Thanks to medical advances that have cut the death toll from infectious diseases, babies born in Canada today can expect to live better than 80 years—nearly 30 years longer than those born a century ago. But that medical victory has given us another battlefield: chronic disease. One-third of Canadians live with chronic health conditions, and the proportion goes up as we age, with nearly half of those 65 to 79, and 59 per cent of those 80 and older living with high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. So years have been added to our lives, but can we add life to our extra years?
Nobody can stop the clock; the years are going to go on anyway—but we all want a younger biological age,” says Dr. Aileen Burford-Mason, president of the Holistic Health Research Foundation of Canada. “All of the chronic illnesses everybody’s trying to postpone as we age—that’s where we really see the benefit of enhancing nutrition.”
She sees evidence piling up that boosting nutrition can make us feel younger than our years. But the evidence this immunologist, cell biologist and former director of the Connacher Head and Neck Cancer Research Laboratory at the Toronto General Hospital sees is showing up somewhere most of us will never have the ability to look—at the cellular level. In each cell is a package of chromosomes, tiny structures that contain DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which provides the pattern for replicating cells to provide replacements when old cells die or additional cells are needed. At the ends of each chromosome are telomeres, stacks of repetitive DNA that serve as a sort of fail-safe mechanism to ensure an exact copy when the cell divides. Telomeres are destroyed by oxidation and division, so each time a cell divides the stack of telomeres shortens. When the telomeres are gone, cells begin losing the ends of their chromosomes—and the information they contain—resulting in mistakes and cell destruction. This is aging at the cellular level. “For the first time we have a measure of exact biological aging,” says Burford-Mason. “You can prevent premature aging of telomeres” through exercise, proper nutrition—and avoiding stress, which burns through nutrients. People with higher levels of vitamin D and Omega 3 fats circulating in their blood also have longer telomeres and research continues into the relationship other nutrients have with telomere length.
A good place to begin ensuring good nutrition is with a varied diet. “When it comes to food it’s really hard to picture what someone needs to eat,” says Susan Whiting, professor of nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan. “So I do like to use Canada’s Food Guide.” Canada’s Food Guide is a blueprint for obtaining sufficient nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. Data on household food purchases indicate that Canadians, on average, purchase foods that supply nutrients at levels that meet the Recommended Nutrient Intakes for calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) and folacin (B9), states the Health Canada website. “In spite of this, some Canadians do not consume foods that contain required nutrients in the recommended amounts.”
To improve your nutrient intake, think fruits and vegetables. “First the number, and also the quality,” says Whiting. “Focus on colourful…dark green, dark orange, red. You want a rainbow on your plate.” But don’t forget protein—advice especially important for empty nesters who skimp on meat because of small budgets or lack of a big family for whom to cook a roast or roast a bird. “The guide does emphasize eating more legumes and the fact that things like nuts are good for you and provide protein and good fats.” Since many of our foods have Omega-6 oils, “you want to emphasize Omega-3s.” And try to switch to whole grains in bakery products, breakfast cereals and pastas. They are a good source of antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fibre.
As a nation, we’re not very good at following the advice of Canada’s Food Guide, which recommends adults eat seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. About half of all adults (and between 60 and 70 per cent of children and teens) fall short. In the aptly named publication, Do Canadian Adults Meet their Nutritional Requirements through Food Intake Alone, Health Canada reports 10 to 35 per cent of adults do not get the estimated average requirements of vitamin A, magnesium, B12, vitamin C, B6 and zinc. Statistics Canada reports two-thirds of Canadians have vitamin D levels below that associated with reduced risk of chronic disease and cancer and 10 per cent do not get enough for good bone health. A University of Toronto study published in 2009 showed 47 per cent of young adults have deficient or sub-optimal levels of vitamin C, shortages associated with adverse health effects. “At any one time, 60 to 90 per cent of people are deficient in one vitamin or mineral or another,” says Burford-Mason.
“Canadians don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,” she adds, and sometimes even when they do, they develop nutritional deficiencies. There are several reasons for that.
As we age we produce less stomach acid and fewer digestive enzymes to break down foods to extract the nutrients our bodies need. This causes a cascade effect: the resulting deficiencies cause further problems with absorption. This is magnified by other lifestyle issues, like drinking water with meals, which dilutes stomach acid, or drinking alcohol, which decreases secretion of digestive enzymes and damages cells lining the stomach and intestines, disrupting transport of nutrients to the blood. “Another major impact…is that a huge number of people are taking acid suppressing medications,” says Burford-Mason. Without stomach acid, we don’t produce something called intrinsic factor, which is necessary for absorption of vitamin B12 and breakdown of protein. B12 deficiency results in memory loss, bone loss, poor sleep. Lack of protein is a factor in osteoporosis because “90 per cent of bone is protein, the scaffolding of the bone; without that in good shape, no amount of mineral is going to help.”
Evidence is growing that our requirements for nutrients are different from birth and increase as we age. New research in the field of nutritional genomics is showing some of us are born with genetic variations that affect how our bodies metabolize certain nutrients. People with one common gene variation need to ingest a lot more vitamin D before the amount in their blood rises to protective levels, for instance. Certain diseases, chronic health conditions and medications also block absorption or increase the requirement for nutrients. Celiac disease and other gastro-intestinal conditions cause inability to absorb nutrients; vitamin B deficiency has been linked to heart disease, depression, memory loss; chromium deficiency linked to type 2 diabetes.
The Rexall Canadian Pharmacy Network website notes nutrient deficiencies have been caused by 12 of the 20 most frequently used prescription drugs, including birth control pills, antidepressants, diabetes drugs and medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. “Sometimes the effects of nutrient depletion are treated with another medication, which can cause further problems. Nutrient supplements can be used to help avoid this cascading effect,” states the website. As well, our exposure to toxins has increased over time, meaning we require more antioxidants. Smoking, for example, increases the need for vitamin C by 30 per cent.
As well, nutrients in our foodstuffs have declined over the decades as the amount of organic matter in the soil has depleted. A study in Britain links soil depletion to mineral depletion in fruits, vegetables and meats over a 50-year period. Between 1940 and 1991, vegetables there lost 49 per cent of sodium, 16 per cent of potassium, 24 per cent of magnesium, 46 per cent of calcium, 27 per cent of iron and 76 per cent of copper. The significant loss of minerals, including a 54 per cent loss in iron content in meat, “could reflect the fact that these animals are fed on produce that itself is mineral deficient.” On this side of the pond, a peer-reviewed study published in PloS ONE journal in 2010 compared strawberries grown on 13 organic farms and 13 conventional farms right next to one another. It found the quality of the soil—and of the produce—was higher on the organic farms. The organic strawberries had 9.7 per cent more vitamin C, 10.5 per cent more phenolics (linked to lower risk of cancer), and higher concentrations of trace minerals, namely zinc, boron, sodium and iron.
Long-term studies in the United States and Canada have shown similar reductions in vitamin content. The United States Department of Agriculture found fruits and vegetables lost six per cent of their protein content, 20 per cent of vitamin C and 38 per cent of vitamin B1 between 1950 and 1999. Even if there were no problem at home, Canada imports about a third of its fruits, vegetables, grains and oilseeds from other countries with similar records of soil nutrient depletion. In short, if nutrients are not in the soil, they will not be in the food.
A new theory—the triage hypothesis—is linking chronic health conditions and diseases connected with aging to what happens when any of the 40 essential nutrients do not make it into the body in adequate quantities. When there is not enough of a nutrient to meet every need, the body meets the most urgent need first, taking care of the threats to immediate survival at the cost of conditions that take decades to develop. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed when the supply of vitamin K was limited, as typical in North American diets, the body uses what it has to protect critical metabolic functions in the liver. There is not enough left over for K-dependent processes associated with bone building, cancer prevention and protecting the heart from atherosclerosis. If the deficiency continues, the risk of developing cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis grows over time.
But if we need to supplement our nutrient intake, what should we take?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, says Burford-Mason, though pretty much everyone needs extra vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids. Canada’s northerly location means for at least half of the year the sun is at the wrong angle in the sky for our bodies to absorb the rays needed for them to produce vitamin D. A recent study at the McGill University Health Centre revealed 59 per cent of Canadians studied had too little vitamin D in their blood and a quarter had serious deficiencies. Deficiencies have been linked to a number of diseases and chronic health conditions, including some cancers. Because there are few food sources for vitamin D, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends taking a supplement supplying 1,000 IU of vitamin D a day in the fall and winter. Omega-3 fatty acids, which come mostly from fish, are harder to come by in our diets than the more readily available Omega-6s, which “take care of themselves” because they are in so much of our processed foods, says Whiting.
No one vitamin or mineral is any more important than any other for maintaining good health. “The thing about nutrients is they’re not like drugs—they multitask. All of the 40 essential nutrients—vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids—are required all of the time. They have to come into our bodies every day some way or another,” says Burford-Mason.
When lack of proper diet or problems with digestion or interference from a health condition or medication are a concern, vitamin and mineral supplementation is in order. To find out exactly what you need, Burford-Mason suggests seeking advice from a professional who is knowledgeable about nutrition—a physician, orthomolecular medicine practitioner, nutritionist, dietitian, naturopath or pharmacist. Tests can confirm deficiencies or shortfalls. Begin with your family doctor, though with medical schools offering as little as two to 36 hours of instruction in nutrition, most family doctors are not up to speed, says Burford-Mason, who also teaches a course at the University of Toronto for physicians on evidence-based use of diet and supplements. When tests confirm low levels of a particular nutrient, a regime of diet and supplements can be designed for your particular needs.
For the rest of us a good multi-vitamin mineral supplement (one with a B50 complex and antioxidants), vitamin D, Omega-3 fats, B12 and a calcium and magnesium supplement will provide good insurance for healthy aging and go a long way to adding extra life to our years.
6 Super Supplements – A Nutrient Primer
A good multivitamin should contain many of the 40 essential vitamins and minerals, including B50 complex and antioxidants vitamins A, C, E and selenium and zinc.
Vitamin D: (calciferol) is needed by every cell in the body. It enhances calcium absorption, thus bone density, improves immune function and is protective against some cancers. Sources: Sun exposure in summer, cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines), fish oil supplements and fortified foods, such as milk.
Omega-3 fats: EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) are essential brain nutrients. They reduce triglyceride levels and clot formation, improve insulin sensitivity, decrease the risk of heart disease and reduce inflammation and abnormal blood sugar regulation which are two risks for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Sources: Seafood. Best are salmon, sardines, sole, herring, trout, cold-water oysters and mussels, fish oil supplements.
B 12: (cobalamin) Maintains the nervous system, and regulates formation of red blood cells, increases energy levels and aids cognitive function. Sources: Beef liver, canned tuna, eggs, cottage cheese, milk, bee pollen, supplements.
Calcium and magnesium: Essential for bone health, blood pressure control, cardiac function and metabolic rate. Sources: Milk products, dried figs, cheese, oatmeal, tofu, navy and garbanzo (chickpeas) beans, greens like kale, almonds.
Soluble and insoluble fibre: Aids digestion by moving bulk through intestines, promoting good bowel habits, removing toxic waste; associated with healthy insulin levels, prevention of weight gain, good digestive function and lowering risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Sources of insoluble fibre: Fruits, vegetables, whole-wheat products and bran, nuts and seeds. Sources of soluble fibre: Oats and oat bran, dried beans and peas, nuts, barley, flax seed, fruits and vegetables and psyllium husk.
Email the writer at: email@example.com
Email a letter to the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org