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 November 2008 - Nr. 11

If someone were to hold up a bottle of pills and tell us they could slow down aging, or even help prevent or improve some very serious degenerative diseases, we might be somewhat skeptical – and rightly so. But what if that someone was a Harvard health researcher or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist? And what if these pills had been the subject of a series of clinical trials and double-blind, placebo-controlled studies at world-renowned medical research labs and universities?

The truth is, these types of pills do exist and are easily acquired from our local health food stores. They are safe, natural, and the volume of research into their health benefits is immense and growing every day. And while many different natural supplements might qualify as anti-aging and disease prevention options, the focus here will be on five "heavy hitters" that stand out due to the volume and quality of research on them.

A "radical" theory: Aging and oxidation

Before we look at the top five and their respective health benefits, it’s important to understand a little about what aging really is. In 1954, Dr. Denham Harman of the University of California, Berkeley, first described the "free radical theory of aging." He claimed that unstable molecules, produced both inside and outside our bodies, literally break apart healthy tissues and are the main force behind aging and degenerative disease. Though Harman’s theory was largely ignored until the 1970s, it is now recognized and accepted worldwide as the most credible, proven explanation of how and why we age.

Free radicals, or "oxidants," are natural by-products of living and breathing. Through metabolic process, our bodies produce molecules that are unstable because they are missing an electron. Laws of chemistry dictate that unstable molecules try to "steal" electrons from something nearby – in this case, from other cells in our body! Worse yet, we create more free radicals through stress and inflammation, and ingest them via toxins in food, air, drugs and water.

Free-radical damage to our cells is the main force behind what we call aging. It wrinkles our skin, clouds our vision and may even clog our arteries. It can also lead to diseases such as arthritis, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.

Antioxidants are substances that limit or repair damage from free radicals. Our bodies produce some antioxidants naturally, such as glutathione. We can also provide the body with antioxidant vitamins, minerals and compounds found in healthy foods and select dietary supplements. Here are some of the very best.


One of the most recently celebrated super-antioxidants is resveratrol, a polyphenol. In the early 1990s, researchers suggested that the higher consumption of red wine (one source of Resveratrol) among the French people could explain the relatively low incidence of heart disease among the French population, despite a diet relatively high in saturated fats.

Animal studies reveal that resveratrol benefits the heart by fighting oxidation (free radical damage) of LDL cholesterol in the blood. When LDL is damaged, it begins to stick to the artery walls and can eventually lead to heart attack. Other reported heart benefits include blood pressure and heart rate regulation.

The anticancer properties of resveratrol are similarly exciting. In July of 2008, laboratory research revealed that it suppresses the abnormal cell formation that leads to most types of breast cancer.
"Resveratrol has the ability to prevent the first step that occurs when estrogen starts the process that leads to cancer," says Eleanor Rogan, PhD, a researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "We believe that this could stop the whole progression that leads to breast cancer down the road," Rogan added.

Perhaps most surprising are the series of experiments initiated by Harvard scientist David Sinclair which suggest that resveratrol can prolong lifespan by up to 60% in yeast, fruit flies, fish and mice. In 2003, Sinclair discovered that resveratrol switches on a gene called Sirtuin 1 that regulates the rate of aging. We humans have our own version of the gene, and Sinclair is confident of the potential.

Coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10)

This vitamin-like substance is considered one of the most powerful anti-aging nutrients because it can slow down the "wear and tear" on tissue and organs, strengthen and energize the heart and help stem the natural decline of immune function. One popular study showed that mice given Co-Q10 supplements entered their senior years with a better general appearance, including more energy and healthier fur than their counterparts. Other studies have focused on Co-Q10 deficiency in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients, and several studies have documented actual reversals of mental deterioration using Co-Q10.

Some of the most dramatic research findings involve Co-Q10’s benefits for heart health. One 1994 study from the University of Texas looked at long-term Co-Q10 therapy for a variety of heart diseases. They found significant improvements in all patients. In fact, almost 60% of patients improved by at least one standard heart disease rating scale level, and almost half of the patients were able to stop taking up to three prescribed heart medications. Scores of other studies support Co-Q10 supplementation for heart disease treatment and prevention.
Co-Q10 supplementation may also help boost waning immune function in aging people. Older people often have only a third of the antibodies found in young, healthy people. (Antibodies are manufactured by the immune system to seek out and destroy invading organisms, such as viruses.) Chronic impaired immune function is also a factor in some more serious health disorders such as arthritis, diabetes and cancer. Research shows, however, that giving the elderly Co-Q10 can more than double the production of antibodies and restore immune function to about 80% of its original strength.

Alpha Lipoic Acid

Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is another superstar antioxidant with powerful anti-aging and disease-prevention properties. Tory Hagen, a researcher at Oregon State University, says that ALA can slow down the process of aging because it "turns on the basic cellular defenses of the body, including some of those that naturally decline with age." In animal studies, Hagen says, "it tends to restore levels of glutathione, a protective antioxidant and detoxification compound, to those of a young animal. It also acts as a strong anti-inflammatory agent, which is relevant to many degenerative diseases."

ALA has shown its age-altering potential in recent human studies as well. In 2007, German researchers reported that taking ALA can dramatically slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, 43 patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s who supplemented with ALA had dramatically lower progression of the disease over a period of 48 months, compared to data from patients not receiving ALA.


Quercetin is a potent antioxidant flavonoid found in a variety of foods, including apples, peppers, onions, berries and green tea. Like its cousin resveratrol, it has been well researched for both heart health and anticancer benefits.

In 2004, scientists from the State University of New York reported that quercetin significantly inhibited the growth of both moderately and highly aggressive prostate cancer cells. In this laboratory test, they were surprised also to witness quercetin increase the production of anti-tumour genes while inhibiting the production of cancer-promoting genes.

As seen with resveratrol, quercetin counteracts free radical damage to LDL cholesterol and helps prevent dangerous plaque buildup within the arteries. Another heart health benefit is a reduction in high blood pressure. Some additional health properties of quercetin have been identified, and include protection from inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and enlarged prostate.

B Vitamins

This group of eight water-soluble vitamins is commonly featured in standard multivitamin formulations or as a "B-complex" supplement. As a group, the B vitamins are essential for healthy skin and muscle, the immune and nervous systems, and proper cell growth and division. Certain B vitamins become more important as we age due to absorption problems and increased requirements, and may need to be supplemented to ensure adequate levels.

B2 (riboflavin) is crucial for energy production and vital in the regeneration of glutathione, the body’s own super antioxidant. Through this relationship with glutathione, B2 may be critical in the prevention of cataracts and low levels have also been linked to some esophageal cancers.

B3 (niacinamide) is a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects. Niacinamide is an important component of two coenzymes which reduce oxidation and limit damage within our cells.

Of all the B vitamins, B12 is perhaps the most important in terms of aging and disease prevention. By the age of 65, most of us can no longer properly absorb it and end up with low levels, which are linked to impaired mental function, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Studies show that Alzheimer’s patients are nearly always deficient in B12, and that supplementation – especially within the first six months of symptoms appearing – can bring about a complete reversal in some cases.

Aging is inevitable – but healthy aging is a choice, and a possibility. Along with healthy diet and lifestyle choices, these five supplements represent a strong list of safe, natural, evidence-backed options to support and protect the aging body in today’s environment. Choose one or two from the list to complement your daily supplement regimen, or seek out antioxidant blends that may feature some of them in combination. Remember, always check with a healthcare professional before taking a dietary supplement if you are taking prescription medications or have an existing health condition.

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