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With age comes wisdom, but even wisdom probably doesn’t stop you from wanting to turn back the clock or at least slow down the aging process. How we age depends on genetics but also on lifestyle factors like diet and physical activity. Some people are blessed with good longevity genetics, but even good genetics won’t necessarily keep you healthy if you smoke, lay on the couch and eat a fast food diet.
Which matters more – lifestyle or genetics? According to a Swedish study, lifestyle does. That’s good because you have more control over your lifestyle than you do the genes your parents handed you. Diet is important but how about supplements – are there supplements that give you an edge when it comes to slowing down the aging process?
We’d like to tell you about some anti-aging supplements that have been the focus of research in recent years, how they work and whether they offer any benefits. Hopefully, this will help you cut through some of the hype you hear about supplements that supposedly slow down aging. There are five that are frequently recommended for their anti-aging benefits. We’ll talk about the first two in this article and cover the rest next week, so stay tuned!
Resveratrol is an antioxidant found naturally in the skin of red grapes, red wine, purple grape juice and blueberries. Peanuts also have small amounts of resveratrol. You may have heard of the “French paradox.” This refers to the fact that the French eat a high-fat diet but have a surprisingly low incidence of heart disease. Some experts believe the resveratrol in the red wine they drink protects them against heart disease despite their high-fat diet.
What role might resveratrol play in aging? Resveratrol alters the activity of enzymes called sirtuins that play a role in the aging process. When these enzymes are activated it enhances the activity of energy-producing organelles inside cells called mitochondria. It’s mitochondria that produce ATP the energy currency that drives everything from cellular function to muscle contractions. ATP is the universal energy force that keeps us alive and kicking.
One theory as to why aging occurs is that mitochondria lose some of their ability to generate energy as they age so that everything from heart cells to brain cells slow down. The belief is that resveratrol could boost the function of aging mitochondria so they behave more like young mitochondria and produce enough energy to keep cells and other tissues young and healthy.
Resveratrol Claims to Anti-Aging Fame:
Some non-human research suggests that resveratrol could lower the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, improve metabolic functioning and slow down the aging process. Is there any evidence to support this?
In a mouse study, resveratrol increased the lifespan of rats that ate a high-fat diet although other studies in rodents didn’t show that resveratrol prolonged life. On the other hand, some studies in animals and the limited research carried out in humans showed health benefits including improvements in blood sugar, decreased inflammation and changes in structures on chromosomes called telomeres that suggest possible anti-aging benefits.
Should You Take It?
One concern is that resveratrol has weak estrogenic activity, behaving like a weak estrogen, meaning it may not be safe for women who have had breast, uterine or ovarian cancer. On the other hand, animal research also suggests resveratrol helps to reign in the growth of some types of cancer.
If you exercise, keep this in mind. A study showed resveratrol may interfere with some of the healthful adaptations to exercise including the reduction in cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure that occurs with regular exercise. Still, resveratrol could have benefits for certain groups of people, particularly diabetics. Some limited research suggests it could lower the risk of diabetes complications like nerve damage and damage to the retina in the back of the eye due to its antioxidant capabilities.
Resveratrol does have some compelling features – it’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and MAY lower your risk for heart disease. In addition, it may be beneficial for diabetics. Resveratrol supplements don’t appear to be harmful, at least in the short term, and may offer benefits but avoid them if you’re a female and have a history of a hormone-sensitive cancer like breast, uterine or ovarian cancer or a strong family history of any of these diseases.
Can You Get Resveratrol from Food?
Most people’s diet is quite low in resveratrol. The best sources are of red grapes, red wine, purple grape juice and blueberries- but you’d have to consume large quantities to equal the amount used in studies.
Anti-Aging Supplement: Can DHEA Slow Aging?
DHEA is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands, small glands that lie above your kidneys. Your body can use DHEA to make the male and female sex hormones testosterone and estrogen that decrease with age. Testosterone levels decline in men after the age of 30 and estrogen levels decrease even faster in women after menopause. A decline in these hormones can be blamed for some of the changes people experience with aging – loss of muscle strength, weight gain, changes in body composition, loss of sex drive and a decrease in bone density.
Where does DHEA come in? The idea is supplementing with DHEA would help to replenish hormones like estrogen and testosterone that decrease with age, acting as a sort of natural form of hormone replacement therapy.
DHEA’s Claim to Fame
Some sources claim DHEA can reverse aging, improve libido lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, improve body composition, boost energy and increase immunity against infection. The problem is there are no good human studies to support most of these claims.
Where DHEA shows promise is for reducing flare-ups of an autoimmune disease called SLE. Some research also shows it improves bone density and may reduce the risk for osteoporosis. In addition, some research shows it boosts sexual desire and improves erectile dysfunction in men.
Is It Worth Taking?
We don’t recommend taking DHEA for anti-aging purposes at this point. Because DHEA alters sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone it can have undesirable side effects like breast development in men, facial hair in women, acne, hair loss, chances in weight distribution etc. It may also increase the risk of hormone-dependent cancers like breast cancer and prostate cancer.
All in all, there are too many possible side effects and not enough evidence that DHEA has significant anti-aging benefits. If you’re a male with erectile dysfunction, a trial of DHEA may be worthwhile, but talk to your doctor first. There are concerns that taking it long term could raise the risk of prostate cancer.
The Bottom Line?
You might wonder whether we take either of these “anti-aging” supplements. Dr. A takes resveratrol. I don’t because of concerns about the possible estrogenic effects. Neither of us takes DHEA because of the potential side effects and risks. So that’s the first two anti-aging supplements you hear about in the media. Next week we’ll talk about three more.
Science Daily. “Lifestyle Affects Life Expectancy More Than Genetics, Swedish Study Finds”
Journal of Internal Medicine, 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2796.2010.02331.x
Natural Institutes of Health. “How Resveratrol May Fight Aging”
J. Physiol. (Lond.) 591 (Pt 20): 5047–5059.
Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 14 No. 1 P. 46.
Urology. 1999 Mar;53(3):590-4.