Ginseng, Aging and Longevity
2020-06-25 23:31:08 |
Ginseng’s effect on the hormonal system plays an important part in assisting the immune system in several ways. @ Shutterstock
Considering that ginseng reduces the harmful effects of stress chemicals in your body, enhances your metabolism and circulation, and guards against many types of disease, it should come as no surprise that ginseng can add years to your life. The logic of this is obvious: when you are less stressed, in better shape, and have fewer illnesses, you are much more likely to stay healthy and live longer.
However, since the biology of human ageing and the factors that determine longevity are enormously complex, it is clearly worthwhile to understand in more detail how ginseng affects longevity. Let figure out what scientists now understand about how and why we age, and wherein this equation ginseng fits.
Over the course of the last several centuries, the average human life span has increased tremendously, more than tripling since the 1700s alone. In 1796, the average human life span was just twenty-five years, by 1896 it was forty-eight years, and by 1996 it had increased to almost eighty years for people in developed countries. For many people, being sixty-four is almost like being a spring chicken, they still have plenty of verve and vitality left in them, and their lives in retirement only get more exciting.
Some scientists project that the human life span will rise to 120 or even 150 by the year 2050. But the good news about increasing life span is not just that science is helping people to live a longer life, but that researchers are discovering the keys to helping people stay younger and healthier for decades longer. There is little value in living an extra thirty to fifty years if you are weak, debilitated, and unable to perform the normal activities of life. Most of us naturally want to live our senior years as energetically and actively as our younger years and want to be free of disease and infirmity so we can enjoy the blessings of retirement. When researchers today talk about prolonging life, they are talking about ways to slow or halt the ageing process in order to prolong youth.
In recent years, scientists have originated many new ideas and developed a number of theories about ageing that seem to make a great deal of sense. More importantly, nearly every one of these theories has led researchers to at least one useful discovery that is at least partially effective in staving off either normal or pathologic ageing.
There are two broad groups of theories. The first is that ageing is programmed into our genes, like other evolutionary traits of Homo sapiens that are passed down through our DNA. This theory proposes that our body has a sort of biological clock that essentially ticks down the years and knows when to set the ageing process in motion. This is first seen when the clock sets into motion the process of sexual maturation as we go from childhood to young adulthood. Continued ageing from adulthood to death is thus simply the continuation of that process.
In contrast, the other main group of theories about ageing is focused on the idea that the physical manifestation of growing old occurs accidentally and randomly. The premise in these theories is that while nature intended us to die after we procreate, it left it to chance how and when this would occur. As a result, our body is susceptible to various forces that create “errors” in our metabolism, making us prone to disease and decay.
To understand where ginseng fits into all this, let’s look in more depth at a few of the theories of ageing.
The “Wear and Tear” Theory
This theory proposes that the body and its cells are damaged by normal use and abuse over time. The organs of the body including the liver, stomach, kidneys, and skin are susceptible to stress and toxins from our diet and the environment, which wear them down each passing year. The consumption of foods such as fats, sugars, caffeine, and alcohol constitute abuses that especially tax the organs, but even the normal day-to-day activities of life that expose us to the sun’s rays and force us to use our bodies are also inevitable causes of wear and tear. In short, the process of life itself creates ageing, and not much can be done to prevent this. In this theory, the actual cause of ageing is not simply the wear and tear, but that as we grow older, the body cannot repair itself fast enough to counteract the problems created by this use and abuse. When we are young, our bodies produce enough of the necessary chemicals to combat toxins in the body, and they work efficiently at fixing cellular wear and tear. However, as we age, the body loses this ability to repair and maintain its system quickly, so more cells are worn and torn before the body can replace them. Thus, we both age and become more prone to infirmities and diseases.
Ginseng reduces wear and tear on the body because it lessens the chemical effects of stress; increases your ability to use oxygen in your muscle tissue, which gives you greater stamina and endurance; and supports your immune system against disease. Ginseng has a beneficial effect on the mitochondria in cells, increasing their ability to produce energy. Overall, this means that your body is less prone to wear and tear, thus effectively slowing down the ageing process. The best evidence is the millions of people in China and in other parts of the world who have taken ginseng their entire lives, many of whom appear to be younger and healthier than their chronological counterparts who have not taken ginseng. Since so many factors influence how old a person looks and feels, and how long he or she lives. Nevertheless, people who take ginseng over long periods of time swear they feel younger and healthier than they would have if they had not taken ginseng.
The Free Radical Theory
Free radicals upset the harmony of the body. Free radicals are thought to attack cell membranes and in the process produce waste products that are toxic to our cells because they destroy or disturb the normal DNA and RNA synthesis occurring within the cells. It is also thought that free radicals interfere with the synthesis of protein and thus lower the amount of energy available to you and prevent the body from building muscle mass. Free radicals also destroy enzymes needed for vital chemical processes in the metabolism. Not only do free radicals thus promote ageing, but they are also associated as a causative factor in heart disease, cancers, skin problems, and autoimmune diseases.
The chemistry of ginseng fits in extremely well with the free radical theory of ageing because ginseng has been shown to significantly aid in improving the body’s metabolism and the use of oxygen. By stimulating the body’s metabolism, ginseng reduces the dysfunctions that allow for the formation of free radicals. Another possible aid that ginseng provides is that it improves the ability of the liver to eliminate fatty lipids and lower LDL cholesterol, both of which seem to be key elements in the production of free radicals. Besides, high levels of glucose in the bloodstream impair or deactivate enzymes, proteins, and even DNA in our genes. This contributes to the making of free radicals. Since ginseng helps regulate the level of glucose in the blood, this may be another benefit it offers to counteract the ageing forces of free radicals.
The Immune System Theory
The immune system theory holds that over time the immune system stops functioning in its normal fashion as the body’s line of defence against foreign substances that enter the body and interfere with the proper functioning of cells. The theory states two major findings: first, the level of antibodies in the body declines with age; and second, many autoimmune diseases occur with age, indicating that the body loses its ability to distinguish between its own cells and foreign cells. Other things in the body such as hormones and the nervous system also affect the immune system.
Ginseng fits into the immune system theory in an obvious way. Ginseng’s effect on the hormonal system plays an important part in assisting the immune system in several ways. First, because ginseng strengthens the adrenals and helps the body moderate its stress response by reducing the corticosteroids in your blood, your immune system is less taxed. In addition, ginseng beneficially affects the hormonal system, which in turn stimulates the neurotransmitters that ultimately strengthen the immune system and make it more responsive to foreign agents.
The Neuroendocrine Theory
This theory holds that the body’s hormonal system, led by the hypothalamus, is responsible for determining aging. The hypothalamus regulates the endocrine glands in the body, which in turn controls many critical processes, including growth, metabolism, energy production, cellular repair and sexual maturity. As we age and reach the point of sexual maturity, our body knows that it has reached its evolutionary goal to propagate the species. Beyond that point, there is no true reason to maintain the same level of hormonal upkeep, so the hypothalamus begins to produce less and less of its hormones and the entire endocrine system slowly ceases to function properly. A chain reaction then occurs: the metabolism slows down, our ability to produce energy declines, and our immune systems become weakened. Recent research has uncovered a hormone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is produced by the adrenal glands and seems to control the production of the other adrenal hormones including corticosteroids, testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. In this research, it was learned that DHEA production is very high in infants and remains so until a person is about twenty-five years old and then begins to decline sharply. By the time we are sixty-five, we produce only 10% to 20% of the amount of DHEA we produced when we were twenty years old. This falling off of the hormone has led scientists to correlate the production of DHEA directly with ageing. And since the hypothalamus controls the adrenal glands, it is believed that the whole process is biologically determined by the clock in the hypothalamus.
Ginseng cannot ultimately prevent death, it can at least bolster the hormonal system to slow the ageing process and make the body more resistant to disease. There is extensive research that suggests DHEA is a key element in preventing heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and many types of cancers.
The Genetic Control Theory
This theory holds that our DNA is encoded with a preprogrammed set of instructions that determines how quickly we age and how long we live. However, this scenario seems quite inconsistent with the evidence of evolution, so if genetics plays a role in longevity, it is likely to be much less predictable one. If that is so, ginseng does indeed offer some hope for increased longevity as it may prevent the apparent natural damage that occurs in our DNA over time. Ginseng helps the body burn oxygen and glucose more efficiently, and helps reduce the number of toxins, waste products, and free radicals in the bloodstream. It is very conceivable that it can play a role in slowing the clock that tells the DNA you are ready to get old.
In a nutshell
Given the fact that each of us is unique, it is likely that no single solution may work for all people in the effort to combat ageing. Each of the theories cited holds some degree of truth. In fact, ageing likely happens because of a combination of factors including biology, lifestyle, environment. However, nature has endowed us with many redundant systems in our body to protect us and keep us living. Our DNA is programmed to form us as embryos and to continue repairing the damage that naturally occurs in our cells when we become ill or get hurt. Our hormonal system determines our growth rate and metabolism and acts to preserve our body in the face of stress and challenge. Our immune system keeps us alive by finding and killing foreign agents that invade our bodies and eliminating toxins that form in our cells. Our central nervous system, via its neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, controls how all parts of the body communicate with one another, including the circulatory system, the glands, the muscles, and the brain. All of these systems spark certain neurotransmitters that then influence our immune system, and the immune system can trigger the hormonal system to go into overdrive, and so on.
Ultimately, what we do to support one bodily system impacts them all. This is why adding ginseng to your diet can have beneficial repercussions throughout your body, leading to a healthier, longer life. Think of your body as you would a car; the more you can facilitate an efficient operation (your metabolism) that runs smoothly, consistently, and with little wear and tear or rust (oxidation), the fewer breakdowns you will have and the less you will need a mechanic (your immune system) to make repairs.
Of course, there is more to ensuring your longevity than taking any one single substance. If you are interested in extending your life span, ginseng should be just one element among many in a well-thought-out and prepared a program that includes good nutrition, regular exercise, and a positive, life-sustaining attitude.
MoraMarco J. (1998). The complete ginseng handbook. Contemporary books.
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