Colleen De Bellefonds, Well and Good, Dec 9, 2020The term “longevity” refers to the number of years you live, and it does have a limit. “Our bodies are not designed to live to 120 years, although many of us would like to live that long if we had quality of life for that long,” says Gary W. Small, MD, the physician in chief for behavioral health at Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey and the former director of the UCLA Longevity Center.
In reality, the normal (and inevitable) processes of oxidative stress and inflammation are thought to contribute to our gradual decline in health as we get older. That doesn’t mean we’re helpless when it comes to our health. In fact, the foods we eat every day play a major role in healthy aging and longevity - and a few herbs and spices may be especially helpful.
Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response to fight infection and repair damage from injuries. Excess inflammation is associated with chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “We know that heightened inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to age-related diseases,” says Dr. Small. “If you look at a lot of studies and blood markers of inflammation, we find that age itself is often associated with heightened inflammation.” Lifestyle habits, including poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, and a shortage of quality sleep play an important role in accelerating inflammation, he adds.
That’s where plant-based foods can come in. Plants naturally have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which Dr. Small says may play some role in healthy aging and longevity. This may slow down the process of aging as well as support the immune system and protect against chronic conditions that are more common with age, explains Rachelle Robinette, a clinical herbalist and holistic health practitioner (and host of Well+Good’s YouTube show, Plant Based). While we don’t know for sure exactly how many antioxidants we need to consume for these effects, “studies show that people who consume these kinds of foods live longer and better,” says Dr. Small.
That doesn’t prove that consuming any one particular food or supplement will have enough of an effect on your inflammation levels to actually have an impact on disease, Dr. Small adds. “We’re always looking for a quick fix or magic bullet…Everyone wants a remedy, but none can even work well if diet and lifestyle are not in place,” adds Robinette. “In terms of longevity, diet and lifestyle are going to matter more than any herb or supplement. Herbs work wonderfully as medicine, but they really are supplemental.”
Caveats aside, some foods really do boast more concentrated levels of disease- and age-fighting compounds than others - and that certainly can’t hurt in moderation when you integrate them into your cooking routine. “What’s great about spices is it makes your diet more palatable, you want a diet that’s nutritious but delicious,” says Dr. Small. (Just remember: You should always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement; some can be toxic at higher doses, especially if you’re taking certain prescription medications.)
Ginger is the epitome of “food medicine,” as Robinette calls it. The compound gingerol in ginger is the source of most of the plant’s many benefits; it has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and may have anti-cancer properties. (Which, hello longevity!) The Mayo Clinic is currently investigating whether eating 2,000 mg of ginger a day for six weeks can boost the microbiome, aka the collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that make up a large part of the human body. That would be a big deal, Robinette explains, since your microbiome affects your overall health, including your brain, mood, and immune system.
Robinette recommends having ginger a few times a week as a fresh extract, grated into food, added to stir-fries, or sliced in a hot cup of tea. You can also try Robinette’s recipe for ginger shots - which may be especially helpful during cold and flu season. “I do several shots per day in winter,” she says.
You can’t talk about herbs for longevity without talking about turmeric. Another powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory spice, turmeric is where curry gets its flavor - and the antioxidant compound curcumin. In 2018, Dr. Small authored a small double-blind study showing that taking two 90 mg curcumin supplements daily for 18 months improved memory and attention in older adults with mild memory problems. “We did find it has a significant effect…compared to placebo,” says Dr. Small, who is currently expanding the research to a much larger sample size across the U.S. While he’s not sure exactly how curcumin works to boost brain health, “my best guess is it’s the reduction in inflammation,” he says.
Robinette points out that turmeric has been called a “natural immunomodulator,” or a substance that helps keep the immune system in check by boosting immunity when you need it and tamping it down to prevent excess inflammation involved in many chronic conditions. Some research suggests that turmeric could potentially even play a role in preventing and treating cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic conditions, neurological disease, and skin diseases.
Although it certainly doesn’t hurt to enjoy more foods with turmeric, you’ll need to pop a curcumin supplement to get the full health benefits of the spice. “For therapeutic purposes, you want to take higher doses,” says Robinette. Try to take the supplement when you eat your meals, preferably with fat (like fatty fish or nuts) to increase the bioavailability of curcumin. (Just check with your doctor before you start supplementing to ensure it doesn’t interact with any health conditions you have or medications you take.)
Spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria (or algae) that’s grown in water and sold as tablets or in powder form. It contains a high amount of protein for a plant. And with loads of vitamins, including iron, potassium, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins, it’s “almost identical, nutritionally, to mother’s milk,” Robinette adds.
Given that following a plant-forward diet is key to healthy aging, Robinette says supplementing with spirulina can be beneficial for healthy aging. “Nobody eats enough plants. Supplementing with something that’s really concentrated like spirulina is a…cheat way to get more greens.” Just be sure to check your spirulina comes from a clean water source. Aim for a teaspoon per day, says Robinette; since spirulina has a seaweed-esque flavor, she suggests tossing it into pesto or any savory recipe with greens, like salad dressings, soups, or dips.
Jalapenos, cayenne, and other types of peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical compound that makes food spicy and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Dr. Small points to a 2015 observational study of nearly half a million people in China, which concluded that people who ate more spicy foods were less likely to die of all causes - and specifically of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases - than people who didn’t or rarely ate these foods. The authors concluded the effect may be due to capsaicin.
How often should you hit the hot sauce? The Chinese researchers found that the benefits of capsaicin were cumulative; people who ate spicy foods six or seven times per week were least likely to die of any cause. But eating spicy meals even a couple of times a week seemed to have some benefit.
There are only a couple dozen plant adaptogens, including ginseng, that help increase the body’s resilience to stressors of all kinds. While you might associate ginseng with Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s one of the oldest medicinal herbs used all over the world to support human health, Robinette says.
Robinson explains that adaptogens like ginseng “micro-trigger” the body, so it gets stronger over time to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors (like light and sounds). “It’s not impervious to stress, but you’re better able to recover and not overreact,” she says. “It’s helping move you between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states with more ease.” Many of us are dealing with some level of stress these days, which can, over time, suppress the immune system and even shorten your lifespan by contributing to inflammation in the gut and disrupting sleep. “Chronic stress is counterproductive for longevity in many ways,” says Robinette.
Like most herbs, ginseng has antioxidant anti-inflammatory properties, says Robinette. A wealth of research suggests ginseng may have immunomodulatory and anti-cancer properties, and that it may even help control blood sugar in people with diabetes and improve learning and memory. Unlike most of the other herbs and spices on this list, you really need to take ginseng every day for an extended period of time to see benefits, says Robinette. You can enjoy it in any form, including tea, powder, capsule, and tincture - just be sure to talk to your doctor first, as ginseng can interact with some drugs (like warfarin and insulin).
The powerful phytochemicals, or plant antioxidants, in blueberries helps clean up free radicals, fighting the effects of inflammation that can in turn impact your health and longetivity. “There are studies showing antioxidant foods like blueberries or pomegranates…show moderate effects [on oxidative stress], though not as consistent or as big of an effect as we saw with curcumin,” says Dr. Small. “While we’re waiting to support this science, it certainly makes sense to try to consume colorful fresh fruits and veggies.”
Wild blueberries, in particular, tend to be highest in gut-boosting fiber and antioxidants, says Robinette: They have more skin than grocery store blueberries (which are still good for you but bred to be sweet). Eat them fresh, sprinkle blueberry powder into your smoothies and cereal, or spread blueberry (or any other superfruit) paste onto toast like thick jam.
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