Can Elixir of Life be found?

Subir Kumar Bhattacharyya The search for an elixir of life, which can provide fountain of youth for a very long period of time, or even immortality, had been attempted by almost all old civilizations, and it has still been continuing for the last three or four millennia. In Hindu mythology, legend has it that in the very olden times, the gods and the goddesses, being impelled by the Trinity (in one Godhead) Brahman, Vishnu and Maheswar, had joined hands with rakshasas (demons) to churn the seas with Mountain Mainak using Basuki, the legendary serpent, as a rope to skim off ‘amrita’ or elixir of life that would give the former immortality and eternal youthfulness. After some frantic attempts, Goddess Lakshmi rose to the surface with a container full of ‘amrita’. At the same time, Basuki, having been severely bruised due to heavy churning, spewed venom. Venom threatened to poison amrita and water of seas, rivers and lakes. The gods and the goddesses were frightened and feared that they would miss amrita and so the chance of their gaining immortality. They pleaded with the Trinity to save them as well as amrita from the effects of venom. Maheswar or Shiva then swallowed the whole quantity of venom and lodged it in his throat. Thus, Shiva’s throat turned blue due to the effects of venom and thus Shiva is known as Nilkantha. Thereafter, the gods and the goddesses deceived the rakshasas and drank amrita themselves and became immortal. Besides the gods and the goddesses, four non-divine devotees Parashurama, Hanumana, Bibhishana and Ashwathyama became immortal by the boons of gods and goddesses for their rigorous penance and worship. Other religions are known to have similar mythological tales. The search for ‘amrita’ or elixir of life was also the mission of the alchemists or the lettered who practised alchemy. Alchemy was the branch of human knowledge or endeavour that branched off into two parallel scientific investigations. One dealt with philosophy for achieving ultimate wisdom and a branch of science for finding chemical substances with unusual properties that evolved into chemistry and pharmacology. The ultimate objective of finding one group of substances was to convert all metals into gold and the other to give humans immortality. Alchemists later realized that conversion of any metal into gold was beyond their technological prowess. Presently, man-made artificial diamonds are available in the market, but artificial gold is not available as the cost of creating gold from other metals is prohibitive. All previous attempts at finding elixir of life finally reached dead ends. Can we downright say the quest for an elixir of life is as elusive now as it was ever before? The answer cannot be given by saying simply yes or no. Life and human body are too complicated to warrant a simple answer. The people or even the scientists in olden times had very little knowledge about genesis of life, intricacies of human body and limitations of their knowledge, and as such their search was limited in scope, insufficiently planned and minimally focused in attaining goals. Medical science is so much advanced today that scientists are aware of the limitations of their search, but at the same time are hopeful that many ongoing research will improve quality of life, prolong lifespan to a great extent by preventing and combating diseases and providing better nutrition and finally challenging the inevitability of death. The founder of cryogenic science once said, “Death is the worst disease, but not incurable.” Many of us may doubt the wisdom of his making such an audacious and outrageous statement. However, we all know that life expectancy at birth

now has increased many folds in all countries in the world, and it can be rightly asserted that medical science has been keeping death at bay longer everyday as science progresses. Let me revert to the subject of health, which the elixir of life is intended to improve and prolong. Now the whole discussion comes down to the simple question how we can improve quality of life and live longer. Many nutrition scientists, notably Dean Ornish, except Atkins whose lowcarb dietary regime to shed weight is out of favour now, are doing research in this field and have found that restricting calorie-intake can improve and prolong life. Their research restricting calorie-intake below 1500 calories a day has demonstrated that low calorie lowers level of a hormone called IGF-1, which activates a gene called Foxo, responsible for lowering blood sugar and C- reactive protein, the latter being the marker for inflammation in the arteries. However, there is a downside to this diet regime. Low calorie induces the feeling of cold, pangs of hunger and low libido. Who is going to try out this method to live longer? Not many, I believe. What are the alternatives then that the scientists have come up with? They have a few up their sleeves, and are researching on a few others. The first is one plant chemical out of many beneficial varieties (also collectively known as phytochemicals) named ‘resveratrol’ found in red wine. Basically, it comes from skin and seed of red grapes. Pomegranate juice also contains resveratrol. But we need to ingest lot of red wine or red grapes or pomegranate juice to get beneficial effect. It will be harmful to drink more than two glasses of red wine and eat few kgs of red grapes or two/three litres of pomegranate juice every day. Good news is that resveratrol is now available in capsule or tablet form as food supplement. Resveratrol is proven to have lowered bad cholesterol LDL, elevated good one HDL, lowered blood sugar and C - reactive protein and prevented damage to cells by free radicals. Resveratrol seems to increase rate of metabolism and as such mimics the beneficial effects of calorie restriction. Further research recently conducted leads to some new startling findings. Resveratrol, calorie restriction, which the former mimics, and exercise activate SIRT1, a gene that encodes sirtuin family of proteins having wide range of health benefits, particularly in controlling metabolism-related diseases and enhance production of tumour necrosis factor (TNF), which kills both malignant and non-malignant tumour cells. A new class of medicines known as SIRT1 activator has been synthetically developed and is likely to be available in the market soon. Meanwhile, it may be prudent to try resveratrol supplement. Another line of research is focusing on telomere. It is necessary to briefly explain what telomere is before I delve into the new research to find telomere activator. Every cell has, inter alia, mitochondria and a nucleus, consisting of 23 pair of chromosomes, which is the storage for DNA, our genetic materials. A chromosome is a long strand of DNA. At the end of a chromosome is a telomere, which acts like a bookend. Telomeres keep chromosomes protected and prevent them from fusing into rings or binding with other DNA. When a cell divides and copies DNA, the strands of DNA get snipped to enable the copying process. The places that are snipped are the telomeres. Since the telomeres do not contain any important information, more important parts of the DNA are thus protected. The telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides, like a pencil eraser gets shorter each time it is used. When the telomere becomes too short, essential parts of the DNA can be damaged in the replication process. Scientists have noticed that cells stop replicating when telomeres are shorter. In humans, a cell replicates about 50 times before the telomeres become too short. This limit is called the Hayflick limit named after the scientist who discovered it. A biotech company has manufactured a telomere boosting supplement named TA- 65, which seems to work in preventing cell damage and thus preventing onset of many diseases like cancer. The supplement is said to cost $ 25,000.00 per person a year.

However, some scientists caution against rushing into popping TA- 65 pills, as long term safety has yet to be established. When telomere stops shortening altogether, cells may start dividing uncontrollably leading to growth of tumours. It is an interesting time to watch developments in all scientific fields. However, self testing of experimental drugs for efficacy is not a good idea. Diet containing in most part fruits and vegetables can have almost the same effect if it is combined with exercise, enough sleep and stress-free healthy life style. To insure further against harmful effects of aging, the following general outline of dietary regime can be tried successfully without any side effects. 1) Low fat, high-fibre and rich in vitamins and minerals and plant chemicals rich in antioxidants 2) All seasonal fruits and vegetables 3) Food basket should contain fruits and vegetables of all colours forming a rainbow 4) Particular attention may be paid to: i) ii) iii) iv) v) vi) Soy products that contain flavones or flavonoids group of phytochemicals Herbal tea, particularly green tea and popular black tea Steamed tomato, not raw that releases lycopene Garlic and onion sufficiently crushed to release allyl sulphide Anti-inflammatory spices like black cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom etc. Essential fatty acids ‘omega 3s’ (linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA) found in some fish oil, flax seed, wall nut and avocado In case, food cannot provide all these chemicals sufficiently or there is dietary restriction, supplement may be tried Avoid fried food as extreme heat destroys good chemicals in food items and converts many ingredients into toxic substances

vii) viii)

This outline is for people who have no dietary restriction due to diseases. To make sure that the above food items will not cause any harmful side effects, advice of doctors or trained nutritionists may be obtained.

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