The Fountain of Youth Lies Within
The antioxidant approach to anti-aging.
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said "the Fountain of Youth is within us," he was closer to the truth about youth than he ever could have known. In modern times, many seek the Fountain of Youth “elsewhere,” in the form of botox injections, microdermabrasions and facelifts. While these procedures may create a superficially youthful appearance, the sands of time still run just as quickly inside the body. The present-day Ponce de Leons are not the doctors who perform nose jobs and liposuction; they are the scientists and researchers who have found clues that indicate the Fountain of Youth may lie deep within us, in our very cells. By examining and understanding the aging process, we can address the causes of aging before treating the symptoms—and develop anti-aging strategies that slow down time both inside and out.
To understand anti-aging, we first must ask, “What is aging?” In simple terms, aging is characterized by the gradual breakdown and death of cells. The most widely accepted explanation for this cellular breakdown is the free radical theory, which was developed by pioneering aging researcher Dr. Denham Harman in 1954. Harman’s theory is that free radicals—charged molecules produced naturally as the body uses oxygen—accelerate aging by aggressively attacking and damaging our cells.
But why are these free radicals so angry at the world? Because they are one electron short of stability and will do anything to get that electron—even steal it by bouncing off neighboring molecules. This process, also known as oxidation, brings stability to the free radical, but turns the “victim” molecule into a new free radical. This chain reaction runs rampant, as marauding free radicals wildly smash against nearby cells in a perpetual cycle of electron looting. It is thought that over time, this smashing action damages cells, tissues and even DNA, ultimately contributing to aging.
Stress Inside and Out
We can almost forgive internally produced free radicals for their wild electron-robbing sprees. After all, free radicals are a byproduct of the oxygen “burning” process that gives us the energy to live. In addition, our bodies do have some natural defenses that help to keep such damage in check.
But free-radical levels within the body skyrocket when you add the burden that comes from external sources, leading to a state known as oxidative stress. Poor diet, depression, inadequate exercise, smoking, UV rays, toxins and pollution—the ubiquitous elements of modern life—can increase the ranks of free radicals so they overwhelm our natural defenses, igniting a devastating chain reaction of cellular destruction.
One can observe the free radical theory of aging at work all around us: Heavy smokers, substance abusers and sun worshipers simply seem to age more quickly, acquiring wrinkles and showing skin that has lost its supple, youthful elasticity at a younger age than those following a lifestyle that limits these harmful factors.
Unfortunately, wrinkles should be the least of our free radical-induced aging concerns. This type of damage is also associated with dozens of age-related disorders and diseases, including cancer, strokes, heart attacks, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, free radicals might not only hasten physical signs of aging, but also threaten to limit both the quantity and quality of our years.
Free Radical Crackdown
With hordes of electron-snatching free radicals wreaking havoc on our bodies, we need internal peacekeepers. Enter antioxidants, substances that are capable of donating electrons to free radicals without becoming dangerous themselves. In this way, antioxidants effectively neutralize marauding free radicals and put a stop to the chain reaction that creates these molecular hazards.
Antioxidants also contribute to cellular maintenance and repair. There are hundreds of such substances—vitamins C and E being the best-known—that may help to slow the aging process by neutralizing free radicals.
We can boost our defenses against free-radical damage by making sure to eat lots of antioxidant-rich foods, such as the right fruits and vegetables. However, increased stress from our environment, along with the unfortunate abundance of nutritionally deficient foods, create a dearth of antioxidants while boosting free-radical levels within our bodies. Supplementation may be the solution to getting the age-defying antioxidants that our diets are lacking.
Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, Chief of the Antioxidant Research Laboratory at Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, comments, “The 2005 dietary guidelines for America…takes special note of the inadequate intake of carotenoids and vitamins C and E from typical diets…many nutritionists recognize the easiest and most affordable way to fill the gap between usual intakes of antioxidant nutrients and recommended allowances (or even more optimal intakes) is with supplements.”
But out of the hundreds of antioxidants, which should we take? Blumberg has suggested that a “network of antioxidants” may be the best approach. He continues, “While dietary antioxidants share the property of ‘quenching’ or blocking the injurious effects of free radicals, it is important to recognize that each of the hundreds of dietary antioxidants is different than the other…antioxidants do, indeed, work within a complex and dynamic network in a synergistic manner—so taking a high dose of one antioxidant does not provide all the antioxidant protection you need.”
So what is a winning network of antioxidants? Harman, still active in aging research as he approaches age 90, is known to practice what he preaches with an antioxidant regimen that includes a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, beta-carotene and CoQ10. When asked about antioxidants that are shown to be effective in antiaging capacities, Dr. Blumberg says, “This is an area of active research, but many studies indicate important roles for vitamins C and E, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), coenzyme Q10, catechin flavanoids [the antioxidants in tea], carotenoids (especially beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene), and…resveratrol [the stuff that gives red wine its healthy cachet]. Importantly, these compounds may be acting on different segments of the aging process.”
Like the location of the elusive Fountain of Youth, the definitive truth behind aging is still a mystery.
Mounting evidence indicates, however, that the key to slowing the sands of time may lie in antioxidant supplementation. Not to be lost among the intense scientific investigation of aging is the eternal philosophical truth of aging: You are only as old as you feel. By maintaining a healthy, positive outlook on life, and living each day with enthusiasm and vigor, you may find that the joy of a youthful spirit far outweighs those “charming” crow’s feet you just discovered.