Five years ago, I found out my body was in a failure state as measured by my telomeres, the protective caps on chromosomes that reflect how fast you are aging. As with many stories of initiation, my failing telomeres started me on an unplanned journey of surrender and healing.
You may wonder what my telomeres have to do with food. My simple blood test showed that when I was 44 years of age, but I had the shortened telomeres of a 64-year-old woman.
I discovered that telomeres reflect many things, such as
- Level of antioxidants in your blood
- Chemical exposures such as from cadmium and lead
- Level of belly fat, related to insulin
- Perception of stress and threat in your environment
- For men, level of hostility in the way you are acting or feeling
- Even how much social support you feel
That's where the food comes in. I decided to develop a protocol to turn back the clock, starting with my fork. You already know that diet plays a huge role in how we feel. Taken further, food paves the way to keeping your genes in check by silencing the naughty genes of aging (such as mTOR and APOE4) and turning on the good genes (such as FOXO3, a longevity gene). Since only 10 percent of disease is caused by your genes, and 90 percent is caused by your lifestyle and environmental factors, this gives you an incredible opportunity to change the course of your aging body simply by tweaking your lifestyle, which turns on and off important genes. Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger. Therefore, upgrade that 90 percent to affect the genetic 10 percent.
Like all functional medicine doctors, I believe in a "food first" philosophy, meaning making wiser choices about your intake since food is information for your DNA. The basic tenets are to eat nutrient-dense, packed with antioxidants, and stay clear of harmful ones, such as those that poke holes in your gut lining or contain heavy metals or advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
Last fall, I repeated my telomere test. My second test showed that I had closed the gap by 17 years: at age 49, I had the telomeres of a 52-year-old woman. I then tested the Younger protocol, described in full in my new book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock Ten Years, on 1,000 people and they added, on average, 10 years to their healthspan.
Consume more wild-caught fish.
Marine fat is loaded with omega-3s and omega-6s, healthy fats that ironically, can keep you from gaining weight. Enjoy low-mercury, wild-caught fish, such as salmon, cod, steelhead trout or halibut, two to three servings per week, to upgrade your body. It lowers your cortisol levels, increases lean body mass, and improves vagal tone as measured via heart rate variability, as well as raises DHA and vitamin D levels, both of which are good for the skin and the mind.
Enjoy monounsaturated fats (MUFAs).
Choose and enjoy healthy oils, such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and avocados. Even dark chocolate is considered a healthy monounsaturated fat. Swap out highly processed oils, like corn and cottonseed oil, for MCT oil, a very efficient type of oil derived from coconuts that gets rapidly converted into energy for your brain and body because it doesn't require a stop at the liver for processing. (You don't need bile acids to digest it, so it's easier on your GI tract.) Use coconut oil for cooking; MCT oil and olive oil for salad dressings and for drizzling on steamed vegetables.
Eat the rainbow.
When you eat more foods that detoxify your body, such as cruciferous vegetables, fruits, and nuts, you turn on nutrigenomic pathways, or the interactions between your individual genetic makeup and dietary components that result in modulation of genetic expression. Eat mostly plant-based food, with animal-based food as a condiment, and choose anti-inflammatory forms of protein and dairy. Moreover, there's been some research proving that eating more fruits and vegetables can actually change and improve skin tone. The carotenoids, the orangey-red pigments found in fruits and vegetables, yield the way for a healthier glow. The scientists found that eating an extra 2 pounds of fruits and vegetables daily caused a detectable sparkle in patients after only six weeks. Make wise choices with food, and pick up colorful, fresh produce.
Choose anti-inflammatory protein.
Purchase clean protein and have about 3 to 4 ounces of plant-based or anti-inflammatory animal protein at each meal, which will help activate your longevity genes. Ideally, eat meats only from animals fed in their natural habitats: pastured chicken and grass-fed beef, wild elk, buffalo, and venison. Rabbit is considered the most eco-meat. Limit pork and processed meats such as sausage. Wild-caught, cold-water fish, like salmon and halibut, are excellent choices with the added benefit of boosting omega-3s. Vegetarian alternatives include lentils, legumes, fermented tofu (tempeh), and seeds. A low-inflammatory diet looks like this: no wheat, low or no grains, moderate protein, moderate fat, minimal sugar, and lots of greens and other vegetables.
Drink organic/biodynamic wine.
If you consume alcohol, red wine reduces mortality by more than 30 percent according to a meta-analysis of 16 studies. In fact, I suggest eliminating or severely limiting all alcohol but red wine. I recommend drinking only one glass twice per week. But there are so many types of wine! Well, the bad news is that so many wines contain a long list of additives, including sugar, tannin (beyond the tannins that occur in oak-barrel aging), acids, enzymes, copper sulfate, coloring agents, dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC, a microbial-control agent designed to kill microorganisms), and fining agents. In other words, wine can be chock-full of toxins. Choosing a wine made from organic grapes significantly decreases the icky stuff found in wines. Yet, not all organic wines are biodynamic, which is a form of organic agriculture with a tiny carbon footprint. It turns out that in addition to being better for your health and the planet, organic wine can also taste superb, although you may need to adjust your palate and experiment to find the best brands. Pinot noir contains the highest concentration of resveratrol, a compound found in red grapes (and blueberries) that may offer several anti-aging benefits, including prevention of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (data in humans are mixed). Three studies even suggest resveratrol may mimic the longevity-enhancing effects (but unpopular tactic) of caloric restriction. Not all biodynamic or organic wines are superb, though; a few of my favorite brands that taste similar to wines I used to love include Quivira and Emiliana Coyam.
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs)
When proteins or fats are glycated as a result of exposure to sugar, they can be an important factor in aging and the development of degenerative diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and chronic kidney disease. AGEs can form exogenously (outside the body) through cooking, such as grilling fish in a marinade containing sugar, or endogenously (inside the body) from problems with blood sugar. Specifically, AGEs cause increased vascular permeability, arterial stiffness, interfering with nitric oxide, which blocks dilation of blood vessels, promoting the secretion of cytokines (chemical warfare in the body), oxidizing LDL, and raising oxidative stress (a form of rust in the body). In sum, AGEs accelerate inflammaging, the unfortunate hybrid of inflammation and aging. The accumulation of AGEs progresses as you get older, so the best way to avoid them is to cook without sugar or frying and to eat and drink sufficient antioxidants such as from drinking matcha, consuming fresh vegetables and fruits; and to control blood sugar so it doesn't swing too high. Blood sugar rises as you get older up to 10 points by age 50, so aim to keep average blood sugar in the low 90s with deviations of less than 10 points.
I advise eliminating all or sugar and sugar substitutes. In particular, avoid these because they raise your blood sugar: white table sugar, honey, agave, brown sugar, sucralose (Splenda), maple syrup, and molasses. Limit carbohydrates to only the slow carbohydrates that won't spike your insulin, such as sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, and quinoa. Stay away from hidden sugars in ketchup, salad dressings, sauces, and packaged cereals. If sugar is one of the first six ingredients, avoid it. Stay off the liquid sugar, including soda, diet soda, juice, lemonade, and alcohol. Foods high in sugar trigger the reward centers of your brain. While it triggers the release of dopamine, the brain chemical of pleasure, satisfaction, and reward, sugar also harms the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory consolidation and emotional regulation. While it's not perfect, the glycemic index rates carbohydrates based on how they affect blood sugar, and all sweeteners, except stevia, take blood sugar levels for a ride—they spike and then plummet. Coconut sugar and maple syrup, for example, both have a glycemic index of 54, while brown rice syrup is ranked at 25 and stevia at 0.
Reduce unnecessary inflammation by avoiding foods most likely to cause intolerance. That means avoid gluten and dairy, the biggest culprits. Grains, gluten, and dairy cause inflammatory weight gain for me, and these results from my elimination/provocation diet have been confirmed with lab testing that shows I'm intolerant of gluten and dairy. They cause a frat party in my gut by poking holes in the lining, so I need to avoid them. Maybe that means my ancestors didn't keep animals around for their milk, or that I have more Neanderthal genes that predate the agricultural practices of grain production. I'm speculating here about my particular condition, but you can see how eating in alignment with your heritage can create less inflammation, aging, and weight gain. Minimize grains and dairy, or skip them altogether if you need to lose weight or have an autoimmune condition. the worst damage by making you hungry for more. Remember that inflammation is your body's emergency response system, a normal part of what your body does. When your body is functioning properly, inflammation should stop after 72 hours. But when prolonged, it's a problem that I call "biochemistry gone wrong."
CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) and grain-fed meat
Avoid processed meat like sausage, hot dogs, deli meats, and bacon. Limit grass-fed red meat to 18 ounces or less per week. Grass-fed beef has higher levels of omega-3s than grain-fed beef. CAFO meat is most problematic among those who are estrogen dominant. The connection between meat and estrogen is profound. When you eat conventionally raised red meat, estrogen overload is more likely. When you go meatless, your estrogen decreases. Not surprisingly, vegetarians have the edge here. That could be due to the hormones in the meat, the type of bacteria cultivated in the guts of people who eat a lot of meat, or a combination of factors. We do know that a meat-based diet is linked to higher body mass index and that too much of the wrong type of saturated fat raises estrogen. When you reverse your estrogen dominance, you clear the path toward a healthy weight and reduce the incidence of estrogen-dominant conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and certain forms of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancer.
Seafood with mercury
A decade ago, I discovered something shocking about my lunch at work. I had recently given birth to my second daughter, and I had cravings for sashimi. I thought I was being virtuous by skipping the rice, but little did I know that what seemed to be a reasonable consumption of fish was actually making mercury accumulate and cause heavy-metal toxicity inside me. I was tired all the time, but I blamed it on the sleep deprivation of caring for an infant. I had brain fog, but that's normal for a tired new mom. I was fat and had trouble losing the baby weight. I had gingivitis (inflammation of my gums), and my dentist said it was probably the recent pregnancy. Then I tested my mercury level and found I was off the charts. I got rid of it as fast as possible with oral chelation, but that meant I had to switch to salmon instead of tuna. I learned I have that genetic variant, GSTM1, that makes me accumulate mercury. Half the population is like me and missing the normal gene for detoxing mercury and other poisons; you may be one of them. Read more in Younger about the gene/environment interactions that could be making you fat, inflamed, or otherwise robbing you of health. Make sure you aren't eating too many foods high in mercury and that you are choosing health and beauty products wisely.
Refined oils are usually processed with chemical distillation dependent on harsh solvents, or they're hydrogenated, which creates trans fats—avoid these fats. Don't use industrial oils, such as canola, corn, cottonseed, soybean, and sunflower. Steer clear of all hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Industrial seed oils are linked to higher rates of inflammation and problems with insulin and leptin—and they flip the hormone metabolic switch to make you fat.