In this second article in a series on natural approaches to the Syndrome of aging, we will address nutritional perspectives on aging.  Yes, aging may be described as a disease, or perhaps a group of disorders with their related signs and symptoms, associated with aging.  We all experience our own individual versions of this syndrome.  The information contained in this article is backed by research which is available upon request.

            Several processes are important to proper neurological function and production of neurotransmitters.  Such processes can be influenced by excesses or deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), as well as macronutrients, such as fatty acids and chains of amino acids that form proteins.  Thus, nutritional deficiencies or excesses can be contributors to the aging process, and nutritional substances may help to delay aging processes.

            Antioxidant vitamins are involved in many processes in the human body.  Neurons and cerebrospinal fluid contain high amounts of the important antioxidant ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Vitamin C is an essential cofactor in enzymatic processes, especially since human beings lack the ability to derive vitamin C from glucose due to the lack of enzyme gulonolactone oxidase. 

            The process of methylation can be disrupted by a lack of methyl donors, particularly B vitamins such as methylcobalamin (B12), niacin (B3), and pyridoxine (B6).  Associations between vitamins B6, folate (B9), and B12, homocysteine, and aging have been found.  B vitamin deficiencies and elevated homocysteine levels have been directly correlated with cognitive dysfunction, Alzheimer's, and dementia.  B12 deficiency is common among the elderly, as is the use of antacids such as proton pump inhibitors that are likely to cause B12 deficiency, worsening an already prevalent situation. 

            Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) helps to energize every cell in the body and supports muscle function, including the heart.  CoQ10 is also neuroprotective, particularly in the dopamine-producing neurons.  A secondary effect of the common use of certain cholesterol drugs (statins) for high cholesterol and other disorders is the reduction of CoQ10 levels, due to the effect of statins on mevalonate, a precursor to CoQ10 production.  Genetic mutations can lead to a primary form of CoQ10 deficiency as well.         CoQ10 is a cofactor in the electron transport chain in mitochondria, thereby affecting the energy level of the individual via adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production.  Therefore, if an individual has a deficiency in CoQ10, energy levels suffer throughout the body, including the brain, skeletal muscles, and the heart.  Additionally, a deficiency in tyrosine could lead to a CoQ10 deficiency since tyrosine is a precursor in the biosynthesis of CoQ10.

            Antioxidant minerals play important roles as well.  The mineral selenium is an antioxidant mineral important to neuronal and cognitive function that also affects thyroid hormone levels.  High levels of selenium, zinc, and copper exist in the hippocampus.  Elevated zinc can result in iron deficiency, leading to reduced neuronal branching and cognitive dysfunction.  Zinc also blocks gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, affecting excitabiliy if elevated.

            Iron is found in the dopamine centers of the brain, such as the substantia nigra, and in the oligodendrocytes, affecting the central nervous system (CNS).  Cu levels positively affect dopamine beta hydroxylase activity, thereby also affecting neurotransmission in the CNS.  Additionally, copper affects the synthesis of neuropeptides via peptidyl glycine a-amidating mono-oxygenase.  Magnesium positively affects levels of dopamine, serotonin, GABA receptors, and catecholamines, possibly leading to mood fluctuations when deficient.    

            Antioxidant enzymes are also quite important to cognitive and neuronal function, and use many minerals and vitamins as cofactors.  Iron is found in the enzymes tyrosine hydroxylase, phenylalanine hydroxylase, and tryptophan hydroxylase.  Tyrosine hydroxylase and phenylalanine hydroxylase are involved in the production of catecholamines, dopamine production, and thyroid function.  Tryptophan hydroxylase positively affects tryptophan production, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. 

            Zinc and copper promote superoxide dismutase activity (a powerful antioxidant) at the cellular level.  Selenium is a co-factor of glutathione peroxidase, thioredoxin reductase, and iodothyronine deiodinase, the latter pulling iodide from thyroxine (T4), resulting in triiodothyronine (T3) hormone.  T3 is the more active thyroid hormone for metabolic optimization, which also affects the absorption of glucose into the brain, supporting cognition.  The CNS also depends on these antioxidant enzymes to protect neurons from antioxidant damage.

            Fatty acids are also important to neurological development, maintaining a balanced mood, and general cognitive and synaptic function (and prevention of decline).  The most efficacious oils for these purposes are omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found primarily in fish oil).  The omega 3 oils include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is also a precursor to DHA.  DHA and EPA levels have been directly correlated with cognitive function, and elevated DHA and high vitamin E amounts tended to be associated with less frequent occurrence of Alzheimer's.  The levels of aggressive behavior and depression are reduced when high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels (the so-called good cholesterol) are elevated, which can result from increased consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids. 

            The importance of differentiating between choices of fats is worth noting, since a negative effect on cognition along with a worsening of dementia are seen with high fat intake, yet when omega 3 is the fat of choice the result tends to be a very positive anti-inflammatory effect reducing the chances of dementia onset, especially at higher levels of EPA.  Omega 9 monounsaturated oils (most prominently olive oil) are important for long-term health as well, and are an essential component of the Mediterranean diet.  However, inflammatory conditions, cognitive decline, and neurological dysfunction are often the result of the overabundance of omega 6 fatty acids in the western diet. 

            As we have seen, nutrition has a very broad effect when it comes to the aging syndrome.  Reducing what are generally considered the effects of aging may actually be, to a certain extent, a matter of addressing nutritional imbalances on an on-going basis.  We will take a look at other important factors in the next article.