Like death and taxes, aging is inevitable – and if you’re alive, you’re doing it every second of every day. The trick is how to do aging well, as in, are you greeting each day with vitality, strong muscles and great-looking skin? Or is the picture considerably less rosy? How well we do or don’t age has a lot to do with our basic, everyday habits, and the more good, health-supportive ones you can lock in now, the better you’ll look and feel later, especially in your senior years.
Compared to just a few years ago, we now have so much more anti-aging information as well as the tools that derive from that deeper understanding. The research is clear that you can dramatically tame the speed at which you age by focusing on some key lifestyle factors, like how well you eat; how much you move your body; how much restful sleep you get; and how much stress you can comfortably tolerate. Besides the basics there are also some specific health hacks you can add to the mix. The net result: you’ll likely increase your lifespan and almost certainly increase your “health span,” in other words, how many healthy, active years you can fit into one lifetime.
Though there are quite a few ways to go about it what you may not know is that how well (or poorly) you age has a lot to do with mTOR, an under-the-radar body system that helps guide the aging process. Here’s a topline on how manage it put it to work for you when needed, and tame it when you don’t:
mTOR is your aging and anti-aging regulator.
The mTOR system is a complex of proteins that regulates how our bodies grow and how they grow old. One of its key functions is to sense, from the amount of amino acids you consume in your diet, how much should go to the production of new proteins and how much should go to cell maintenance and repair.
That may not sound like such a big deal but it is! Think of mTOR as the interface between what’s going on inside you and what’s going on outside, in the world that you live in. When times are good and lots of calories are flowing in, the mTOR switch is turned up and the body makes new proteins, new cells, new tissues.
When food intakes goes down, so does mTOR, and the body is able to get by on less, putting the idea of bigger and stronger on hold and diverting energy supplies to the basics of keeping your cells, and you, alive. Interestingly, mTOR isn’t just a human thing. It evolved in organisms far simpler and older than us, like yeast, as a way to thrive in an abundant environment and survive in times of scarcity.
From birth, your growth buddy, mTOR, is on duty.
What’s cool about mTOR is that it’s sensitive to the life cycle of the organism, in this case, you. In our early years, from infancy to early adulthood, our body’s mission is to grow into our full size and to reach sexual maturity, thereby ensuring the survival of the species. So, given a dependable food supply, which in modern times, most of us are lucky to have, mTOR is pedal to the metal.
In adulthood, mTOR can be a bit more of a ‘frenemy.’
Especially in our middle years, metabolic priorities change. Now, all that calorie consumption – particularly all those animal proteins – which your body could put to good use during your growing years, isn’t doing us the same amount of good. At the visible level, if we keep mTOR in overdrive by, for example, grazing all day or over-eating and not moving enough, it often leads to unwanted fat, especially around the mid-section.
At a not-so-visible level, all that energy consumption and cellular growth winds up generating more damaged new proteins and waste products than most bodies can safely or easily get rid of. The excess metabolic garbage boosts disease risk by gumming up the works, for instance the plaque that builds up in heart and brain vessels, sending you down a path toward the all-too-common ills of aging like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and the rest. Granted, these bad actors may not drag us down until our senior years but the seeds are sown in mid-life, so piling on the healthy habits now will likely save you a ton of trouble later.
Declaw mTOR’s downsides.
The mission is to tame the mTOR system so it sends less of your body’s energy supply to growth and more to cell maintenance and repair. One of the easiest ways to do that is to add some dietary smarts plus a few other hacks (more on them later) to stay in synch with your aging body’s changing needs. When mTOR is in healthy check, the body’s natural self-repair processes are pumped up, via the process known as “autophagy.”
With autophagy in gear, the body doesn’t need to produce a lot of unnecessary new proteins; it strips down old beat-up proteins, scavenging and repairing the still serviceable parts to make help make new replacements. It’s the same story with your cells’ power plants, the mitochondria. When they get old, they spew out a lot of toxic waste. Autophagy allows new mitochondria to be rebuilt with a combination of new parts and older healthy ones.
The more efficiently you take out the cellular garbage, the slower your aging process will be. Think of it as the conservation ethos applied to your body: waste less, reuse and recycle more!
Call in the autophagy cavalry.
So, how can full-grown adults ramp up autophagy, cool the mTOR jets a bit – and ultimately age better and more slowly? Here are a few simple ways to get into the groove:
1. Eat a bit less: To tame mTOR activity and trigger more autophagy, simply restrict calorie intake. One safe way to do that (absolutely no starvation allowed!) is with brief periods of caloric restriction (we’re talking hours at a time, not days). You can try approaches like intermittent fasting (IF), time-restricted eating (TRE), alternate-day or modified alternate day fasting or the 5:2 approach.
2. Pile on plants: Animal proteins, especially red meat, contain high amounts of branched chain amino acids like leucine, which stimulate mTOR. Plant proteins contain considerably less, so they won’t stimulate mTOR nearly as much. No need to swear off all animal protein (as in, meat, dairy, chicken, fish, eggs), but, in middle age, the average person would be wise to eat a lot less of it, ideally keeping daily protein intake in the 55 gram range, with most or even all of it coming from sources like almonds; broccoli; chickpeas; cruciferous veggies; hemp powder; lentils; onions; pea protein; nut butters; sunflower seeds; tempeh; turmeric, etc. For the 65-and-over set, it’s fine to ramp back up a bit to 70 grams daily to help minimize age-related muscle wasting or sarcopenia.
3. Add a little stress: As in the healthy, physical kind. In small doses, the healthy stress of moderate exercise – think walking or light jogging versus Ironman competitions or climbing Mt. Everest – encourages better aging via “hormesis.” Hormesis is your body’s response to small stresses—think fasting or caloric restriction for short periods; biking up a short, steep hill; or brief bouts of cold exposure. These bursts of adversity toughen up the cells, and the body’s defenses against aging.
4. Embrace mTOR tamers: To help tame the mTOR beast, you may also wish to augment your plant-based diet with a few supplements that can keep it – and aging – in check. Among my favorites:
- Alpha-lipoic acid – Dosage: 300 to 600 milligrams per day (non-meat-eaters should aim for the higher end).
- Curcumin – Dosage: 500 to 1,000 milligrams twice a day. Take it with good fats, like avocado, so it can be properly absorbed. Add turmeric to your cooking too.
- Quercetin – Dosage: 500 to 1,000 milligrams per day. Best when paired with vitamin C or digestive enzymes like bromelain to aid absorption.
- Resveratrol – Dosage: 200 to 300 milligrams per day.
- Fish oil – Dosage: 1 to 3 grams per day.
5. Get your sleep on: Getting high-quality shut-eye, think 7 – 8 hours a night, to help stoke your autophagy engine. Studies show that sleep deprivation encourages increased mTOR, so don’t skimp on this health-maintaining activity.
6. Adjust the temperature up and down: Swim in a cool pool, then dip in the hot tub or sauna (or vice versa); add a brief cold finish to your hot shower; or simply or spend a few minutes outdoors in the cold lightly dressed. Swinging back and forth between cold and hot will lightly stress your cells enough to encourage autophagy and keep mTOR at bay.