New diet research focuses on methylation

Rainbow fruits and vegetables

Dear Doctors: I keep seeing news stories about a diet that supposedly reverses aging. It involves something called “methylation.” Is this real, or is it just someone's new theory? It seems like instead of doing what we know works, like eating right and keeping fit, we keep hoping to find a magic formula.

Dear Reader: The quest for longevity dates back thousands of years. Historians have found references to life-extending elixirs in virtually every culture with a recorded history.

In the early 1900s, however, the focus of that search began to shift. Instead of a longer life, sustained youth became the holy grail. The concept of the anti-aging diet took firm hold. As the news stories you're seeing attest, it's a fascination that persists to this day.

These recent stories come from the results of a small study in the journal Aging. The researchers looked at how certain lifestyle behaviors, including a detailed diet plan, would affect participants' physical well-being. More specifically, they were interested in potential changes to each participant's biological age. Unlike chronological age, which is how old you are in years, biological age is the pace at which you age at the cellular level.

This brings us to the word “methylation.” It refers to a metabolic process in which the transfer of carbon molecules influences DNA. This, in turn, affects the activity and behavior of genes. As a result, methylation affects aging. And because methylation is tied to certain nutrients, diet plays an important role.

In this recent study, six women between the ages of 45 and 65 spent eight weeks following a detailed lifestyle plan. The daily diet they were instructed to follow included specific amounts of cruciferous and colorful vegetables, dark leafy greens, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, liver, lean proteins, beets and eggs. They were also asked to take probiotics, stay hydrated and consume foods known as methylation adaptogens. These included turmeric, rosemary, garlic and green or oolong tea. The study called for at least seven hours of sleep per night, 30 minutes of daily exercise and deep-breathing exercises. They were also asked to fast from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The women followed this plan on their own and self-reported adherence. Over the course of two months, adherence ranged from 70% to close to 100%. Interestingly, intermittent fasting proved easy, but adherence to deep breathing reached only 50%.

Analysis of before-and-after blood tests found that five of the six women had succeeded in lowering their biological age. This ranged from 1.2 years to 11 years. This should not be confused with the idea of looking more youthful. Rather, a lower biological age translates into the potential for a lowered risk of disease and an improved chance of longevity.

The concept of methylation grabbed the media's attention. It's a fascinating area of research, and we look forward to learning more in years to come. But this study also supports your own observation. That is, we already know that we have a better chance of maintaining good health when we eat right and keep fit.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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