“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”
– Woody Allen –
Longevity has been a cherished goal of humankind since the beginning of time. Perhaps the oldest known comprehensive medical text is the Charaka Samhita, the Ayurvedic encyclopedia compiled by the physician Charaka based upon the original work of the sage Atreya, who lived about 2500 years ago. The book begins, “Now I shall expound upon the subject of longevity. . . .When disease appears, it creates great impediments to penance, abstinence, study, religious observance and lifespan. The holy sages, out of sympathy for all living creatures, assembled at the side of the Himalayas to seek a solution.”
To these ancient sages, the ideal goal was for everyone to have a blessed life. By a “blessed life” they meant a long and healthy life, with time to develop skills, extraordinary memory, intellectual abilities, spiritual knowledge, clear perception and a deeper understanding of reality. They found herbal medicines to be one of the greatest supports for achieving this end, and many spent their entire lives searching for rejuvenating herbal tonics (Bajracharya, 1995).
Tonification and nourishment are two of the most important keys to longevity, and herbal medicine excels in this arena. By the way, this connection between relgious faith and longevity is found not only in Hinduism, but throught the worlds religions –Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.
Let’s begin by asking the simplest question possible – What is Aging?
Fortunately, I don’t have to give you my own answer. In their book Biomarkers: The 10 Determinants Of Aging You Can Control, authors Evans and Rosenberg delineate many physical biomarkers associated with the aging process, including:
• Reduced flexibility & strength
• Decreased cardiovascular endurance
• Increased body fat
• Reduced resting energy expenditure
• Reduced kidney clearance
• Reduced cell-mediated immunity
• Increased hearing threshold
• Reduced close vision and dark accommodation
• Reduced taste and smell sensitivity
• Altered hormone levels
• Increased auto-antibodies
To this we can add worsening memory and concentration, lowered sex drive and just plain old feeling old. This gives us a starting point. The next question is, can anything be done about this? It is obvious that we can delay problems with strength, body fat, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility by utilizing such measures as diet and exercise.
Looking closely, we can see that most of the other markers are directly or indirectly related to our defensive and immune system function. Moreover, a review of the research studies highlighted throughout this website shows that each and every one of the markers listed above can be affected by herbal medicines. As we proceed through the websites articles on immune function, I will describe different ways of affecting our immune system and other defenses, and I will explain individual herbs and formulas known to benefit overall defensive function, as well as formulas and herbs for specific health problems.
It is important to know that, as a rule, immune tonic herbs can be used both for prolonging life in the healthy, and for overcoming disease in the sick. As well, many of the same mechanisms that are related to aging are also causative of serious illness such as cancer (Campis, 2000).
Strengthening Defensive Energy
We all have trillions of immune cells and other defensive mechanisms. These are generally divided into specific immunity and other non-specific defenses, discussed in detail in my other immune system articles. Our complex defensive systems recognizes and destroys foreign substances that enter our body. If these defenses are strong, we can weather health challenges effortlessly and avoid tissue damage. However, if defensive components are weakened or dysfunctional for any reason, external pathogenic or toxic influences can gain inroad, which results in cellular damage and the gradual or sudden appearance of physical symptoms. Many of the health problems often attributed to the aging process, such as senility and fatigue, are caused by simple nutrient deficiencies that weaken our immune system (Rosenberg and Miller, 1992). The importance of immunity in preventing disease and damage makes it one of the keys to longevity.
Common indicators of potential immune system problems:
• Chronic fatigue
• Frequent or persistent bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic infections
• Inflammatory disorders of all sorts
• Increased signs of aging
Longevity Begins Before Conception
Let’s take a look at one of the many insights of ancient Ayurveda–the series of health practices used to prepare newly married women and men for child conception. The ancient Ayurvedics believed that various forms of meditation, fasting and tonics would support the creation of healthy babies. They also employed specific health and nutritional practices to support the mother’s health during pregnancy, including the simple admonition that pregnant women should shield themselves from stressful and emotionally disturbing conditions.
Modern scientists are reporting mounting evidence to support the early wisdom that conditions in the womb can strongly affect the risk of adult disease. Scientists are now referring to these links as “fetal programming” (Nathaniels, 1999). Following are several examples:
• Researchers have recently discovered a higher likelihood of obesity in children whose mothers are starved during pregnancy.
• Doctors have found low birth weight to be a strong predictor of adult heart disease.
• There is now evidence that links certain conditions in the womb to the eventual development of breast cancer.
• Researchers have long reported a reduction in the ratio of lung volume to body weight as a result of reduced prenatal caloric and nutrient intake (Winick and Noble, 1966).
Consequently, I recommend the following preparatory practices to ensure successful conception of a healthy baby with strong lungs, heart and immune system.
• Husband and wife should both adopt healthy lifestyles and engage in periods of fasting and meditation.
• Eliminate all alcohol, tobacco and drugs to avoid poisoning your child.
• Eat adequate levels of healthy high-quality fats, carbohydrates and proteins to avoid toxemia during pregnancy, and obesity later in your child’s life.
• Take a good quality pre-natal vitamin
• TCM doctors tell us that the mother needs healthy blood to create a healthy baby. Nai-shing uses a simple combination of dang gui root, ho shou wu root, cooked rehmannia root and American ginseng root.
The Tragedy of Air and Water Pollution
Unfortunately, our increasingly limited access to pure air and clean water will continue to wreak havoc on the health of all living creatures. If you are able to, I strongly suggest that you go to your local library and borrow a copy of the Spring, 2000 special edition of Time magazine, entitled “How to Save the Earth.” I do not have the words to explain the importance of this issue. Suffice it to say that after a thorough analysis of global statistics, according to the journal Epidemiology, “Our estimate is that 25-33% of the global burden of disease can be attributed to environmental risk factors,” and “Children under 5 years of age seem to bear the largest environmental burden” (Smith KR et al., 1999).
Simple Steps for Strengthening the Immune System
• Sufficient intake of all major nutrients is especially important. I recommend taking a high-potency multi-vitamin and mineral combination. Alsoassess and correct lifestyle and dietary problems and ensure proper digestion, as defined in previous sections.
• Devise a specific whole-system herbal tonification formula according to the principles of Western, TAM or TCM medicine based on your unique individual needs.
• Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
• Get as much as you can of the Three Magic Life Nutrients and the One Essential.
The Three Magic Life Nutrients and the One Essential
Although the focus of this website is natural medicine, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The three magic life nutrients are clean air, clean water, and sunlight. The one essential is pure love. As simple as this may sound, these nutrients have a direct impact on your health and your immune system. Many if not most of my patients with chronic illness have a deficiency of one or more of these nutrients. It is my contention that in the long run, concentrating on these four elements can be an extremely effective means of preventing disease.