It’s never to late to LIVE your dreams, not just DREAM them.
By Dr. Devaki Lindsey Berkson
Ever buy into the American hypnotic spell that only youth is better?
My dear friend and I worked out together. Liz is an iconic physical therapist who really knows the secrets of the body. She’s a deep, insightful woman. After critiquing each other’s gym postures and laughing a lot, we cooled off over protein shakes. We started talking about the wisdom that is unveiled after being in practice for many years—for her, almost thirty years, and for me, over 40. Liz said something that was a mental shape-shifter. “You know, when you’re young, you can’t see the bigger picture. The young,” Liz smiled, “are at a tremendous disadvantage.”
That’s a transforming thought.
We’re often told the opposite. Media woos us to covet youth. What if you were older, yet still had the same energy that you did when you were younger, and could fully use and appreciate the gifts that all those years had taught you? Could your vision of what’s possible be stretched?
Ever worry that your window of energy, opportunity, and the good life has passed you by? Not necessarily so.
I had a patient who walked into the room looking defeated. It turned out that she and her husband worked for the same organization, but lived separate lives and slept in separate bedrooms. She knew he cheated. Constantly. She was in her mid 50’s and felt overweight, tired, betrayed, and knew she’d never find as good a job. She sagged in front of me.
I stood up and shared that I was older but still single, still dating and still energetic even though I battled 15 surgeries and lost 7-½ organs 20 years ago. I let her know I do weekend dance marathons, weeklong canoe trips, and long daily workouts. She got the message.
We ran in-depth tests. We discovered she had very unique digestive issues and specific nutrient deficiencies that were holding her hormones back and explained why she was running on empty. She changed her diet. Once she felt better, she could face working out.
Two months later she emailed that she had moved out and got an apartment of her own. Three months later she joined a dating site. Shortly she met a man. Within a few weeks she found her dream job. Seven months later I got invited to their wedding.
Aging can be better than it used to. But it takes living differently than YOU used to.
“It’s too late” is no longer an apt term if you know how to “turn the tide of your physiology”. You can be in your 60s, 70s, and even your 80s yet still achieve boundless energy and vibrant wellness to live out all that you have learned and earned. But to achieve this high state of enduring wellness you have to know what to do to pull this off.
You may not be aware of a shift in consciousness occurring in integrative medicine, functional nutrition, and science. We are learning that we can shift how our body and brain and even life and disease, move across time. This is powerful. We are realizing that health is dynamic.
You are not stuck with the YOU that you are right this moment.
Traditional medical exams are set up to look at patients as a set of identifiable symptoms. Patients are then offered pharmaceutical or procedural solutions to “fix” these symptoms. But this medicine does not address how these symptoms came to be. Why are our cholesterol and sugar levels high but our sleep and motivation low? Much of today’s wham-bam heath care visits do not give “hope” that we can overcome the need for these meds or procedures nor help figure out how to get us vibrant once again.
This is more the case as we age. More of us are aging, but not necessarily doing it well.
Gerontology medicine is relatively new. Why? This is really the first time in history that so many people are living so long. “Global Health And Aging” was a publication written in 2011 by a team of heavy hitters from: the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Health Organization. These esteemed authors wrote that the world is on the brink of a demographic milestone. We are facing a situation without precedent for planet Earth, third ball from the sun: “We soon will have more older people than children and more people at extreme old age than ever before.”
Key questions arise. How long can we stay well? How inevitable are the frailties of aging? Are there scientific technologies to slow down genetic destinies or possibly reverse cognitive decline?
The Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University School of Medicine is showing that physical and mental decline begins sooner in life than we might have thought and sooner than typical health exams are set up to identify. Physical decline often starts when people are still in their 50s. Heart issues, like clogged arteries, can begin earlier even when we are children.
This research found out something else: if people focused on ways to preserve health earlier in life, they would have fewer issues with “inevitable aging” later on in life. And the time of morbidity (serious health issues) at the end of life could be compressed into smaller sets of months or years.
In other words, we have power to influence how we age.
I read a game-changing article from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, at the University of Pittsburgh. This changed the way I look at what lies ahead.
These researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that aging and frailty are inevitable. That as senescence (biological aging) moves along, we lose mass and strength, get weaker, and go down hill globally.
They assembled a group of “master” athletes. Their definition for a master athlete was a non-professional athlete who worked out 4 to 5 times a week, for at least an hour, with pretty robust exertion. They found 40 of these workout folks aged from 40 to 81 years of age.
They then did something cool. They imaged (by MRI) the mid-thigh muscle mass of each athlete and compared their quad sizes. They measured their quad strength. What they found was mind-boggling.
The thigh muscle mass in the 70- and 80-year-old master athletes was exactly the same as athletic folks in their 40s. The only difference was that the thigh muscle in the older folks was surrounded by a bit more fat. We hold on to more fat as we age. Darn. But the 70- and 80-year-olds that kept moving, kept working out, kept pushing their limits, had exactly the same quad muscle mass and strength as athletes that were up to 40 years younger!
The authors concluded that aging is not, as we had thought, inevitable.
We can age differently if we live differently.
Most of us think, as do most doctors (especially the younger ones), that the “rate of aging” is fairly irreversible. When you hit 65, you most likely will be taking a conveyor belt of prescriptions. Medications to promote sleep, to tamp down cholesterol, to control blood sugar or anxiety, and to hush pain.
But let’s look at two studies that offer alternatives.
One investigation out of Texas looked at two groups of 75 women, all middle-aged and all reporting a lot of stress in their lives. One group was prescribed regular meds to treat insomnia, anxiety, high cholesterol, etc. The women in the other group had their blood tested for hormone levels, and then were given hormone replacement to create optimal hormone balance. The women were then followed for three years.
The women on hormone therapies needed less medication across the board. They didn’t need insomnia meds, or cholesterol meds or blood sugar lowering meds or high blood pressure meds. Why? Because keeping their hormones in balance kept their bodies healthier. In-depth testing showed that they also had healthier arteries, less inflammation, less pain, and overall, they enjoyed a higher quality of life. By the way, the hormone therapies, which were all individualized, did not cause any clots, strokes or any other adverse heart issues.
Balancing hormones warded off or even treated “diseases” such as high blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia (high blood fats), heart issues, arthritis, pre-diabetes, and mood disorders.
A similar study came out of England. It was run on almost 4,000 women who were followed for a year. Half of the women were put on hormone therapy and the other half on placebo. Within a year, the women on hormone therapies had significant (beyond chance) improvement in sleep, fewer hot flashes, and better and more pleasure filled intimacy (ability to have and enjoy enhanced libido). They had less pain, fewer aching joints, better range of motion in their joints and needed less pain and arthritis meds. The women on balanced hormone therapies felt younger in all aspects of their lives. And it’s not just for women.
A colleague that I went to school with many years ago called in an understandable panic. Her husband was developing dementia in his mid 60s. He’d been non-functional, paranoid and unable to work or socialize for a year. Imaging pointed to unhealthy microvascular brain changes. Specialists had been trying multiple medications but none were helping. We tested him thoroughly and got him on individualized hormone replacement to reboot that part of his brain related to memory called the” hippocampus”. He was severely hypothyroid so that was addressed, along with his uncontrolled blood pressure. Because he now hurt less due to the hormone balancing, he was able to get off his long-term use of NSAIDs, which are particularly brain unfriendly. He was put on a keto-genic diet to offer ketones to his brain for food rather than carbs. An individualized nutraceutical program was initiated. A helper was hired that made sure he got exercise twice a day. He lost 40 pounds. His brain became less inflamed. Within 5 months he was improved enough to go back to work part-time. A natural program turned his “fate” around.
Pain can be a sign of low hormones.
We commonly think that as we age we get more aches and pains. But much of older age arthritic pain actually comes from faltering hormone levels. One of the well-documented benefits of balancing hormones is achieving less joint pain.
One of my physiatrist friends (medical doc that specializes in nerves and the spine) wishes he could inject testosterone into joints as part of the modalities offered at his large practice. This doctor rightfully views hormonal waning to be a major cause of pain and ligamentous and cartilaginous damage in so many of his middle-aged and older patients.
I used to work part-time in an internist’s office in Tulsa. As male patients were initiated on testosterone replacement, often long-term shoulder pains, neck aches, and many other “inevitable” aches and pains went into remission within days and sometimes within hours if they got their T by injection. Women benefit too.
Hormone therapies aren’t only about ending hot flashes or pumping up libido. Achieving balanced hormone levels helps slow down aging and protect our brain. Most patients treated with hormone therapies remark that they can think and remember better. They have more motivation. Their blood sugar levels are back down to healthier ranges. They hurt less. They are happier and able to deal with the demands of their lives better.
It is actually more dangerous to not test and re-balance your hormone health than it is buck up and age naturally without any support. Too few, patients and doctors both, understand this forward thinking surrounding hormone protocols.
We mostly accept that: When we age we’ll hurt more. We’ll sit more. Life starts to pass us by. That’s aging. Or is it?
Or is how you age more a by-product of your choices, hormones, nutrients, gut, and habits?
Back only twenty years ago, when someone turned 40 years old it was common to get black party favors, cards with over-the-hill jokes, and doomsday decorations proclaiming the end was coming.
We regarded 40 years old as the launch of old age.
Today women can still be “hot” at age 40. Some women are getting pregnant and starting families at age 40. Some men are still remarkable athletes at age 40.
Today, we look at turning 60 as the threshold of old age. But what if you could morph your 60s like we did with our 40s? This isn’t a mute point. Many of us are going to be living well after our 60s, and up into our 90s and even up to being centenarians.
The new understanding of what dictates wellness.
The scientific understanding that your body is a community of constantly squawking cells has been growing for a while. The Human Microbiome Projects and the Human Genome Projects by the National Institutes of Health have paved breakthroughs demonstrating how you can take health and aging into your own hands.
Your internal gut bacteria, called your microbiome, your oral bacteria called your oral biome, and the function of the immune system deep inside your gut (where 80% of your immune system lives), which I call your microimmunome, are now known to rule much of your health. Your gut bacteria, the same kind that you may be fluffing up by sipping kefir or taking probiotics, has turned out to contain hormone receptors.
Gut flora cross talks with your hormones. Your entire gut—from your mouth to your southerly end—is flush with hormone receptors (proteins in the shape of satellite dishes that take messages from hormones). So just getting a hormone script might not be enough to get you feeling young in your 70s if your microgenderome is not on board (this is the name that Harvard researchers have given this hormonal aspect of the microbiome).
Master our genes.
At a conference where I lectured about health to a group of over 300 doctors (in the Woodlands in July 2016), a woman physician came up to me and exclaimed, “I can’t believe how young you look. How lucky to have such youthful genes!”
Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality I inherited damaged genes. My mother was given a drug when pregnant with me and I’ve lived with the consequences all my life. For over 30 years, millions of pregnant women were given this drug as a prenatal vitamin or to stop spotting. Millions of kids were exposed in the womb. These DES sons and daughters have increased risks of diabetes, obesity, and multiple cancers. I have battled numerous tumors and multiple surgeries. Many times I felt like I was 100 years old.
But once I learned how to live differently, to take safe, strategic and balancing hormone replacement (which most doctors would never give me since I had breast cancer 21 years ago) and reboot my microgenderome, and deliver robust nutrition to my deep cellular recesses, I was able to turn things around and finally stop the tumor madness.
Twenty years ago, at the height of my un-wellness, a well-intentioned endocrinologist here in Austin, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Life is a book. You’re in the second half of your book of life. Accept it.”
Heck no! Never take OLD or ILL for an answer.
That’s my motto and why many docs have been frustrated with me. They were the experts and only they understood what my certain fate would be. I should accept it.
I’m healthy now because I didn’t.
When a doctor tells you there is no answer for your illness, it means he or she doesn’t have one. We need smart practitioners to listen and master our personal stories. To figure out our weakest links. Then reboot them. Hormones lean on nutrients, which lean on the oral biome, the microbiome and microgenderome. All affect the microimmunome. There may be hidden infections stressing all these systems. Addressing these can reduce aging issues and even some diseases.
A fierce passion is needed to pursue enduring health. Don’t be daunted when your first attempts fail. The practice of medication-based therapies to treat symptoms has got all of us addicted to fast fixes. Many root causes of pain, fatigue, cognitive decline and more, are covert. To achieve deep wellness, hidden physiologic glitches need to be uncovered by a practitioner that takes the time needed to do so. But only you can live the recommendations.
When you change your life style, hormones, gut health, food and thoughts, you have the best chance to tweak your genes and re-sculpt your future.
Epigenetic power over genes
Our new understanding of the human genome liberates us once we realize that our personal genes don’t completely define us.
The epilogue in my book on bioidentical hormones and nutrition, Safe Hormones, Smart Women was a section on epigenetics. Why? I am a healer. Part of being a healer is being a motivator. I wanted people to grasp that they can take their genes (and thus their health and aging) into their own hands. I wanted people to realize that their lifestyle choices influence their genes often more powerfully than the very genes they were born with.
Genes. Genes contain all our inherited genetic code. Our DNA. This information helps guide genes to deliver appropriate instructions to cells. Cells are soldiers. They only act when told what to do. Genes deliver the marching orders that tell cells what to do and when to do it.
To deliver messages, genes need to be turned on, expressed, or turned off, inhibited.
But that is not the end of the story.
Epigenetics. Epigenetics is the process whereby the instructions from genes can be modified. How? There is a swarm of potential modifiers, silencers, or exaggerators that surround each gene. “Epi” means “above” or “upon”. Genes can even wrap themselves around these modifying proteins. These proteins adapt how the gene and target cells interact. For example, histones are proteins that act like a spool around which threads of DNA wrap. They control cell growth to unfold just right, not too much and not too little.
Epigenetic change doesn’t alter the genes themselves. But epigenetic modifications influence the way cells read genetic instructions. DNA wrapped around histones mentioned above, can be modified so now the cell dies too early or stays alive too long. Disease may become more inevitable.
Epigenetic changes cause the instructions delivered to cells to supersede the basic genetic DNA programming we inherited.
Epigenetics is the physiologic mirror of our choices
How we live, choices we make hour by hour, foods we eat, the amount of time we sit, how much sugar we binge on, the hormones that are in balance or not, the drugs we take that ding our microbiome or not—all are part of how our genes express themselves. These daily actions can affect epigenetic change that then modifies the gene-signal-cell interaction. As genes express your life unfolds. Epigenetic changes modify how genes express, thus your life unfolds a tad bit differently.
- You live and life responds.
- Epigenetic changes make your genes do it.
Studies on identical twins were the first to show us the way. Identical twins inherit virtually identical genes. But how each twin lives then modifies these inherited genes through epigenetic change. Their individual life styles then alter their individual physiologies.
Women with the BRCA1 mutation, which is considered the most dangerous breast gene mutation of all, are at 60 to 80% increased risk of developing breast cancer over their lifetimes. Dr. Steven Narod is co-discoverer of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (in 1994 and 1995). Dr. Narod’s collaborative research showed that women in Poland with BRCA1 mutations have a 46% lower risk of actually getting breast cancer than women in North America with the same genetic mutation. Why? The women in Poland eat, walk and live differently than women in the US. This modifies their genetic expression by favorably modifying their epigenetic expression.
Over his career, Dr. Narod has looked at diverse ways that women with these cancer-promoting BRCA genes could decrease their risk of getting breast cancer. He has focused on lifestyle choices that improve genetic instructions through epigenetic modifications.
Dr. Narod has shown that moderate wine drinking significantly lowers the risk of breast cancer in BRCA1-carrying women. But, on the other hand, excessive drinking, excessive coffee intake (over 8 cups/day) and even excessive eating (more than 2057 calories/day) were linked to significantly increased risk of getting breast cancer. In contrast, Dr. Narod’s research showed that plant food is protective. His research showed that eating abundantly of diverse fruits and veggies (different colors, different benefits) was statistically associated with a significantly reduced risk of breast cancer, even in women with BRCA1 genes.
How these women lived changed their fate.
A study sponsored by the Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Center, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, found that postmenopausal women with a BRCA1 mutation, who had used hormone therapy in the past (estrogen only without synthetic progestins), had a 42% decreased risk of getting breast cancer. In contrast, the prophylactic surgery of removing both ovaries offers a 50% decreased risk of these women getting breast cancer. So a history of taking estrogen replacement was only 8% less effective at protecting these women from getting breast cancer than removing both ovaries. This illustrates the power of balanced hormone health.
Genetic links to breast cancer only apply up to 10% of the time. Cancer risk can be significantly reduced by lifestyle choices—by how you live. Even seriously dangerous genes can be silenced. Every moment and every action is an opportunity to remake yourself.
Nature never does anything without a reason.
A baby moves through the mother’s vaginal biome and the baby’s microbiome starts getting “seeded.” But there is another natural force that is protecting the newborn’s intestinal tract. The mother’s body is flush with the hormone oxytocin, which we mostly regard as initiating labor and letting down milk. Oxytocin is also a bonding hormone, so an emotionally invested mom will protect that child. But, here’s what’s new from my perspective, about how oxytocin is protecting the newborn’s critical intestinal tract.
Birth is explosive. Lot’s of screaming, squeezing, pain and effort. For both mom and infant. This birth trauma produces potentially dangerous pro-inflammatory molecules. In comes oxytocin to the rescue. Oxytocin has anti-inflammatory properties, which tamp down inflammatory molecules. Oxytocin boosts production of natural proteins that healthfully tighten the baby’s brand new gut wall to protect against possible damage from these inflammatory molecules. These proteins also promote healthy gut and immune function in this brand new life that has just gone through the vaginal canal and now faces a new external potentially immune assaulting world.
Oxytocin is a natural bio-identical hormone. All human bodies manufacture it. A mother’s body and a baby’s body are built to receive natural oxytocin signals without muss or fuss and that help pass on healthy genetic signals.
This may not be the case with synthetic versions.
We have long known that female hormones (estrogens) and male hormones (androgens) are vulnerable to disruption by environmental pollutants. Pollutants that can damage these sex steroids are called endocrine disruptors. They are ubiquitous. Endocrine disrupting compounds can occur in diverse plastics that wrap our foods, in off-gassing molecules from laminate floors, and from diverse pesticides, herbicides and growth promoters. They can even come from long-lingering chemicals that are presently banned, such as DDTs and PCBs.
A receptor, remember, is a set of proteins that receives signals from hormones. Hormones deliver and receptors receive. There is new research suggesting that the oxytocin receptor is as susceptible to disruption and damage as are estrogen, androgen and other receptors. Which then can foster adverse epigenetic change!
Take Pitocin. This is a synthetic version of the bio-identical oxytocin hormone that is given to some pregnant women to induce labor. Researchers from CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance in NY and the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in NY have shown that the use of Pitocin during childbirth is an important perinatal risk factor for bipolar and cognitive impairment in later childhood.
How? The synthetic version of oxytocin, a potential endocrine disruptor, can mess with genetic expression. By causing adverse epigenetic change.
Epigenetic change can be GOOD or BAD.
The basic job of hormones is to signal genes. Environmental disruptors signal genes too. They sometimes hijack them. Which sometimes causes adverse epigenetic changes. These can be passed through the generations. To your grandkids.
The placenta, the fetus developing in the womb, and even mother’s milk may all contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (from exposure through every day food, water, home, traffic on the ground or in the air, and from plain “fresh” air). These exposures during and around birth may cause health issues in the child when it grows up. This new concept of exposure to any kind of unhealthy epigenetic modification, in the womb, is now being called “the fetal origin of adult disease.”
As this child grows up and has their own children, these genetic glitches can be passed on.
- A professionally monitored detoxification before you get pregnant (prior to conception) may help you pass on healthier and less toxic epigenetic changes.
- Junk food choices or obesity, drugs and a sedentary life style prior to conception and during the nine months in the womb or while breastfeeding, may pass on less healthy epigenetic changes.
Other startling examples.
Every single cell in the human body has receptors ready to receive both thyroid and cortisol signals. If you are constantly stressed and your cortisol levels are consistently elevated in unhealthy ranges, thousands of genes that are signaled by these receptors can be modified. The thyroid hormone is easy prey to endocrine disruptors and thyroid’s epigenetic changes can have far reaching unhealthy physiologic effects.
I met with a young husband and wife that were pretty healthy but both turned out to have significant hypothyroidism. They each had perfect blood sugar levels, perfect lipid levels, and even perfect inflammatory markers. But both of them had underactive thyroid levels. This seemed more than odd. Upon questioning, it was discovered they were living in a recently built home. The heavy chemical burden and exposures from paints, adhesives, floorings and rugs were most likely causing epigenetic thyroid changes in both of them. I might not have made the connection if I hadn’t run both their blood tests at exactly the same time and known these connect-the-dots from my earlier research. Part of treating their underactive thyroid disease, aside from thyroid replacement, is air filters in their home and other proactive actions like professionally monitored detox measures.
The receptors of diverse hormones (estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, insulin, etc.) have lots of give-and-take. If genes are go awry in certain hormone receptors, there can be collateral damage in others.
A stressed adrenal gland can cause a stressed thyroid. A stressed thyroid can cause receptors to overreact to estrogens. All this can cause epigenetic changes.
Chronic stress can adversely affect 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, an enzyme that governs balance in the adrenal-cortisol system. This pathway is vulnerable to environmental endocrine disruptors and can adversely affect brain-body-hormone cross talk (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, called the HPA axis). This can influence epigenetic change that thus influences genetic instructions. These changes can be inherited.
We’re all linked.
We are all children of our particular time. For me, when the Beatles came back from visiting India and introduced meditation to the U. S., we proclaimed, “We’re all one.”
Epigenetics proves this.
Our health prior to the egg and sperm meeting and mingling is passed on to our children and affects how their genes express themselves.
Animal studies now show that grandpa’s obesity can adversely affect the health of his grandkids. Researchers from the Victor Chang Institute said, “A baby’s health has long been considered the mother’s responsibility. Now, we’ve found powerful evidence that dad’s nutrition and metabolic health can influence his sons and even his grandsons.”
I wrote in Hormone Deception that the more endocrine-disrupting chemicals that could be found in the umbilical chords of babies at the time of birth, the more risk of an obese and less intelligent (lower IQ) child. The fetal chemical exposure came from what the parents ate and what chemicals they were exposed to daily in their lives.
We can change our fate and our grandchildren’s fate by changing how we live.
We can stop or improve what seems to be our unfair fate of fatigue, futility and disease. But it takes a team of educated caring people. Of professionals who also believe this. And ones who won’t just put their hand on your shoulder and remind you that you aren’t getting any younger or because you had that stroke or have this disease, you can’t really expect to ever get much better.
I recently spoke to Joe, one of the trainers at my gym. He just got back from visiting his folks. He lamented that his parents sat around all day, drank too much, moved too little, ate poorly and complained sourly. “They’re old,” Joe winced. “But they’re 15 years younger than you!”
If we know we can DO something to cause change then we can have HOPE.
- Epigenetic change is powerful.
- Your thoughts, food, mood, and movements alter epigenetics instantaneously.
- Thus, your life style is amazingly powerful.
Epigenetics as opportunity.
If you’re ill, tired, diabetic, have an inflammatory bowel disease, an autoimmune disease, are hurting, or feel that your aging is up in your face, perhaps you haven’t yet figured out which issues in your life are making your genes express themselves in unhealthy ways. Or maybe you do know, but haven’t acted on it yet.
- If you don’t want to make big changes in your lifestyle, this information is not for you.
- If you feel that how you feel is worth the changes that you need to make, then this is for you.
I have patients in their 90s who have gotten their bone density back without meds and feel better than they have for years. I have people that were prediabetic, finally achieve normal blood sugars and loose significant resistant weight. I have type 1 diabetics that have better control over their blood sugars and the complications and terror they used to live with. They write notes sharing that they finally have hope.
- Fate is malleable.
- But you can’t keep living like you always have or else you’ll keep feeling like you do right now.
- It’s never to late to LIVE your dreams, not just dream them.
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