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Herbs for Longevity

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We're all aging all the time. As we grow older, our metabolism--the body's chemical and physical changes from producing energy from food and oxygen in cells--becomes less efficient.

We're all aging all the time. As we grow older, our metabolism the body's chemical and physical changes from producing energy from food and oxygen in cells becomes less efficient. This increases our vulnerability to degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Worse, byproducts of metabolism called free radicals damage cells through oxidation, much like the rusting of a car.

The good news is, what studies have suggested for some time is now official: Herbs rich sources of free radical-quenching antioxidants help slow the aging process and promote longevity, say experts at the (US) National Institute on Aging in Baltimore.

Antioxidants Battle Free Radicals

Free radicals are thought to be responsible for everything from wrinkled skin to forgetfulness. "Aging occurs when cells get out of balance," says Pamela Starke-Reed, PhD, director of the institute's office of nutrition. "Our bodies produce antioxidants against free radicals, but as we get older, more leakage of free radicals from the cells occurs, creating imbalances."

But free radicals can be kept in check. James A. Duke, PhD, an internationally respected botanical researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture, just completed a study of the antioxidants in culinary herbs. "Plants from the mint family oregano, rosemary, self-heal, thyme, sage, peppermint and spearmint were the richest sources," he reports. He also recommends a variety of herbs to ensure a wide spectrum of protection.

Plants naturally protect themselves from damage by making antioxidants in the leaves to mop up or "quench" free radicals. When we eat these plants, we benefit from the same antioxidants likely why people who eat diets high in leafy vegetables, salads, herbs and teas are less prone to cancer, heart disease, cataracts and autoimmune diseases common in later life.

Antioxidants for Alzheimer's

One of the most dreaded aspects of growing old, Alzheimer's disease slowly robs its victims of their judgment and memories.

To stay mentally sharp, Duke makes a drink he calls "Alzheimeretto." He steeps several sprigs of rosemary in boiled water and drinks the brew or adds it to the bath (many of its antioxidant compounds can be absorbed directly through the skin). Duke says rosemary has about two dozen different antioxidant chemicals that have a similar effect to those in the latest drugs being used to treat Alzheimer's. Other antioxidant-rich herbs he includes are oregano, self-heal, horse balm, mountain mint, spearmint, caraway, dill and fennel.

These herbs also contain chemicals that prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine and choline, brain chemicals in short supply in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. The pharmaceutical agents prescribed for people with Alzheimer's disease are designed to stop or slow the breakdown of these chemicals in the brain and are a hot research topic in neuropharmacology. Duke thinks his drink may contain a greater variety of active agents and be safer, but cautions that he's not recommending anyone follow his prescription until research validates his assumptions.

Michael Murray, ND, professor of natural medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle, recommends ginkgo biloba to all his patients over 40. Ginkgo improves central and peripheral nervous system functioning, mental acuity and balance, impotence, macular (eye) degeneration and general circulation.

"People who take this herb feel more alert, happier and have an improved sense of well-being. At least 300 [European] scientific studies back up the benefits of ginkgo," says Murray.

Antioxidants Go Wild

As we age, says Weed, our systems slow down and work less effectively. She boosts her vitality by brewing up a variety of herbal infusions. She selects a different dried herb depending on how she feels and what stresses she's under: oat straw for nerves and hormones, red clover blossom for the immune system and stinging nettle and comfrey for the adrenals and blood vessels. These gentle infusions encourage wellness without harmful side-effects.

Antioxidants For All Seasons

Amanda McQuade Crawford, dean of the National College of Phytotherapy in Albuquerque, says, "I'm not so much concerned with aging as I am with optimal health at every age." In winter, Crawford uses burdock root to boost her resiliency and stamina. Burdock is also known to relieve arthritis and provide immune protection two features that make this herb particularly useful during cold, damp winters when achiness and stiff joints prevail. You don't need much of it to get these health benefits; just half a root cooked in a stir-fry or soup stock will do the trick.

Another herb Crawford relies on through the fall and winter is astragalus. You can buy the dried roots, which are sliced lengthwise and resemble tongue depressors. Astragalus is known as a "toning herb," good for the immune system and prompting the body to work efficiently. Crawford tosses a few slices of astragalus into soup several times a week. She also uses lots of basil, whose oils are immune system boosters and offer antimicrobial protection defences that can weaken with aging. Crawford uses lots of garlic for its cardiovascular benefits such as reducing "bad" cholesterol.

Antioxidants have become a buzzword, celebrated in everything from cosmetics to supplements. Where does hype leave off and the art of living a more vital, healthy life begin? According to these experts, it begins in our meadows and backyards.

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