AS A SOCIETY, over the past several hundred years, we have dramatically improved the human condition and added to human longevity. In the old days, people didn’t live much past 40 years. Now, because of more stable food sources, immunizations, anti-infection methods and medications, people live well into their 70s and early 80s while generally in good health. The question I ask of myself and much of the scientific world is, “Can we continue to influence our trend toward increasing longevity or will we potentially reverse it?”
Our cells do amazing things. For example, if one has a facial cut that requires stitches, the stitches can be removed in four to six days. In fact, approximately 1% of our cells are made new every day, and an entire organ system can be replaced in six months. If one loses 95% of his or her liver in a tragic accident, the 5% that remains will regenerate into an entirely new liver.
Our DNA is a miraculous blueprint. Our question should be “How do we influence this blueprint to keep regenerating our cells like it did when we were in our early 20s well into our 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond?” Whether or not we exercise, what we eat or don’t eat, and what type of environment we are exposed to will influence our cells, and all of these factors have life-prolonging or life-limiting effects. Our choices ultimately affect our longevity.
Over the past decade, research has been showing that the most profound effects on our bodies are from outside sources rather than on the genes our parents gave us. What we believed in the past was that our fate was linked to that of our parents. For example, a man whose father died at age 60 may feel that his lifespan will be similar to his father’s and as he approaches 60 years of age, he will feel concerned about reaching the end of his life. If you read my last article, this type of concern causes stress, pouring cortisol into the bloodstream, which can, in fact, cause the person to experience an adverse life event.
Some believe that they cannot escape their parents’ genes for heart disease and as a result, they say to themselves, “Why bother, since my fate is already predetermined?” However, research states that a person’s existing DNA accounts for about 30% of overall longevity, and 70% is under his or her control. The 30/70 rule requires us to understand that how or if we exercise, what we eat and what type of environment we are exposed to has a direct influence on whether we live longer and healthier lives or suffer poor health with premature death. The difference is due more to our own choices than to our parents’ DNA.
Discovered in 1953 by Watson and Crick, deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA has a double helix structure that holds the blueprints of all life on Earth. It resides inside chromosomes housed in the nucleus of every cell in the human body. This is why you will see TV detectives identify a suspect based on the DNA in a strand of hair or saliva on a cigarette butt. Anything that comes off of us has our basic DNA blueprint.
However, in order for DNA to rebuild our cells, it requires other cell structures and molecules called transcription factors to place the protein building blocks into their proper configurations. It is actually these other structures that do the construction; these are the workers, whereas the DNA is the engineer reading the blueprint. And these workers can be influenced positively or negatively.
What types of things can influence these cells to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimutation and very healthy to propagate clear DNA codes? Exercise; nutritional factors such as calorie restriction; a Mediterranean diet; polyphenols (more about this later); environmental factors such as clean air, water and food, and refraining from smoking; consuming less toxins; and emotional health such as religion, meditation and spirituality all affect our DNA. In the 1990s, scientists Lenny Guarente at MIT and David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School conducted a series of experiments on yeast cells.
They discovered that stressing the yeast cells by providing them with less sugar (calorie restriction) extended the lifespan of many of the cells by as much as 60%. This discovery was not new, but they then discovered a class of proteins called SIR-2(silent information regulator 2), which belongs to a class of proteins known as the sirtuins.
This SIR-2 caused the DNA structure of the yeast cells to curl up together, thus allowing a more efficient cellular division. As a result, the yeast cells were able to live longer. Scientists who study monkeys in Africa found that during times of drought, lifespans actually increased. Once again, this sirtuin class of enzymes was found to underlie the organisms’ genetic effect. Activating this sirtuin class of enzymes was found to enhance an organism’s chance of surviving adversity. Once activated, it can delay cell death, promote the repair of cellular damage, slow brain cell degeneration, slow cancer cell formation and slow blood vessel narrowing.
After looking at more than 20,000 molecules, resveratrol was found to be the strongest activator sirtuins (Nature, Volume 425,11 September 2003). Resveratrol is a small molecule in a class called polyphenols found in red grapes, green tea, dark chocolate and peanuts. It is often concentrated in red wine grape skins. The health benefits of plant polyphenols including resveratrol include diabetes prevention, cancer protection, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cardiac protection, antiviral, ischemis protection, aging prevention, infection protection, obesity reduction, neural protection and improved insulin sensitivity.
Resveratrol has been found to activate longevity genes in all organisms tested including yeast, round worms, flies, mice and monkeys. Coined after the November 17, 1991, CBS “60 Minutes” episode, The French Paradox showed that the French consume 40% more grams of fat per day than Americans, yet death from heart attacks and coronary artery disease is half of that in the United States. Alcohol in low dose (one to two ounces per day only) is found to cause vasodilation (open blood vessels) and reduce blood clotting. This includes all types of alcohol.
The polyphenols found in red wine grape skins were found, as stated above, to have proven bioactive antioxidants, anti-inflammatory effects, reduced blood clotting, antibiotic effects and to activate health-enhancing genes. Red grape juice also has resveratrol, as do multiple supplements at your local health food store. The problem with Americans is that we want to see effects immediately and we are not very patient. The effects of resveratrol are subtle, but are very real. I could go on to cite multiple other studies; however, I think you get the point. Remember also that not only red wine grape skins have resveratrol, but so do green tea, peanuts and dark chocolate, and you can use this information as you see fit.