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The longevity hormones
Publication Date : 20-03-2013
It's possible to have youthful levels of hormones even at past the age of 50
About a year ago, I wrote about the Okinawans, who are famous for their longevity. The secret of their longevity, according to Professor Emeritus Makoto Suzuki, who is the leading expert on the Okinawa longevity phenomenon, lies in their diet, culture and lifestyle.
While much has been written about their diet, culture and lifestyle, the only glaring difference in their blood tests is that they continue to have youthful levels of the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) as they age past 50.
DHEA is the most abundant hormone in the body. It is produced by the adrenal glands. It is required by both sexes and levels decline with age. At age 60, the level is only about 40 per cent of its peak.
It improves sexual function, increases muscle mass, reduces fat, stimulates bone growth, improves sleep, mobility, memory, immunity and reduces pain. It may help improve arterial disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, lupus, and possibly cancer.
It is also the precursor for the sex-hormones (oestrogens and androgens).
While the direct effect of DHEA is relatively weak compared to the sex hormones, a healthy level of DHEA is crucial because it is needed to manufacture the sex hormones.
Strenuous physical exercise and stress increase DHEA secretion, as do high protein and high fat diets. Conversely, a sedentary lifestyle and diets high in carbohydrates, cereals and sugar reduce secretion.
In anti-ageing hormone management, DHEA is among the most important hormones monitored and corrected/optimised (if necessary).
While DHEA is the mother of the sex hormones, pregnenolone is the grandmother of all the steroid hormones, which include DHEA, the sex hormones, glucocorticoid adrenal hormones (eg cortisol and other steroids responsible for stress and glucose management), and mineralocorticoid adrenal hormones (eg aldosterone, responsible for salt and water regulation).
Pregnenolone is manufactured from cholesterol. This is one example of the vital role that cholesterol plays in the body. So cholesterol itself is not bad. It is the excess and the “bad” cholesterol that is harmful.
Even that concept (that high cholesterol is bad) is controversial and I hope to write about this in the future.
Pregnenolone level declines with age, and is indirectly responsible for the decline of the steroidal hormones. A serious deficiency in pregnenolone affects many organ systems because it is the precursor of so many hormones which influence so many organs.
While the main function of pregnenolone is as a precursor or pro-hormone, it is also a neurotransmitter. It has been used with some success to improve memory and to reduce stress/depression.
Since memory decline is a constant and worrying feature of ageing, anti-ageing doctors often use pregnenolone to alleviate the problem, and about half of the patients report some improvement.
Pregnenolone testing and supplementation are not readily available here. Therefore most of the anti-ageing doctors test for, and correct/optimise the other hormones instead as an indirect way of addressing suspected pregnenolone deficiency.
Most of you may be aware that melatonin is used to counter the effects of “jet-lag” after long-distance travel, but you may not be aware that it is also a youth/longevity hormone.
Its level also declines with age like the other hormones previously mentioned, and its impact on health goes beyond normalising the sleep rhythm.
Melatonin is a neuro-hormone produced in the pineal gland, which is a small gland almost diagonally opposite the pituitary, in the mid-brain.
In the esoteric world of mysticism, metaphysics and occultism, the pineal gland is variously believed to be the “seat of the soul”; the centre of the “sixth sense”; or even the “third eye” (connected to the Ajna chakra, which is important in spiritual awakening, clairvoyance and higher states of consciousness).
Circulating levels of melatonin vary in a daily cycle, and influences the circadian rhythm of several biological systems. In animals, it even influences sexual development, hibernation and seasonal breeding.
Melatonin production decreases with age. The reduced and delayed melatonin production/release (at night) as we grow older partly explains the later sleeping and waking times.
While the sleep-inducing effects of melatonin is well known (it also improves quality of sleep by relaxing the muscles and calming the nerves), our interest here is its health and anti-ageing effects.
Melatonin improves HGH (the youth hormone) secretion and also improves thyroid function. It calms down excessive stress, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
Melatonin is a powerful broad-spectrum antioxidant that does not itself become a free radical once it has been oxidised, unlike other antioxidants. Each melatonin molecule, through its metabolites, can neutralise up to 10 free radicals (reactive oxygen/nitrogen species).
The other powerful antioxidant that mops up many free radicals without itself becoming a free radical is silica hydride.
Melatonin is especially useful in protecting DNA from free-radical damage. It has been shown in animal experiments to protect against brain injury and Parkinson’s disease. As a longevity hormone, it has been shown to increase lifespan by 20 per cent in mice. Let us hope human studies will be done too.
Melatonin is readily available over-the-counter in many countries and even in some aeroplanes for the convenience of travellers. Unfortunately, it is not available here, so we have to get it from overseas to prescribe to our patients who need them.
Cortisol – the stress resistance hormone
Cortisol is the most important glucocorticoid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It also has a circadian rhythm (highest in the morning) and decreases with age.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone (breaks down tissues to provide energy) in contrast to HGH, DHEA and the sex hormones, which are anabolic (build and preserve tissues/body).
Cortisol allows us to respond adequately to stress by making energy available (increased blood glucose), maintaining or raising blood pressure, and fighting inflammation.
Cortisol and its derivatives are therefore widely used as anti-inflammatory drugs (for all forms of inflammation and pain), and are widely abused in sports to enhance performance and manage the stress of competitions.
The overuse and abuse can give rise to dangerous side-effects.
The abuse has given a bad name to cortisol and steroid hormones because the public only know the bad side of the story. In reality, those with low levels of cortisol can easily be helped with their health and behavioural problems such as poor memory, emotional lability, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, irritability, poor reaction to stressful situations, negativism, being quarrelsome, paranoia, excessive emotions, hair loss, being underweight, inflammatory skin conditions, muscle and joint pains, fatigue, dark eye circles, and a host of other problems.
There are many people who can benefit from cortisol therapy (if their problems correlate with low cortisol levels), but many are reluctant and aghast because the doctor prescribes a steroid (hormone) drug!
Correcting and optimising cortisol levels can result in mood enhancement, more energy, better work performance, better stress management, and improved immune system.
The natural ways to increase cortisol are by exercising in the morning sunlight and by consuming certain foods (eg licorice).
Since cortisol level decreases with age, and the aged are the ones most likely to have problems of inflamed and damaged joints and other tissues, their ability to cope with the damage is compromised. Thus many end up with chronic injuries and have to consume all sorts of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs.
This is worsened by the decline in the anabolic hormones that are needed to preserve and build tissues.
The right balance and synergy of hormones are required to maintain optimum health. Even during the day, there is a programmed symphony among them. The “active” hormones like cortisol and testosterone peak in the morning, while the hormones like melatonin and HGH work quietly at night while we sleep.
In the next article, I will discuss hormone therapy in more detail.
Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong.