Thoughts on Healthy Aging

This may seem to be a radical stance, but I believe it is mistake to think that illness and disease are an inevitable part of the normal aging process. Although we may think of aging in relation to outward appearance, the way we look reflects only certain aspects of age, some of which are superficial–such as gray hair and laugh lines. How we think and feel inwardly–including our energy and zest for life–and the way our brain, bones, digestion, immune system, and the rest of our body functions is a much more accurate indication of our aging status.

Woman Standing on Rock

Here’s what I know from working with hundreds of patients over more than 25 years as a clinical practitioner: While aging is a fact of life that no one escapes, we can slow the process and improve our quality of life by changing how we deal with the stressors that we encounter. As children, we are naturally full of energy. But for most of us, as we get older our energy declines, we’re often fatigued, and we find that we are less able to effectively manage the various aspects of our lives. From youth to old age, we tend to slowly deteriorate from a state of thriving to one of merely surviving, and in the process become more susceptible physically, mentally, and emotionally to the negative effects of prolonged stress.

Many of the illnesses and conditions that we associate with aging are sub-clinical, meaning that they smolder beneath the surface for many years before being recognized and named. Eventually our lifestyle choices catch up to us and we wonder, “Why am I breaking down now?” or “Why is it so hard to lose weight?” The simple answer is that stress, combined with the natural aging process, promotes changes that occur as a result of the body’s attempt to adapt to the stressors of life and aging. For example, it is a proven fact that long-term stress contributes to fat accumulation and muscle loss. But as we age, we don’t have to become run down, overweight, weak, and tired and we don’t have to take a half-dozen or more medications, some of which are needed just to counter the side effects of the others! We may survive in the short term with this approach, but in the long term we inevitably suffer.

There is no doubt that when the natural aging process is compounded by prolonged stress, the inevitable result is accelerated aging. Here’s the good news: The pathological changes that cause biological aging can be prevented or delayed with the right assessment and treatment plan. Equally important to remember is that we can enjoy a vibrant, healthy, energetic quality of life by cultivating a positive attitude. I believe that the expression “young at heart” has significant meaning as an adage for healthy aging. Today, the sad truth is that although we have the technology and medications to keep people alive, they are often not truly living. There is much that we can do, however, to insure health and vitality throughout life.

The most prevalent theories today view aging and degenerative disease as the result of a combination of accumulated genetic error, enzyme depletion, inflammation, and oxidative damage (from free radicals). These processes, along with a less efficient neuroendocrine and endocrine system, and a slowing down of cellular energy production and transfer in the mitochondria (which in turn creates more free radicals), are included in the metabolic model of aging. The metabolic model of aging proposes that aging is fundamentally a combination of dimished efficiency in both anabolic and catabolic pathways, as well as a general shift in the metabolism from a balance of anabolic (inward energy to build, heal and regenerate – “to be”) activity to catabolic (a breaking down of energy to facilitate outwards – “to do”) activity. As a result of stress-related imbalances in the neuroendocrine or other systems of the body, homeostasis and allostasis are negatively affected and many critical set points are altered–which ultimately adversely affects our ability to live a high-quality life.

Seven Key Areas for Assessment and Prevention of Age-Related Diseases:

1) Mitochondrial Energy Efficiency

2) Oxidative Stress

3) Cellular Transduction Pathways

4) Chronic Inflammation

5) Neuroendocrine System Function

6) Metabolic Balance

7) Immune System Regulation

I am not a proponent of “anti-aging” interventions that rely on unnatural tactics such as using bio-identical hormones—which in reality are exogenous hormones that are not produced from within, are not identical to our natural hormones, and may very well be dangerous. Instead, I propose a natural and harmonious approach that enables us to age gracefully through deepening our understanding of the ways in which we can support authentic health and vitality. The bottom line is that through a combination of herbal adaptogens, nutritional compounds, and appropriate diet, exercise, and lifestyle, we can greatly retard the aging process, reverse premature aging, and optimize our quality of life. Adaptogens are an essential part of this approach: They are unique in that they provide assistance for handling short-term stressors by providing more energy and decreasing physiological damage while at the same time delaying negative metabolic changes that might otherwise occur.

Excerpted from Donnie’s new book: Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism: Elite Herbs and Natural Compounds for Mastering Stress, Aging, and Chronic Disease, (Healing Arts Press, August 2013)

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