The natural foods industry is deep into the anti-aging business, and it’s all based on two lies—one about pesticides and toxins, the other about anti-oxidants. Neither toxins nor oxidation are the reason that we get old, and we can’t live longer by eating less toxins or more anti-oxidants. In fact, toxins in small quantities stimulate the body’s longevity pathways, and anti-oxidants can nullify the very real anti-aging benefits of exercise.
People who are fanatical about clean air and organic food don’t live to extraordinary ages. Animals raised in a super-clean, toxin- and pathogen-free environment actually die earlier than animals raised with bugs and dirt.
Anti-oxidants have been tried in animal experiments and human studies, and they don’t extend life. In a definitive study, 29,000 Finnish men were given anti-oxidant vitamins in the 1990s, until the experiment was called off for ethical reasons. It turned out people taking the vitamins were dying at a higher rate than the placebo group.
“Natural anti-aging” is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. There are plenty of good reasons to eat organic. Support more sustainable farming practices. The vegetables taste better. There’s more nutritional value and it might even be healthier, especially for young people. But natural foods are not part of the recipe for a longer life.
In fact, there is plenty you can do to slow down aging and improve your odds for a long life, but the best practices aren’t particularly “natural”. Weight loss, fasting and short bursts of vigorous, all-out exercise are high on the list. There are also some hormones and two prescription drugs* (long out of patent) that seem to work. The easiest thing you can do to improve your odds is to take tiny doses of aspirin and mega-doses of vitamin D. (Much more here.)
What aging really is
Aging is not about the body wearing out, and it’s not about accumulating toxins. Aging is something our bodies are doing to themselves. All the stuff that goes wrong as we get older is no accident, and it’s not a failure of the body. Aging is suicide on a schedule, programmed into our genes.
- The stem cells in our body are tasked with renewing our skin and muscle and bones and blood, and even our nerve cells regrow over time. But the stem cells have replication counters in the chromosomes. Regular readers of this page are familiar with telomeres and “cellular senescence”. Telomeres are the body’s primary aging clock; when the counter gets too high, the stem cells get the message to slow down growth and repair, to let the body go to pot.
- Our immune system is brilliant at distinguishing invaders from self, attacking the former and protecting the latter. This is done by the T-cells in our blood. The T in T-cell stands for “thymus”, a little organ behind the breast bone where T-cells are trained to tell the good guys from the bad guys. But your thymus has been shrinking ever since you were about 10 years old, and by the time you’re 40, it’s only ⅓ what it was when you were a child. 90-year-olds have almost no thymus left, and that has everything to do why 90-year-olds can’t defend against the flu, and why pneumonia is the Old Man’s Friend.
- The T-cells don’t just fail to defend us against enemies, they make the opposite mistake as well, and attack perfectly good, healthy tissue. Inflammation is your first line of defense against invading microbes when you’re injured, and it works great when we’re young. But as we get old, inflammation turns inward. Healthy cells are destroyed. Stem cells are re-purposed as cancer cells. Inflammation has been linked to the Big Four diseases of old age which, together, are responsible for more than 90% of all deaths: cancer, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s dementia, and stroke.
- There are more ways in which the body actively destroys itself in old age. Read some of them here.
These aren’t failures of the body. They’re mutiny. We can’t fix these problems by supporting the body with a natural diet. Instead, we have to trick the body into doing something it wasn’t designed to do. That’s the very opposite of “natural”.
The reason that medical progress in the diseases of old age has been so slow is that the researchers are all working with the wrong model. They are stuck in the paradigm of the 20th century, when “natural medicine” was so successful. The idea was to work with the body, to enhance the body’s natural defenses, to help the body heal itself rather than to engineer fixes from the outside.
This worked really well for trauma and for infectious disease and all the diseases that young people get. But it won’t work for the diseases associated with aging, because the body itself is the enemy. The body is programmed to self-destruct—that’s the very essence of aging. We can’t fix it by coddling or helping or restoring the body, because the body is divided against itself. We can’t oppose aging with “natural medicine” because aging itself is natural, designed into our life plan.
Why don’t anti-oxidants work?
Every cell in the body generates the energy it needs in hundreds of tiny factories called “mitochondria”. And it’s true that they generate toxic waste, in the form of ROS, Reactive Oxygen Species aka Free Radicals. The ROS can attack the body’s sensitive biomolecules and make them dysfunctional. This much is true, and it has been the basis of one of the oldest and most popular theories, the Free Radical Theory of Aging.
The Free Radical Theory is more than fifty years old, and based on the theory, a substantial industry of anti-oxidant vitamins and supplements has grown up. If damage from oxidation was the problem, then anti-oxidants should be the solution. It was a plausible theory when it first came out, but we’ve known for twenty years now that anti-oxidants don’t work. The only reason this news hasn’t reached the public is that it is bad for sales. What is more, we now understand why they don’t work. It turns out that the damage caused by free radicals is completely avoidable, and it occurs when the body dials down its own native anti-oxidant system. The body has its own anti-oxidants, perfectly adequate to quench the free radicals and keep the damage to levels at which it doesn’t accumulate at all. Some of these molecules are glutathione, ubiquinone (aka CoQ10), and SOD=superoxide dismutase. But they are all held back, so we have less of them in old age. Our defenses against oxidation are crippled by design, and that’s why oxidative damge tends to accumulate.
The deeper reason why anti-oxidants do more harm than good is that the body uses free radicals as a signal that switches on active repair and rebuilding. Every time you exercise, you generate copious free radicals, and they signal the body to repair damage, and rebuild muscle and bone better-than-new. Free radicals also signal the body to keep insulin sensitivity high, steering away from diabetes. When we take anti-oxidants, we interfere with this system, and that’s why anti-oxidants do more harm than good. Anti-oxidants shut off the signal that tells the body to rebuild tissues and upgrade defenses.
It’s an idea with enduring appeal, that the reason we age and die has to do with accumulating toxins. And modern life is toxin city—pesticides, fertilizers, plastics, GMOs, and heavy metals. But, once again, the idea has not panned out. It is based on a faulty foundation, a mistaken concept of aging and where it comes from.
Tiny doses of toxins may, in fact, be good for us. Homeopaths have been telling us this for 200 years, but only in the last decade has hormesis gained acceptance as a medical concept. Confronted with a challenge, the body jumps to respond, and unexpectedly, the body over-reacts. We are stronger and live longer in the face of hardships than if we live a protected life. Dogs exposed to tiny doses of chloroform live longer than dogs that are fed a pure, toxin-free diet. Rats raised in a germ-free environment don’t live as long as rats who get an average dose of dirt and disease. And so on…there is a whole literature of hormesis.
This is an idea based on a completely muddled understanding of aging. But despite this, it happens that it’s not a bad diet. The Paleo Diet is one of those ideas that works much better in practice than in theory.
Grains are mostly starch, and avoiding starch offers a substantial benefit. Starch is turned instantly to sugar in the mouth, before it even reaches the stomach. Less starch and sugar means less insulin, which slows the decline into insulin resistant “type II” diabetes, which is one deep cause of aging. Raw foods are a good idea precisely because they are difficult to digest. Raw foods are absorbed slowly and incompletely. For those of us who enjoy eating or who are addicted to food, raw foods may allow us to eat to satiety, because more of the food goes through us, and less is absorbed. Raw foods are also less prone to cause a spike in blood sugar, triggering insulin release.
Just try getting fat on a raw food diet, and you’ll see what I mean.
Less starch and more raw foods are the best things about the Paleo Diet. The theory behind the Paleo Diet is something else again. It’s based on the idea that our body is evolved to work with the foods that were available while we were evolving, which was, for the most part, before agriculture, in hunter-gatherer societies. You might be suspicious from the get-go when you realize that life expectancy in hunter-gatherer societies is under 40 years, even when the high rates of infant mortality are factored out. If the paleo diet worked so well, we would expect to find some extraordinarily old people among native peoples in parts of South America and Borneo where they still live the lives of our ancestors 20,000 years ago.
There is a lot you can do here and now to slow aging and improve your odds for continued good health. I’ve summarized what I know on the page AgingAdvice.org (a non-commercial web page with no advertising). If you adopt all these measures, it should buy you an extra decade of health. Much of it is standard medical advice:
- weight loss
- vigorous exercise
- daily baby aspirin
- a low-carb, anti-inflammatory diet
- regular sleep habits
But there may be more effective and easier remedies available soon. The future of anti-aging medicine is fast upon us.
The good news is that researchers are beginning to realize that aging is an inside job. There are hormones and biochemical signals that tell the body to self-destruct. Jamming a chemical signal is something that pharmaceutical companies know well how to do and it’s much, much easier than repairing a body full of random damage. Some of the hormonal signals have been identified just in the last year or three: Pro-aging (inflammatory) signals have names like NFκB and TGF-β. Anti-aging signals include GDF11, melatonin, and the “love hormone” oxytocin. Researchers at Stanford are beginning this month to test transfusions of blood plasma containing a hormone mix from young donors as a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease in the elderly.
Telomere regrowth is another area that has the potential to extend life dramatically, and even to roll back the years. There are several companies now selling herbal supplements that can turn on telomerase modestly. Researchers are hot on the heels of powerful telomerase activators that might actually turn back the body’s primary aging clock.
Look for tangible progress in anti-aging technologies in the near term.