While more than one-third of Americans take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement, the benefits of a multivitamin product are limited to replacing nutrients that may or may not be present in the diet. A more comprehensive option is taking a daily herbal supplement: Herbs provide one of the simplest and most powerful ways to optimize your health at any age.
Herbs are an important health ally because they offer such far-reaching benefits: They help balance and support major systems and functions in the body; they promote cellular health and intercellular communication; and they help strengthen the immune system. And all of that ultimately helps you fend off disease and increase longevity.
The importance of herbs only increases over time. As we age, our cells naturally begin to burn out more rapidly and our body starts to slow down. And it starts sooner than you might think: The human body is made up of trillions of cells, the number of which peaks around age 20. After that time, cellular attrition occurs — the quality and number of cells begin to gradually decrease.
It’s not an overnight change — you don’t suddenly notice a significant downshift in energy on your 20th birthday, of course. But by the time you’re in your late 40s, most people do tend to experience noticeable changes in their energy and health, even those who eat well, are active, and otherwise take care of themselves.
The Top Culprits Behind Accelerated Aging
The average lifespan of a human cell is just 4 months, though there’s great variability between types of cells. White blood cells generally live about a year, for instance, whereas colon cells survive only about 4 days. As a result, our cells are constantly regenerating.
But new cells are only as good as the cells they come from, and as time passes, cells accumulate damage to their mitochondria (the power generators inside cells) as well as DNA mutations. Those changes are passed along to newly generated cells, so all cells in the body gradually lose more energy and become less functional. It is a key aspect of aging.
Most 20-year-olds feel invincible because all of their cells are fresh and new. That’s less true in the cells of a 50-year-old, which have accumulated significant damage. By age 80, all replacement cells contain flagged-out mitochondria and damaged nuclear DNA. With less capacity to produce energy and fewer functional cellular components, aging cells are only marginally operational compared to cells during youth.
This type of cellular degradation happens at a pretty uniform rate in everyone, but that rate is accelerated when cells are stressed. Stressed cells use more energy and burn out faster. It helps explain why some of us die young, while others make it well past the centenarian mark — it depends on the stress factors that someone is exposed to throughout life, some of which are avoidable.
At the top of the list of aging accelerators: Chronic psychological stress, a poor diet high in processed foods, lack of exercise, and environmental toxins. All four of these modern-day stress factors can put pressure on cells, disrupt hormones and cellular communication, and essentially cause cell die-off and DNA mutations to happen at a faster rate than they would otherwise.
The task of cleaning up the debris of cellular death falls to your immune system. The catch is, your immune cells are aging and slowing down, too. So, if you’re losing cells faster than the immune system can keep up, things get messy. It’s a one-two punch that triggers cell-damaging inflammation and a vicious cycle.
There’s one more key age accelerator you should know about that most people aren’t aware of: Your microbiome. This collection of microbes numbers in the trillions, and resides in cells and tissues throughout the body. Microbes love to steal resources from immune cells, plus they thrive on cellular debris from an overtaxed immune system.
Here’s the catch: Microbes also have incredibly low mutation rates, which means that unlike cells, the new microbes they generate tend to be just as functional as the old ones. Essentially, they are ageless. As your immune system ages, it is less capable of keeping the menagerie of microbes that inhabit your body in check. When the wrong microbes are empowered to flourish, the immune system falters, and that’s when people not only age, but get sick.
How Adaptogenic Herbs Help Slow Aging and Increase Longevity
Given the stress factors we’re all up against — and the fact that it’s just plain impossible to eradicate them entirely from modern life — it makes sense to want to give your cells all the extra support they can handle. That’s where herbs come in.
Most herbs have some natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-microbial properties that help reduce the burden on your immune system. They also help balance hormones, allowing cells and all the systems of the body to work better. But there’s one particular category of herbs called adaptogens that, along with adaptogen companions, are particularly good at helping us tolerate the stressors that speed the aging process.
Adaptogens are a subset of tonics, herbs that help contribute to longer life by strengthening and invigorating different organs and systems throughout the body. Though there are some slight variations in the definition of an adaptogen, I like the characteristics described by renowned herbalist David Winston in his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief:
- All adaptogens have antistress qualities that help provide stabilizing effects on the neuroendocrine system, especially the HPA axis and Sympathoadrenal System (SAS).
- All adaptogens help modulate and/or enhance the immune system.
- All adaptogens inhibit cortisol-induced mitochondrial dysfunction.
Adaptogen companions have some but not all of those same characteristics, plus they help complement and enhance adaptogens’ powers.
Another key feature of adaptogens is that they don’t have drug-like effects. Traditionally, adaptogens have been used long term to promote optimal health and longevity. Because they are well tolerated and carry a very low potential for harm, adaptogenic herbs are an ideal choice for a daily supplement.
While there are several adaptogens and adaptogen companions that are effective at helping to decelerate the aging process, I have five favorites. Each is supported by researching showing they are both potent and beneficial, particularly for issues related to aging, and that when taken together cover all major systems of the body.
The 5 Best Herbs for Longevity and Well-Being
One of the first herbs defined as an adaptogen and studied by modern scientists, rhodiola is a hardy perennial plant that grows in subarctic, high-altitude areas mainly in Europe and Asia, but it’s also been found in the U.S. in the Appalachians.
The fact that rhodiola thrives in one of the harshest environments on earth is significant: Plants use their phytochemicals (or plant chemicals) to adapt to their surroundings and protect themselves from threats, and so rhodiola’s powerful ability to endure is what gets passed along to us when we consume it.
Rhodiola is a potent immunomodulator. What that means is rhodiola calms overactive portions of the immune system associated with destructive inflammation. Plus, it boosts depressed portions of the immune system to increase efficiency in managing the body’s microbes.
Rhodiola has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years to help reduce fatigue, promote strength and sexual vigor, and enhance and protect the heart and brain, especially in the face of stress. More recently, additional benefits to rhodiola’s hormone- and stress-balancing properties have been uncovered, including that it may help improve oxygenation of tissues, balance blood glucose and insulin, reduce symptoms of menopause, and improve mood.
For example, a 2016 review concluded that rhodiola helped improve mild stress-induced depression. The benefit was likely due to its role in regulating cellular response to stress, including in the neuroendocrine, neurotransmitter receptor, and molecular networks. Other research has shown rhodiola’s ability to stimulate the immune system, improve learning and memory, and help increase endurance.
Although fungi like reishi aren’t technically “herbs,” they’re just as potent and beneficial — and they’ve been used in traditional medicine practice just as long. While adaptogenic mushrooms have many uses, reishi’s main claim to fame is as an effective immune modulator.
In other words, reishi helps regulate the immune system, improving how it works: Reishi essentially directs the immune system to reduce harmful inflammation while increasing action against threatening microbes and cancer cells. The mushroom’s power is probably due in part to its beta-glucan, a polysaccharide found in fungi cell walls that’s well known for its immune-enhancing ability.
Indeed, in Asia, reishi is commonly used in conjunction with traditional cancer therapies, and a growing body of research suggests the mushroom extract may help ramp up the body’s defenses against the disease. A study in the journal Nutrients, for example, showed that the extract helped prevent cancer cells’ viability and blocked the release of inflammatory compounds in melanoma and breast cancer cells while also blocking the release of inflammatory compounds.
Another way reishi helps the body combat aging-accelerating stressors: By helping you get your Zzs. It’s a calming mushroom that restores normal sleep, a key step toward reducing high stress levels.
One of the primary spices in curry, turmeric — as well as its active compound, curcumin — is well known for its protective effects on overall health and immunity, especially as we age. More than anything, this adaptogen companion works thanks to its potent anti-inflammatory powers: It directly reduces inflammatory pathways in the body, which protects our heart, brain, and everything else. Turmeric’s compounds also act as antioxidants, and it has microbiome-balancing potential.
Given turmeric’s profile, it’s not surprising that a growing body of research has started detailing its myriad benefits, including the ability to lower your risk of various age-related diseases and protect against other age-related decline. For example, in India, where consumption of the spice is off the charts, rates of cancer and Alzheimer’s remain shockingly low — even despite high levels of toxic air and other pollution.
Though turmeric can’t take all the credit for those lower disease rates, of course, most researchers acknowledge that the spice likely plays a key role. Indeed, lab studies show that curcumin could directly help protect against neurodegenerative changes, including those that lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Other research has found it may enhance and protect cognitive function and memory as people age.
Research has likewise found that turmeric could help lower your risk of cancer, specifically of the colon, stomach, and skin, and that it may even play a role in directly fighting cancer cells. The anti-inflammatory powerhouse also seems to be a promising therapeutic agent for easing and preventing arthritis and other joint and back pain, according to a review and meta-analysis in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
A calming, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant adaptogen companion that’s part of the parsley family, gotu kola has traditionally been used in India in ayurvedic medicine as a general tonic for increasing longevity. Classically, however, it’s best known as a brain revitalizer: it helps balance and calm the brain while also encouraging alertness and supporting brain function, which are important parts of healthy aging.
Research suggests it works by revitalizing and balancing the central nervous system and nerve function, promoting the production of GABA (a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation), and inhibiting excitatory neurons, among other actions. It also helps support healthy cognition and memory. One study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, for example, found that it was effective at improving cognitive function in stroke patients.
Beyond its effect on the brain, gotu kola is an immune modulator, helping the immune system manage stress. It also promotes healthy circulation, including preventing or easing fluid retention and swelling, and is known for positive effects on skin and connective tissue.
Unlike traditional herbs that typically grow like any other plant, shilajit is best described as primordial ooze. It seeps out of rocks in the Himalayas, a byproduct of plant materials that have been compressed into the earth. But don’t let that scare you away — this adaptogen has been used for thousands of years to support health.
Shilajit’s main power lies in the fact that it contains concentrated beneficial plant compounds, namely fulvic acid. Research suggests fulvic acid, which is produced from microorganisms in the soil, helps modulate the immune system, has antioxidant properties, and may improve gastrointestinal function. Plus, it may help prevent chronic inflammatory diseases, including diabetes.
Shilajit also may help increase physical endurance and fitness, protect mitochondria, support detoxification and healthy skin, and have beneficial effects on the brain. For example, it’s been found to decrease the accumulation of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s.
After reading all that you might think, wow, these herbs cover everything! Well, that’s the point.
Rather than heroically providing acute targeted support that often comes with unwanted side effects, adaptogens and adaptogen companions address the root causes of accelerated aging on a cellular and systemic level. They work slowly and steadily, and they really shine with the cumulative benefits of daily use because they are gentle and well-tolerated with minimal to no side effects.
Given all that, it makes sense that adaptogenic agents are what will benefit you most in the long run — no matter your age.
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