What are some of the things that can cause us to age more quickly?
We know some of the things that can cause us to age, like UV light, smoking, being sedentary, and stress. There’s even a lot of studies from a psychological or sociological point of view where they look at people who later in their life had strong bonds in their community and they saw that those people lived 8-12 years longer than people who were in isolation.
As much as I think nutrition is important, we are holistic beings.
If we don’t have community and strong bonds as we get older, we sort of have less of a reason to live and are less resistant when disease comes up. There is this nutritional and psychological element as well. Of course, things like poor diet and being sedentary can accelerate aging. And when we say accelerating aging, what we mean is diseases that sometimes we don’t see until our 60’s can happen earlier and earlier. The earlier we have those diseases the less our lifespan will be.
Besides the generic advice like diet and exercise, when it comes to aging what are some of the things you’ve found in your work that would slow down the aging process?
When I was studying aging at the University of Pennsylvania, we were looking at specific compounds that were naturally-occurring that slow down aging or extend life in mice. The compound that we were working on resveratrol – can now be bought over the counter. It’s essentially a compound from the skin of grapes and grape leaves. When it was given to mice on a high fat diet (mimicking the fast food type diet) these mice lived 30-40% longer when they were given this compound vs when they weren’t given this compound. There was a lot of promise around this compound initially in the early 2000’s. Over time there were complications of the studies. What we discovered was that the compound was mimicking fasting in the mice cells. When the compound was given to mice, even though the mice were eating a lot of high fat food, it looked like these mice were fasting if you looked at their tissues, muscles, and cells. It almost looked like they were in this semi-starvation state. The compound mimics fasting.
We’ve known for a long time that when we abstain from foods for periods of time, our physiological and genetic program shifts. We shift to a mode that’s meant for survival. Probably because our earliest ancestors were hunting out in the wild, not eating as regularly as we do today. They needed biological mechanisms to stay alive throughout these long periods of fasting and what those mechanisms did was they slowed down physiology, which makes less reactive oxygen species and their bodies would prefer to burn fat. It’s not to say that these ancestors lived longer, they often died in their 30s, 40s, and 50s because some wild animal might eat them or they might have gotten a bacterial infection. But the fasting really helped humans survive and thrive in times that were nutrient limiting. So this resveratrol compound activated the same physiological mechanisms as fasting.
The compound just by itself was not proven to be as effective as good, old fashioned fasting.
Is it true that fasting can help your immune system?
One of the really interesting things about fasting is it gives our cells a break. Our cells are in one of two spaces. They’re either taking in nutrients because we just ate a meal, storing some of those nutrients, or burning those nutrients. Or they’re in a state of rejuvenation or rebuilding. So this study in mice that came out shortly after the resveratrol study on fasting, had 3 different groups. One mouse group had food round-the-clock, and mice like us eat for about 12 hours, they had access to food 24/7. There was another group of mice that was only given access to food for 8 hours. The final group of mice was given food every 4 hours.
What was interesting was the mice learned to eat about the same number of calories, so even if they were only given food for 4 hours, they engorged themselves with an entire day’s worth of food. When they looked at these mice over time all of the measures of health, aging, free radicals, that mark health and aging were much less pronounced in the 4 hour fasted group. The same amount of calories given over a narrower length of time gave the body a longer period of time for repair and maintenance mechanisms which cannot be active when you are taking in calories.
Even the immune system will make white blood cells at an extremely fast rate in a fasted state whereas in a continuous state of nutrient intake, we make white blood cells much more slowly.
Fasting can really kick start our immune system and other systems in our body – even on an 8 hour cycle of eating and 16 hours fasting. A great way to start fasting would be liquids until lunch and having our last meal at or before 8pm so we get a 16 hour period of fasting. If we have to break and have a snack at 10pm, no biggie! But if we can get 14-16 hours of fasting in, then that’s a great way to play around with intermittent fasting. These studies have been done in humans too and fasting can reduce blood pressure, oxidative stress, clear up skin, there’s a lot of info on fasting. We might not see the results after one day but over the course of a few weeks. If you’re healthy and you don’t need medical supervision you can fast and it can be a really healthy exercise to incorporate.
Can you walk us through why having a healthy gut is important? Gut health can seem like buzzwords these days but what’s missing is the why behind the buzz – why should we care?
The gut is so critical and for so long it has been neglected. In a way, I’m glad there is so much buzz around the gut but like anything else we have to take everything with a grain of salt. The gut is one part of this whole integrated system that we have inherited from our parents with our wonderful bodies. The gut is important for a number of reasons. It’s where nutrients come in. A healthy gut will promote and enhance the absorption of nutrients. The bacteria that help make up that gut are actually responsible for breaking down nutrients that we can’t break down with our own cells. Having a healthy gut promotes healthy gut bacterial populations, which helps break down nutrients we can then absorb better. Our gut makes up so much of our immune system.
About 70-80% of our immune system’s cells live in our gut.
So there’s a really strong connection between our white blood cells and what we eat. There’s a lot of things happening at the level of the gut with our immune system and connecting to the brain because there are so many neurons going from the brain to the gut. The gut is really interacting with so many different systems of the body which makes it really important and central to overall health.
Aren’t there certain neurotransmitters in the gut that help carry information from the digestive tract to your brain?
I’ve read both 75% and 90% of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut. We have some really important connections between our gut and our brain directly. The brain has these 12 really important nerves called cranial nerves. They are incredibly important. One goes to the gut and it’s the largest one, called the vagus nerve. So the largest nerve (second to the spinal cord) goes right to the gut.
We have this whole nervous system called the enteric nervous system that is made up of more neurons that are found in the spinal cord that just control and coordinate the movements of the gut and they talk two ways. The brain talks to the gut and the gut talks to the brain. We’ve all felt butterflies or nauseous when nervous and that’s the brain talking to the gut. And the other way around, when we have gastrointestinal disturbances and we’re unhealthy, that affects our mood, memory, and brain. Because a lot of neurotransmitters are originally made in the gut.
Wow, that’s amazing. So with that knowledge, how can we support our gut health?
Like a lot of things, I think supporting a healthy gut comes through this holistic approach. There’s some really interesting studies recently that show that getting the proper amount of sleep can promote a healthy gut. Part of me is like that’s interesting, while part of me is like of course. Of course we need to sleep. As we sleep, our cells rejuvenate themselves and make new proteins and membranes. They strengthen and reinforce themselves. If we’re not sleeping they don’t have the ability to do that. From a nutrition standpoint, the foods that we eat nourish not only all of the cells of our body but they nourish our gut. Our guts like specific foods and are nourished particularly by specific foods like fiber, soluble and insoluble fibers. These are foods our gut needs for general health. They’re not only for our gut’s cells but they also promote good bacteria and their growth in the gut. When the good bacteria outnumber the bad, that’s the goal.
What’s the difference between a probiotic supplement and getting probiotics from something fermented like kombucha or kimchi, etc?
There is a lot of regulation around the claims you can make about probiotics and the only recognized probiotics by the FDA are lactobacillus, but of course there are billions of other strains and varieties. Is it effective to take a supplement with lactobacillus and is it more or less effective than getting it from probiotic foods?
In some ways, it’s similar but we’re constantly learning more about probiotics. As far as what we know about supplements vs foods, the reason why the certain lactobacillus strain has been so popular and has the stamp of approval from the FDA is because it was one of the first strains that was well studied in human trials. The FDA is looking for a few things, the main thing is safety so what’s been shown with this strain is that it’s safe, even at really high doses. And the second thing they’re looking for, and the burden of proof isn’t quite high, is efficacy. A lot of these probiotic trials look at bloating, gastrointestinal cramping, discomfort, and digestion. This lactobacillus strain has been promising whereas others may have not been as promising. I think the mistake that we made with probiotics is we’ve rushed in and focused on individual strains. When you buy fruits and vegetables, even if you wash them there’s still a lot of bacteria that are on those foods that are mostly good for you. So the types and strains of probiotics that you find in foods that are fermented and fresh are thousands of different strains. And we’re learning sort of like nutrients, it’s more about how these strains interact with each other.
It’s more about diversity of gut bacteria than one particular strain. That diversity often comes from foods.
You can take probiotics that have 10 or 12 strains, but a kale leaf from the grocery store even when washed has hundreds or thousands of strains of probiotics. We know that more strains are generally good, of course there are some strains that are sort of pathogenic like e.Coli strains. But we know the key to gut health is diversity of nutrients and foods. Fermented foods offer diversity while an individual strain doesn’t. So, no matter what studies might come out I will push to go for the whole fermented food approach where we can get other health benefits as well. We get the diversity of organisms that we just can’t get with supplements.
Nature puts probiotics into fermented foods, similarly to nature putting vitamin c into an orange, it’s important to consider the environment in which those things exist when thinking about bioavailability and absorption.
Mother nature is the best teacher. We have so much to learn just from observing how mother nature does things.
What would be some takeaways that you would like to impart on our audience?
There are no shortcuts. When I think of a multivitamin or probiotic supplement I think about what we did with the food industry, we try to make things more convenient, accessible, and economical. I love that I can have kiwis and blueberries year round but when we try to manipulate what nature has given us we can’t expect to have the same outcome. We have to understand that we have everything we need from the earth and the earth is the best teacher for how to nourish.
Not only when it comes to nutrition but also community, which is becoming more popular in the field of nutrition. That’s one of the things that has been so tough about COVID-19, being cut off from our community. But the solution is to find safe ways to connect with our community. For example, my wife and I have been having Zoom meals with friends and family, we try to recreate community within our limitations.
It’s not just sleep, exercise, food, and community. Health and our whole beings are a multifactorial meshing of all of these things. I think true health comes from when we’re able to consider all of these things. Not to get too mystical, but I think there’s more to life than just what chemicals go into our bodies and what go out. We’re so complex and fascinating that I think it takes a holistic approach and a community to live healthy, balanced lives.
That’s so inline with our philosophy that health is a continuum and that all of the things that you do contribute to the overall flow. The more you go in the right direction, the stronger the flow is. If you have a fun night and end up at a fast food place at 1am, it’s not going to throw you off that flow because you have so many strong things going for you. It’s all of it together.
About Behzad Varamini
Behzad Varamini earned a BS in biotechnology after becoming fascinated by the Human Genome Project. A few internships at the National Cancer Institute, studying the effects of dietary compounds on gut health and colon cancer, led Behzad to pursue a Ph.D. in Human Nutrition at Cornell University, with an emphasis on prenatal dietary omega-3 and infant development. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, he studied molecular and metabolic pathways that slow down aging. Behzad moved west for a teaching position in hopes to inspire and challenge the next generation of college students to think critically and academically about nutrition, diet, and dubious health claims. His background in nutrition and prenatal health, combined with his holistic approach to wellness, led Behzad to begin working on a soon-to-be-launched product line aimed at offering a fresh approach to dietary supplements. To follow his work, connect with him on Instagram or LinkedIn.