Managing the Aging Process with Herbs

Anti-aging has become a hot topic in recent years in the world of herbal and nutritional supplements and alternative health. Over the past few decades, our insecurities surrounding the aging process, and quest for the secrets of eternal youth, has fueled a multi-billion dollar industry of face creams, body scrubs, wrinkle serums, and hair dyes.

Rather than fight against the concept of aging, which is an inevitable yet very natural process, we can reframe our mindset by focusing on the goal of aging gracefully. Certain herbs, supplements, lifestyle behaviors, and dietary practices can protect our bodies at the cellular level against oxidative damage, the process behind the “negative” effects of aging. Oxidative stress is a disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses (Betteridge, 2000); oxidative stress leads to damage to the body on a cellular level that has been associated with not only the aging process, but several chronic diseases as well. While oxidative stress is a normal part of the aging process, slowing it down and fortifying our body against free radical damage can help minimize the impact oxidative stress has on our health and appearance.

Rather than fight against the concept of aging, we can reframe our mindset by focusing on the goal of aging gracefully.

The “Green Theory” of aging describes every living organism as a compilation of undamaged molecular and cellular components that, over time, through exposure to damaging factors such as poor diet, stress, and environmental pollution, begins to lose the integrity of its cellular function and therefore its lifespan becomes limited by the failure to repair that molecular damage (Iqbal et al., 2009). In following with the Green Theory, selecting herbs, supplements, and foods that help protect our cells against those damaging factors, and that will encourage the preservation and maintenance of our body’s repair mechanisms, will help to prevent many of the negative side effects of aging.

Antioxidants

Most of us have heard the term “antioxidant,” especially when used in association with fancy products like acai juice from the Amazon. An antioxidant can be any food, herb or nutrient however, that protects the body against Reactive Oxygen Species, or free radicals. Herbs that enhance cytoprotection – or defense of all the cells in our body – will have a much more profound impact on preventing tissue damage than simply taking products that have the ability to chase down free radicals. Think of it like this: it makes more sense to strengthen the castle to ward off attack rather than fight the enemy once they’re already there. A great example of this is broccoli; while broccoli has one of the lowest ratings on the ORAC scale (a rating system that shows foods/herbs with the highest free radical scavenging ability), the vegetable exerts one of the most protective effects on tissue health because of its ability to enhance liver detoxification.

Herbs and Supplements

Turmeric is one of the most highly antioxidant members of the plant kingdom. In addition to down-regulating many of the inflammatory processes associated with the generation of oxidative stress, turmeric stimulates the body’s production of its own natural antioxidant molecules, specifically glutatione. Similar to broccoli, turmeric also enhances the liver’s detoxification process, which serves to maintain the health of all tissue in the body.

Preservation and maintenance of our body’s repair mechanisms, will help to prevent many of the negative side effects of aging.

Ginkgo biloba, while most commonly known for its cognitive-enhancing effects, is also one of the most radio-protective plants that we know of. Additionally, ginkgo protects mitochondrial function during times of cellular stress, and specifically protects nervous system tissue against oxidative damage. By increasing blood flow and enhancing capillary integrity, ginkgo is able to maintain the proper oxygenation and nutrition of tissues, a process that promotes longevity and vitality those tissues.

Grape seed is another high-antioxidant, anti-inflammatory supplement that will help protect cells and tissues against oxidative damage. Grape seed is especially important for athletes, as it helps encourage recovery and reduce oxidation associated with intense training. Grape seed has also been shown to be highly effective in managing chronic venous insufficiency as well as edema, both being conditions that increase the waste buildup and lack of appropriate oxygenation or nutrition in tissues.

Vitamin C is a vitamin that we need to get from either dietary sources or supplementation that is absolutely essential for tissue repair, formation of collagen, and the maintenance of skin, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, bones, and teeth.

Diet

Diet arguably will have the most profound impact on how well your body ages; for most of us, diet can be the one aspect of our lives that we have the most control over when it comes to our health. For example, we can’t control the amount of radiation or environmental toxins we are exposed to every day, but we can control whether we eat fast food or a homemade meal. The food we choose to put into our bodies will either heal or harm our tissues, and to a large degree will determine how well our tissues stay vital and “young” while we age.

Healthy fats are one of the most important aspects of an anti-aging diet.

One of the first dietary steps to promote aging gracefully is eliminating sugar, in all of its forms, from your diet; this includes refined sugar, organic cane sugar, sucrose, fructose (except that which naturally occurs in dietary fruits), high-fructose corn syrup, and any of the other number of names sugar is called. A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates increases inflammation in the body, which increases the levels of metabolic waste in the body, reduces the body’s ability to remove that waste, and inhibits tissue repair.

Additionally, dietary sugars are associated with the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), a group of compounds considered to be one of the primary mechanism of increasing tissue damage in the body. Disease processes associated with high levels of AGEs include cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and Diabetes. Additionally, animal models show that restricting dietary AGEs can lead to an increase in lifespan.

Healthy fats are one of the most important aspects of an anti-aging diet. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, and salmon all contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that are necessary for tissue health, endocrine balance, and energy synthesis. Increasing your consumption of brightly colored vegetables and fruits, especially dark leafy greens and berries, is another important dietary protocol. These foods, in addition to having a high ORAC rating, contain plant chemicals known as bioflavonoids that regulate the enzymes involved with breaking down toxins and carcinogens, as well as protecting our cells against oxidative damage.

Lifestyle

Much like a healthy diet is essential for maintaining the health and longevity of our bodies on a cellular level, there are several components of our lifestyle that can either enhance or ease the aging process. Getting adequate sleep, at least seven to eight hours every night, is one of the best ways to promote the concept of graceful aging. When we sleep, our bodies are busy at work with the healing and repair process of all the energy demands of the day before. When we chronically deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, not only are we more prone to fatigue, irritability, and blood sugar dis-regulation, we are also increasing the damage done to our bodies on a cellular level. Stress management is another incredibly important aspect of reducing oxidative to our cells.

When we chronically deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, we increase the damage done to our bodies on a cellular level.

Chronic stress has been linked to numerous health disorders, including insomnia and weight gain, and new studies are showing that it contributes to the acceleration of the aging process as well. Chronic stress keeps us in a constant sympathetic state, or in fight-or-flight mode; this results in disruption of cortisol and overall endocrine balance, increased insulin resistance and increase in numerous inflammatory markers throughout the body that contribute to the steady breakdown of cells and tissues. Chronic stress has also been linked to a more rapid breakdown of brain tissue and function, as well as an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Finally, chronic stress increases our likelihood in indulge in unhealthy behaviors, such as junk food, alcohol and a sedentary lifestyle.

Appropriate exercise is another component of protecting the body against the negative effects of aging. While intense, sustained and overly-frequent exercise can contribute to inflammation and tissue breakdown, regular activity throughout the day and staying active throughout one’s life will help to maintain healthy joint function, circulation, blood sugar regulation and digestive function. Setting a goal of getting 5,000-10,000 steps a day is sufficient exercise to keep the body functioning optimally.

Betteridge, D. J. (2000). What is oxidative stress? Metabolism, 49(2 Suppl 1), 3-8.
Iqbal, A., Piper, M., Faragher, R. G., Naughton, D. P., Partridge, L., & Ostler, E. L. (2009). Chemical changes in aging Drosophila melanogaster. Age (Dordr), 31(4), 343-351. doi: 10.1007/s11357-009-9105-4

Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness

Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.

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