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Bioactive Ingredients for Inside Out Anti-aging

Brien Quirk
  • As consumers continue to seek out ways to help them look younger, as well as products that are multifunctional, nutricosmetic products—ingestible products with benefits for skin, hair and nails—are again picking up steam.
  • A variety of fruits and vegetables help offer skin-enhancing benefits, with recent research showing the benefits of blueberries, purple sweet potatoes, yumberries and pomegranates, among others.
  • Herbs such as Japanese honeysuckle, milk thistle, kudzu root and astragalus are being noted for their anti-aging benefits too.

Anti-aging remedies are quickly becoming one of the most sought-after natural health products as research continues to make legitimate strides in uncovering the causes of aging and what can be done to slow it down. One of the goals of anti-aging is to minimize the appearance of the aging process on the skin and face while decreasing the risk of degenerative diseases that are a concern in our affluent, aging and overweight society, and research in this field has found many important areas of physiological health—including everything from mental function, visual acuity and skin youthfulness to muscle strength and mass, bone health, and energy metabolism—can all be improved with diet and lifestyle modifications as we get older.

What makes this investigation so promising is that many bioactive compounds with anti-aging properties are found in a healthy diet from common fruits, vegetables and herbs. These include foods we consume everyday like grapes, strawberries, sweet potatoes and pomegranate. In addition, herbs used in dietary supplements (milk thistle seed, kudzu root and astragalus, as examples) have shown great promise.

Several physiological pathways are involved in anti-aging at cellular levels, and some of the most important of these are reducing free radical damage with antioxidants, repairing the damage to aging DNA and reducing inflammation, which can prematurely destroy cells. Increasing microcirculation to improve oxygen and nutrient levels to all cells and improving detoxification of harmful chemicals we are exposed to through diet, air and water are also important for skin health.

An especially exciting discovery was that the aging of DNA can be reversed to some degree by extending the length of a part of the DNA molecule with telomerase activators so cells can divide for a longer period of time.1 At Harvard Medical School, scientists were even able to reverse aged mice to a more youthful state by experimenting with the telomerase pathway.2–3 While nothing this spectacular has been achieved yet with humans, we do know of some herbs and phytocompounds that are showing to affect this pathway in preliminary studies. Cycloastragenol from astragalus and puerarin from kudzu root, in fact, were found to activate the telomerase gene pathway.4–5

Other studies in anti-aging have explored silencing the expression of some genes activated by excess insulin pathways, which, when expressed, greatly accelerate the aging process.6 Fortunately, these can be reduced through bioactives that silence gene regulators (SIR-1, discussed herein, is one of several proteins involved in repressing transcription of the silent mating-type genes), such as the resveratrol found in higher concentrations of the Chinese herb hu zhang.7–9 Some flavonoids that affect aging, including myricetin and quercetin, also have this effect. Stem cells can be stimulated to regenerate new tissues in the body, and the herb red sage has increased stem cell formation in cells of the circulation.10

All of these exciting benefits can now be utilized in anti-aging drinks or supplement shots from both common and exotic anti-aging foods and herbs.

Anti-aging Fruits and Veggies

Blueberry is a source of multiple anti-aging phytocompounds—including resveratrol, picetannol and pterostilbene, which exhibit anti-aging effects by inhibiting the SIR-1 (sirtuin) gene pathway.11–14 This also decreases pro-inflammatory insulin genes involved in accelerating aging and age-related diseases15–25, and blueberries also are rich in anthocyanins, polyphenols, catechins and flavonoids, which help to lower blood sugar, advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) and quench free radicals. Topical studies have found it to improve skin elasticity in blends with other compounds.26–27

Purple sweet potato (PSP) contains a rich source of anthocyanins that protect the liver, decrease inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity. Optimizing the liver detoxification process helps remove DNA-damaging toxins from the body that would otherwise increase cell death or cancer cell development. PSP juice improves liver enzymes and ameliorates fatty liver, caused by excess fat in the diet, according to human studies.28 And a healthier liver means a more beautiful complexion because toxins cause a sickly feeling and look.

The yumberry fruit is a rich source of ellagitannins, anthocyanins and flavonoids to help lower blood sugar and provide antioxidants. It is also a source of myricetin, which helps activate SIR-1 genes and decrease AGEs (caused by excess sugar in the blood).29–30 AGEs are sugar-protein reaction products that lead to inflammation, the development of nonfunctional proteins in tissue and DNA damage that accelerates the aging of the cells and makes all tissues, including the skin, more brittle.

Pomegranate contains ellagitannins, which reduce oxidative stress and DNA damage to slow aging and cancer development. Pomegranate also is a good source of anthocyanins for blood vessel health. Studies have shown pomegranate compounds known as punicalgins help to decrease clogged arteries.31–34 Taken orally, pomegranate extract has been shown to help decrease DNA damage to the skin caused by UVB rays.

A rich source of ellagic acid and polyphenols for detoxification and antioxidant effect, strawberry also contains flavonoids such as myricetin for reduction of AGEs.

And grapes, a common part of the Mediterranean diet, are a source of proanthocyanidins, which protects the skin, joints and blood vessels. They also contain resveratrol and anthocyanins for anti-aging effects via the SIR-1 pathway and via nitric oxide to improve microcirculation.

Anti-aging Herbs

Milk thistle extract activates telomerase, and a study demonstrated that it had an impact on restoring stem cell proliferation, increasing it by 65% in a physiologically normal dosage.35 This flavonoid-rich extract also helps regenerate both liver and kidney cells to protect these important detoxifying organs.

Resveratrol from hu zhang is a potent bioactive that increases the activity of the SIR-1 gene in human. The SIR-1 gene reduces aging processes in the body and reduces insulin-based gene activity, which is known to increase inflammation and cell death.

Kudzu root is derived from the root of Pueraria montana, and is rich in special isoflavones that activate telomerase in blood vessels at physiologically available dosages. The telomerase can increase the lifespan of DNA and cells according to some of the latest research.36 And having healthy blood vessels means improved microcirculation to better deliver oxygen and nutrients to skin cells.

Japanese honeysuckle is one of the best sources of the flavonoid luteolin, a potent bioactive for antiglycation to reduce AGEs formation. AGEs also can lead to increased cellular death, cancer cells and wrinkles.

And astragalus contains several anti-aging compounds that have been shown to double the life span of fibroblast cells.37–39 These types of cells are found in skin, lungs, blood vessels and connective tissue. This also is an immune and qi tonic (as part of traditional Chinese medicine) herb that promotes healthy immunity against viral diseases, cancer and bacterial infection. As a qi tonic, it promotes vital energy, which is important for longevity.

Anti-aging Through Sleep

Insomnia has damaging effects on the human body, and that includes the skin—and even accelerates the aging process.40 Cortisol from stress has an aging effect, causing thinning of the skin, muscles and bones while increasing fat storage. Poor sleep also raises cortisol levels and elevates blood sugar, which causes a form of tissue damage via AGEs through an inflammation pathway. Growth hormones are also adversely affected by a lack of sleep.

One study performed at University Hospitals Case Medical Center (Cleveland, Ohio) demonstrated that sleep quality impacts skin function and aging,41–42 showing that poor sleepers had increased signs of skin aging and slower recovery from a variety of environmental stressors—such as disruption of the moisture skin barrier and UV damage. In addition, those who slept poorly had worse assessment of their own skin and facial appearance.

According to chief investigator E. Baron, the study of 60 pre-menopausal women between the ages of 30 and 49, with half of participants falling into the poor quality sleep category, is the first to conclusively demonstrate inadequate sleep is correlated with reduced skin health and accelerated skin aging. Sleep-deprived women show signs of premature skin aging and a decrease in their skin’s ability to recover after sun exposure. Poor quality sleepers showed increased signs of intrinsic skin aging, including fine lines, uneven pigmentation and slackening of skin and reduced elasticity.

Deep, sound sleep reduces cortisol and optimizes growth hormones, and botanicals can help induce deeper sleep, and the flavonoids they contain can reduce cortisol to healthier levels. Herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have demonstrated calming and sedative effects. Relaxing shen tonic herbs are capable of supporting serotonin synthesis or promoting serotonin activity, according to scientific studies of wild jujube seed, bupleurum root and senega snake root (Polygala tenuifolia). These herbs also have well-documented sedative and anti-anxiety effects. Bupleurum is another herb that has sedative and analgesic actions as described in The Pharmacology of Chinese Herbs. And Polygala has “sedative and tranquilizing effects,” as well as the functions of inducing sedation. Another herb with serotonin activity, Albizia julibrissin is used for restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, relief of depression and controlling pain.43

Additionally, to have healthy sleep, it is essential to have high enough levels of the brain chemical/neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), an inhibitory neurotransmitter for reducing excessive brain and thought activity and for muscle-relaxing effects. TCM herbs that support GABA activity, according to scientific studies, are wild jujube seed, bupleurum root, senega snake root and Sophora flavescens.44–48

A clinical proprietary unpublished human clinical study performed in China by Draco of one TCM formula known as D-31 involved 85 participants with varying degrees of insomnia, characterized by difficulty in falling asleep and/or difficulty maintaining sleep without awakening. Subjects were administered two grams of the formula before going to bed for five successive days. Nearly 90% showed some form of improvement, with about 39% rated as cured, a definition based on uninterrupted sleep for six to seven hours. The remainder of those who showed improvement had at least five to six hours of uninterrupted sleep. This shows that TCM formulas can be used for improving sleep and restoring health to the body—again, an essential step in maintaining ones beauty and reducing the aging process.


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Brien Quirk is the director of R&D for Draco Natural Products, a California-based botanical extract, bioactives and ingredient manufacturer for the dietary supplement, personal care, and food and beverage markets. He oversees projects for new product development and new bioactives discoveries, and maintains the literature library and databases. He also helped compile the large, comprehensive personal care database (which is now available to Draco customers in a CD format), and has been searching for new bioactives and applications for most of the last 14 years with Draco.

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