Ageing, whilst wholly a natural process, isn’t necessarily something we would want to embrace. Advancing age is a risk factor for heart disease, declining metabolic function, certain cancers, and a myriad of other conditions of poor health. Since the start of the COVID19 pandemic, we cannot escape the continual message that age also puts you at risk for more severe disease AND a poorer response to vaccines.
What does ageing have to do with your immune system? Your immune system is really an all-embracing and all-encompassing wellness system. It’s as indispensable as your heart or lungs and critical to both mental and physical health. Age can be split into your chronological age based on when you were born and biological age which is used to define what age your body “acts” like it is. One aspect of biological age is your immunological age. Accumulating damage and a decline in how well your immune cells function over time – known as immune-senescence, contributes, to a large degree, to how well our immune system ages over time. An aged immune system will have an accumulation of ‘old’ immune cells, known as senescent cells. These cells contribute to accumulating chronic inflammation in the body which leads to the vicious cycle of ageing called ‘inflammageing’. Additionally, this will, over time reduce the ‘space’ available for fresh new well-functioning immune cells. Collectively this leads to an overall decline in immune function.
You can’t easily dispute your calendar age but the rate of immunological ageing can vary considerably between people. Just because you are a certain age, does not mean your body and immune system respond and act that way. Differences are already apparent between people in their 20s (ref). Even if you are still fairly young, mitigating your immunological ageing is something you need to be considering.
On any journey, we need to begin by becoming well orientated and well-grounded in where we are and what we want to achieve. A GlycanAge test reveals the age of your immune system helping you to understand more about your current health and, importantly provide a measurable guide to monitor your progress as you start implementing lifestyle improvements. Even if your GlycanAge is already quite favourable and you are doing ‘all the right things, there are always incremental improvements that can be made.
Conducting your own self-experiment
One of the best ways is to set up a little self-experiment to monitor and evaluate a range of interventions that are known to improve immune age. With self-experimentation, you can learn a lot about yourself, and it can be a motivating and exciting way to discover new information on your biology. In order to conduct an effective self-experiment, you need to first check with your healthcare provider to ensure your current health is optimal enough for self-experimentation and eliminate things that may be harming your health. Then follow a series of specific steps as outlined below.
Start by asking: What would “improvement” look like? E.g., this might be an improvement in a quantitative metric like GlycanAge but also in how you feel in your daily life and your ability to engage in activities you enjoy. This will help you develop your own hypothesis. This is your “educated guess” on how things might work for you. You should aim for your hypothesis to be something that you can measure before, during and after your self-experiment. Fill in the blanks If I ______ [do this], then ______ [this] will happen.
E.g., If I increase my daily portions of vegetables to 10 per day, then I will see an improvement in my biological age after 8 weeks.
You’ll first need to know what your current GlycanAge metric is. That’s your “baseline”: your current situation before you change anything. The idea is to try your best to conduct your experiment under the same conditions as your baseline. This will minimise ‘confounders’, that could contaminate your results. A confounder is an unmeasured third variable that influences both the supposed cause and the supposed effect. E.g., If a person is interested in the effect of not going out to restaurants for dinner but also only smokes when he/she goes out to restaurants for dinner. In this case, smoking could be defined as a confounding variable and the person in question would need to take that smoking into consideration to be able to distinguish the effects of occasional cigarettes from the effects of diet change.
Of course, there will always be the possibility of accidental confounders. These are any unexpected factors that arise in daily life which is of course full of distractions and unplanned circumstances.
Then do your research into the key strategies that are scientifically shown to improve, for example, outlined in this article. The key is to avoid making lots of drastic changes at once. Next design your protocol – how long will you try the intervention? The half-life of glycosylation of our immune antibodies is around 3 weeks plus it can take some time to fully implement new changes so most lifestyle interventions are suggested to be a minimum of 3 months but 6 months or longer for the most reliable results. All you have to do is start, be consistent and observe and track what you notice over the months of running your self-experiment. Finally, it’s time to examine the data from your intervention and interpret the overall results.
A few things to keep in mind. Firstly, an n=1 experiment is NOT an n=everybody experiment. Secondly, always ensure your self-experiment is safe, risk free and ethical. I’d encourage you to talk to your health care provider before you start. Finally, choose a convenient period to start introducing changes. It might be better to avoid stressful times at work or busy social weeks.
What hypothesis can you test to improve your biological age? The key areas to consider are sleep quality and quantity, diet, exercise, and managing stress. Perhaps one of these areas sticks out for you as being your Achilles Heel. Remember we don’t want to try and tackle all areas at once, that can just lead to increased stress.
Let’s take diet for example. There are thousands of studies on diets, health, and longevity. Each one will be good for some people and bad for somebody else. There might not be a universal diet that is good for all of us, but research tells us that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet pattern is the best approach. The Mediterranean diet is probably the best-studied anti-inflammatory diet pattern but it’s not the only one. Generally speaking, anti-inflammatory diet patterns are plant-rich and contain no ultra-processed foods.
Adopt an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern – the power of vitamin P!
Vitamin P is a term that was once used to refer to a specific group of phytonutrients that were once thought to be another type of vitamin. Phyto is the Greek word for plant. Phytonutrients are the chemicals produced by the immune system of plants (everything on this planet has an immune system). They serve to protect plants from environmental challenges including the damaging rays of the sun, insects, disease, and other possible threats to their survival.
These nutrients not only quench free radicals but also induce our own protection mechanism against oxidative stress and inflammation, rejuvenating our immune age which has led to them being referred to as ‘longevity compounds’ because studies have found that phytonutrients can support methylation – a specific type of epigenetic modification (basically switching genes on and off) to help mitigate our biological age and reduce the risk of age-related chronic disease (ref, ref).
We may not have a recommended daily amount but not getting enough of these is known as ‘long latency deficiency’. It means it takes a long time to see the adverse effects of a deficiency. The good news is that very recent studies tell us that a few months of dietary changes can start to reverse the effects of ageing (ref). Thousands of different types of phytonutrients exist and are responsible for the flavours, colours and smells of fresh produce. The simple way to add vitamin P to your plate is to add plants to each meal, think about colour, and aim to eat a rainbow of diversity where possible!
Definitely don’t skip on dark leafy greens and crucifers which are packed with phytonutrients and other key micronutrients.
And if you really want to go the extra mile, don’t just add more colourful produce to your plate but aim to eat seasonally, local and organic because they tend to have higher levels of these all-important phytonutrients.