You’ve probably noticed that there are boatloads of creams, lotions and potions that bill themselves as “anti-aging” therapies. Clearly, the marketers have tapped into a deep human desire to escape the ravages of physical aging. And if someone wants to spend a hundred dollars on a jar of skin cream, well, that’s their business. What I care about, and what I try to educate all my patients about, are the every-day habits and behaviors that can slow down aging at the most basic cellular level. They don’t cost much, or in most cases, anything, and they can, and should, last a lifetime — in other words, a lot longer than a jar of skin cream. It’s true that absolute lifespan, for instance whether your grandmother lived to 80 or 95, is very much influenced by genetics. But healthspan – how long you live well, is very much up to you.
Here’s my run-down on the most essential lifestyle strategies, my healthspan rules of the road to slow, or even stop, the aging clock, and increase the health in your years:
1) Respect Sleep.
Your body has its own renewal system. We call it sleep, and the more you learn to respect it, by giving it 7-8 hours to do its thing every night, the slower your aging clock will tick, both physically and mentally. With the proper amount of sleep, the body is able to cycle in and out of the two most restorative phases of the night, deep sleep, and REM sleep, when we dream. During these two phases, our minds process the experiences of the day, locking only the important stuff into readily accessible memory. (That allows us to get older and wiser.) At a physical level, the body cleans out the cellular debris that accumulates during the day when the mind is working at full throttle. Of course, all this is happening below the level of conscious awareness. But when you wake up after too little sleep, or lousy sleep of the tossing and turning variety, and you feel sluggish, sleepy, grumpy, that’s what’s going on “under the hood.” And poor sleep habits, over the long haul, put you at higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s – and that’s one of the many reasons I am adamant that my patients take sleep very, very seriously.
2) Don’t just sit there, get moving!
Sure, you probably know physical activity is good for you, but we don’t always appreciate that moving your body is about the most effective anti-aging therapy going. Why? It boils down to metabolism, how efficiently our bodies use the energy we consume in the food eat. Nothing ages the body more comprehensively than high blood sugar and extra weight around the midsection. There’s a reason doctors often call diabetes “accelerated aging.”
When we move the body our muscles are burning the glucose fuel that circulates in the bloodstream. The more we use (or ‘burn’) the less gets stored as fat, and the more efficiently we make use of the hormone insulin which delivers the glucose to the cells. End result: a leaner, cleaner metabolism and less fat build-up.
The mistake that a lot of health-conscious people make is thinking that only a gut-busting exercise class or 10 mile run or long distance swim counts as exercise. It’ s just not so. In fact, working out to near-exhaustion every day, or even every other day, can be positively counter-productive. It can over-stress your immune system leaving you feeling washed-out and leave you so tired that you turn into a couch potato (or more likely, screen potato) the rest of the week. In total, you may actually burn less energy over the course of the week! However, it training for the next New York Marathon is your thing, well, godspeed. But if health and boosting your healthspan is your first priority, it’s a much better idea to build small doses of movement into your day: walking instead of driving; stairs instead of elevators; and taking regular mini-breaks away from the desk to do some stretches or yoga poses, or some quick strength boosters, like push-ups or planks. With that as your base, feel free to add a couple of breaking-a-sweat work-out into the weekly mix, as you see fit. It all counts and it all adds up, and all that movement helps keep muscles supple and joints lubricated, which in turn makes moving through life much easier now and for years down the road.
The old conventional wisdom was that our metabolism declined steadily after age 30, no matter what we did, on the order of 1-2% a year. But the latest research has shown that the body’s energy-burning furnace doesn’t cool down until we hit our sixties and yes, that includes women in peri-menopause or menopause. That means, all the “slowing down with age” that people think is inevitable in their middle years isn’t! It’s the result of conscious choices we make every day, especially about how we move and how we eat – two very pleasurable activities, which when done right, will also go a long way towards to maintaining the best parts of youth.
3) Eating your way young.
Bound up with metabolic health is inflammation. In fact, researchers see inflammation, the chronic over-activation of the immune system, as so central to the aging process, especially “bad” aging, they coined the term, “inflammaging.” Inflammation is at the root of most of the chronic diseases that too often are the bane of our middle and senior years: heart disease, diabetes, dementia, even cancer. And the best way to slow down that inflammaging, besides moving more, is to eat more skillfully. If you know me at all, you know I can’t say enough good things about a diet that’s long on non-starchy veggies (greens especially), healthy fats and healthy fat, from (preferably) organic meat and wild fish and plant sources like nuts and legumes. But just as important as the health-supportive nutrients these foods deliver to the system are their inflammation-fighting properties. The fiber-rich veggies especially feed the bacteria in your gut, the microbiome, which in turns help build up the lining of the gut wall. That means that toxins don’t escape into the bloodstream, triggering inflammation throughout the system (brain fog, arthritic joints, skin eruptions, you name it). Not only that, the well-fed microbiome acts in concert with the human gut nervous system to recognize non-toxic visitors passing through the gut, like gluten or dairy, which otherwise might trigger an immune system inflammatory over-reaction. Common and very unpleasant conditions like IBS are signs that your inflamed gut that needs a dietary re-think (or even an overhaul).
4) Tune in to your mind.
An unsettled mind can age you as reliably as an out-of-sorts body. As with most things in the health universe, mind and body are deeply connected. If you’re chronically stressed out, the levels of your primary energy hormone, cortisol, will be stuck on “high,” pushing up the production of insulin, promoting fat storage, messing with your sleep and just generally making you feel old before your time.
My tried-and-very-true remedy for a stressed out head is to carve out some time every day to escape the demands and pressures of the day and simply quiet the mind. Research has shown that these mind-body breaks can actually slow the aging of the brain, by lowering blood pressure and lengthening your telomeres (the ends of your chromosomes which regulate cellular aging). A regular sitting meditation practice is great. Find a quiet place, tune into a smooth, regular breathing pattern and follow the breath for as long as practicable or comfortable. Ten or fifteen minutes a day is enough to calm down the stress hormones. But with practice, you may find that a 30 or even 45-minute sit can take you beyond relaxation to a deeper, life-affirming kind of contemplation. If you’re new to this world, check out some apps like Headspace, Oak, Meditation, Breathe and Brightmind. And keep in mind, there’s no one size fits all. Another way to meditate with out meditating in the traditional sense is to spend time doing a super-soothing activity like knitting or playing a musical instrument, or simply being in nature. Those meditative activities are exactly your sympathetic nervous system ordered.
5) Tap into autophagy hacks.
It turns out that one important way that healthy habits keep you young and support a better healthspan is by promoting autophagy, that is, upgrading the garbage collection system in your cells, getting rid of old and damaged cells and stripping them for parts to make new robust ones. In practice, they all stress the cells of the body in mild, healthy ways, sort of like doing push-ups for your metabolism. The fancy terms for this is “hormesis.” How to turbocharge the process? Here’s a handy, start-doing-now list of autophagy “hacks,” to put you on the road to a better healthspan:
- Cold comfort — No need to avail yourself of expensive hi-tech cryo-therapy sessions. Simply get in the habit of alternating warm and cold water in the shower (or finishing off a warm shower with a rousing cold blast). Or take a short outside walk deliberately underdressed (no blue lips or hypothermia please!). The cold will rev up the metabolism.
- Spice up the system – Spices like turmeric, garlic and ginger boost autophagy, ditto polyphenol-rich foods like berries, nuts, beans, artichokes, green tea, coffee and dark chocolate.
- Time restricted eating – Spacing out your meals, as little as ten hours and for a bigger effect, 16 hours between meals, is another booster, stimulating your metabolism to do more with less insulin, and upgrading the metabolic garbage pick-up.
- Low-carb eating — is yet another healthy dietary stressor. A keto diet is the most aggressive form, weaning the body away from burning glucose to burning fat.
- High Intensity Internal Training – HIIT-type exercise, be it running, cycling, swimming, hill walking or what have you, pushes the body harder, and the heart rate higher, for a relatively shorter time. And yes, it does promote autophagy, but don’t overdo it. For most people, two sessions a week, 20-30 minutes a week, is a sensible maximum.