Is immortality really possible? Even with the use of adaptogenic herb, the answer remains a sad No…Sorry everyone! However, maybe immortality isn’t the word we are really looking for since it means you can never die. The more accurate question is…is biological immortality possible in humans? This means that we would still age to a certain point and be vulnerable to disease, injury, etc. but in the absence of a deadly disease or injury we would live forever, or at least a very long time. This has been seen in some forms of life, but definitely not yet in humans. So, for the purpose of this article we will simply talk about how we can slow aging and possibly extend our lifespan.
Mechanisms of Aging
Before we identify any herbs that could extend our life, we need to have a basic understanding of the aging process. I will save any great detail on aging mechanisms for a different post, but here are the basics needed for this post.
Surprisingly, the underlying process of aging is not very well understood, especially in humans. There are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300 theories of aging falling into 2 major categories, error (epigenetic/environment) and program (genetic); however, as with pretty much everything else, the truth likely lies somewhere in the combination of these 2 things. Some studies indicate that genetics only contributes 20-30% of our longevity meaning the rest is environment and epigenetics (1). Here are some of the major theories of aging:
- Free Radical Theory of Aging: Proposes that increasing, or accumulative exposure, to free radicals leads to oxidative stress and cellular death. Furthermore, it is suggested that as we age our metabolism produces more free radicals and loses the ability to properly neutralize them. Free radical exposure can be from external or internal sources.
- Metabolism Theories: A healthy functioning metabolism is essential for health and longevity, metabolic defects and age related changes can lead to the following proposed aging mechanisms:
- Poor glucose metabolism (high insulin and blood sugar)
- Poor cholesterol metabolism (cardiovascular related)
- DNA damage from toxins, stress, free radicals, radiation, etc and an age related decrease in our ability to prevent/repair the damage
- Mitochondrial Dysfunction (2)
- Epigenetic Theories: Dysregulated DNA methylation and Telomere (part of DNA) shortening lead to cellular defects and inability to replicate DNA to create new cells.
For a herb to be considered to possibly prolong life it must positively impact one or all of the above via the following factors:
- Metabolic regulation and/or protect mitochondrial function
- DNA expression and translation regulation
- Protect from free radicals/oxidative damage (antioxidant boosting)
- Immune regulation (related to all the above via chronic inflammation)
- Increase body’s ability to deal with stress (related to all the above via chronic inflammation)
- Prevent/treat cancer (arguably tied to all the above)
Furthermore, for a herb to be considered adaptogenic it must have positive effects on multiple areas of physiological homeostasis (ie. the above) or adapt to each individual and contribute to the needs of each person (ie. it would help me in a different way than you). There are a large number of herbs considered to be adaptogenic but for this post I will focus on the major ones:
- Siberian Ginseng
- Gotu Kola
- Holy Basil
Siberian Ginseng – Adaptogenic
Eleutherococcus senticosus, otherwise known as Siberian Ginseng (although it can’t be marketed in the USA under this name), has been used in western medicine and Russia for centuries. In traditional cultures it is renowned for it’s ability to prevent and treat colds and flu; increase energy, longevity, and vitality; help the body better cope with mental and physical stress, and improve athletic performance. Quite the impressive list and if these all pan out I think Siberian Ginseng would meet that adaptogen criteria, but what does current science have to say.
A 2001 one study found that not only was this herb an immune booster, it was also an immune suppressor (3)? Yes, you read that right, because it can have both immune boosting and suppressing effects the researchers designated it as an immune modulator, boosting where needed and suppressing where needed, pretty cool. Other evidence indicates that Siberian Ginseng possesses many active compounds including 6 with activity as antioxidants, 4 with anti-cancer action, 3 with hypocholesterolemic activity, 2 with immunostimulatory effects, 1 with choleretic activity (improve bile secretion), one with the ability to moderate insulin levels, one with anti-inflammatory activities, and one with antibacterial activity (4). Furthermore, a 2010 study found that 8 weeks of supplementation with Siberian Ginseng improved the endurance capacity of trained males by increasing cardiovascular function and glycogen sparing (5).
Result: Siberian Ginseng’s impressive list of actions allows it to meet the definition of an adaptogen.
Gotu Kola – Adaptogenic
Centella asiatica, otherwise known as Gotu Kola, has been used in India, China and Indonesia for thousands of years. Historically it has been used to heal wounds and improve mental clarity as well as treat leprosy, psoriasis, colds, flus, syphilis, hepatitis, stomach ulcers, mental fatigue, epilepsy, diarrhea, fever, and asthma. Interestingly, in China the herb is called the “the fountain of life” as legend has it a Chinese herbalist lived over 200 years because of this herb. Again, a long list of achievements, so let’s see what current evidence says
Most of the literature of this herb comes in the form of in-vitro (petri dish stuff) or animal studies, but that just means some findings have not been studied in a living human yet. However, the current evidence suggests that this herb is a strong antioxidant, protective against many forms of oxidative stress (inflammation or infections), is synergic with other antioxidant products, is an anti-inflammatory, is a modulator of collagen production reducing scarring and improving wound healing, and promotes new blood cell formation (6, 7, 8). Another study found that Gotu Kola could prevent and reduce tumour cells of the liver; this was in a petri dish, but still relevant and possibly transferable to a real person (9). There have also been some promising results showing that Gotu Kola may reduce mitochondrial destruction and increase mitochondrial function (10). This is an important finding since mitochondrial dysfunction has been connected to a vast array of chronic health conditions, such as neurodegeneration, and is a big player in aging theories. On the neurodegenerative note, Gotu Kola has been shown to promote neuronal outgrowth, reduce neuronal death, protects cognitive function, and may be preventative and/or a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (11, 12, 13).
Result: Given the promising findings, I classify Gotu Kola as an adaptogenic.
Holy Basil – Adaptogenic
Ocimum tenuiflorum, otherwise known as Ocimum sanctum, Tulsi, and Holy Basil, is a herb that has been grown and used in India and Asia for over 3000 years and has a long history of use within traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda, Greek, Roman, and Siddha. Traditional medicine names Holy Basil “The Elixir of Life” and advocates for many uses of Holy Basil including: disorders of the mouth and throat, lungs, heart, blood, liver, kidney, digestive system, metabolism, reproductive system, and nervous system. It is also used to treat coughs, colds and flu, head and ear aches, rheumatism and arthritis, malaria, fever, allergies, and various skin diseases. It is further believed to reduce the toxicity of various poisons, including insect and reptile bites, to expel intestinal parasites, repel insects, and purify the air. Very promising, so let’s look at the science.
Modern literature supports Holy Basil’s beneficial effects on diabetes, hypertension, cancers, bronchitis, and also support it’s anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties (14-18). It has further been found to improve immunity and prevent oxidative stress of the liver by increasing antioxidant capacity (ie. glutathione) (14-18). Another study found Holy Basil to be protective of neuronal cells in the presence of oxidative stress, reducing cell death by up to 73% (19). It did this by inhibiting lipid peroxidation, DNA damage, reactive oxygen species generation as well as protecting mitochondrial function and increasing antioxidant system action. Furthermore, Tulsi has been shown effective as an anti-fungal and anti-candida substance, indicating efficacy in fungal overgrowth treatment (20, 21)
Result: Definitely an adaptogen
Rhodiola – Adaptogenic
Rhodiola, part of the sedum family, otherwise known as “golden root” or “roseroot”, is herb that has been used in ancient traditional societies such as Greek, Chinese, and Mongolia for thousands of years. Such societies believed it to strengthen the nervous system, fight depression, enhance immunity, elevate the capacity for exercise, enhance memory, aid in weight reduction, increase sexual function, cure cancer, and improve energy levels. Interestingly, the Vikings are said to have relied on Rhodiola to provide them with their legendary physical prowess and tradition has it their common saying about this herb was that “The man who uses [this root] will stay powerful for 200 years.” An impressive track record indeed, and there seems to be no shortage of research.
Current science points to Rhodiola as a potent antidepressant and anxiolytic, comparable to some prescription drugs without the side effects (22-24). There also seems to be some scientific support for the Vikings beliefs about this herb. Rhodiola has been shown to decrease heart rate at submaximal physical efforts as well as reduce the perceived difficulty of endurance tasks, thus improving performance (25). Another study found that Rhodiola improves fatty acid utilization (a marker of higher physical performance due to glucose sparing) as well as reduces lactic acid build-up and muscle damage after intense physical activity (26). Basically, Rhodiola may both increase exercise capacity as well as quicken recovery from maximal exercise! In addition to identified anti-cancer properties, further evidence has linked Rhodiola to beneficial effects on aggressive emotional behavior as well as with psychological, neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrine, and gastrointestinal disorders (27, 28).
Result: Very cool adaptogenic herb
Ashwagandha – Adaptogenic
Withania somnifera, otherwise known as Ashwagandha and Indian Ginseng, has been used for around 4000 years as one of the central herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It has been used in the Ayurvedic tradition for multiple purposes including: as an aphrodisiacs, as a diuretics, to prevent memory loss as well as to assist with stress relief, fatigue and promote general overall wellness. It is generally promoted as one of the major adaptogenic substances so let’s see what scientific support there is.
A good portion of the recent evidence surrounding ashwagandha is regarding its neuroprotective effects. Specifically, it has been shown to have strong anti alzheimer’s properties, as well as protective effects against other neurodegenerative conditions such as spinal cord injury, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease (29, 30). Findings in this area are some promising that one researcher stated that “Further studies of Ashwagandha will probably contribute to resolving an urgent unmet medical need: efficacious treatments that may offer cure of neurodegenerative diseases.” (29). Wow, in other words, Ashwagandha or it’s derivatives could be the cure for neurodegenerative diseases. Further evidence supports Ashwagandha’s anti cancer actions (31-33). Interestingly, one study demonstrated that active components of ashwagandha actually selectively kill cancer cells via oxidative stress signaling, but do not kill normal cells (32). A very recent study (33) showed some profound positive effects related to athletic performance; specifically, an 8 week strength training program combined with ashwagandha showed significant improvements in muscle size, strength, testosterone levels, body fat percentage, exercise induced muscle damage compared to a placebo group doing the same training without the Ashwagandha (34)! I am not talking about statistically significant differences between these 2 groups, I am talking about the ashwagandha group having double the improvements of the placebo groups. That’s right, twice as strong, twice as big, double to recovery potential, double the testosterone level. Finally, Ashwagandha has also been shown to have anti-stress and anxiety actions, as well as the ability to protect our cells from death and damage during times of oxidative stress by reducing oxidative stress levels, preventing DNA and mitochondrial damage, and activating cell protection pathways (35, 36).
Results: Superman adaptogenic herb, as long as the whole athletic performance increases continue to be proven scientifically.
So there you have it 5 traditional adaptogenic herbs all with a good level of current, promising research backing their beneficial effects. They all also appear to have no major side effects; however, I caution for a review of any interaction they may have with medications or natural health products prior to taking them.
There are many more herbs/substances considered to be adaptogenic, but these are the 5 I am currently working with in my home and which seemed to have a good deal of scientific support.
The Barefoot Golfer