Intermittent Fasting – Powerful Anti-Aging Elixir (part I)

The more I research this topic, the more excited I become about this new and powerful dietary strategy to maximize overall health and slow aging. This is a great example of how most of the new, complex scientific research findings on food and nutrition are simply telling us to look to our ancient past and adopt lifestyle habits that are consistent with our genome. Of course, fasting certainly isn’t new. Our genes were selected during the Late Stone Age when feast and famine were commonplace. We evolved this way. The abundance of food and frequent meals in our modern world is simply not compatible with our Stone Age genes.

So why fast? Isn’t lack of food a hardship that we (in the developed world) no longer need to worry about? Are we not very fortunate to have the luxury of 24/7 availability of food? On the contrary, since the 1930’s, scientists have known that calorie restriction will extend average and maximum lifespan in a variety of species, from yeasts to flies to dogs. Recently, calorie restriction was shown to significantly increase average lifespan in monkeys as well.

Calorie restriction, however, is very difficult to maintain over long periods. It is not easy to consistently undereat. Reducing calories by 20-40% can compromise muscle mass and strength, bone density, vitality and quality of life. What’s the point of living longer when you are frail and weak, and unable to enjoy all the pleasures of eating? Not for me! As discussed in this review, intermittent fasting provides the same life-extending benefits, including stress and disease resistance, as calorie restriction.

Intermittent fasting is much more practical, less demanding, and more consistent with our “feast & famine” genome.  I believe the best and easiest approach is to fast for about 16 hours and then “feast” during a shortened window of about eight hours. This can be done a few days per week, or every day. I myself typically skip breakfast and fast from dinner to lunch. Among the other more popular fasting strategies are alternate day fasting and the 5:2 plan that involves eating 500 to 600 calories for two non-consecutive days and unrestricted eating the other five days. Consider drinking sugar-free green tea or sugar-free coffee during the fast to enhance its longevity effects. If you find fasting to be too difficult, believe it or not, you can add coconut oil and/or grass-fed butter to coffee or tea and still benefit from much of fasting’s health enhancing effects (avoiding carbohydrate and protein is the key). These healthful fats promote amazing satiety to power you through the fast (this modified fast will be explored in more detail in a forthcoming post).

The primary biological pathway by which fasting promotes robust health and longevity is through a “housekeeping” process called autophagy. Just as clutter, junk, and viruses must be monitored and removed from a computer to maintain its operating efficiency and extend its life, our cells use autophagy as a quality control mechanism to degrade and recycle damaged, defective, and worn cellular components in order to keep themselves functioning optimally. In times of nutrient emergencies (fasting), damaged materials are recycled to produce energy in the form of ATP for survival. At the same time, harmful, unwanted junk and debris is swept away. This cellular trash includes mutated cells and aggregates of protein such as the amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, autophagy has been linked to cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and many other chronic disorders.

Unfortunately, autophagy declines with increasing age. With progressive malfunctioning of this convenient surveillance and repair mechanism, mutated or damaged proteins accumulate and gum up the normal workings of the cell, leading to disease, aging, and death. A classic example of this phenomenon is the “wear and tear” pigment called lipofuscin. Lipofuscin accumulates in various tissues at a rate inversely correlated with longevity. It is considered a hallmark of aging.

A strong case is building that defective autophagy is a fundamental driver of the aging process. In fact, the best know methods to extend lifespan in animals are driven by increased autophagy. In various long-lived mutant species of laboratory animals and insects, inactivation of autophagy genes suppressed the life span extension brought about by various longevity pathways including dietary restriction. Autophagy appears to be the common denominator among longevity interventions!

The remarkable longevity effects of fasting – primarily by way of autophagy – are the end result of all the numerous other benefits (e.g., increased insulin sensitivity) of fasting (to be discussed in future posts). Fasting is also an example of hormesis – an adaptive response by the body’s cells to mild stress resulting in stronger and more age-resistant cells. Weight training, whereby muscle fibers are damaged but subsequently grow stronger, is another common example of hormesis.

I’m a firm believer in the “holy trinity” of diet (or lack of), acute exercise and quality nutraceuticals for optimal health. To further promote autophagy, complement intermittent fasting with acute, high-intensity exercise, and supplement your fasting phase with green tea extract, resveratrol, and vitamin D3 (with K2). Most importantly, be sure to maintain or achieve optimal levels of AMPK – a critical enzyme that acts as a master switch to regulate energy metabolism. AMPK activation drives autophagy and improves cellular stress resistance, thus playing a major role in the aging process. While “good stressors” such as fasting and exercise boost AMPK, this effect declines with increasing age. Fortunately, two botanical extracts that have been safely used for centuries can very effectively restore youthful AMPK activity. These extracts, Gynostemma pentaphyllum and Trans-tiliroside, have profound effects on reducing belly fat, normalizing blood sugar, and lowering serum lipid levels (more on AMPK in next post).

To fight the enemy of aging, stress you body intermittently with fasting and high-intensity exercise. To quote the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Fish Oil or Krill Oil? Don’t choose. Take both!

While the considerable health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids – especially with regard to the cardiovascular system and the brain – are well established, there is an ongoing debate as to whether fish oil or krill oil is the better omega-3 supplement.  However, while both fish oil and krill oil increase plasma and membrane concentrations of omega-3 fats, there are important differences between the two marine oils in their mechanism of action and sites of action in the body. In a similar manner in which the two predominant forms of vitamin E – alpha and gamma tocopherol – complement each other’s antioxidant effects, fish oil and krill oil provide complementary biological effects in different tissues in the body.

Structural differences between fish oil and krill oil may account for different ways they are taken up by our cells, as well as for different target destinations. In fish, the omega-3 fatty fats (EPA & DHA) are stored as triglyceride (the major storage fat in our body); in krill the majority of these fatty acids are bound to phospholipids. Phospholipid is a type of fat that comprises the membrane of all living cells. This form of omega-3 fat is more “user-friendly” by the body, whereas the triglyceride form must undergo additional processing. Research indicates that this phospholipid structure of krill oil enables the omega-3 fats to be more efficiently absorbed and integrated into cell membranes.

Cardiovascular Health

Decades of research support the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3 fats from cold-water fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, sardines) and fish oil supplements. Large review studies report consistent reduction in serum triglycerides and increases in beneficial HDL cholesterol levels from consuming omega-3 fats. Guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend eating fish and taking fish oil supplements to decrease sudden deaths, lower blood pressure, and decrease arrhythmias.

The powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats derived from fish account for their cardio benefits. By modulating levels of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that circulate throughout the body, fish oil lowers body wide inflammation. While krill oil does not appear to provide a systemic anti-inflammatory effect, it was more effective than fish oil in lowering liver triglycerides (fatty liver) and heart triglycerides in a rat model of obesity and metabolic syndrome. In another study in rats, treatment with krill oil before induction of heart attack resulted in significantly reduced structural and functional changes that normally occur after injury to the heart muscle. While no comparison with fish oil was made in this study, the researchers used krill oil because it had been previously demonstrated to be more effective than fish oil in delivering EPA & DHA into heart phospholipids.

Brain Health

As described in this review, recent findings from numerous studies show brain benefits of omega-3 fats that are just as profound as their cardiovascular benefits. This is not surprising considering the fact that the both the heart and brain have some of the body’s highest concentrations of omega-3 fats. The neuroprotective effects of EPA and DHA have been shown to improve autism, ADHD, depression, cognitive decline and impairment, anxiety, and age-related brain shrinkage.

When you ingest omega-3 fats from diet or supplements, these fats are incorporated into the fatty membranes of your cells, including brain cells. (You are what you eat!). Receptors (“docking stations”) for various neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are embedded in your brain’s cell membranes. Omega-3 fats, especially from krill oil, can favorably modify the phospholipid composition of cell membranes, making the membranes more fluid and pliable. This facilitates enhanced neurotransmitter-receptor interaction with more efficient cell-to-cell signaling and better brain functioning.

Krill oil, with EPA & DHA packaged as phospholipid, may be preferred over fish oil for brain health.  Phospholipid-bound omega-3 fats as found in krill oil are significantly more bioavailable to brain tissue compared with triglyceride-bound omega-3 fats from fish oil. In a study in elderly men, both fish (sardine) oil and krill oil improved cognitive function, but the krill oil was more effective. In addition, the predominant phospholipid in krill oil is phosphatidylcholine, which is also the primary phospholipid in cell membranes. Phosphatidylcholine can increase brain levels of acetylcholine, a major neurotransmitter that plays an important role in memory and learning.

Bone and Joint Health

While fish oil has been found to be beneficial for osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid arthritis, krill oil is also effective against arthritis, and possibly even more so. In an animal model for arthritis, krill was more effective than fish oil at protecting against joint damage and cartilage erosion by significantly reducing the influx of inflammatory cells into the joint and the synovial membrane lining the joint. This study indicates that krill oil may be more beneficial locally in the joint, while fish oil has more systemic effects via modulation of circulating inflammatory cytokines.

Summary

The cardiovascular benefits of fish oil have been well documented by numerous studies in recent years. In fact, a prescription version of fish oil (Lovaza) has been approved by the FDA to lower very high triglyceride levels. With high concentrations of the omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA), fish oil is also beneficial for brain health, as well as for bone and joint health. In contrast, krill oil has relatively few studies to support its use. However, even with much less EPA and DHA, krill oil is more bioavailable than fish oil owing to its phospholipid form. Krill oil also comes with astaxanthin, the powerful antioxidant that provides the red-orange pigment in some fish and birds.

High-dose omega-3 fats from fish oil provides optimal cardioprotection, while krill oil appears particularly effective for brain health and joint health. Both oils are also helpful for the other major inflammatory disorders, e.g, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.

Combining fish oil and krill oil in one product is the ideal way to take advantage of these different and complementary sources of omega-3 fats. Life Extension has formulated a convenient, cost-effective, cutting-edge product that does just that. Super Omega with Krill and Astaxanthin also includes additional antioxidant protection (against oil rancidity) with the inclusion of sesame lignans and olive fruit polyphenol extract. Olive oil combined with fish oil provide a synergistic anti-inflammatory effect greater than placebo or fish oil alone.