Understanding ageing and how we can reverse it

We are but a dot in the evolutionary process.  We have been bestowed with an excellent genetic makeup – a legacy passed down from generation to generation.  But are we ensuring a healthy genepool for our future generations, or  are we compromising the evolutionary process by providing an unconducive environment for its natural development?

As we grow to be adults and progress towards old age, we begin to feel the transitory nature of our life. Ageing is inevitable, and with it come chronic ailments and conditions that impact our physical and mental well-being. However, in recent times, we see a lot of young people and even children afflicted with lifestyle diseases and conditions that were only seen in the elderly population, which is a cause for serious concern. The biological age of the younger population is advancing at a faster pace than their chronological age, which is why we have young boys shooting up in height well before they are adolescents and girls attaining puberty much before they are in their teens.

The silver lining is that whatever our age, we can regain good health and age gracefully by making a few lifestyle changes that will invariably help us reverse or slow down ageing. Read on to understand the process of ageing and its contributing factors. It will empower you to work towards achieving good health for a fitter, enthusiastic and energetic you. Looking and feeling younger to your chronological age is just a consequence of this wonderful transformation. (20 minute read)

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Ageing is an ongoing process. When you are young and energetic, you have everything going for you. You are physically and mentally agile, driven with purpose, and have the stamina to achieve your goals. As you begin to age, you will slow down your activity levels, mostly due to lack of energy and muscle loss due to a sedentary lifestyle. 

Speaking from experience, I found myself in this situation, and began accepting my dwindling energy levels and muscular strength as a natural part of ageing when I touched 50. I, like many others, was led to believe that my borderline diabetes, high blood pressure  and weight of 70 kg was normal for my age and would inevitably progress into full blown diabetes. I was already on high blood pressure medication and to make matters worse, was hospitalised when my doctor changed my blood pressure medication to a more potent one, which depleted my blood sodium levels to critically low levels. 

It was a wakeup call for me to try to reverse my condition and get off medication. I began educating myself on how to reverse my conditions and bring my parameters under control. My resolve strengthened when I lost my mother and brother to COVID-19, both of whom were Type II diabetic and hypertensive. I proactively began working towards reversing my condition and regaining good health. 

Almost a year later after making a lifestyle shift, the benefits are palpable. I have successfully stopped my blood pressure medication, have dropped 10 kg of weight, and feel stronger, more agile, active and energetic than ever before. This has impacted me and my entire family positively. They have begun believing that making a positive lifestyle change and working towards our holistic health is indeed achievable.

Looking back, there are other instances that have reinforced my perspective on choosing a healthy lifestyle. I remember being mesmerized by the ‘Singapore Girl’ of the Singapore Airlines advertisement  right from my childhood days. I was awestruck by their delicate beauty and flawless complexion. When I went to Singapore in January 2003, I was indeed amazed by the beauty of the young boys and girls of Singapore, healthy, slim, beautiful people with flawless complexion. Only a few in the over-60 age population were heavily built and looked worn out. They all chose to eat their native teriyaki chicken, stir-fried leafy greens, rice or noodles and huge bowls of watery (sea food) soup. I was convinced that their diet had a big role in their healthy and flawless looks.

Acne and skin breakouts are a sign of inflammation caused by an improper diet

Cut to January 2017, I made a second trip to Singapore and was looking forward to  visiting the land of beautiful people, but was instead surprised to come across several instances of unhealthy complexions and overweight youth, a clear indication of a pro-inflammatory and high carbohydrate diet. I was curious to learn how their consumption habits had changed over time. This time, along with the native Asian food, I   came across pizza and burger chains, as well as fast food joints that offered deep-fried meat, at every major food court, which were conspicuously absent during my first visit. It was a valuable insight that helped me understand first-hand how unhealthy food can adversely affect health and lead to premature aging of a significant part of the population. While there was no research available then on the detrimental effects of fast food on our health, it is now scientifically established that fast foods damage our health in many different ways and ageing is a sum effect of all the damage it causes on a daily basis.

What is ageing? 

Premature ageing is becoming the new normal

Ageing is a complex process that is a result of the biochemical processes at the cellular level in our body. Our cells have a lifespan of 100 days on an average. So every 100 days, a cell dies and is replaced by a new one, which will carry out the functions it is genetically wired to perform. Ageing occurs when the quality of the new cell generated is below par and so its functioning gets affected. This sub-optimal standard is due to the poor quality of food that is consumed, namely food that is pro-inflammatory and low in nutrition, and therefore does not provide healthy building blocks for cell rejuvenation. 

Gradually,  it affects the functioning of our tissues and organs. By the time our organs get affected, it has reached an advanced stage and there may be several complications, which are then only managed through allopathic medication. I revere modern medicine for treating a variety of health conditions, but am of the opinion that it severely falls short in reversing chronic ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as autoimmune and neural diseases. An increasing incidence of these chronic conditions is leading us to examine the causes for these conditions.

Good health  calls for a total lifestyle shift and cannot be achieved by taking pills

The good news is that understanding about these complex changes at the cellular level will help you work towards achieving good health. As you are well aware, popping pills is never a solution for chronic ailments and  they come with all sorts of side-effects that can damage vital organs such as the liver and kidney, and adversely affect gut health. As eminent cardiologist, Professor of Medicine and author Dr. B M Hegde so aptly puts it, “There is no pill for every ill, but there is an ill for every pill”. So it’s best to prevent or reverse our ailments conservatively and consider medical intervention only when everything else fails. As the saying goes,  good health cannot be achieved through a bottle of pills. What we need to work on is to develop a lifestyle that promotes good health and longevity.

What are the factors that promote premature ageing?

Insulin resistance accelerates ageing

There are a number of key factors that accelerate ageing. Chief amongst them are the environment and nourishment we provide our body with on a daily basis. If we provide an unhealthy environment within our body, the low quality of the new cells that our bodies produce will alter the functioning capability of the cells, which promotes ageing and gives rise to chronic ailments. 

For instance, eating processed food, a diet high in simple carbohydrates, smoking and alcohol consumption, to name a few, can lead to an unhealthy exposure on a daily basis for your system. This releases free radicals, which cause inflammation within the cells. It damages  the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) and affects their proper functioning. Gradually there is a drop in performance level, which begins to affect the functioning of the organs. 

On the contrary, when we provide a healthy environment within our body on a daily basis, the cells grow and function to their optimal capability. This ensures we enjoy good health and vitality, which slows down ageing. Therefore, good health calls for a total lifestyle shift that aims towards cultivation of a good environment within our body. This helps in reversing ageing caused by free radical damage.

Reverting to unhealthy practices once your goal is achieved is not the right thing to do since your cells are continuously being replaced by new cells. For instance, cancer patients have successfully gone into remission through a healthy diet and exercise regimen, but their cancers return as soon as they stop following healthy diet and lifestyle practices. Same goes for crash dieting, which is why it is not successful. so consistency in health-enhancing lifestyle practices is key to building robust health.

While there are many contributing factors for premature ageing, I have listed below a few major factors that promote ageing:

  1. Generation of Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs) 
Sugar, fat and protein combo in burgers, French fries and coke promote ageing

Research has proven that sugar consumption leads to early onset of ageing. This is because of the high levels of insulin production in response to increased sugar intake. Unfortunately, sugar is mostly consumed in combination with either fat or along with protein. This leads to the formation of AGEs that accelerate ageing. 

Advanced Glycation Endproducts are a result of the combination of refined carbohydrates  in combination with fat or alternatively, when refined carbohydrates combine with protein.

For better understanding,

Refined carbohydrate/Sugar + Fat = AGEs

Refined carbohydrate/Sugar + Protein = AGEs

What happens when you have a burger with a chicken patty and generous dollops of sweetened tomato sauce? It’s a classic combination of sugar with protein that generates AGEs and will accelerate ageing. Moreover, the chicken patty is made from grain-fed chicken (read GMO soy, corn), which is loaded with Omega-6 Fatty Acids, causing inflammation and ageing. Same goes for French Fries, which are made from potatoes (carbohydrates) and are deep-fried in refined seed oils that are high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 Fatty Acids. To top it up, you are served coke, which is again loaded with sugar. Ice cream, bakery confectionery such as bread, cakes, pastries, cookies, as well as Chinese and Mexican fast food – all generate  AGEs since they serve sugar, fat and protein combination foods.

Similarly, a pizza also generates AGEs. The refined flour crust, in combination with the sauce, meat and cheese is both a combination of carbohydrates with fat and carbohydrates with protein. Having it with a glass of coke is only going to exacerbate the effect. Because the glucose from the coke will directly attach to the protein in your red blood cells leading to their glycation. 

You need to cut down the consumption of such foods as much as possible and eat them occasionally. Instead, one can choose home cooked meals using a a wide variety of vegetables, whole grain foods, leafy greens, beans, as well as fruits, nuts and seeds that will make for a healthy and wholesome diet. If you are opting for meat and eggs, then choose grass-fed meat and farm-bred  poultry that are not fed GMO seeds such as soy and corn. The seeds are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which cause inflammation when we consume such meat.

  1. Inefficient bile production
Bile helps in the breakdown and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and antioxidants

During digestion, bile which is produced by the liver, emulsifies fats in the small intestine. This helps in the breakdown and absorption of fat soluble vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids and others. A reduced production of bile due to conditions such as fatty liver or being on a prolonged low-fat diet affects our absorption of vital nutrients and antioxidants leading to deficiency diseases. For instance it could lead to macular degeneration or loss of vision. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and reducing processed foods and refined carbohydrate rich food will lead to better efficiency of bile production.

  1. Loss of muscle mass

One of the main reasons for ageing is loss of muscle mass. This occurs due to a vicious cycle that decreases physical activity and stamina as we age. The muscle mass is replaced with fat deposits, which are caused due to a sedentary lifestyle in both the young and the elderly. Due to the deposition of fat, being active needs more effort. Therefore it leads to more inactivity,  and causes muscle loss, weakness and pain.

In order to regain lost muscle mass, you need to exercise regularly and be active throughout the day. You can either practice yoga, play games, perform weight-bearing exercises and aerobics, or take up cycling or jogging as per your interest. A mix of 2-3 types of workouts are more beneficial than taking up a single type of activity. Also taking up new workout routines based on your comfort level will build muscle mass, increase stamina and strength to perform your routine activities effortlessly.

  1. Increased intake of processed foods
Breakfast cereal and skimmed milk are highly processed foods – Not the best start to your day

Convenience foods or packaged foods have become the bane of modern lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure, coronary artery diseases as well as brain and nerve degenerative diseases. This is due to the high salt and sugar content of these foods. Moreover, these foods are ultra-processed, devoid of fibre and nutrition, and are cooked in refined seed oils such as sunflower, corn, cottonseed, safflower, peanut oil, which are high in Omega-6 fatty acids that are pro-inflammatory. 

Foods such as breakfast cereal, pre-cooked oats, cheese, skimmed milk,  sauces, salad dressings, refined oils, sugar, potato chips, coke, fruit juices, bakery confectionery, icecreams and others are best avoided to continue  enjoying  good health.

To enhance their shelf life, these foods contain emulsifiers and stabilizers, acidity regulators, synthetic food colouring and preservatives, which adversely affect the gut microbiome and gut lining. Flavouring agents such as mono-sodium-glutamate that provides the umami flavour is another food additive that has major side effects from regular consumption of these foods. Store-bought-pre-cooked frozen food and meats also have all these harmful additives that cause more harm than good when you consume them regularly. 

To enjoy continued good health, one needs to cut out these foods and replace them with healthy home-cooked meal and snack options that are fresh, high in nutritive value, high in fibre, as close as possible to its natural form (with minimal processing) and do not have any chemical additives. 

  1. Stress and insulin resistance

Stress has become a constant in our lives. While we cannot eliminate it completely, we need to manage it so that it does not become detrimental to our health and well-being. When we get stressed out, our body releases cortisol and adrenaline to provide us with the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to react to an unexpected and dangerous situation. But when we are continuously stressed out, these biochemical changes that take place can cause lasting damage to our health. 

We need to understand the underlying disruption that takes place when we are stressed out. All our body functions are controlled by the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. At any given time, only one of these systems dominates and all resources are directed towards the work that is being done under its control. The parasympathetic system controls processes such as digestion and assimilation of food, tissue repair, cell rejuvenation, reproduction, immune functions, elimination of wastes and toxins, whereas the sympathetic nervous system helps us take swift action in a stressful situation. 

To prepare for this heightened activity, the body suppresses the activities controlled by the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic nervous system takes over. It stimulates the production of cortisol and adrenaline  hormones, which in turn release glucose into our bloodstream and prepare us to flee away or combat a stressful situation. In todays’ stressful lifestyle, we do not expend energy in a stressful situation. So the high glucose in our blood stream does not get utilised. This leads to increased insulin production to remove the excess glucose from the blood stream. 

The excess glucose is then carried away to the liver to be converted into glycogen and stored as fat in our muscle cells.. Once the cells are saturated with fat, the insulin can no longer push glucose into the cells, due to which the body tries to work harder by producing more insulin to get the glucose out of the system. When this fails, the blood glucose levels rise to dangerous levels affecting the walls of the arteries and causing coronary artery disease with increased blood pressure and possibility of heart attack and stroke. Since we are combating stress on a daily basis, this perpetual high insulin production directly promotes ageing. 

Therefore, despite having a healthy diet and exercising regularly, one may become diabetic due to continued exposure to stress. To reduce stress and manage it well, one needs to practice yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) that will alleviate stress. Taking up hobby activities that reduce stress such as gardening, playing musical instruments, photography, sketching and painting, mandala art drawing, playing games, cooking and reading can help you relax and take on life with renewed enthusiasm, clarity and vitality.

  1. Sleep deprivation

Nature has provided us with the circadian rhythm, wherein we remain active during the day and rest at night. However, the young stay awake into the wee hours of the morning and sleep away the better part of the morning, coming out of slumber only at noon.  When we sleep, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and focuses resources towards cell rejuvenation and cell repair. Staying up late at night and snacking disturbs this process and puts it on hold. Secondly, night-time snacking and the production of cortisol raises blood glucose level and stimulates production of insulin. All of this is detrimental to our health and well-being. This is manifested in our low energy levels and premature aging.

Getting a good 7-8 hours of undisturbed sleep will charge our batteries and keep us energetic, enthusiastic  and active.

  1. Alcohol and smoking 
Frequent consumption of alcohol leads to premature ageing

As we are well aware, smoking and alcohol precipitate coronary artery disease. A lot has already been said on smoking and its harmful effects. Alcohol, on the other hand is associated strongly with socialising and recreation, becoming the accepted norm. While it can dull your senses and lead to driving-under-influence accidents, the harm caused within the body is equally detrimental to one’s life and health.  This is the reason I prefer to focus on regular consumption of alcohol.

Alcohol is a highly processed substance that our body does not recognise as natural and therefore directs it from your bloodstream into the liver for detoxification. Excess and regular consumption of alcohol  leads to fatty liver and cirrhosis, thereby affecting its functionality. The liver has more than 300 functions and so a dysfunctional liver affects the detoxification process, changing the biochemistry within our system. This toxic load then puts additional strain on our kidneys, which need to filter out the toxins and get rid of them. 

The ability of the liver to store excess glucose as glycogen also gets affected, leading to perpetual high blood sugar levels. The body then produces excess insulin, but unfortunately, it does not succeed in pushing glucose into the muscle cells due to a condition called insulin resistance. Hence sugar levels remain perpetually high leading to diabetes, chronic inflammation and coronary artery disease. 

Moreover, alcohol consumption destroys normal gut flora and creates an imbalance, thereby leading to digestive disorders. It also destroys the mucous lining of the gut, which then leads to food particles entering the bloodstream, evoking an immune reaction. This leads to acidosis and inflammation on an everyday basis, which will eventually precipitate organ dysfunctionalities. Especially concerning is the social drinking that is gaining growing popularity amongst the youth, which is setting them up for addiction and health complications a few years down the line. 

One needs to prioritise health over social niceties. Of course, an occasional drink or two will not have a long term impact. So one needs to cut down and eliminate regular alcohol consumption and switch over to a healthy lifestyle.

8. Toxic exposure

Choose organic and chemical free foods over foods that are grown with chemical fertilisers and pesticides

Environmental pollution and soil quality deterioration have affected our health in many ways. The quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink has deteriorated due to industrialisation and pollution of air and water bodies. The soil that we get our food from is rapidly depleting in strength and organic matter due to excessive application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thereby entering our systems and affecting our health adversely. Chemicals that are harmful to us are being used to preserve food grains, ripen fruits and increase their shelf life. Consuming such foods not only creates a toxic load on our liver and kidneys, but also causes cancer and other harmful conditions. This manifests as debilitating diseases and causes premature ageing.

In order to avoid the exposure to food that is cultivated with the help of chemical fertilizers, one needs to choose organic foods that are grown in soil enriched with manure and other natural fertilizers and pesticides such as neem oil. These foods are expensive, but you will save on medical expenses that you would incur on consuming inorganically grown foods. Also, by making these choices as a discerning consumer, you are driving home a message to farmers that you prefer chemical free organically grown food, which they will work towards producing.

Age gracefully and enjoy your golden years by taking care of your health today

Having understood the various factors that contribute to ill-health and ageing, you can now make decisions that will contribute to your overall good health and well-being. 

I believe that knowledge is empowering and influences decision-making. If I can reach out to even a few at a time and help them make these vital decisions that would keep them healthy, then I would consider it a worthwhile achievement and feel immensely motivated to continue bringing you more such information. Let us collectively work towards resetting our lifestyle and making our contribution to the evolutionary process worthwhile.

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