"Live to 120 years old by eating as much as you want and drinking lots of red wine!"
That's the intriguing finding of a recent study from Harvard researcher David Sinclair and his group.
The only catch is that you'd have to drink about 1,500 bottles of wine a day to get those results. Of course, that would kill you pretty quickly -- before you'd have a chance to reach age 120! Still, those are important findings ...
In fact, Dr. Sinclair thinks they're so important that he started a company to produce a pharmaceutical derivative of the active compound in red wine, resveratrol.
Although his findings have merit, I think he is misguided in his attempt to find a "magic pill" that will allow you to eat whatever you want and live forever. The body is much more complex than that.
This week, I'm going to explain why a magic pill WON'T work -- and provide 10 tips that really WILL help you live longer and prevent all the diseases of aging.
Why "Magic Pills" Don't Work
Don't get me wrong. Dr. Sinclair is on the right track. But I believe he's focused on the wrong thing. In looking for that "magic pill," he's not taking into account the bigger picture.
That approach will always fail.
Sure, there has been a lot of fanfare about this new "drug" resveratrol that can extend your life span and let you eat whatever you want and have the fitness of a trained athlete without any exercise. But that's wrong on a couple of counts ...
First, resveratrol isn't a drug at all. It's a natural plant defense molecule, or "phytonutrient," that's found in grapes (and therefore red wine), as well as in peanuts, berries, and a Chinese herb called hu zhang.
Second, all the excitement reinforces the idea that a single molecule (whether from a drug or a plant) can solve all our health problems. In functional medicine we look at ALL the systems of the body. We need to consider resveratrol as just ONE of many healthful plant compounds.
You see, resveratrol is just one of thousands of polyphenols, which make up just one class of phytonutrients. These phytonutrients act in many ways, the most important of which is as a genetic control system, turning on and off genes that help us stay healthy.
This is the science of nutrigenomics -- which describes how food is information that tells our bodies what to do, not just a source of calories we need for energy.
I believe that all the excitement about resveratrol is misguided. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, and scientists (especially ones who start pharmaceutical companies to market their discoveries) are looking to make a quick buck.
There is nothing wrong with either. But in order to find the real secret to longevity and to healthy aging and fitness, we need to look at how this compound works and learn from that how to keep ourselves healthy.
The secret lies in our mitochondria.
Mitochondria: The Real Secret to Healthy Aging and Lifelong Fitness
Mitochondria are the little organs in every cell that turn oxygen and food into energy.
For now, let's examine two recent studies that shed light on these mighty little organs that hold the key to health, weight loss, and longevity.
In the first study, published in Nature, Dr. Sinclair and his colleagues gave one group of mice a diet high in fat (60 percent of calories). What happened then was interesting ...
In middle age they all became obese, got diabetes and fatty livers, and died early.
Another group of mice were fed the same diet, but also received resveratrol at a dose of 24 mg/kg of body weight. That's the equivalent of the amount of resveratrol found in about 750 to 1,500 bottles of wine a day! What happened to those mice was even more interesting ...
They still got fat -- but lived longer and did not develop diabetes. They were also more agile and had more endurance than the rats that didn't get the resveratrol. Interestingly, their cholesterol profiles didn't improve -- BUT they didn't get heart disease, showing that cholesterol is not the big evil we think it is.
Let's take a closer look at what these findings really mean.
In this study, resveratrol produced changes associated with longer lifespan and produced the following biologic effects:
• It increased insulin sensitivity, leading to better blood sugar control.
• It reduced levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-I), a molecule related to the growth hormone that promotes cancer growth.
• It increased AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a signaling system in the body that controls insulin sensitivity and can prevent diabetes.
• It increased peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor coactivator-1 (PGC-1) activity. This is a critical signaling system that turns on genes that improve blood sugar control and improve mitochondrial function.
• It increased the numbers of mitochondria, which boosts the capacity to turn food into energy and burn calories.
• It improved motor function, making the old rats more agile.
• And finally, the resveratrol helped prevent the effects of aging by modifying 144 out of 153 metabolic pathways that are controlled by genes.
This all sounds good. And it is! But the most important thing that these findings tell us is ignored by Sinclair and his colleagues.
They tell us that aging and disease are controlled in large part by SUGAR and insulin function in the body!
In a moment I will explain how you can use this information to reverse disease, lose weight, and live longer and healthier. But first, let me tell you about the second study, which in some ways was even more dramatic.
That study, which was published in Cell by Johan Auwerx from the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cell Biology in Illkirch, France, tested much higher doses of resveratrol in mice. These doses were 18 times higher than those in the first study. That's 400 mg/kg of resveratrol -- equal to about 360 daily capsules of resveratrol for a 130-pound person!
Imagine achieving the fitness of a trained athlete, staying thin, preventing diabetes and heart disease, and living to 120 years old -- all while eating a high-calorie, high-fat diet (and taking 360 pills a day of resveratrol)! That's the equivalent of what happened to the rats.
Specifically, the rats fed the high doses of resveratrol along with their high-calorie, high-fat diet showed the following effects:
• They did NOT gain weight, and reduced the size of fat cells.
• They didn't develop pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
• They increased the number of energy-producing mitochondria in their muscle cells.
• Their metabolic thermostat was turned up and they increased fat burning by increasing thermogenesis.
• They increased their endurance and aerobic capacity (without exercise).
• They maintained their cells' sensitivity to insulin, resulting in better blood sugar control.
Plus, they had enhanced muscle strength, reduced muscle fatigue, and improved coordination. And resveratrol increased the activity of PGC-1 alpha, which in turn controls genes that affect blood sugar control -- with no bad effects on their organs.
This seems incredible! But it's all very plausible if you understand the root causes of obesity, aging, and disease. Those causes are blood sugar control and the health, number, and function of your mitochondria.
It's unlikely that taking ONLY resveratrol -- even at high doses -- will allow us to live a life of sloth and gluttony and be disease-free forever. But what these studies do tell us is VERY important.
When we view these findings from a systems perspective -- understanding ALL the influences on blood sugar control, insulin, and our mitochondrial function -- we can create a lifestyle and program that works to keep us healthy, thin, and young.
Recently, I was at a conference on longevity and aging and had a chance to converse with Dr. Leonard Guarente from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1995, Dr. Guarente discovered a gene called SIR-2 in yeast that controls longevity. He was a teacher of David Sinclair, who authored one of the recent studies on resveratrol I discussed above.
I asked Dr. Guarente what REALLY was at the root of the effects of this master gene that controls longevity (called SIRT-1 in humans). Resveratrol works through this gene. His answer was quite simple. It was ...
This gene has its master effects on aging by improving how the body controls sugar and insulin sensitivity.
This isn't really surprising. All the effects of aging are increased by worsening blood sugar control -- even before you get diabetes. People with diabetes have smaller and more poorly functioning mitochondria and get cancer, heart disease, and dementia at far greater rates than the general population.
So if we could fix our blood sugar control and boost our mitochondria, we could live longer and disease-free.
Considering this, let's look at the big picture again ...
Taking a magic pill just won't do the trick. That's especially true if you factor in all the other real-life insults that affect us, such as poor diet, stress, environmental toxins, and a sedentary lifestyle -- all of which affect blood sugar control and mitochondria.
Instead, you need to know ALL the factors that DAMAGE your blood sugar control and mitochondria. And you need to know ALL the factors that IMPROVE or boost your blood sugar control and mitochondria.
These are just the back-to-the-basics principles of functional medicine that I've been talking about for years -- identify the bad stuff and take it away; identify the good stuff and add it.
So what can you do to live longer and stay disease-free -- other than drink 1,500 bottles of wine or take 360 pills of resveratrol a day? Here is just a partial list!
Ten Tips to Help You Live a Longer and Healthier Life
1. Balance your blood sugar. I outline how in UltraMetabolism: increase your intake of whole foods that contain lots of fiber, such as beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
2. Eat protein with every meal. This helps balance your blood sugar. Include nuts, beans, fish, lean animal protein, and omega-3 eggs in your diet.
3. Increase your intake of omega-3 fats. These improve blood sugar control by working on the same cell-signaling mechanisms as resveratrol. Eat wild fish (salmon, sardines, black cod, and herring) or take omega-3 fatty acid pills (1,000 to 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA a day).
4. Eliminate or dramatically limit flour products. That means anything with sugar from any source.
5. Find ways to relax every day. This prevents diabetes and controls your blood sugar by reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
6. To boost your mitochondria, you will need to exercise and build muscle. Try interval training, a technique of exercising fast (like sprinting) for one minute and then more slowly (like fast walking) for three minutes. Repeat this in cycles totaling 30 minutes twice a week.
7. Eat foods with phytonutrients. There are many protective ones other than resveratrol, including those found in green tea, pomegranate, and all dark, colorful fruits and vegetables.
8. Consider supplements that help protect and boost your mitochondria. These include Coenzyme Q10 (100 to 200 mg a day), acetyl-l-carnitine (500 to 1,000 mg twice a day), alpha-lipoic acid (100 to 200 mg twice a day), D-ribose (5 g once or twice a day), magnesium (150 to 300 mg twice a day), B-complex vitamins (daily), and NADH (5 to 10 mg a day).
9. Live clean and green. Limit your exposure to heavy metals, pollution, and other environmental toxins -- all of which poison your mitochondria.
10. Learn how to detoxify. Support your body's detoxification system and your liver function.
This is just a start of what you can do.
Just remember -- you will need to take a comprehensive approach to health, leveraging the latest research to help you improve your metabolism, stay thin, and live longer. There are no quick fixes. But addressing your whole system will give you a huge advantage!
Now I'd like to hear from you ...
What do you think about the constant drive to find a "magic pill" to cure all our health woes?
Have you experienced any instances of looking at the big picture of your health versus trying to solve all your problems with a "magic pill"? What were the results?
Have you tried taking resveratrol supplements? Did you notice any effects?
What are you doing to improve your mitochondrial function?
Have you experienced any health or weight loss benefits by getting your own blood sugar and insulin under control?
Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, M.D.
Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more