Aging is a natural process, and although we achieve greater longevity than preceding generations, we often gain time without being healthier in those extra years. This is, at least in part, due to our lack of emphasis on Essence, autophagy, and hormesis. In this article, we will delve into the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concept of Essence, how it relates to aging, and how it compares to genetics. We will also discuss the role of autophagy in aging, and how hormesis and adaptogens play a key role in improving quality of life and longevity. Finally, we will address specific herbal and lifestyle therapies informed by TCM and modern medicine, and how these therapies can help our patients live longer, fuller, healthier lives.
ESSENCE AND TCM
TCM practitioners hold that we receive a finite amount of “Essence” at the moment of conception. It is the very substance by which our bodies renew themselves. As we age, our Essence gradually depletes, leading to a breakdown of our health and an inability to fully remake ourselves. Among the factors that accelerate depletion of Essence are chronic stress, acute crisis, and excessive stimulant use. By creating a calm, balanced lifestyle in harmony with nature, we can preserve our Essence, extending our lives, and enhancing our quality of life throughout the years that we live.
AGING AND EPIGENETICS
The modern geneticist David Sinclair describes the aging process using the metaphor of how we use digital and analog storage devices in the modern world. In his example, we receive a digital record of the genetic code required to make us at conception. He compares this initial copy of our genetic make-up to a digital hard drive that stores information. This “digital hard drive” maintains its fidelity indefinitely. However, after conception, the genes begin to express themselves, meaning they create the proteins that make up the structural components of our bodies. In this analogy, the active expression of our genetics is an analog process, and is subject to the interactive pressures of our environment. In modern terminology, we call this process of genetics interacting with the environment epigenetics. David Sinclair sums it up nicely in this quote:
“I am convinced aging is largely an epigenetic disease. DNA is digital. Epigenome is analog and subject to loss.”1
EPIGENETICS AND ESSENCE
This analogy tethers nicely onto the TCM concept of Essence in the description of how over time, our analog genetic records grow “scratched.” Just as a music CD or a vinyl record gradually becomes too scratched to play, our genes become too scratched to generate a complete copies, leading to the aging process and our eventual mortality. In both models, the important thing to remember is that it is the amount of stress, and how we either adapt to it, or not, that determines how quickly or slowly we age, and how much vitality we maintain while we live.
MODERN GENETIC THEORIES OF AGING
A number of modern medical theories attempt to explain the cause of senescence (aging) in living organisms. All of them reference a loss of the body’s ability to successfully adapt to environmental conditions, and all of them have a genetic component. Modern medical models of aging include: wear and tear, free radical damage, enzyme depletion, and accumulated genetic error. These theories involve the shift to a catabolic-dominant metabolic process indicated by: declining hormone levels, less efficient hormone response, hormone resistance and desensitization, reduced ability to utilize food for energy, increased inflammation and waste products, and slower recovery time. Similarly, in TCM thought, the symptoms associated with senescence manifest with declining Essence.
Autophagy, the recycling pathway responsible for the breakdown of damaged and/or dysfunctional cellular proteins and organelles, also plays a key role in longevity and wellness.3 When this physiological housekeeping mechanism declines, cells accumulate dysfunctional and damaged material, leading to premature degeneration and cell death. Owing to its influential role in longevity, and in the regulation of a growing number of known disease processes, autophagy has become a focal point of scientific research and discussion.
“Aging is a biological phenomenon characterized at the cellular level by a progressive accumulation of dysfunctional proteins and damaged organelles.”2
AUTOPHAGY AND CALORIC RESTRICTION
The most simple way to induce autophagy is through caloric restriction.2 When our cells detect no fuel is coming in, they begin to turn on the autophagic process, recycling and clearing out accumulated materials. There are many forms of fasting, including intermittent fasting regimens, short water fasts (1-3 days), extended water fasts, juice fasts, and more. Research shows that caloric restriction can “cause a rapid and profound upregulation of autophagy in the brain.”6,7,8,9 Moderate to high intensity exercise is also a powerful inducer of autophagy, along with the use of specific botanically-derived polyphenols that trigger key metabolic switches that direct the autophagic process.2,4,5
As living beings, struggle is written into our DNA. The term Hormesis describes the body’s beneficial response to challenging external stimuli. Hormesis is a modern scientific way to convey the old adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and it is a crucial aspect of human physiology. Without stresses, without challenges, we don’t build the mechanisms required to deal with them.
Adaptogens belong to a specific class of botanical medicines that increase the body’s adaptive capacity. These herbs help preserve Essence by increasing the amount of stress the body can handle, leading to a greater capacity for hormetic adaptation, thereby increasing vitality. Adaptogens are also rich in polyphenols, which have the capacity to activate those key switches that trigger autophagy, improving our ability to eliminate unwanted wastes and avoiding the accumulation of materials that accompanies virtually all of the chronic diseases associated with aging. These molecular multi-taskers also improve the body’s capacity to quench free radicals,10,11 which contribute to the aging process, and represent one of the environmental pressures that “scratch the vinyl record” in Sinclair’s analogy.
Adaptogens are a foundational component of the regimens I provide for my patients. They are safe, effective, have a long history of use, and are normalizing to the body, making them much easier to use than most botanical medicines.
We may never fully understand the causes of aging and death. As old as life itself, aging and death reflect the natural cycles of birth, development, decline, and renewal. We can’t prevent the processes of aging or death, nor perhaps should we. But with the use of specific botanical and nutritional agents, lifestyle adjustments including caloric restriction and moderate to high intensity exercise, and a balanced wellness regime with a mental-emotional component, we can slow the aging process and help our patients age gracefully while adding healthy years to their lives.
Listen to my talk on this subject here.
- Sinclair, David A.. “LifeSpan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To”
- Escobar, KA, Cole, NH, Mermier, CM, VanDusseldorp, TA. Autophagy and aging: Maintaining the proteome through exercise and caloric restriction. Aging Cell. 2019; 18:e12876. https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12876
- Levine, B., & Kroemer, G. (2008). Autophagy in the pathogenesis of disease. Cell, 132(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2007.12.018
- David E. Stevenson (2012). Polyphenols as Adaptogens – The Real Mechanism of the Antioxidant Effect?, Bioactive Compounds in Phytomedicine, Prof. Iraj Rasooli (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-805-2
- Ji, L.L.; Radak, Z. & Goto, S. (2008). Hormesis and Exercise: How the Cell Copes with Oxidative Stress. American Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 44-58.
- Hara T, et al. Suppression of basal autophagy in neural cells causes neurodegenerative disease in mice. Nature. 2006;441:885–889.
- Komatsu M, et al. Loss of autophagy in the central nervous system causes neurodegeneration in mice. Nature. 2006;441:880–884.
- Mizushima N, Levine B, Cuervo AM, Klionsky DJ. Autophagy fights disease through cellular self-digestion. Nature. 2008;451:1069–1075.
- Alirezaei M, Kiosses WB, Flynn CT, Brady NR, Fox HS. Disruption of neuronal autophagy by infected microglia results in neurodegeneration. PLoS ONE. 2008;3:2906.
- Pandey, K. B., & Rizvi, S. I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2(5), 270–278. https://doi.org/10.4161/oxim.2.5.9498
- Hooper, P. L., Hooper, P. L., Tytell, M., & Vígh, L. (2010). Xenohormesis: health benefits from an eon of plant stress response evolution. Cell stress & chaperones, 15(6), 761–770. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12192-010-0206-x
Jason Miller DACM, LAc, Dipl O.M. (NCCAOM) is a writer, lecturer, clinician, and co-founder of Jade Mountain Medicine Inc. in Ashland Oregon. In clinical practice Jason specializes in the collaborative management of patients with cancer and chronic disease.