a term that means they can resist stress and normalise various body systems (Winston, 2007). This terminology was created by Soviet scientist, Nikolai Lazarev, and was based on extensive research conducted in the Soviet Union from the 1940s through to the 1960s. This work was conducted because the Soviets sought tonics to strengthen and improve the function of their people.
I now will discuss a selection of tonic herbs from worldwide medicine which are associated with longevity. I believe people should know about these protective herbs, do their own research, and arrive at their own conclusions whether to use them or not. Some are more suitable for certain individuals and not others. For example, my nervous system is a bit sensitive and reishi over stimulates me, but gotu kola is better. Personally, I don’t think many tonic herbs are necessary for longevity, perhaps 2-4. There are so far two of these herbs which are supported in animal studies for increasing lifespan, 1) reishi, and 2) ginkgo. There are more studies examining these tonic herbs longevity effects in flies and yeast, but I do not regard these studies as informative compared with the mammalian models. More studies are certainly required as always.
Reishi is known as the mushroom of immortality by the Chinese and was thought by their ancient physicians to increase the duration of lifespan, a reputation that persists today (Babu, 2008). Reishi is known for anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumour effects (Jones et al., 2000; Akihisa et al., 2007). 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). Reishi is more complex than being an anti-inflammatory mushroom as it has been found to stimulate the immune system (Jin et al., 2012), this is the reason why it is popular in complementary cancer treatment. A study found that reishi increased the lifespans of mice compared to the control group (Wu et al., 2011). I regard reishi as a great protector.
An Ayurvedic tonic herb (a rasayana), recommended 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). Long ago, the native Sinhalese of Ceylon, in today’s Sri Lanka, observed that elephants renowned for their longevity, loved eating the round-lobed leaves of gotu kola (Castleman, 2001). 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 related to why it is used treat cognitive disorders in India and may confer longevity (Kumar and Gupta, 2003). It is a calming adaptogen and to see it’s effects takes more time than herbs like reishi.
Rhodiola is a tough perennial herb that grows in some of the harshest conditions on Earth from the Artic mountains of Scandinavia to Siberia (Castleman, 2001). Rhodiola grows in crevices of mountain rocks and on cliffs besides the ocean (Ming et al., 2005). It grows up to 30 inches tall yielding pretty yellow flowers and has thick gold pink roots (Castleman, 2001). In Siberia, traditional knowledge says that drinking rhodiola would mean you will live for 100 years or possibly more. Compatible with this, rhodiola has been found to increase the lifespan of flies (Schriner et al., 2013). It would be interesting to determine if this applies to mammals and indeed humans as legend suggests.
Ginkgo is a slow growing tree that can survive up to 1000 years (Kuhn and Winston, 2000). Ginkgo is the oldest surviving tree on earth and it dates back to the Jurassic era around 200 million years ago (Castleman, 2001). Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India have said to have associated ginkgo with longevity (Pérez, 2009). Studies on experimental models demonstrate anti-oxidant activity, this is a possible means by which ginkgo improves the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia and also confer longevity (Bridi et al., 2001). Producing anti-oxidant support would in theory prevent the accumulation of oxidative damage originating in the mitochondria. In line with traditional views of ginkgo, one very interesting study discovered that ginkgo significantly increased the lifespan of rats compared with controls (Winter, 1998).
I should finally mention there are other longevity tonics from herbal folk mythology I have encountered in my research, including panax ginseng and fo-ti, although the best scientific support currently is for reishi and ginkgo. Also, many of the other rasayana herbs from Ayurveda or superior tonics from Chinese medicine are thought to be ‘protective’ and lifespan enhancing by these ancient traditions. It is probably best to consume somewhere between 2-4 of these tonic herbs to avoid overloading the system, following your bodies intuitive reactions is often best. Also, people often find them stimulating so taking them in the morning is often a good move. Additionally, remember this method is only based on preliminary science and traditional knowledge, it is experimental – so everyone must do their own research and make up their own minds.
4. An example from China
Of relevance to these herbs is the ancient herbalist and martial arts practitioner Li Chin Yuen, who reportedly lived from 1677 to 1933 (http://www.bionity.com/en/encyclopedia/Li_Ching-Yuen.html) some 256 years. The article called ‘Tortoise-Pigeon-Dog’, from the May 15, 1933 issue of TIME magazine described his life story. Briefly, he is said to have been born in Chyi Jiang Hsie, in the Szechuan province of China. He spent large amounts of his life living in the mountains gathering knowledge of longevity methods. In 1748, when he was 71, he joined the Chinese 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 interested by his youthful appearance, strength and abilities despite his advanced age. After his death, General Yang Sen investigated his background and age. 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. Although one may doubt the validity of these reports, it is likely he did live a very long time. Li Chin Yuen was said to have used tonic herbs such as gotu kola, reishi, fo-ti, and Asian ginseng during his lifetime and to have practiced a lot of qi-gong, a similar practice to yoga and meditation.
There is no magic bullet solution to longevity, but it is a series of different factors that combine to increase one’s lifespan. These include genetic influences, but beyond the programming of our DNA is our decisions in life. If one were to decide to eat a healthy natural diet devoid of many of the impurities that we tend to enjoy (like the evil muffins), but be fulfilled instead by techniques such as meditation and yoga, or qi-gong, this would help a great deal. The addition of tonic herbs and exercise I think it also integral. Perhaps the most important thing is we have a spiritual direction in life, choosing to cultivate life instead of the path of death and self-destruction.
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