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On Being a Hundred
I will celebrate my 100th birthday in 43 years & 85 days. Living a long time - and well - has always fascinated me, while foraging & studying plants has given me some insights into longevity.
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My great-grandmother Mabel lived to be 102 and died shortly before her 103rd birthday. She had osteoporosis and was in danger of breaking bones if she fell, but was still doing the daily crossword. Granny Enid was 99. She died 5 months short of her 100th. Sadly she had dementia for at least the previous 20 years although was still physically strong. Of course I want it both ways. Physically strong and mentally healthy. The genetic odds are strong. Perhaps I have inherited long telomeres?
Granny Enid thinking of her telomeres
A telomere is a string of repetitive nucleotide sequences at the end of your chromosomes, a part of your DNA code. At birth your telomeres are around 11 kilobases long but by old age they are barely 4 kilobases long, and shorter if you were born male.
The longer your telomeres, the longer you live.
But life has a way of snipping bits off them and shortened telomeres lead to age-related decline, a greater susceptibility to cancer and organ deterioration.
Our biology is echoed in the Ancient Greek myth of the Fates. The Moirai, as they were called, were three sisters. Clotho who spun the thread of life for each human and who was called upon in your last month of pregnancy; Lachesis who measured out the allotted amount of thread for each of us; and Atropos who’s job it was to chose the manner of your death and cut the thread of your life.
In various cultures, the concept of thread as a measure of your life appears in the mythology, so it is rather ironic that these telomere ‘threads’ at the ends of our chromosomes seem to do that too! Obviously the telomere researchers thought so too and named one of the genes related to anti-aging of telomeres the ‘klotho’ gene!
Of course we are what we eat, and we have known that for a long time. However, we now know that foods and herbs like Astragalus and Epimedium have compounds that increase the length of your telomeres (Shen et al., 2017).
I have never liked the idea of life on a micro-scale.
While telomeres - like tardigrades - are infinitely interesting, good food doesn’t come in nano-portions with measured doses of micronutrients. We really are the sum of the parts and holistic medicine (from the Greek word holo meaning “whole”/“entire,”) is about us as a whole organism and our connection to the terrain around us - on many levels. Ironically, the direction that the supplement industry is going you would think that nano and liposomal are the way-to-go and ‘functional medicine’ courses encourage practitioners to look at the nano-level - as if we really could manipulate each cog or mechanism with each single ingredient (often costing prices that are far from nano!). As if we knew how the entire holistic organism will react to a tiny tweak.
Evolution, however, had a bigger plan and our bodies are brilliant at taking everything that we need from the macro-level. For 3 million years we have slowly marched through various incarnations of Homo species to become the Homo not-so-sapiens that we are today. All without the need for nano.
Over the last couple of years I have read extensively about the connection between longevity and diet in parts of the world as far apart as Georgia (Eurasia) and the Andes. Will my longevity genes be enough to keep me going or do I still need to keep on my toes? Ironically my great-grandmother still liked the odd after-dinner cigarette. From my grandfather’s recollection she was also fond of muesli, cold showers and a run before breakfast!
Diets in the geographic pockets of longevity don’t give up their secrets easily. Whilst most of the elderly people studied mainly follow a plant-based Mediterranean-style diet, nevertheless there was a huge variance. Some of these old yins eat meat, some don’t. Some eat fish, some don’t. They all seemed to remain fairly physically active. Some smoked and drank, some didn’t.
Given the disparity in diet, I would have put their advanced years down to genetic luck alone - except that, each recollection, memoir or journal paper seemed to have one thing in common.
One thing so slight it was almost a postscript, a whisper.
The bulk of each study would delve into detail annotating and measuring dietary factors. Often including tables and graphs. Then, after the analysis was done, there would be a mention - an aside - that all these old people would also gather wild herbs to use in cooking and make themselves herbal teas. It was the wild herbs that tied all these papers together.
I was struck by how obvious a link this seemed and surprised how little weight was given to it in the journal papers. We humans have mainly followed the 80:20 rule for the bulk of our daily calories, but for flavour and health we have always added herbs.
These plants, especially the aromatic herbs, are crammed full of vitamins, flavonoids, polyphenols, antioxidants along with immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting compounds. In support of this, even simple green tea is associated with a 10% decrease in mortality risk amongst the very old, in China and Japan.
I am often surprised how little herbs are used in modern cookery. In many cookbooks the chefs recommend a few sprigs of this herb or a teaspoon of that dried one. In contrast, I use them by the handful. A large bunch of chopped ground elder added to a soup. A bed of rosemary and yarrow under a roast.
In foraging, you often come across the term pot-herb. Consider that in the early-medieval period, most people would have been cooking outside or in a fireplace with one pot. In every culture there are comforting, nourishing one-pot recipes as national treasures, from clam chowders or chicken soup to goulash and bean stews. There might have been a little meat in the pot, but often there was not. Perhaps a few roots, perhaps a handful of pearl barley or grain, but these are both seasonal.
If you use too many roots you need to wait until the autumn, when they have swollen with starch for the winter, to dig them up. And grain - that can only be harvested at the end of the summer. So if you used too much of these you would run out.
So the basis of many of the stews and soups and casseroles would have been large handfuls of wild herbs - not just a sprinkle - many of them adding flavour, and all of them adding vitamins, minerals, nutrients and the kinds of phytocompounds that lengthen those telomeres, and potentially your life!
Did you know for example, that a 100 gram portion of stinging nettle leaves (having lost their sting on heating) can contain up to 2900 mg of calcium, 860 mg of magnesium, 1750mg of potassium, 15,700 IU vitamin A, 83 mg of vitamin C and 4.7 mg of zinc? Not to mention 10 grams of protein.
Here’s an idea to start introducing herbs into life on a daily basis.
Make Your Own Cold Infusion of Herbs Today
Cold infusion of cleavers, or sticky willy
Known as a ‘cold infusion’, even simply soaking herbs in a jug of cold water overnight will bring you immeasurable health benefits. Cleavers (Galium aparine) is an excellent lymph and kidney cleansing herb.
If you want to make an infusion with locally foraged herbs that are available right now, try rosemary, mint or fennel from the garden or ground ivy, rosebay willowherb or speedwell from the hedgerow.
I recommend a handful of mixed herbs in a cafetière - not just a solitary teabag containing 1 gram of a herbal powder that lost its fragrance and volatile oils when it was finely ground, so that it would run through a filling machine without clogging.
In herbal medicine I have seen many remarkable recoveries from simply drinking herbal teas. Proper infusions and deep decoctions that take a little time to prepare. My adopted French grandmother was on the right track when she taught me to take a tisane for this and another for that. A tisane is just a herbal infusion prepared by pouring boiling water over a herb and leaving it to steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
I am convinced that adding herbs to your food everyday is the secret – if not to a long life, then most certainly to a healthy one!
Let us know if you manage to make a cold infusion!
References for all you boffins out there!
Shen, C. Y., Jiang, J. G., Yang, L., Wang, D. W., & Zhu, W. (2017). Anti-ageing active ingredients from herbs and nutraceuticals used in traditional Chinese medicine: pharmacological mechanisms and implications for drug discovery. British journal of pharmacology, 174(11), 1395–1425.