Shortcuts to a Healthier, Happier, and Longer Life from Ancient Ayurveda and Modern Science
by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD
What is it that allows some people to live a long life, while others are burdened with poor health and shortened lifespan. The genes we are born with play a large role, but equally important are our lifestyle habits. Without ideal health, longevity might turn out to even be a form of torture, which few would knowingly accept. This is increasingly true in our modern world, especially with the rise of dementia where one out of three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Will science save us by suddenly discovering a new technology that will improve our health and increase our lifespan? There is no clear answer, and some people aren’t willing to wait, advocating taking responsibility for learning new anti-aging programs. Such approaches are often called “biohacking,” a term first introduced by Dave Asprey. Biohacking can involve ancient and/or modern technology, from periodic fasting, to meditation, to blood transfusions. Popular articles promote simple biohacks as shortcuts to keep our brain active and our body youthful, regardless of our age. These may involve stimulating the brain by doing crossword puzzles, art and musical activities, and engaging in fun games.
Research clearly states that the health of the brain obeys the simple principle, “Use it or lose it.” It’s never too late to learn a new language or musical instrument, or, more importantly, a new health habit. One easy biohack anyone can adopt is to sip hot or warm water throughout the day. This is highly recommended by traditional systems of medicine as a daily detox and purification. Even from a modern perspective this offers numerous potential benefits, such as increased hydration, thinning excess mucus and clearing the nasal passages, and improving circulation.
Why do we age in the first place? Everything might be working perfectly up to a certain point when suddenly we are surprised to find our health begin to slide downhill. Scientists have attempted to explain aging with a single dominant theory, but most agree that it is the result of a combination of different factors that can be summarized by the expression “nature (our DNA) verses nurture” (our upbringing, the environment in which we live, and our habits).
Perhaps the best way to look at aging is from the science of epigenetics, which explains that throughout life, environmental factors affect the expression of genes in our DNA; some specific genes are turned on, while others are turned off.
From the foods we eat, to our daily exercise or meditation, every action affects the expression of our genes and ultimately determine our health and lifespan.
Each traditional system of health has specific diets and herbal supplements, which are, in effect, biohacks. One the most popular biohacks, which is both modern and ancient, is to reduce the number of calories we consume by periodically fasting. Research shows that periodic fasting can turn on and increase the production of a sirtuin gene, which plays an important role in longevity. Periodic fasting also activates an evolutionary process called autophagy, which allows a cell to disassemble its damaged parts and revitalize and reorganize the usable ones. There is also a wealth of research on how caloric restriction can extend the lifespan of many short-lived species. For humans and other primates though, studies are far from clear.
Another common biohack is to alter our diet. Have you noticed that every few years there’s a wildly popular new diet? One of the most interesting ways a new diet affects us is by altering our gut microbiome, containing some 30 trillion microorganisms. The gut microbiome is part of what is known as the gut/brain axis, which includes our brain, immune system, endocrine system, and the special nervous system and endocrine system of the gut.
There is a constant flow of information between our gut and our brain by means of the vagus nerve, which regulates many internal bodily functions. The gut microbiome also produces various types of chemicals which enter the bloodstream and affect all parts of the body. It is worth noting that the cells in our gut lining produce many of the most important neurotransmitters.
Diet and dietary supplements directly changes the composition of the numerous types of bacterial colonies in our microbiome. Clinical studies are being conducted to determine the specific effects of particular foods, as well as probiotics, on the gut microbiome, and ways that both of these might improve various disease conditions.
Exercise and Sleep
Doctors often prescribe exercise for their patients and exercise is one of the most effective biohacks. Regular physical activity can improve brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve our ability to do everyday activities. Yoga asanas or postures are an especially good biohack, which have been shown to help improve many different disorders.
What’s the best exercise program for you? This is a hotly debated issue with some advocates promoting high intensity programs, while others prefer more subtle regimes—research shows benefits from both. Regular exercise is very important to include in our daily routine, but this is a case where one size definitely does not fit all.
Good sleep habits are another obvious biohack. Numerous studies show how important sleep habits are for health. Lack of sleep can lead to both depression and anxiety, and is a factor in heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and dementia. During sleep our body gets much needed rest to restore balance in the brain. Important changes occur during sleep, such as the decrease of blood pressure and lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The brain also uses this time to organize and consolidate memories from the day. One of the most interesting new findings is that during sleep, waste materials are cleared from the brain by the glymphatic system.
Every cell of our body has a sort of biological clock that keeps track of the daily 24-hour cycle. The brain also has a central clock, which helps to regulate all the other cells, and maintains circadian rhythm. It is well known that shift workers, whose schedules disrupt this rhythm, are at higher risk of health disorders, including gastrointestinal, metabolic, reproductive, and cardiovascular diseases.
Today there are many meditation techniques recommended for better mental and physical health and meditation is considered to be a universal and irreplaceable biohack for longevity. The focus of my own studies has been on the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique. One early study showed that long-term TM meditators had a biological age roughly twelve years younger than their non-meditating counterparts. Another study conducted at Harvard showed that the TM group had significant improvements in cognitive functioning and blood pressure as compared to control groups. The most striking finding was that the TM practice reversed not only age-related declines in overall health, but also directly enhanced longevity. In another study, TM subjects showed an increased telomere length, again suggesting a reversal of the aging process. Telomeres are part of the DNA at the end of chromosomes. They maintain the integrity of the chromosomes and normally shorten as we get older.
The biohacking of learning and longevity are recognized as the health wave of the future. We live in a highly stressed world and many have acquired both poor diets and lifestyle habits. But the opportunity is there to learn how to restore balance in our mind and body. We have seen that we can learn from the past, from traditions such as Ayurveda, which contains many simple biohacks, and we can learn from future developments in modern science, which probe the most fundamental levels of our physiology. The secret to health and longevity is to learn effective new and old biohacks which enliven our body’s inner intelligence.
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