Fitness at 40+
Anti-aging Hacks: Q and A with Dr. Mark Hyman
The founder of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and author of Young Forever shares his secrets to living a long, healthy life
About 80 percent of older adults suffer from at least one chronic disease — and 68 percent have two, according to the National Council on Aging. It’s no wonder that we associate aging with physical and cognitive decline. But a new wave of longevity research suggests that by addressing the biological roots of aging, it’s not only possible to extend one’s life span, but also to prevent — and even reverse — debility and disease.
“The point is not to live longer, but to live better,” functional medicine guru Mark Hyman, MD, writes in Young Forever: The Secrets to Living Your Longest, Healthiest Life. “Not just to add more years to your life but to add more life to your years.”
Drawing from the burgeoning science of longevity, his visits to the Blue Zones — areas in the world where people live longest — and his experience overcoming his own health struggles, Dr. Hyman presents readers with the latest findings on the causes of aging and prescribes lifestyle changes that as he puts it, can “unlock the keys to disease reversal, rejuvenation and aging backward.”
Indeed, Dr. Hyman, founder of and senior advisor for the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA, says that his biological age is now decades younger than his chronological age. Here, he shares some of his anti-aging secrets with CoveyClub.
CoveyClub: In the intro to Young Forever, you write that “…what we see as ‘normal’ aging is, in fact, abnormal aging.” Can you explain?
Dr. Hyman: Sure! As we learn more about our own biology, what we’re finding is simply amazing. There is such beautiful complexity, interdependence, and coordination when it comes to the biochemical systems that sustain life. And we’re also coming to realize that when we live in harmony with nature and in balance with ourselves and our environment, health and longevity are our natural states.
That means disease and accelerated aging are simply our body’s best attempt to deal with a bad set of circumstances. What we are accustomed to seeing is actually abnormal aging — frailty, disability, disease. But when we start to live in ways that align with how our bodies are designed to work, we can reverse and even eliminate the hallmarks of aging — the so-called “normal” signs of aging that are anything but!
CoveyClub: You claim that it’s possible for your health span to equal your life span — that is, that you can reach a ripe old age without succumbing to any of the chronic diseases we associate with aging — by applying three simple lifestyle habits. What are they?
Dr. Hyman: Don’t smoke, stay at your ideal weight, and exercise. If you can do just these three things, the scientific data says you can live a long, healthy, and vigorous life. And there are many more things in my book Young Forever that help reverse your biological clock even more!
CoveyClub: You identify seven core networks in our body that underlie disease and aging. What are they — and what are the most important steps we can take to keep these systems working optimally?
Dr. Hyman: The core networks I write about in Young Forever are the gut microbiome, immune system, mitochondria (the part of our cells that converts food and oxygen into energy), detoxification, circulation and transportation, hormones and neurotransmitters, and the body’s structure (cells, muscles, etc.). These networks must be in balance for us to be healthy.
You could write books about how to optimize these systems (and I have!), but one of the most important steps you can take to promote health for your entire body and its networks and systems is to eat well. The best strategy for a long and healthy life is to eat your medicine; get your drugs at the farmacy, not the pharmacy!
CoveyClub: If food is medicine, what kinds of dietary choices would you prescribe?
Dr. Hyman: I advise people to consider adopting the Pegan (paleo-vegan) diet — an approach to eating that promotes eating whole foods, avoiding harmful ultra-processed foods, and including protective foods.
I’ve written about the Pegan diet extensively, but it can be summed up in just a few bullet points:
- Eat real food, not food-like substances.
- Eat a variety of colorful plant foods throughout the day (your plate for each meal should be 75 percent filled with veggies by volume).
- Eat a palm-sized amount of animal- or plant-based protein per meal.
- Add a serving or two of healthy fats to each meal (e.g., avocado, nuts and seeds, or olive oil).
- Avoid foods with labels and ingredients that you can’t pronounce.
- Avoid conventional dairy, gluten, and sugar.
- Enjoy pleasure foods, but don’t make them a daily habit.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself.
CoveyClub: If the gut is, as you put it, “at the center of our health” — what is the key to a healthy gut? What specific dietary choices can help keep one’s gut microbiome happy?
Dr. Hyman: There are certain foods that enable gut health, and certain foods that are a detriment to it. The more you can swap out the things that cause your good bacteria to become unbalanced or damage your gut with things that promote a vast and diverse microbial community, the healthier and happier they — and therefore you — will be.
I call the things that can cause damage to your gut “biome-busters.” These include things like alcohol, sugar, gluten, and unnecessary antibiotics. (While I am pro-antibiotics, the unfortunate reality is they are being used in many unnecessary situations for things that should be treated using other methods, like acne or illnesses caused by viruses.)
On the other end of the spectrum are what I call “biome-builders”: gut-healing foods your good bugs love. These include fiber, veggies, prebiotics, and probiotics.
By including more biome-builders in your diet and reducing the biome-busters, you can support a diverse microbial community, which will lead to benefits in all areas of your health.
CoveyClub: You write that exercise is “the key to unlocking the body’s regenerative and reparative systems.” How does that work?
Dr. Hyman: Exercise (the right dose, type, and frequency) optimizes all of our biological systems. It improves the function and health of your microbiome, enhances immune function, boosts the number and function of mitochondria, and balances blood sugar and insulin, adrenal, thyroid, and sex hormones. It also boosts detoxification, blood circulation, and lymphatic flow.
Looking at the hallmarks of aging, exercise increases the length of telomeres (the caps at the end of our chromosomes that shorten as we age), reduces inflammation, improves mitochondrial health, beneficially impacts the nutrient-sensing pathways, and reverses harmful epigenetic changes (changes in how your body reads your DNA) that occur as we age.
CoveyClub: Chronic elevations in cortisol — the stress hormone — are, as you put it, a “disaster for health and longevity.” What contributes to such long-term elevations in cortisol, and what can women do to keep levels in check?
Dr. Hyman: Your body needs some cortisol to keep all of its systems running optimally. In small, short doses, cortisol is vital for your health and well-being. But cortisol was never meant to be activated all of the time. When we experience chronic stress from things like a demanding job, unsupportive relationships, or financial or health worries, our cortisol levels begin to rise.
Getting too much cortisol for too long can lead to chronic inflammation as well as a slew of other dysfunctions like poor digestion, sleep issues, skin inflammation, brain fog, heartburn, and blood sugar imbalance. You can actually get a test to see exactly what your levels are, but in general, if you feel tired and wired all at the same time, get palpitations, feel anxious, or crave salt or sugar, these are clues that you could have high cortisol levels.
Thankfully, there are a lot of things you can do to regulate your cortisol levels. You can work on maintaining healthy relationships. You can eat a nutrient-dense diet (remember, food is medicine). You can laugh and smile more — did you know laughter releases endorphins and suppresses cortisol? You can even adopt a pet; multiple studies have shown that having a pet reduces stress (and therefore cortisol).
CoveyClub: Beyond diet, exercise, and stress reduction, how else might we optimize our lifestyles for longevity — and a longer health span?
Dr. Hyman: For one, getting your mind and mindset right has profound health benefits. Study after study has shown, for example, how repressed anger can predict who gets breast cancer and other cancers. If your emotions are inflamed, so is your biology.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is another key to longevity. Sleep affects every aspect of our health, including our metabolism, weight, mood, and cognitive function. But Americans on average are getting less and less sleep over time, and the sleep they do get is often poor quality.
Another method of optimizing your health span is to find and live out your purpose. Richard Leider, who authored The Power of Purpose, provides a useful framework for identifying your purpose. He says that your gifts plus your passions and values equals your purpose. So dig deep to find what you love and act on it!
CoveyClub: You devote entire chapters to how and why we age — but briefly, what has the science of longevity taught us about the root causes of biological aging? How do the lifestyle changes you suggest address the so-called hallmarks of aging that have been revealed by this research?
Dr. Hyman: The science of longevity has taught us that biological aging is not a natural consequence of getting chronologically older. Instead, it’s a result of imbalances in the body’s core biological systems and dynamically interacting networks. Some of the insults to our bodies’ systems and networks are environmental and can’t be controlled, but many others are within our power to mitigate or eliminate. This is exceptionally good news!
I can tell you how my own life has changed for the better by adopting the principles I lay out in Young Forever (yes, I practice what I preach!). At 63, I feel like I am 25 years old again, except I have more wisdom and meaning and a beautiful community of friends. My body is stronger than ever, and I feel more energetic, challenged, and motivated. I feel as though I am just beginning my journey. My biological age is 43.
CoveyClub: Many of the chronic diseases we associate with aging are caused by inflammation. Why does inflammation increase as we age, and what are the most effective ways to combat it?
Dr. Hyman: Inflammation is kind of a paradox. On the one hand, it is actually crucial to our survival. In an acute accident — cutting our finger while making dinner, for example — inflammation at the site of the cut helps us heal. On the other hand, when inflammation transitions to what I call “inflammaging” — continual, low-grade inflammation — it becomes the root of many, if not all, chronic conditions.
Things that cause inflammaging include infections, toxins from our environment or food, eating a poor-quality diet, chronic stress, micronutrient deficiencies, inactivity, or altered gut function. And, simply put, the insults are cumulative. The longer we subject ourselves to them, the harder it is for our bodies to deal with them.
I’ve come up with a five-step plan to combat inflammaging:
- Step 1: Eat inflammation-busting foods including leafy greens, fatty fish, and low-glycemic whole fruit.
- Step 2: Reduce or avoid inflammatory foods like dairy products, sugars, and anything refined or processed.
- Step 3: Move every day!
- Step 4: Engage in positive mindset practices.
- Step 5: Supplement wisely. One of the best supplements to use is fish oil because omega-3 is beneficial to literally every cell in your body.
CoveyClub: Both muscle loss and bone loss contribute to the frailty we often associate with older age — what is the best strategy to maintain a strong musculoskeletal system as we age? What adjustments can we make in our diet — and our exercise regimens — to counter these kinds of age-related changes?
You’re right — it all boils down to eating well and exercising.
As far as diet goes, the best way to stave off muscle and bone loss is to do things like eat more protein from sources like quality, grass-fed lean meat, nuts, beans, eggs, and tofu; make sure you’re getting plenty of antioxidants; and get plenty of vitamin D (you can take a supplement, although the best way to get it is to get outside and enjoy the sun).
And increasing your exercise level doesn’t mean you have to go to the gym every day or sign up for a triathlon. Walking is a seriously underrated form of movement; studies have shown that people who walk regularly are less likely to develop muscle loss. You can also incorporate resistance training into your routine, which can be as simple as getting and using a resistance band or exercise ball in the comfort of your own home.
CoveyClub: All women will inevitably go through menopause, but you note that there are also avoidable — and reversible — hormonal changes that occur with age and contribute to the diseases of aging. Can you give a couple of examples, along with how we might prevent such imbalances/diseases?
Dr. Hyman: The “four horsemen of the apocalypse” of aging are high insulin, low thyroid function, high cortisol, and low sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone).
Like many of the other answers, regulating and balancing these hormones often comes down to — you guessed it — eating a good diet, exercising, and managing stress. However, unlike the other answers, when it comes to hormonal health, sometimes both women and men need bioidentical hormone therapy or other medical treatments, but that’s a conversation you need to have with your doctor.
CoveyClub: In what way is sleep crucial to health, longevity, and the body’s ability to clear out metabolic waste? Would you say that improving sleep hygiene is an important anti-aging hack?
Dr. Hyman: Sleep hygiene is a tremendously important anti-aging technique!
Sleep is essential for healing and repair and cellular cleanup and longevity. A newly discovered brain-cleaning system, called the glymphatic system, is essentially the lymph system of the brain that works while we’re asleep and is necessary for cleaning up all the metabolic waste that accumulates every day.
Sleep is so important, in fact, that if you sleep less than seven hours a night, your risk of death increases by 24 percent. So please, make sleep a priority
CoveyClub: Are there any other secrets to living a longer, healthier life that we haven’t addressed that you’d like to share here?
Dr. Hyman: I think, ultimately, the key is to remember that Young Forever is about extending your life span and your health span. If you live to be 100 but the last two decades of your life are spent in poor health, without joy, and lacking in purpose, what good is that?
I plan to live to be 120 and to do so in good health, savoring the miraculous gift of this life every day. That means I plan to stay active, sharp, strong, energetic, and engaged at every age. And with the emerging research on longevity and the right mindset, I believe that’s possible for all of us.