We’re back! We love the summer but are keen to get cracking with autumn projects – researching a new book on post-menopausal health for me, a book on the less-known benefits of walking for Annabel. But just because we haven’t been posting, it doesn’t mean we haven’t been keeping up with our usual trawl of academic papers and the latest research into the science of longevity.
There’s been so much of interest in recent months – lots of new research into the power of omega 3s to improve longevity; how berries and red wine work with our gut bacteria to lower blood pressure and what we need to nourish our brains. All subjects for future posts here or on our social media channels. But this week I want to focus on a research paper which reflects so many of the core tenets of The Age-Well Project, and gives more credible academic backing to simple lifestyle changes to help us age well. The paper goes even further, suggesting that it’s possible to reverse the ageing process without heavy-duty medical intervention. Sounds too good to be true? Read on.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
The study in question found that the subjects (men aged between 50 and 72) ‘turned back the clock’ on ageing by more than three years in just eight weeks following a healthy lifestyle regime. The lifestyle interventions prescribed were specifically chosen to target a biological mechanism called DNA methylation, which predicts biological age (the age of our bodies health-wise, as opposed to chronological age).
DNA methylation is the process that switches genes on and off, and controls the ageing process. When the system is working well, our epigenome, the ‘instruction manual’ for our DNA, tags genes to give them tasks to perform. But as we age, oxidation and other stressors cause damage in our bodies, leading to loss of cell function and failures in methylation. In 2013, a UCLA professor called Steve Horvath revealed how changes in patterns of methylation can predict biological age extremely accurately. This system is known as the Horvath clock and was used assess how the health interventions used in the study impacted the health of participants.
SO WHAT’S THE SECRET?
The study participants were prescribed a detailed lifestyle programme covering diet, exercise, stress management and supplements for eight weeks:
Minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day for at least 5 days per week, at an intensity of 60-80% of maximum perceived exertion. This means you’re breathing heavily and feeling challenged by the exercise, but can still speak. We’ve written about the importance of getting breathless here
Participants took two specific supplements to boost intake of phytonutrients, prebiotics and probiotics:
PhytoGanix, a combination of organic vegetables, fruits, seeds, herbs, plant enzymes, prebiotics and probiotics at a dose of 2 servings daily, divided. It doesn’t seem to be available in the UK, but it’s a powdered multi-vitamin supplement.
UltraFlora Intensive Care, containing Lactobacillus plantarum 299v at a dose of 2 capsules daily, divided. Again, not available in the UK but it looks like a fairly standard probiotic supplement.
The study participants followed breathing exercises from the book Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson MD, twice daily. The Relaxation Response is a simple meditation technique: once or twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes, find a quiet environment, sit in a relaxed position, eyes closed, and repeat a mantra – a word or sound – as you breathe.
The nutritional guidelines the study participants followed were very low in carbohydrate, and even beans/legumes were off the menu, which surprised us. We’re big fans of fibre-and-nutrient-packed beans/pulses and have always considered them integral to our age-well diets. Something to ponder.
Annabel also pointed out to me that there’s no mention of alcohol on this list! We’ve both cut our alcohol intake down to almost nothing recently anyway.
The dietary list also includes ‘methylation adaptogens’ such as rosemary and tea – anti-oxidant-rich plants which are particularly supportive of healthy methylation. I’ve linked to some of our favourite recipes incorporating the ingredients below where I can.
3 servings of liver – 1 serving = 3 oz/75g. Preferably organic. Try our warm chicken liver salad
5-10 eggs Ideally free-range, organic, omega-3 enriched. We love our recipe for kale and salmon frittata
2 cups of dark leafy greens. •Measured raw, chopped, and packed. (I’m assuming that doesn’t mean eaten raw)
•Including kale, Swiss chard, spring greens, spinach, dandelion, mustard greens. This tamarind and lime green veggies recipe perks up green leaves no end.
•Does not include salad greens such as romaine, iceberg
2 cups cruciferous vegetables
•Measured raw, chopped, and packed
•Includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, rocket, kale, mustard greens, watercress, swede, kohlrabi, radish, Swiss chard, turnip.
3 additional cups colourful vegetables of your choosing (excluding white potatoes, sweetcorn).
1-2 medium beetroots.
4 tbsp (1/4 cup) pumpkin seeds (or pumpkin seed butter)
4 tbsp (1/4 cup) sunflower seeds (or sunflower seed butter)
1+ serving methylation adaptogens, choose from:
•1/2 cup berries (wild preferred)
•1/2 tsp rosemary
•1/2 tsp turmeric – turmeric fish curry recipe here
•2 medium cloves garlic
•2 cups green tea (brewed 10 minutes). How to brew green tea, here
•3 cups oolong tea (brewed 10 minutes)
6 oz animal protein
•Grass-fed, pastured, organic and hormone/antibiotic-free
2 servings of low glycemic fruit eg berries, apples, pears
Organic preferred over conventional
Don’t eat between 7pm and 7am. We’ve written about intermittent fasting here
Include “healthy” oils – Balance types of fat e.g. coconut, olive, flaxseed and pumpkin seed oil. There’s more on fats and oils here
Avoid added sugar/sweets, dairy, grains, legumes/beans
Minimise plastic food containers – this is interesting, but the study doesn’t say why.
The end result was “statistically significant” reductions in the biological ageing of cells of over eight weeks for the 18 participants in the treatment group, equating to being three years ‘younger’ by the end of the study.
Lead researcher Kara Fitzgerald says the study “ is unique in its use of a safe, non-pharmaceutical dietary and lifestyle program, control group, and the extent of the age reduction.” You can read the whole study here, and find out more about Dr Fitzgerald and her work on her website. She’s got a book out in the new year which I’ll order and review in a blog post.
What I can’t uncover is how close to this kind of lifestyle the participants were when they started. Were they following a mainly healthy lifestyle and just tweaked it a bit to get these results? Or were they Big Mac-scoffing couch potatoes for whom this regime was a huge lifestyle overhaul? Surely that would impact the results? But we do know they were generally in good health before they started. Another point to consider is that the study subjects were all men. We know women’s bodies (and brains) are very different – would the protocol be different for us? There’s a lot that’s still unclear, but a lot that’s fascinating too. We’ll keep you posted on the planned larger trial.
What do you think? Would you be prepared to put this protocol into practice? Do you follow something very similar already? Let us know in the comments below!