If only we could peak at 70 years old and remain at the summit until we finally shuffle off. If our genetic potential exceeds 100 years, then 70 years of age seems a nice maturation point. Surely our remaining thirty years should be a celebration and sharing of our accumulated wisdom, as we wind down in a blaze of glory. In reality, however, our last couple of decades are often characterised by more pain than gain. Unfortunately many of us will splutter to our grand finale in an ocean of pharmaceutical props and specialist advice.
The glory years become the gory years as we share surgery stories in the retirement villages that have replaced the traditional family and social hierarchy. Bowls and bingo have replaced the rules and lingo of experience and essential sharing. This absurdity is not just based upon the apathy of a time-starved, debt-wracked younger generation, locked, like lemmings, onto the consumer treadmill. The retirement village phenomenon is not just the overreaction of disappointed retirees seeking hedonism in the absence of real meaning. It is, unfortunately, also linked to the grim reality that our physical and mental degeneration in the glory years has often depreciated our value to others. We struggle to assume the mantle of "sacred elders", when one in four of us over 65 will now succumb to Alzheimer's. From a physical perspective, under-utilised sex organs, joints and heart muscles combine with over utilised kidneys, livers and detox systems, to deliver varying levels of handicap that become a burden rather than a boon.
Well it doesn't have to be like that. I am approaching sixty and I plan to peak in my mid seventies. I am intent upon continuing to grow and share, so that I will be an asset to my fellow man until I move on. I was recently privileged to attend a concert by Hugh Masekela, the brilliant South African vocalist and trumpet player. In his late seventies, he is actually playing better than he ever has and he shared some of the best trumpet solos I have ever heard (and I am a jazz fan). There will be no bingo and bowls for me but I am not judging those that have chosen that route. The big question, of course, is how am I to avoid the degeneration that compromises the end-game of so many?
There are many factors that contribute to happy, healthy, extended productivity. However, the big longevity story relates to free radicals and our capacity to neutralise them. The free radical theory of ageing has much more scientific support than genetic and hormonal explanations of this process. In fact, every degenerative disease has a free radical connection, so there are gains beyond longevity in quelling your free radical fires.
What are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons that can become rampantly destructive in their search to reclaim balance. They are actually a natural by-product of breathing which produces oxidants. A percentage of these oxidants become free radicals and they actually serve an important function in the whole process of cell signalling. However, we were supposed to maintain a plentiful supply of antioxidants to constantly neutralise their destructive tendencies when oversupplied. Antioxidants actually donate electrons to free radicals to satisfy their hunger for balance and effectively turn down the heat in doing so. Environmental toxins, particularly those that involve oxidisation (cigarette smoke, smog etc), can provide a huge influx of free radicals that can overwhelm our capacity to dowse the flames. That's when the problems begin.
Examples of Free Radical Damage/Antioxidant Neglect
Heart disease, cancer and stroke (in that order) are our largest killers and all of them have a powerful, free radical link. The modern medical machine often misses this connection, as doctors have so little nutrition training. The demonization of cholesterol is largely related to the misunderstanding of this link. The so-called "bad" cholesterol (LDL) is the main player here. This essential nutrient is an important transport vehicle for carotenes and vitamin E, but it is also much smaller than HDL, the so called "good" cholesterol. This smaller size provides a greater surface area for free radical attack, and if our diet is lacking in antioxidants, then oxidised LDL becomes an artery clogging liability. The answer is to increase your intake of antioxidants.
"Surely it can not be as simple as that?", I can hear you say. "We are spending 23 billion dollars each year on cholesterol-lowering drugs, with a range of serious side-effects because cholesterol is supposedly killing us, and you are suggesting we got it wrong!"
Yes, that is what I'm saying! We most certainly messed up with this one and the only beneficiaries of this mistake are the pharmaceutical giants.
It is not just heart disease that can be prevented by antioxidants. An increase in these nutrients in our diet can have a protective effect against a whole range of degenerative illnesses, including ageing. Free radical attack on DNA heralds the cellular changes that can become cancer. Free radicals scour lesions into arteries and damage the massive network of tiny blood vessels servicing the brain. In fact, they are invariably linked to the inflammation that lies behind every degenerative disorder.
Measuring the Protective Power of Food
It is critically important for each of us to understand the profundity of the words of the founding father of modern medicine. "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food", stated Hippocrates, and a flood of scientific research has since highlighted the many ways that plants can protect and empower us. I call this understanding "the art of defensive eating", and this "art" is based upon a recognition of both the importance of pigments in our diet and the scientific measurement of antioxidant content in food, called the ORAC score. Pigments are the skin colours of fruit and vegetables, which are actually powerful antioxidants produced by the plant to help defend itself against pests and UV radiation. The good news is that these potent plant protectors are also the primary source of antioxidant protection for humans. ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbency Capacity) scores can offer a guideline as to the relative antioxidant value of different foods, and eating in accord with ORAC guidelines can be a great proactive strategy for increased health and longevity.
Seven Strategies for Proactive Protection
Make every plate a rainbow – This is perhaps the most simple, yet most important of the guidelines you are about to receive. Pigments (colours) are antioxidants and they all work differently in our bodies. Orange carotenes, for example, are fat soluble and designed to boost the heart and the brain, which are so fat-dependent. Green chlorophyll is water soluble and is designed to cleanse the water-based blood coursing through our veins. Each colour offers a different benefit and the more intense the colour the more profound the benefit. If you can design every meal to contain the full range of greens, yellows, oranges, blues, reds and purples, at their most deeply intense, then you have covered all bases and are destined to reap the rewards.
Eating by ORAC – Berries top the ORAC charts and are a wonderfully rich source of antioxidants. Blueberries are the king of the readily available berries with an ORAC score of 2600 but the beneficial effect is magnified considerably (around 500%) when the berries are dried. Dried goji berries from Tibet, for example, are a prime example of this concentration phenomena. These dehydrated fruit feature a remarkable ORAC score of 25,000!
The king of vegetables is Kale with an ORAC score of 1650, but all of the other brassicas rank well and should be part of your "defensive eating" strategy.
Ginger and garlic are the ORAC high fliers amongst the herbs and, in this context, we begin to understand the traditional wisdom that has made these flavour-enhancing favourites the most popular herbs of them all.
Protecting phenolics – These compounds are amongst the most beneficial of antioxidants and they are present in two of our most popular pleasures. I thought the antioxidant hype behind chocolate was merely the propaganda of chocoholics seeking to justify their addiction, until I checked the science. Then, to my amazement, I discovered that dark chocolate has an ORAC score of 13,500. Cacao has been used as a beneficial herb for centuries and, once again, there is a "knowing" behind that traditional wisdom. Similarly, green tea, another reservoir of phenolic compounds, is receiving increasing levels of scientific support for what Easterners have known for a millennium. However, there is some recent science that can help us achieve maximum benefits from both substances. There is a compound in milk which can completely neutralise the antioxidant benefits of both chocolate and tea. It only takes a thimble full of milk to annihilate the benefits of dark chocolate and black tea. Most of the chocolate manufacturers have yet to realise this fact, so you need to become a "label Nazi" to discover what brands to buy. The Whittaker’s brand from New Zealand and a handful of the European brands are amongst the very few chocolates where manufacturers have recognised that their product can be a medicine rather than a lolly. It simply involves the removal of milk (and hopefully some of the sugar).
Although green tea has received all of the accolades, black tea is also a great source of phenolics. However, the moment you have added milk to your tea, you have turned a health drink into a caffeine kick that does little but stress your adrenals.
Sharpening your C strategies – Dr Linus Pauling won his second Nobel prize for recognising that vitamin C is the workhorse of your detox system. He surmised that you could peel oranges until your wrists seized but that could not supply enough vitamin C to neutralise the flood of free radicals in our brave, new world. 74,000 registered chemicals and countless other environmental contaminants combine to create an unnatural level of free radical pressure that requires something more than a natural response. Linus concluded that we need to supplement vitamin C, and his findings literally saved his life. There are well-researched benefits in supplementing with a minimum of 3000 mg of vitamin C each day. This dose rate can be trebled in times of trouble, but should be split into three, separate daily doses, always taken with food. There are two vitamin C essentials of which you should be aware. A good vitamin C supplement should always contain sufficient bioflavonoids to ensure that it works. If you are eating citrus as a vitamin C source, it is always a good idea to consume the white pith layering the inside of the skin, as this is where the all-important bioflavonoids reside. A good vitamin C supplement should also contain a complex of alkalising minerals to help to neutralise the raw acidity of ascorbic acid. BioSpark™ from NTS Health is an exceptional Vitamin C supplement that qualifies on both fronts. It is a soluble powder that is added to a glass of water to produce a pleasant, citrus-flavoured supplement to reduce your free radical pressure.
Cook with health – Your choice of cooking oil can play a major role in the wellness equation, particularly in relation to free radical exposure. Many of the popular, commercial vegetable oils can be a source of free radicals that should be avoided. Sunflower, safflower and canola oils are often partially hydrogenated to extend their shelf life. They also have a low smoke point that renders them easily damaged during cooking. When these oils are oxidised, they can become a toxic source of free radicals. In one recent study it was found that arterial plaque actually comprised more of these unhealthy vegetable oils than the saturated alternatives that have been so widely condemned. The healthiest of the cooking oil alternatives are coconut oil and red palm oil. These are plant-based saturated fats with remarkable qualities. Both have high smoke points, they are not hydrogenated and they contain antioxidants that neutralise any oxidants produced during cooking. Coconut oil is the only source of highly protective, lauric acid, outside of breast milk, and it is for this reason that it is included in infant formulas and hospital drips. Red palm oil is red because it contains incredibly high levels of carotenes, including lycopene and beta carotene. In fact, it is the highest known source of these antioxidants. Red palm oil is also a rare source of all eight forms of vitamin E. It is actually the highest source of all four tocotrienals, which are now known to be forty times more potent as antioxidants than the tocopherols. Surprisingly, red palm oil and coconut oil are saturated fat sources that do not make you fat. You may actually lose weight when cooking with either of these oils because they increase metabolism and help you burn calories. Red Gold™, from NTS Health, is a wonderful cooking oil. You get all of the delicious flavours of saturated fat with multiple benefits.
Drink rooibos tea – the favourite beverage of South Africans, has equivalent antioxidant levels to green tea. It can be sourced in organic form from most supermarkets and it is really inexpensive. Green tea has a downside in that the caffeine component neutralises the antioxidant gains after the first cup. This is not the case with rooibos. One of the most satisfying and thirst quenching of all drinks is an iced tea made from this African herb. Here's how you do it:
Iced Rooibos Tea Recipe: Add six organic rooibos tea bags to two litres of non-chlorinated boiling water. Add the juice of 3 or 4 lemons and some honey, stevia or xylitol to the jug and, when the mix has cooled, put it into the fridge until it is chilled.
At the height of summer, you might choose to drink up to two litres of this mix during a day and this is a huge input of all-important antioxidants at a really low price (less than AUD $2.00).
Fat soluble protectors – The fat soluble antioxidant vitamins A, E, and D and the carotenes are protective nutrients which need boosting in many of us. The best natural option to supplement vitamin A and vitamin D is cod liver oil. This is amongst the most valuable of all supplements as it is also a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids, which rank as the most important of all anti-inflammatory foods. One of the problems with the supplementation of omega-3 fats with fish oil capsules, relates to typical dose rates. Most people take between 2 and 4 fish oil capsules per day and this is simply not enough to address the shocking imbalance between omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats in most of us. That ratio in a healthy human should be 2:1, in favour of omega-6, but in Australia that ratio is out to 20:1 and it is 26:1 in the US. One tablespoon of cod liver oil each day is equivalent to 10 fish oil capsules and this is the kind of dose rate that can really do some good. However, the correction of omega-3 deficiency is only part of the story with cod liver oil. This oil features truly medicinal levels of the fat soluble vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin D. Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin. It was originally misnamed and it is, in fact, a hormone. There has been a flood of recent research quantifying remarkable, protective effect of this nutrient. A tablespoon of cod liver oil each day features medicinal levels of vitamin D. I had always struggled with the taste and reflux potential of this oil until I discovered that you could drown the flavour and avoid the reflux with the simple inclusion of fresh lemon juice.
Lycopene is a carotene that has been shown to sponsor apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells. Tomatoes are a prime source of this nutrient but it is better to cook them before consumption, as this serves to break the cell wall and release this nutrient. The secret for a great lycopene response is the addition of a little oil (like olive oil), as this nutrient is also fat soluble and this will significantly boost delivery. Italian spaghetti sauces are perfect for this purpose, as they involve tomatoes cooked with oil. However, it is really worth the effort of making your own sauce with canned or fresh, organic tomatoes. Tomatoes are a particularly chemical intensive crop so dodge the contaminants with the organic option. It usually costs just 20% more but when these chemical-free tomatoes are combined with fresh basil, garlic and capsicum you have produced your own, prostate protecting medicine without the contaminants of many of the commercial sauces.
The other great source of lycopene is watermelon juice, but don't choose the hybridised, seedless variety because the seeds are truly, nutrient dense. They key is to scoop out the flesh and seeds together and micronise them in a high speed blender. The seeds do not affect the flavour and you will have a delicious end-product, rich in lycopene. The micronised melon seeds contribute luxury levels of zinc, magnesium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.
Antioxidants are amongst the most important of all nutrients. They protect us from the destructive effects of free radicals and many of the degenerative diseases are more rampant in their absence. The great news is that all of us can reclaim responsibility for our own health if we understand some simple nutrition principles. There is no great expense in making every plate a rainbow or selecting antioxidant-rich foods. Avoiding milk with your dark chocolate and tea is not a sacrifice and choosing the right cooking oils is similarly painless. Cod liver oil, masked with fresh lemon juice is equally accessible, as is a regular drink of watermelon or tomato juice. When we truly recognise that we are what we eat, we can act to ensure that we eat to achieve our full potential and to maximise our protection.
Disclaimer: Information in this article should not be used as medical advice. You are advised to seek professional medical advice before consuming supplements above the recommended dose rate on supplement containers.