Shortcuts to a Longer Life
A version of this article first appeared right here on my blog. Then Paleo Magazine published it in November of 2015, and I sheepishly removed the original post. Since then, I’ve written less on primal living and more on topics such as philosophy, meditation, spooky physics, etc. But human longevity – and the strategies to promote it - continues to interest me.
This is an area, of course, with true mass appeal. Because of this, unscrupulous profiteers have made fortunes selling bad advice and unproven products to a gullible public. These hacks don’t rely on good evidence to support their claims, but rather on exaggerated emotional appeals. In particular, they exploit the universal fear of death and aging.
Tired of these antics, I put together a short list of longevity strategies. In no way, however, is this list meant to be comprehensive. For instance, I don’t even touch sleep or gut health. Yet I think you’ll find it useful. So without further preamble, here are my thoughts on living a long and healthy life.
Carmelo Flores Laura allegedly lived to be 124. As a Bolivian shepherd, he didn’t have access to supplements or modern medical care. He never even joined a CrossFit program. So what was his secret? “I walk a lot, that’s all,” revealed Flores through a mouthful of coca leaves. “I go out with the animals.”
Although we might not reach 124, we all want to live longer and healthier lives. Survival is a universal goal. But since every huckster knows this, we are inundated with specious longevity claims. Reverse aging with vitamin X. Immerse yourself in the fountain of youth at Shangri-la Mineral Waters. You’ve seen the ads.
Yet these claims are rarely supported by solid science. We emerge from the healing waters with nothing more than a depleted checking account. Then on the way out, we notice a flyer for green tea extract and the cycle begins anew.
So what can we do? How can we cut through the veil of predatory marketing and discover bona fide shortcuts to a longer life? The answer, of course, is to carefully review the available evidence. Let’s start with the beloved pastime of Carmelo Flores:
Our Bolivian friend was unwittingly engaged in an age-suppressing lifestyle. Walking, in fact, reduces systemic inflammation. To avoid chronic diseases that cut life short, we want to keep the body’s inflammatory responses in check. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent study showed that centenarians have remarkably low levels of inflammation. Walking, it seems, could help us reach triple digits.
Our ancestors didn’t eat three square meals a day with munchies in between. Fresh mammoth meat wasn’t always available – so they fasted. Fasting, if done wisely, stresses the body in a good way. This is called a hormetic response. Temporarily depriving the body of nutrients improves our metabolism and boosts factors associated with good health.
Decades ago, scientists noticed that calorie-restricted (CR) rodents consistently outlived their well-fed counterparts. But when calories are restricted in humans, our muscle mass and bone density suffer. Bad deal. Enter intermittent fasting (IF), or eating unrestricted calories in a compressed timeframe. With IF, the longevity benefit from CR is retained (in mice), and humans don’t lose muscle mass. How should we go about these fasts? Dr. Paul Jaminet, author of the Perfect Health Diet, recommends an 8-hour feeding window. A 16-hour daily fast strikes a nice balance between health and maladaptive hunger.
Turn up the heat
A recent study following 2,000 Finnish men found that increased sauna usage had a panoply of positive effects, including reduced risk of CVD and death. The authors, however, did not speculate on a causal mechanism for these benefits. But on this blog, free from the dusty mores of scientific journaling, we can.
As with fasting, heat induces a hormetic response. Good stress. At high temperatures, our bodies produce heat shock proteins (HSPs) that circulate, eliminate damaged proteins, and repair injured tissue. An increase of HSP production, in fact, significantly lengthened worm lifespans.
What else can we expect from a sauna session? In human trials, growth hormone surged. Since GH declines with age, this is a desirable benefit for the older set. In mouse trials, high temperatures triggered better insulin sensitivity and a concomitant drop in blood glucose levels. Some combination of these benefits is likely what gave the sweaty Finns a boost.
Glycine is a simple amino acid abundant in tendon, gelatin, and bone broth. We typically don’t eat it. We feast on steak, chicken breast, pork chops – muscle meats with little to no glycine. But now we have reason to rethink our dinner plates.
The case for glycine has developed gradually. First, researchers singled out methionine as the “bad” amino acid in protein. Mice deprived of methionine lived considerably longer. But who wants to give up methionine-rich steaks? (Don’t answer that.) Fortunately for carnivores, Joel Brind and colleagues discovered that adding glycine to the high-protein diet of mice extended their lives by 30 to 40%. In other words, eating glycine negated the negative effects of methionine.
Then, in May of 2015, an important study showed that glycine supplementation restored age-related respiration defects in human cells. (We aren’t just talking mice anymore). If glycine reverses aging in the lungs, perhaps it can reverse it elsewhere.
Muscle mass is a strong predictor of longevity. One study followed 3,659 participants over 16 years and the most muscled group were the best survivors. How does pumping iron promote longer life? Like fasting and heat exposure, lifting weights induces a hormetic response. Our metabolism improves after we stress our body with push-ups, pull-ups, and other resistance exercises. But we don’t need to spend long hours swinging kettle bells to benefit. 2 or 3 short sessions of compound exercises per week will suffice.
Don’t Text and Drive
No one needed to tell our forager forebears to steer clear of brightly scaled snakes on the forest floor. The instinct to avoid certain creatures was hard-wired by evolution. Of course, surviving for thousands of years in a steaming jungle filled with dangerous predators and pathogenic insects will have this effect.
These evolved instincts, however, are not well calibrated to modern living. Creepy crawlies are no longer the enemy. Instead, we should be quivering each time we start our cars, as auto accidents reliably account for 30,000 deaths in the US each year. In many cases, it’s an attention problem. For instance, the CDC reports that 8 people die each day from “distracted driving.” Texting while driving, no doubt, accounts for a huge part of this figure. If there’s one behavior to perform an exorcism on, this is it.
I hope you found these shortcuts useful. There's no elixir of youth (yet), but there are at least a few ways to beat back Father Time.
Jaminet, Paul, and Shou Jaminet. Perfect Health Diet: Regain Health and Lose Weight by Eating the Way You Were Meant to Eat. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.