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Niklas Brendborg explains ways to be healthy including not eating too much broccoli

HEALTH

THE AGE OF ILLNESS BACKWARDS: NATURE’S SECRETS FOR LONG-LASTING

by Nicklas Brendborg (Hodder £16.99, 320pp)

There are many myths about people finding the fountain of eternal youth, but we know it is just that: myths.

In nature, however, there is a small jellyfish called Turritopsis, no bigger than your fingernail, that does something very miraculous.

When stressed by hunger or a sudden change in water temperature, it can revert to its juvenile polyp stage and start its life all over again, “with no physiological memory of being older.” It’s like getting away from a stressful day at work by “deciding to go back to kindergarten again.”

So writes Danish biologist Nicklas Brendborg in this captivating book about the mysteries of aging. Turritopsis suggests that nature has already figured out ways to age backward rather than forward when necessary, while other creatures display incredible restorative powers and immunities.

Nicklas Brendborg explains the mysteries of aging and offers health advice including running and then sleeping well (stock image)

Nicklas Brendborg explains the mysteries of aging and offers health advice including running and then sleeping well (stock image)

Can we borrow from them in this age of gene editing and splicing? For example, the naked mole rat lives virtually cancer-free: of the 1000 specimens examined, only six had developed a tumor. And cancer, says Brendborg, is primarily a disease of aging.

Although, as he also points out, if tomorrow all cancers worldwide were cured, life expectancy would only increase by 3.3 years. Instead, we would just die of heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

But there’s a lot to learn from Jellyfish Age Backwards, a tantalizing mix of biology and health advice. Drop those antioxidant pills right away. “It appears that antioxidant supplements will promote the growth and spread of certain cancers rather than limit them…excess antioxidants actually disrupt the process of getting stronger and healthier through exercise.” Eat right instead.

Perhaps the essence of Brendborg’s insights lies in the concept of the sweet spot: there is an ideal amount for everything, not too little, not too much.

He also says that broccoli, kale and cabbage are good for us because they are bad for us because plants don't want to be eaten (stock image)

He also says that broccoli, kale and cabbage are good for us because they are bad for us because plants don’t want to be eaten (stock image)

You actually need those so-called ‘harmful’ free radicals to stimulate your own immune system. Or think about exercise, the author says. It’s not so much about a run that’s good for you as it is about the recovery mechanisms it activates. Running itself causes your blood pressure to skyrocket, causes several small muscle tears, strains the heart, overloads the joints. But when you go to sleep after that, the body’s excellent repair systems go into turbo mode.

And they evolved over millions of years precisely to repair any damage from running, which our ancestors did a lot. Your body pumps out just the right amount of antioxidants, sends extra nutrients to repair the muscles, strengthens the heart and so on. But run to exhaustion and you can leave your immune system weakened for days. It’s all about that good place.

Funnily enough, it’s not entirely accurate to say that all those ultra-healthy but slightly bitter “leaf greens” like kale and cabbage are good for us. In fact, they are good for us because they are bad for us. Plants don’t want to be eaten. Like us, they just want to grow up, produce seeds and leave offspring – so their leaves are full of mild poisons, those slightly sulphurous compounds that kids hate.

But it’s because they’re poisonous that they’re good for us. They activate the defense mechanisms of our body. “You can think of eating a lot of plants as a safe and superior alternative to ingesting toxins.”

It is common nowadays to find that modern life is too stressful, and that there is a mismatch between our essentially stone bodies and the pressure and speed of life in the 21st century. But too little stress is just as unhealthy as too much.

Think about that, Brendborg says. In 1991, scientists established the remarkable Biosphere 2, a sort of huge greenhouse in the Arizona desert, where they wanted to live completely cut off from the outside world. In the beginning, the trees in the biosphere thrived and grew rapidly.

But within two years ‘many trees were already dead’. What was missing? Tension.

Particularly high winds, to bend them and throw them back and forth. Trees are perfectly developed to withstand anything but the worst winds and grow much stronger as a result. Without this natural challenge, the trees in the biosphere grew quickly but weakly, lacked resilience — and eventually fell under their own weight.

You could easily apply this lesson to the dangers of an overprotected childhood as well as “safe spaces” and snowflakes, you might imagine.

The old stresses that strengthen us include strenuous exercise (but not to exhaustion), strong sunshine (but not sunburn), high altitude (makes our lungs more efficient), and hunger. We probably avoid this last form of stress the most. Who doesn’t like food? Yet our ancestors often hungered and lived off it for a day or two.

There are so many fascinating things here, although towards the end I started to say goodbye to the author’s futuristic optimism as he extols the kind of high-tech bioengineering that could live us up to 200 or more.

Would this really be a good thing on an already crowded planet? Should we try to extend or deepen our lives? Enjoying our allotted years of love and laughter, then bowing gracefully to make room for a new generation of children to enjoy the world as we once did?

Nevertheless, it’s a great fun piece of popular science, full of memorable facts and sound advice.

At most about a third of our lifespan is hereditary, we are told: the rest is up to us, to our diet, exercise and sleep. And just the right amount of stress.

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