|Dr. Daniel Urcuyo, MD
Functional Medicine Doctor
Optimal Health & Wellness
Diet | Supplements | Sleep | Stress | Exercise | Self-relationship
When you think about your life as an older adult, what do you picture? An active life where you can enjoy travel, socializing, or your favorite sport? Or do you anticipate being burdened by your advancing age due to health concerns? Many of us accept the health problems and lack of mobility that come with aging as normal. But what if they didn’t have to be? Healthy aging is possible with a few simple lifestyle changes grounded in the principles of functional medicine.
In this interview, Dr. Urcuyo, M.D., medical director of SteadyMD, shares his functional medicine approach to healthy aging and longevity, with five key fundamentals that can improve health and quality of life as we age.
Disclaimer: This blog post is for general information only, and should not be considered medical advice. We recommend that you seek assistance from your personal physician for any health conditions or concerns.
What is the Best Diet for Longevity?
I think of diets a lot like I think of medicine; food sends powerful information to the body that can turn on and off different genes and have a dramatic effect of our entire physiology and well-being. When we consider the best diet for healthy aging, we have to ask ourselves, what are we optimizing for? What are your personal goals?
The popular keto diet for example, can be an effective therapeutic diet for insulin resistance and neurological issues. Is it a diet people would do long-term? Probably not. Depriving the body of certain nutrients found in higher carb plant-based foods can negatively affect the gut microbiome. But, for the short term, it may be just what someone needs to improve their health.
Now, let’s look at a completely different dietary approach. People with food sensitivities may benefit from a higher carb diet that focuses on plant-based foods to support gut health, such as an elimination version of a paleo diet. Both of these diets can be “optimal”, it just depends what we are optimizing for.
So, while there’s no one diet for healthy aging that is right for everyone, the majority of the healthy eating plans do share some similar principles. Here are some of the key guidelines to consider:
Foods to avoid
“All Disease Begins in The Gut.”
-Hippocrates, the father of medicine
The one component all healthy diets have in common is that they avoid ultra-processed and inflammatory foods. In particular:
- Processed sugars, including high fructose corn syrup
- High glycemic foods
- Industrially raised animal products
A good place to start for most people, especially if they have some health issues, is with an elimination diet. We have plenty of evidence that shows a link between the health of the gut and chronic disease. With an elimination diet, patients stop eating inflammatory foods for several weeks. They then see how they feel when these foods are out of their diet and as they slowly reintroduce them back.
The level of restriction may vary depending on their health concerns and what we are trying to optimize for. So, while some people may need to restrict more foods, we usually start with eliminating:
- Gluten. A cause of intestinal permeability and leaky gut for most people, and may play a role in autoimmunity
- Dairy. Although some people can consume dairy without issues, many people can’t tolerate dairy at all.
- Caffeine. Can cause jitters, headaches, fatigue and other symptoms that make it harder to interpret the body’s response to the elimination diet.
Keep in mind, food sensitivities are usually symptoms of increased intestinal permeability, rather than the actual cause.
Removing inflammatory foods is a powerful tool to get many people started on their health journey, but it is still a journey. To optimize health and longevity, we still need to identify and address the reason the gut became permeable in the first place.
Foods to Eat
The foods to eat to support healthy aging can vary from one person to another, and depend on their health, goals, personal ethics and other factors. With that said, here are some of the key guidelines:
Plants in their natural form (Plenty)
Most people do not eat enough vegetables which are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, all essential to healthy aging. Most of the plate should be filled with whole plants.
High-quality meat from “happy” animals (Moderate)
The data on the consumption of red meat has been misrepresented quite a bit in regard to its link to illness.
High quality red meat is one the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, so moderate consumption can benefit our health.
It is very important to know where your meat comes from. The nutritional profile of meat from “happy animals” that are allowed to roam free and are fed a natural diet is very different from meat that comes from commercial or industrial farms. Cows for example, are not supposed to eat corn, which is the common feed used in commercial beef farming. Not to mention commercially raised animals are routinely given antibiotics and hormones. The result is meat high in pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats and toxins that can lead to many health problems. Definitely not a good option for healthy aging and longevity.
100% grass-fed beef or pasture-raised free-range chickens are much better options. When possible, it is always a good idea to get the meat locally from farmers who can share how their animals are raised and what diet they are fed with.
Wild caught fish (2-3 times a week)
Wild fatty fish, such as wild Alaskan salmon, are high in protein, healthy omega 3 and important minerals. Farm-raised fish, on the other hand, are often raised on unnatural diet. Consumption of farm-raised fish should be limited.
Due to genetic polymorphisms, some people may have issues detoxifying mercury and other heavy metals found in fish. In these cases, some individuals may need to limit or avoid fish consumption all together.
Getting the right amount of protein
Having enough protein is essential to support lean muscle mass, an important consideration in healthy aging and longevity.
As a rule of thumb, 0.6 grams protein per pound of bodyweight is a good starting point for most people. Athletes and active people may need more protein and should aim for 0.6-0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Low glycemic index foods
It is important to be mindful about how the food that we eat affects our blood sugar. Blood sugar spikes are strongly correlated with inflammation, which accelerates the wear and tear on the body and makes us age more quickly.
So, if blood sugar is a concern, it is important to work with a qualified health practitioner and replace high glycemic foods with lower glycemic alternatives.
It’s not about perfection, it’s about balance
Remember, diet should not become an obsessive pursuit. Being militant or obsessed about diet may have a negative effect on the quality of life or make people more stressed out. If we are going to have a sweet treat once a week, and really enjoy it, that’s probably going to be more beneficial than completely depriving ourselves. Deprivation just increases stress and bingeing on “unhealthy” foods, neither of which are good for longevity.
Supplements for Healthy Aging
Just like food, I consider supplements as medicine. Supplements need to have a purpose. It is important not to just take supplements if you don’t understand why you need them.
Multivitamins for example, may help people who are eating a very poor diet like the standard American diet, since they’re probably not getting enough nutrients. Those who are eating healthy however, may not need to supplement with all these additional nutrients. In fact, taking too many of certain vitamins or minerals can actually lead to problems. If the diet is already generally well-balanced, it may be much more beneficial to use specific supplements that target individual deficiencies or needs.
It’s always a good idea to work with your doctor who can test for nutritional imbalances, consider deficiencies and excesses, and use both diet and supplements to balance your nutritional status.
Most people do need some supplementation due to poor soil quality, highly processed modern diets, excessive stress and other factors. Nutritional imbalances have become very common.
Just to give you a few examples, here are some of the top nutrient deficiencies I often see in my patients:
Required for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Many foods are depleted of magnesium and most people don’t eat enough high magnesium foods.
Not many people eat organ meats which are high in vitamin A. Plant based options such as carrots and dark leafy greens are high in beta carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A. Not all people can effectively convert beta carotene to vitamin A.
Due to decreased sun exposure, many people have low levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system and may also play a role in our emotional health.
Zinc & Selenium
Two minerals that many people don’t get enough from their diets that are essential for proper thyroid function.
Involved in many functions that are critical to life, such as making red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.
Iron deficiency is more common in females due to menstruation. With low iron, the body may not have enough oxygen transport capacity which leads to weakness, fatigue and other issues.
Men on the other hand, tend to have iron overload which can cause toxicity and oxidation of your organs, making them “age” faster
Other supplements that may help to support healthy aging
Fish oil. High in omega 3s which are shown to reduce inflammation and support cardiovascular health.
For people that have a hard time eating enough high quality fish, a fish oil supplement may be a great option to supplement omega 3s in their diet. It is important to make sure the fish oil supplement comes from a trusted source that tests for mercury and other toxins. Good brands include Nordic Naturals and Metagenics.
Athletes. While athletes often need specific supplementation plans, some of the most studied supplements shown to support athletic performance include:
- Creatine. A compound found in the muscles of animals. May help support recovery and increase force production.
- Beta alanine. A popular pre workout shown to increase muscle endurance. It may cause tingling in the skin and ears which tends to go away after a bit.
BCAA. Branched-chain amino acids are popular supplements for recovery and to support lean muscles, although the data on their effectiveness is mixed. If the diet has enough protein (6-0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight), they may not be as helpful.
My Morning Smoothie Recipe
Eating to support healthy aging doesn’t have to be time consuming. To give you an example, here’s a smoothie I like to make every day after my morning workout. Keep in mind, the amounts and ingredients may need to be adjusted based on an individual’s needs and preferences.
Longevity and Healthy Aging Morning Smoothie
- 1-1.5 cups raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries
- 2 tbsp almond butter (or another nut butter)
- 1-1.5 cups coconut water
- 40 grams Protein powder I like grass-fed hydrolyzed beef protein by Designs for Health
- 1-4 cups mixed greens
- Blend all ingredients, drink immediately and enjoy!
Get Enough Sleep
Not sleeping enough can shorten our lifespan and predispose us to multiple chronic conditions. Sleep deprivation is associated with cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and many different illnesses. And it doesn’t take too long for sleep deprivation to affect our health. We’re learning now that lack of sleep for only a few days can potentially lead to insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes.
Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep per night, although many people need more. Those who exercise often may need more sleep to replenish what was depleted as a result of the workout. Keep in mind, sleep is the time where our bodies heal and repair so we can be at our best the next day.
We live in a fast-paced society where we perceive busyness as a badge of honor and a marker of success. This reality can’t be further from the truth. Chronic stress is a systemic shock to our system affecting our entire physiology and well-being. It increases inflammation, disrupts the gut microbiome, and leads to multiple health issues. Ironically, chronic stress, which often occurs as we try to become more productive, actually worsens our cognitive performance and productivity.
We evolved in an environment where we designed to respond to short bursts of high stress. Whether we were hunting an animal or running away from something that was chasing us, the period of stress was short. Once we escaped that danger, we rested and went from a sympathetic fight or flight response, to a rest and digest parasympathetic state. This allowed our body to repair the damage caused by the stress response and heal.
Modern life stressors on the other hand, constantly activate our fight or flight sympathetic state. Our body doesn’t ever get a break to relax and repair. Over time, this can lead to a host of metabolic and psychological issues. Many people eventually end up with a disorder called HPA axis dysfunction, where there are changes in the pattern of the stress hormone cortisol and the production of thyroid and sex hormones. Commonly referred to “adrenal fatigue”, HPA axis dysfunction dramatically reduces quality of life leading to low energy, fatigue, low libido, sleep issues, a weak immune system and other issues.
Stress management strategies
While we can’t always escape from stress, there are plenty of things we can do to combat its effects, so that we are not always in the sympathetic state. Taking a walk outside, sitting quietly for a few minutes and meditating, spending time with loved ones without any distractions or television, are unfortunately rare in our society today but they are effective strategies that can help manage stress.
Exercise for Longevity
Physical activity is an important part of any healthy aging and longevity plan. Some of the key things when it comes to exercise for longevity include:
- Full range of motion. (Daily)
Whether you are a yogi or a powerlifter, anyone can benefit from doing full range of motion These are moves that take our joints through their natural full range of motion. They help support joint health and train the muscles to move fluidly through their entire range. If you look at babies for example, as they try to pick something up off the ground, you see they squat until their glutes almost touch the ground. That’s the full range of motion of the hip joint. That’s what we should all aspire to maintain for the rest of our lives.
- Aerobic exercise. (Daily, about 150 minutes per week)
Getting the heart rate up and breaking a sweat can help support the cardiovascular health and lymphatic system. This doesn’t mean that we have to run a couple of miles every day, though. Certain yoga moves and other types of exercise can be as effective. The goal is to do some type of cardiovascular activity regularly, for a total of 150 minutes per week.
- Resistance training. (A few times a week)
Weight training is specifically important to support our muscle and joint health as we age and may help to reduce the degree of sarcopenia (decreased muscle mass) and loss of bone density we see today. More and more people reach a point where they are physically too weak to take care of themselves at an older This is not a natural part of aging that we should accept, we can maintain physical strength into older adulthood.
Relationship with Ourselves
The story we tell ourselves about our place in the world and how we assign value to our existence plays a key role in healthy aging and longevity.
A lot of people value themselves based on how productive they are, or how other people perceive them, which often causes issues with the way they see themselves. Rather than validating our value based on our productivity or what other people may think of us, I think we should all see our value intrinsically through who we truly are and what we have to offer to the world.
When talking about longevity, healthy aging and disease, I find that most of the issues develop when we’re out of balance with either our relationship with ourselves or our environment.
The foods that we put into our bodies, the things we do and experience every single day, these external inputs to our system affect our longevity. At the same time, our internal balance, our sense of value and purpose in life, play a key role in healthy aging as well.
So, I encourage you to learn more about these functional medicine pillars for longevity. A consultation with a functional medicine doctor can help you get on the right path to a healthier, longer life.