Has fasting has been linked to anti-ageing? — Dr Elstein explains sirtuins
Some experts like to bludgeon you repeatedly with their brilliance; not so Professor Brian Morris, a molecular biologist and professor emeritus of medical sciences at the University of Sydney, whose prodigious research efforts spanning unveiling genes that override ageing and elevate blood pressure and a mountain of work on sirtuins, enzymes that reside at the epicentre of ageing, give this scientific decathlete every reason to be bombastic. Yet about a marathon 50-year career which is ongoing and has generated an astounding 427 scientific contributions, some epic in their dimensions, he remains steadfastly humble. His “Äw shucks I’m just doing my job and what I enjoy most” humility imbues his gold medal contributions with even greater heft and gravitas.
Aside from unfurling the underlying physiological nuances that elevate blood pressure, an undertaking that will allow us to individualise the management of this pervasive condition, Morris’s work on the gene for renin, a protein that raises blood pressure in some and expedites ageing in others, will provide us with vital insights that will help us to mitigate both.
But it’s his efforts in unlocking the role that sirtuins play in governing ageing that Morris’s legacy might reside.
The sirtuin story
Sirtuins are enzymes that, as Professor Morris describes, are located at the “intersection of stem cells, ageing and cancer.” They can help us to manufacture stem cells, which have the power to rejuvenate our ailing bodies, make the mitochondria, the vital batteries of ours cells, function more effectively and ward off a number of cancers. Switching on sirtuins can facilitate the prevention and treatment of a range of conditions including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis, arthritis and other conditions of ageing. Weight gain often connected with poorly functioning insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and fat metabolism, the scourge of so many of us as we age, can also be abrogated if we activate sirtuins successfully. Switching on sirtuins might be the magical key for stopping and even reversing ageing.
The problem is that, like everything else that goes into decline with ageing, the activity of sirtuins similarly deteriorates. As Morris illustrates, there is a range of strategies that we can employ to re-engage sirtuins. Periodically eating less, that is alternate day fasting, which might be a tall order for most of us, has been found in rats to be the most powerful way to turbocharge these chemicals. For the less battle-hardened, fasting one day a week and ramping up our exercise regime can also be used to jump-start sirtuins. And for those who simply want to pop a pill, taking supplements like resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, naringenin, a citrus flavonoid, or vitamin-like substance and fisetin, another bioactive flavonoid in strawberry, apple, persimmon, grape, onion and cucumber, can be a simpler way to deploy sirtuins. There are also more potent sirtuin boosters like nicotinamide mononucleotide and nicotinamide riboside, offshoots of vitamin B3, but these aren’t commercially available in this country.
Aside from all these seismic scientific insights, what inspires most about Morris is that the anti-ageing maverick is in perpetual motion. Some mornings he’s up at 3.30 doing his research having taken a sleep break to meditate at 2am. Then he goes to the gym, swims and is back home preparing a fruit platter for his family. When we go out for a meal he eats slowly, finishing his food long after I’ve devoured every morsel on my plate with regrettable alacrity.
His eyes are always bright and shiny, never losing their sheen, just like those of a child whose enthusiasm has not been sclerosed by the assaults of a lifetime. It’s not surprising that he maintains a youthful exuberance for supporting his beloved AFL team, the Sydney Swans. Just get him started on that topic and he will regale you endlessly about their moves in their latest triumph. If there is any anti-ageing exponent who is doing his level best to activate his sirtuins it is Brian Morris, and this column would not be adequately served without this tribute to his relentless spirit, which I’ve been privileged to encounter.
To honour his lifelong contributions to science and humanity Professor Brian Morris has been made a Member of the Order of Australia.
Dr Michael Elstein is a Sydney-based anti-ageing physician and writer. He is the author of three books including his latest, The Wellness Guide to Preventing the Diseases of Ageing. He has also designed the app The Diet Guide to Ageing Prevention.