Human lifespans are lengthening as our understanding of the human body improves. Despite this, there seems to be a pervasive belief in our society that chronological age correlates perfectly with biological age, and that aging is a continually and reliably degenerative process that we have no control over, much like our genetics.
In reality, age-related parameters like telomeres, DNA methylation, and brain connectivity are highly plastic and vary throughout our lifespans. Our bodies diligently work to maintain homeostasis, given the proper environmental inputs. With the newer field of epigenetics, we're learning that environmental factors can have a major effect on gene expression.
More than half of diseases are caused by environmental factors. From the largest twin study to date, using a data set of 45 million Americans insured with Aetna, it was found that only 40% of the 560 diseases analyzed are driven by genes (Harvard, Washington Post). The study, conducted at Harvard Medical School and University of Queensland, was published in early 2019 in Nature Genetics (Lakhani, 2019).
Environmental factors include lifestyle behaviors, exposures, and even beliefs. It encompasses diet, exercise, sleep, posture, breathing, sun exposure; the air, soil, and water quality in the place where you grew up; stress and trauma; interventions such as cold immersions, forest bathing, massages, spas, and saunas; and belief-based subconscious rewiring rituals like meditation, journaling, and gratitude practice.
Even the mind is moldable. The brains and immune systems of experienced meditators can appear decades younger than age-matched controls, as measured by brain connectivity and leukocyte telomerase activity (Lazar, 2005). An older person can be as healthy as a younger person if they take good care of themselves. This is why we are seeing more and more centenarians.
The quality of healthcare is also improving as more people are seeing the limitations of one-size-fits-all prescription drugs. Functional medicine looks at whole organism and their relationship to the ecosystem around them. (To learn more, see holistic healthcare).
Equipped with the knowledge of our genetics and family history, we can design informed, preemptive lifestyle interventions in order to live longer, healthier lives. Here are 14 signs that the body is designed to heal, grow, and expand in complexity.
1. Biological redundancy protects against harmful mutations
The genetic code is called "degenerate" because 64 different combinations of 3-base codons, or nucleic acids, produce only 21 amino acids. (Selenocysteine is the 21st amino acid, abbreviated Sec or U, formerly Se-Cys). This redundancy helps to reduce the impact of mutations. In particular, a mutation in the third base of the codon is less likely to result in a differently shaped and abnormally functioning protein; this is known as the wobble hypothesis, because we can afford a little leeway.
2. Parallel pathways offer "just-in-case" stand-ins
Just like how in life there are multiple paths to success, often the same can be said for specific cell functions. Likewise, different herbs can have the similar effects, e.g. modulate inflammation via the NF-kB pathway.
Proteins often don't fit perfectly like a lock and key but instead interact through induced fit. One such example is the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHr), a "promiscuous" cell receptor that can bind a large range of ligands. Curcumin and tryptophan can both bind this receptor and have similar downstream effects in brain microglia. On the flip side, Agent Orange (TCDD, a dioxin) can also bind this receptor and have deleterious effects on neuroinflammation, so downstream effects can vary.
Redundancy in protein function means that different proteins with different structures can achieve the same end results. If one protein is disrupted or inhibited, parallel processes occur. From my college endocrinology textbook: "partial or even complete failure of one mechanism can be compensated for by reliance on another mechanism" (Goodman, 2009).
3. Anterograde transport is faster than retrograde transport
In my college Advanced Neurobiology I class, I learned that in the axons of neurons, the advancement of vesicles (bubbles that contain cargo like neurotransmitters) via actin filaments is twice as fast as retrograde transport. This provides evidence that creative energy, or more aptly, chaos, is built into neurons. The neuron wants to build, communicate, and connect, and it is less efficient at cleaning up, sort of like a toddler who just wants to play.
Your cells are wired to move forward, to send signals, not to backtrack. There's something to be said about our tendency towards increasing complexity and entropy, and how intelligence is often associated with mess.
4. The origins of life
For you to exist, your parents had to make you. Your present human form arose from an uninterrupted chain of reproduction, passing genes down generations. Evolution is defined as the cumulative change in the heritable characteristics of a population.
About 2.7 billion years ago, the first eukaryotic cell was formed when archaebacteria engulfed another bacteria, probably to eat it. Instead, it formed a symbiotic relationship and later became the energy-producing mitochondria and chloroplasts. This is known as the endosymbiont theory. Wild, isn't it?
Further, abiogenesis explains how living things arose from inanimate substances. The first cell emerged 3.8 billion years ago, about 750,000 years after the Earth formed. It was rudimentary and was basically a lipid droplet that contained a molecular reaction center within it, which eventually formed self-replicating RNA.
All of this was enabled by the birth of the sun, and as you go further back, it seems more improbable that we'd be here today. It's almost as if creative energy arises naturally and spontaneously in the universe...
5. Integration of visual perception
As all these cells worked together, they formed communities and eventually multi-cellular organisms. Ultimately, they compartmentalized with specialized functions and formed the complex organ systems of higher eukaryotes.
The collective energy exchange of numerous cells in your body summate to form your awareness. In his book The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel describes how our vision is constructed in the layers of the cortex. Photons excite the photoreceptors in your eyes, which leads to retinal ganglion cell (RGC) activation, which in turn transmits information to the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the thalamus and the visual cortex. RGCs and LGN have their own receptive fields, the set of conditions that they respond to, and they form the building blocks of vision. Neurons in the primary visual cortex (V1) form contours and shapes, V2 and V3 neurons infer lines and borders, V4 responds to color, and V5 responds to motion. These neurons connect and unify to form your vision.
Basically, individual cells construct our interpretation of what's actually out there. Consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg, accounting for around 5% of brain activity. There's more to the universe than meets the eye as well—ordinary matter and energy account for just ~5% of the universe. The more we learn, the less we realize we know (Socrates said it first).
6. Synergistic effects of hormones
Sometimes hormones work in combination to form an amplified physiological response. For example, if glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol are all released into the blood at once, they spike blood glucose levels to a much greater extent than any one of those hormones by itself. It's like 1+1+1=6.
Additionally, with respect to gamete production, estrogen and LH are both needed for oocyte production. FSH and testosterone are both needed for adequate sperm production. If only one or the other hormone is present, it's not enough to produce the desired effect. This discernment provides evidence that the natural order of the universe is to expand and increase in complexity.
7. Summation in neurons & the ripple effect
In individual neurons, dendrites receive lots of signals and compute which signals to send to the cell body. The cell body then summates the signals from the dendrites. If they surpass the voltage threshold, an action potential—one all-or-none electrical signal—is fired. This activates the next set of synapses, and the cycle continues. When neurons fire in synchrony, they form specific EEG signatures, like alpha or gamma waves.
Just like neurons must weigh messages to send out one signal, our attention depends on our ability to filter the music from the noise. We integrate many cues from our senses, emotions, and thoughts to decide how to act. We can only do one thing at a given time, but our actions can have a ripple effect on others.
8. Observation in quantum physics & the power of belief in healing
Quantum physics is so bizarre that even Einstein called quantum entanglement "spooky action at a distance." Insights from quantum physics are changing how we view the role of consciousness in the physical world. Schrodinger's cat thought experiment was substantiated by results from double-slit experiments on photons and electrons. Observation seemed to alter electron activity and change the outcome of these experiments.
This has paradigm-shattering implications. It suggests psychological processes like beliefs, expectations, intentions, and attention can have very real effects on our bodies, which are their own isolated coherent system or self-contained universe.
We've already observed this phenomenon in clinical settings with the placebo effect, real benefit derived from perception of a inert therapy's efficaciousness. The flip side is the nocebo effect: the belief in a poor prognosis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Dr. Wise Young of the Keck Center, it would be reasonable and prudent for doctors to be cautious about what they say to their patients.
9. BDNF strengthens upstream connections: exercise and meditation
BDNF, a neurotrophic factor, helps neurons survive, grow, and rewire, allowing us to pay better attention and remember more. This survival factor diffuses from post-synaptic neurons to pre-synaptic terminals to change gene expression and cause long-term potentiation, or changes in synaptic plasticity.
BDNF increases after even a single workout. It's also increased by meditation. Thus, the active choice to become the best version of yourself rewires your brain for improved quality of life.
Our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and lifestyle decisions can profoundly alter our physiology. Will, self-ownership, and ultimately action are at play in biology and longevity.
10. Powerful healing effects of endogenous molecules: diet and sleep
Melatonin, glutathione, and catalase are naturally-occurring antioxidant proteins that consume free radicals and decrease oxidative stress. They can be boosted by consuming sulfur-rich foods like cruciferous veggies, dark leafy greens, garlic, and onions; selenium-rich foods like mushrooms; milk thistle, turmeric, avocados, and asparagus. Getting enough sleep also increases antioxidant capacity.
Proper diet also boosts gut health. Over a dozen chronic diseases are suspected to start in the gut. Beneficial gut microbes interface with the immune system and the brain and can even neutralize carcinogens. It's amazing what our bodies can cook up given the right ingredients to work with. (To learn more, see you are an ecosystem).
11. Immunomodulatory & waste-clearing mechanisms
Buildup of waste products is emerging as a major root cause of disease. The body has evolved many mechanisms for immune surveillance and waste clearance, from molecular level, to cellular level, to systems level.
Autophagy is the degradation of cellular components, like misfolded proteins or worn-out mitochondria, within lysosomes, cell compartments that contain enzymes. Mitochondrial degradation is called mitophagy.
Apoptosis is programmed cell death. It is good for certain cells (e.g., malignant cells) to die so that the rest can live, but too much apoptosis can be degenerative.
The glymphatic system, a hypothesized brain waste clearance mechanism developed in 2012, gets its name from glia and lymphatic. It proposes that neurotoxic products like beta-amyloid are flushed out of the brain during sleep via aquaporin-4 water channels in astrocytes (Jessen, 2015). These channels drain to the lymph nodes which can then lead to the liver for further detoxification or to the kidneys for excretion.
12. Energy in motion: exercise
We are a reflection of the ever-changing universe; it's in our nature to move. Sitting is being called the new smoking.
Lifting weights boosts metabolism, increases the number of mitochondria in the muscles, and allows us to burn more calories when we're at rest.
Cardio increases our range of mobility, makes us sweat, helps our gut microbiota, and can mobilize the g/lymphatic systems.
13. Feedback loops naturally seek alignment
The body has innate wisdom. Symptoms offer us signals and invitations to heal imbalance in our lives, whether that's spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, nutritionally, or interpersonally. In the existing medical model, many symptoms are masked with pills and surgeries, which don't solve the root cause of the problem. Drugs can offer a quick fix but are not a long-term solution. Eventually our bodies compensate, become tolerant of the drug, or develop new side effects and problems.
14. Cooperation is selected for
We live in social and connected ecosystems; this applies to brains, forests, and societies.
In the brain, neurons that don't communicate become isolated and die.
Socially, we stigmatize people who act like jerks. Resource-grabbing individualists are eventually shunned and not helped when they're in trouble.
Selfishness isn't even welcome in the long haul in the body. Cancer cells and viruses that are too selfish eventually kill their host; it is not in their best interest to siphon all the resources for themselves. From one angle, you'd think they'd be "too good" at surviving, but in the greater scheme, they're contributing to their own eventual demise.
Similarly, resource-hoarding trees tend to die because they depend on mycorrhizae, or fungal root networks. Trees live longest and reproduce most often in a healthy, stable forest. Helping their neighbors is naturally selected for because dead neighbors create a lot of vulnerability to wind and sunlight, dry up the forest bed, and weaken the mycorrhizal network. The microclimate of the soil becomes less evenly regulated and the chance of being uprooted increases.
If humans trash the environment, it comes full circle to bite them back. Single-use plastics that end up in the ocean end up in what we consume. It's essential to respect the ecosystem because we are a reflection of it. If we don't act, we'll become plastic.
Loneliness kills, too. Most of people's regrets in life have to do with their relationships. Although rare, there's such thing as dying of a broken heart caused by severe bereavement between deeply bonded individuals—it's called stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
We evolved to protect, help, and nurture; altruism is hardwired because everything is connected and we are a reflection of that connection.
Our bodies are well-equipped to heal with proper lifestyle factors. Next time someone says, "It runs in the family," tell them, "This is where it runs out!"