Written by Benjamin Evans
In order to live healthily, we must first understand what it means to be healthy. According to the World Health Organisation the definition of health ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity’ . The word ‘complete’ in this definition can be misleading as there is no such thing as complete or end-stage health.
Next let us look at how to stay healthy whilst aging. To do this we must understand what the aging process is and how it works. The World Health organisation have concluded the following definition: ‘At the biological level, ageing results from the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time. This leads to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease and ultimately death’ .
There are many different stressors that we experience throughout our day-to-day life that can contribute towards dysfunction and aging. These can be classified into 3 primary groups: physical, mental and environmental. For this blog, we will focus on the environmental stress of poor nutrition at the molecular level.
Now that we have an understanding of health and aging, let us take a look at what happens on a molecular level. Molecules are the smallest particles of substance and contain one or more atoms . Atoms are the basic building blocks of matter. Anything that takes up space and anything with mass is made up of atoms. Atoms also have a central part called a nucleus which consists of protons and neutrons and an some outer particles called electrons . There is no need to dive into the depths of molecular biology, however the important thing to remember here is that protons and electrons have equal and opposite charges. Protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. Normally, atoms have equal number of protons and electrons, giving them a neutral charge. When an atom has a different number of protons to electrons, the atom becomes electrically charged.
If we look at atoms within the body, many have paired electrons making them a stable molecule. If we have an atom with an unpaired electron, this now becomes an unstable molecule, which is also known as a free radical. When a free radical comes into contact with another molecule, it will steal an electron causing another free radical to form, which in turn causes damage in the tissues and sets of a chain reaction not too dissimilar to a forest fire spreading its flames through the trees. This process is known as oxidative stress. In contrast, an anti-oxidant is a molecule that is able to donate an electron to a free radical neutralising it and preventing further damage .
We see oxidative stress in everyday life. We use this for cleaning and killing things (normally using cleaning products containing hydrogen peroxide). Oxidative stress is the process by which foods go brown, how metals rust and how we age! When we are young, our soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia etc) are flexible and compliant. When oxidative stress is accumulated over years, we see people get older and stiffer. This is one reason why we see hands degenerate as we get older despite being non weight-bearing joints. We often see this in extreme cases of inflammatory conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylitis.
One way we can help prevent free radical damage is by using antioxidants to donate an electron and prevent this chain reaction of damage from occurring. However, once an antioxidants hands over an electron, it becomes a free radical itself (although a much less damaging form). For this reason, we want as many different types of antioxidants as possible The best way to achieve this? A balanced diet! Blueberries, cranberries, carrots, apples and spinach are just a few foods high in antioxidants. The best advice we can give is to eat a broad diet with a variety of different colours. If you find this difficult to do, we can fill this “antioxidant gap” with supplements. One supplement is Glutathione, which is known as the ‘master antioxidant’.
Another way free radicals can increase in the body is through inefficient mitochondria. The purpose of our mitochondria is to make energy for us and it does this through a process known as Krebs cycle. Krebs cycle needs a good amount of amino acids and healthy fats in order to successfully produce energy. How might we get a good amount of amino acids and healthy fats? A wide variety of fruits and vegetables!
If we have less nutrients coming in (through fruits and veggies), this means Krebs cycle spins less efficiently leading to lower amounts of energy. When we have lower energy free radicals go up. Now let us add in a modern diet of processed foods and toxins (medications, mercury, metals). Nutrient intake is lessened again leading to less spinning of Krebs cycle resulting in lower energy and an increase in free radicals, which in turn damages tissue and accelerates the aging process!
We also know from the research that neurodegenerative diseases like Dementia and Parkinson’s disease have a major association with dysfunctional mitochondria . Could the lack of nutrients affecting mitochondria’s ability to adequately create energy through Krebs cycle be leading to the many degenerative disorders and conditions that we see today?
World Health Organization. (2006). Constitution of the World Health Organization – Basic Documents, Forty-fifth edition, Supplement, October 2006.