Imagine a world where everyone lived forever young. Now image a child was born into that world and, once into adulthood, quickly began to deteriorate: growing wrinkles, old, frail, grey. Would you not be inclined to help that person?
That is how many gerontologists (the scientists who study ageing) are now thinking. Over the last decade, there has been a serious push to re-classify ageing as a disease. After all, it bears all the hallmarks of a disease — except for the fact that everyone would be ‘infected’ in this case.
Scientists even think they have found a singular reason behind why we age. According to the Information Theory of Ageing, that is “epigenetic noise”. Over time, accumulative damage to our epigenome sends the body into a state of decay.
One gerontologist, David Sinclair, even thinks we are closing in on a “cure” for ageing, and claims that it will be much easier to cure than cancer in the long run. But, while a cure may still be decades — and many pharmaceutical trials and lab studies away — there are things we can do right now, certain lifestyle changes, to slow the effects of ageing. Let’s look at them:
Ancient survival circuits and longevity genes
It is now thought that all life on Earth has inherited a biological “circuit” that has two functions: “reproduce” and “repair”. When times are good, we are in reproduce mode. But when times are bad, our circuits switch over to repair mode.
The original cellular organisms with this circuit would have had a significant evolutionary advantage over their competitors — who would not have had the ability to make repairs in response to a stressful environment.
In “repair” mode, certain genes in our bodies switch on — we call these sirtuins — they are like emergency response crewmen, who rush out in times of danger, find faulty DNA breakages, and set about repairing the breaks. Broken DNA is (not all the time) bad, and if left unattended, the damage can compound and lead to cancers and other conditions later in life.
Too good for too long
So it seems our bodies evolved to deal with stressful environmental conditions. But nowadays our bodies aren’t really under that much stress. We eat too much, inhabit warm houses, and don’t exercise as much as we should be.
The trick to longevity — that is, to live long and healthy lives — is to subject our bodies to mild stress. To switch out of “reproduce” mode, and over into repair mode for a short while. If anything, just to shake things up. With that in mind, here are some things that you can do to mimic the stressful conditions that assist DNA repair and longer, healthier lives:
Induce the ‘hypoxic response’
It should come as no surprise to find that exercise is very important for longevity and good health. But that exercise should ideally be challenging if you want to engage the repair function on your survival circuit. That means you will want to put your body under mild stress.
The keyword here is mild. You don’t want to overdo it and harm your body. The best way to go about it is to practice high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) to significantly elevate your heart and breathing rates. This is what engages the greatest number of health-promoting genes. You’ll know you’ve done enough when it becomes difficult to say a few words without stopping for breath.
This state is sometimes referred to as the hypoxic response, and it’s great for inducing just enough mild stress to the body to kick-start your natural defences against ageing without doing any long-term harm. Even as little as 10 minutes a day of HIIT can add years to a person’s lifespan.
Let your body seek homeostasis
A natural order of life on Earth is to seek equilibrium with its surroundings, a phenomenon we call homeostasis.
Whenever we find ourselves too cold, our body tries frantically to warm up; and vice versa. This is the body seeking homeostasis in response to conditions that aren’t “thermoneutral”. Non-thermoneutral zones are also considered stressful environments that activate longevity genes.
In the cold, this is sometimes referred to as cold therapy. As the temperature drops your breathing, blood flow patterns, and heart rates all change. This makes your body think “I’m in danger” and slip into repair mode.
Again, this is not about senselessly exposing yourself to too much cold or heat. It is about putting your body under mild stress to activate the repair function of the circuit. A way of doing this might be a short, brisk walk around the neighbourhood in a t-shirt on a winter’s day. Or half an hour in the sauna.
Cold therapy, in particular, stimulates the growth of mitochondria-rich “brown fat” in adults, a type of fat most of us lose after infanthood. Contrary to the negative effects of typical fat, brown fat has been linked with reduced rates of obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. As for “heat” therapy, a 20-year study of over 2,300 Finnish men revealed that, for those who used the sauna every day of the week, they had a twofold drop in heart disease, heart attacks, and other all-cause mortality events.
It has long been understood that fasting is beneficial to our health — almost all forms of life benefit from calorie restriction, including yeast. Fasting is perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind alongside HIIT.
It is important to remember that, by fasting, no one is suggesting starvation or malnutrition — but living in a state of want. This can be difficult in an age when food is relatively cheap, abundant, and extremely delicious.
The key to activating the repair part of the circuit is by keeping things on a razor’s edge — just enough food for nutrition and to function healthily but no more. This provides the circuit with all the stress it needs to boost cellular defences, fight disease and deterioration, and slow the effects of ageing.
Fasting is hard, but it doesn’t have to be for the die-hards only. Just miss a meal every now and then. Feel hungry for some point in the day.
Mild stress is good. Too much stress is lethal.
Putting your body under mild stress is wonderful for engaging your ancient survival circuit, activating the longevity genes, and assisting DNA repair. But too much stress overwhelms the circuit.
Smoking. Eating too much meat; especially red meat (which are associated with high cardiovascular mortality, and increased cancer risk). Sunbeds and relentless UV exposure. Even the PCB compounds in plastic water bottles and trays, and pesticides — all damage the DNA in ways that make it very difficult for the circuit to recover from. Spend a whole life smoking and on the sunbeds, and you will age much faster, fall sick much sooner, and die younger.
Instead, keep everything in moderation (even exercise). But think “How can I put my body under mild stress to activate my longevity circuit — the repair mode?”. With these little, good stresses, your longevity genes will hunker down and repair your DNA as it naturally brakes easily. The result is you should live longer, healthier, and look much younger, too.
This article was written by Ben Fielding of GBS Clinic Ltd, also known as ‘Your Comprehensive Breast Clinic’. A breast augmentation and surgical practice based in Dublin, Ireland.