The Functional Medicine Guide To Enhancing Longevity
Did you ever imagine you could live to be 150….and healthy? Will 200 someday be the new 70? These longevity goals once seemed an impossibility, but the more science learns about aging, the closer they seem. Our current reality suggests that living far longer than we once imagined – dare I say immortality itself – is actually something the scientific literature (1) is already considering.
Some scientists expect breakthrough developments in reversing the aging process indefinitely….in our lifetimes! One area of research along these lines is regenerative medicine, and nonprofit organizations like the SENS Research Foundation are leading the field. Better yet, instead of hoarding their secrets for profit, the SENS Foundation’s mission is to provide what they learn to everyone, for the benefit of society as a whole (not just the rich and famous).
So what do we really know? When it comes to the genetic influence on longevity, many still believe they’re predestined to have whatever disease and whatever lifespan their parents or grandparents had. However, now we know that this isn’t true. That’s because of epigenetics, which is the study of the environmental factors that turn off and turn on your genetic expression. The foods you eat, the foods you don’t eat, the supplements you take, the toxins you may be exposed to, your stress levels, your exercise, and your sleep length and quality all influence whether you will ever get those diseases to which you might be predisposed genetically. They all influence how long you will live, no matter how long your parents or grandparents lived. In other words, all of these epigenetic factors are constantly and dynamically instructing your genes what to do, and what not to do.
For those interested in longevity, this is fascinating news. Research like the Danish Twin Study (2) has shown that over 90% of an individual’s longevity is not determined by genetics, but by the choices we make. You can trump your genetic predisposition for a disease, and you can help your body decide not to “turn on” a specific gene for a disease, just by controlling factors about your lifestyle. Exciting!
This is a revolutionary message of health empowerment and responsibility. The Okinawa study showed there is no reason why the majority of us can’t live at least 100 disease-free, healthy years, and that is a good healthy start as we aim at 150- or even 200- year lifespans. The bottom line is that we can do quite a lot to reverse accelerated aging today, keeping those disease genes turned off powering our longevity.
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FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE FOR PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD
Longevity Labs To Run
Knowing your bio markers for accelerated aging and disease is the first step of your journey of healthy vitality. These are some of the labs that I run on patients all around the world to give them insight into their health in general and their longevity in particular:
1. Telomere length
Telomeres are little cap-like structures on the ends of your chromosomes that are responsible for healthy cell function. As time passes, telomeres become shorter, which leads to aging and chronic disease. In fact, science has discovered that telomere length is directly related to longevity, so a lot of regenerative medicine research is focused on the regeneration of telomeres to preserve and even restore length. This test will tell you how long your telomeres are right now, so you can gain insight into how rapidly or slowly your body is aging.
2. C-reactive protein
Inflammation is one primary way disease genes get turned on, and it is generally destructive all over the body. C-reactive protein is an inflammatory protein that, while it is essential for cleaning up bad bacteria, in excess it can lead to accelerated aging, chronic disease, and damage to the telomeres. (3)
Optimal Range: < 0.5 mg/L
3. Small dense LDL particles
What you thought was “bad cholesterol” (LDL) isn’t all bad, and labelling it so is a simplistic and inaccurate view of cholesterol. LDL particles are proteins that carry cholesterol around in your body. Some of these particles are big and buoyant, while others are small and dense. It’s the small dense LDL particles that can cause damage, while the larger fluffier particles are essentially benign. Knowing your level of small dense LDL particles is much more instructive that simply knowing your total cholesterol, because it is the small dense LDLs – not the cholesterol itself – that indicate a risk (4) for heart attack and stroke (and thereby put you at risk for an earlier death).
Optimal Range: < 200 nmol/L
This protein in excess (especially when coupled with a B vitamin deficiency) has been linked (5) to cognitive decline, which can drastically reduce quality as well as length of life.
Optimal Range: < 7 Umol/L
5. Hgb A1C
This test tells you what your blood sugar has been, on average, for the past two to three months. When it is high, it can indicate pre-diabetes or diabetes, and an elevated A1C has been linked (6) with higher rates of all-cause mortality in patients with diabetes.
In fact, Alzheimer’s is sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes (7) in recent research. That’s because the higher your insulin resistance and blood sugar levels are, the more degeneration there tends to be in your brain’s memory center, the hippocampus. Type 1 and type 2 diabetics are twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, and the people I coach to reverse their diabetes nearly always tell me that their memories get sharper, and their brain fog goes away.
Optimal Range: < 5.3%
6. Vitamin D
This nutrient is responsible for hundreds of different genetic pathways in the body but because most people spend most of their day indoors and get little sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency is rampant. That’s too bad because this deficiency is linked to chronic disease, and optimal levels are linked to an actual preservation of telomeres, (8) meaning you live longer and stay healthier! If that’s not a reason to get a little sunshine, I don’t know what is. Note that vitamin D should be paired with other fat soluble vitamins, like vitamin A and K2, for maximum absorption.
Optimal Range: 50-60 ng/mL
7. Fasting insulin
When your body breaks down carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent, proteins into glucose, your blood sugar goes up. In response, your pancreas secretes insulin to send your blood sugar into your cells (for energy) and bring down the level in your blood. However, if insulin gets activated too often at too high levels, this has been linked to accelerated aging and telomere shortening.
Optimal Range: < 3 ulU/mL
8. Immunological tests
Even though diseases that appear later in life such as Alzheimer’s, are classified as degenerative diseases, the immune system plays a significant role in the disease process. There’s an exciting field of research called the cytokine model of cognitive function, (9) a scientific way of saying that inflammation from foods like grains and certain dairy proteins have been shown to cause brain inflammation as well as autoimmune responses in the body.
As I earlier on in this article, the length of your telomeres (the end caps of your chromosomes) determine how long you will live. The shorter your telomeres, the shorter your life! In that article I suggested having seven labs run and then working to get all the results in the optimal range. But how do you do that?
Tips For Preserving Telomere Length
Here are some of my favorite peer-reviewed-research-supported strategies that have been shown to be effective in preserving and extending telomere length and, in turn, extending your life:
1. Increase glutathione.
There is no anti-oxidant on earth that has a higher anti-oxidant score (ORAC score) than glutathione. To put it in perspective, blueberries have an ORAC score of 3000, dark chocolate has an ORAC score of 13,000 and Acai berries a score of 18,000. Supplements and foods that detox the body and raise glutathione naturally have an ORAC scores as high as 192,000!
Low levels are linked to accelerated aging and chronic disease, and many people are deficient in this essential antioxidant. But you can boost your level right now with nutrients such as N-acetyl cysteine and turmeric, (10) both of which have been shown to help boost glutathione in the body and preserve telomere integrity.
Some of the top foods that can support the healthy glutathione levels are
- Curcumin found in Tumeric
- Grass Fed Beef
2. Reduce stress.
It is no secret that stress harms health. Research has shown that chronic stress actually shortens telomere length prematurely, which in turn accelerates aging. This applies to everyone at any age – even kids. One study found that abused children had prematurely shortened telomeres. Another study found similar results (11) in women under chronic stress.
See how important stress management is? When possible, try to remove yourself from long-term stressful situations and highly stressful relationships. Of course, we can’t reduce all stress, but we can start and end each day with stress-relieving practices such as tai chi or meditation, to help break the chronic stress cycle and rescue our telomeres from unnecessarily rapid degradation.
3. Train in bursts.
You don’t have to be a gym junkie to get fitter than you are right now. Try high intensity interval training (HIIT) or burst training for less than half an hour a few times a week. Just a small chunk of time devoted to this highly effective exercise technique has been shown (12) to increase your body’s cellular repair anti-aging mechanisms and preserve telomeres.
There are different ways to do Burst Training, but here is the technique that I use:
Step 1) Warm up for 3-5 minutes
Step 2) Run, Bike, or Swim 90 percent of your capacity for 30- 60 seconds
Step 3) Rest by slow jogging for 1-2 minutes
Step 4) Repeat the sprint and rest between 3-7 times
Do Burst Training every other day because your anti aging and fat burning hormones are doing their work through the next day!
To get HGH to the highest level possible, consume foods that are high in complex carbohydrates and protein after your workout. Studies show waiting to eat 1 to 2 hours after workout enhances HGH naturally! Burst Training is quick, easy and it beats spending hours in the gym!
4. Fast intermittently.
What, stop eating? It might sound intense, but I’m not talking about weeks of deprivation. The temporary restriction of calories for as little as just 12 to 16 hours per day (including sleep time) or drastically limiting calories for one or two days per week, has been shown (13) to have a significant rejuvenative effect, slowing the aging process.
Studies have shown that animals who ate about 30% fewer calories also lived about 30 percent longer (14) than the animals that ate more. One study also showed a reduction of cancer risk (15) with intermittent fasting. This may not be for everyone but is one way to increase the release of your body’s anti-aging hormones and preserve telomere length.
5. Eat lots of different plants.
The human body runs on energy and thrives on nutrients, and what better place to get both than vegetables, straight out of nature’s medicine cabinet? The trick is to eat a wide variety, as each different plant – especially those of varying colors – offers a unique array of the nutrients your body craves. Studies have suggested (16) that the greater variety of plants you eat, the better your telomeres will be preserved because you will most likely to hit all your nutritional bases.
Whenever a client (or friend) tells me, “Well, I don’t eat vegetables,” or, “I only like these two vegetables,” or the infamous, “I like corn” (FYI, corn is a grain, not a vegetable), what I see in an immovable attitude. They’ve decided ahead of time which vegetables they will and won’t eat, and most of these people have not tried very many varieties. When I can get them to try something new, they often like it, surprising themselves. For those who don’t, I say exactly what I say to my two young children: “Sometimes in life, we do things we don’t feel like doing at the moment, because those things are good for us and will help us be stronger and healthier. That’s what big kids do.” Be a big kid!
6. Sip tea.
You’ve probably heard all about the health benefits of tea, but did you know that among all its other stellar nutritional features, tea also preserves telomere length? One study found that those who drank three cups of tea per day had significantly longer telomeres (17) than those who drank only a small amount. Green tea has a much higher percentage of valuable nutrients called polyphenols than black tea, so it is the best choice for longevity.
7. Eat healthy fats.
If you are up on the latest nutrition research, you may already know that the low-fat diet approach to health that has been promulgated for the last 50 years has contributed to even more chronic disease because fact: Good fats are essential for a healthy, long life. Research has linked (18) healthy fat consumption with an extension of telomeres as well as external signs of eternal youth.
Also remember your brain is made of 60% fat and 25% cholesterol, so fats like coconut oil, fermented cod liver oil, butter oil, grass-fed beef, and avocado aid in optimal brain, cellular and hormonal function, keeping your mind as well as your body younger for longer. These fats are also needed for fat soluble vitamins like A, D, and K2 to be used by the body. Both these fats and fat-soluble vitamins are needed for the preservation of your telomeres. Pass the guacamole!
8. Hit the hay.
Quality sleep is essential for cellular repair as well as for sufficient energy and vitality. Poor sleep habits (sometimes called sleep hygiene), whether due to physical conditions like sleep apnea or insomnia or due to lifestyle, such as an erratic work schedule or late-night-TV or internet addiction, have been linked (19) to accelerated aging and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and (you guessed it) shorter telomeres. The individual cause of your poor sleep will determine the treatment, and a functional medicine practitioner or other qualified health care provide can help you address your issues specifically.
The Emotional Health + Longevity Connection
But it’s not just about how many years you live, but how much life you have in those years, to paraphrase an old saying. Research suggests that our mental and emotional health might also play a role in our ability to live long, happy lives. In fact, one fascinating study, (20) published by the American Psychological Association, found that people who lived the longest shared a particular set of personality traits.
This 75-year study consisted of 300 couples who enrolled in the study in their 20s. The participants picked a handful of friends to rate their personalities using a 36-question scale. (Apparently we are not particularly good at identifying traits in ourselves, but our close friends are usually spot-on!) The researchers evaluated the data to see which personalities were most common in those who ended up living longest. Here are the five key traits that were consistently associated with longevity:
People who were less likely to take risks but also were thorough and efficient tended to live longer.
Study participants who were quick to listen to others’ feelings and ideas were found to live a longer life span.
3. Emotional stability
Get off the emotional roller coaster! Being emotionally stable was found to be one of the strongest links to living a long life.
For women in the study, friendliness was the second highest character quality associated with a long life. Similarly, another recent study (21) published in the journal Aging evaluated 243 people between the ages of 95 to 100 and found that all of them rated highly on measures of how easy-going they were.
5. Emotional expression
Other research (22) also suggests that people who lived into their 90s and 100s were more likely to be able to openly express their emotions.
How many of these traits do you also seem to have? Even if they don’t seem to fit your personality, notice that all of these traits are really centered around one thing: mindfulness.
We spend most of our lives lost in our over-reactive minds. We worry about the future, we regret the past, and we move through the present moment on auto-pilot. This way of living results in practically the exact opposite of the personality traits associated with a long life. If we are alert and rooted in the present moment, we’ll be more conscientious, open, emotionally stable, friendly, and emotionally expressive.
Mindfulness can bring out the traits found in people who tend to live long, healthy lives, so why not give it a try? You can make mindfulness a new habit. I always recommend a regular and consistent mindfulness practice for my patients, to help them achieve optimal health. Who knows – if everyone starts doing it we could help remake the golden years, returning our elderly population to its rightful place as the esteemed, respected source of wisdom.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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