For all documented human history, we have dreamed of elixirs, plants, transforming waters—and in our modern age, drugs—that restore youth, cure diseases of aging, and confer long life, even immortality. Now it appears that cannabidiol, or CBD for short, just might fit the bill. CBD and longevity may go hand in hand.
The pursuit of longevity is the subject of myth and legend, like Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth (more accurately, he is responsible for the European conquest of Florida). But surprising scientific discoveries have shed light on the biology of aging, lifestyle strategies to prevent chronic disease, and compounds that impact our chemistry so we might live longer with less disease.
It turns out that many factors influence healthy aging, not just our genes. While identical twins have the same genes, studies show that, after about 40 years, environment and lifestyle effects cause differentiating changes in each twin. Beyond appearance, the diseases of aging—cardiovascular disease, cancers, dementia, and others—can vary in how they affect each twin, and us.
This news means that we have a lot of control over how we age. We can choose our environment and lifestyle, and CBD can help. CBD improves gene transcription, when the cell reads and acts on its genetic information, as well as other cellular functions, slowing the breakdowns associated with aging and disease.
Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
We’re all familiar with inflammation, typically signaled by redness, swelling, and pain. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to a perceived threat, whether physical, emotional, or circumstantial. It coordinates responses in different parts of the immune system, including white blood cells, immune-signaling molecules called cytokines, and hormones, to defend us and to repair injured tissue. By and large, this inflammation is good, although some severe inflammatory responses, like an asthma attack, can be life-threatening.
On the other hand, when inflammation becomes chronic, that is, when it turns on but not off, the consequences can be devastating. More subtle than the redness, swelling, and pain of a cut or a bug bite, it often goes unnoticed until dreaded diseases like Alzheimer’s, stroke, or heart disease appear. Strategies that help reduce inflammation, like a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, reduce the risk of these diseases.
CBD, while no substitute for a healthy diet, has been shown to reduce inflammation. It does so through specialized proteins known as CB2 receptors found on white blood cells. (Think of CBD as a key put into a lock that opens a door.) CB2 activation helps regulate and control white blood cells and balance pro- and anti-inflammatory chemical signals in the body. In the brain, CBD helps regulate the behavior of the brain’s resident white blood cells, known as microglia, which can support nerve cell growth and repair. Activation of CB2 receptors also triggers stem cells in the brain to multiply into mature nerve cells in regions such as the hippocampus, which degenerates in Alzheimer’s disease.
Chronic inflammation has an ugly brother named oxidative stress. Cellular chemistry involving oxygen naturally produces compounds with an extra negative charge, called reactive oxygen species, which help the cell’s defense and signaling. But when more ROS are produced than the cells can manage, they can cause damage. Environmental factors like toxic metals, chemicals, nutrient deficiencies, and electromagnetic radiation can ramp up the body’s production of ROS.
Damage from excessive ROS affects the “bodyguards” of our genetic material, called telomeres. Our DNA, the genetic code of life, is wrapped up in structures called chromosomes. At each end of our 23 chromosomes, the telomeres protect our genetic information from deterioration and damage. Longer telomeres are associated with youth, health, and vitality. Oxidative stress and aging can shorten telomeres, until cells stop growing and dividing, become dormant, and eventually die. Besides aging, shorter telomeres correlate with unhealthy lifestyle habits and a variety of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. CBD is known for antioxidant properties capable of protecting cells against ROS, perhaps indirectly maintaining telomere length.
The Role of Proteins in Aging
Our DNA contains the codes for proteins that serve many functions and give structure to our tissues and organs. A network of cellular machinery helps maintain normal, healthy working proteins. Think of a factory where production requires repair or replacement of parts as well as constant maintenance for optimal function.
Aging is associated with accumulation and clumping together of abnormal or damaged proteins. In Alzheimer’s disease, for example, the brain accumulates a protein called beta amyloid. To date, billions of pharmaceutical company research dollars have been aimed at preventing excess accumulation of beta amyloid.
Although CBD is not a cure or approved treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, scientists have discovered that it can reduce and remove beta amyloid from the brain. Even more exciting is that CBD activation of cannabinoid receptors has also been shown to limit the accumulation of tau protein, which is a normal domino-like response to the nerve cell damage caused by beta amyloid.
The Final Challenge: Biochemical Pathways and the Rate of Aging
Laboratory study of aging has discovered biochemical pathways that modify both the rate of aging and the risk of diseases like cancer. Most of this work has focused around insulin-like growth factor-1, the mammalian target of rapamycin or mTOR, AMP-activated protein kinase, and sirtuin 1.
Studied across numerous species, high levels of IGF-1 hormone shorten lifespan and increase the risk of cancer. By contrast, in humans, low circulating blood levels correlate with the likelihood of living 100 years or more.
A signaling pathway that regulates cell metabolism, growth and division, and survival, mTOR plays an important role in aging. Like IGF-1, it has been demonstrated across several species that blocking mTOR increases lifespan. In models of Alzheimer’s disease, blocking mTOR reverses cognitive decline and reduces beta amyloid levels. (Inhibition of mTOR also improves heart and kidney disease as well as a variety of cancers.)
AMPK helps regulate cellular energy balance, activating when a cell detects that stored cellular energy, called ATP, is low. Like gasoline fueling the cell’s engine, combustion of ATP drives cellular reactions. AMPK helps fill the tank and restore levels of ATP, but it also quells cellular functions that are highly dependent on ATP, such as the metabolism of lipids, proteins, and glucose. Overexpression of AMPK increases lifespan by linking energy use to the rate of aging. In humans, strategic calorie restriction, for instance, can influence AMPK and the aging process.
Linked to the AMPK story are sirtuins. SIRT1 controls gene expression by sensing changes in energy levels inside the cell. The genes that the SIRT1 pathway controls are tied to gene stability and DNA repair, the function of mitochondria (the cell’s energy-producing factories), and regulation of stem cells. Once again, energy regulation is tied to a variety of processes that impact aging and age-related diseases.
The Return Home: CBD and Longevity
Evidence is mounting that CBD impacts all these different pathways and molecules. CBD appears to modulate a cellular membrane channel called TRPV1, which, in turn, plays a role in cancer cell growth through IGF-1. CBD has been observed to slow mTOR signaling. CBD has been shown to suppress the activity of genes involved in some cancers by activating AMPK. Finally, CBD increases the expression of SIRT1.
Cannabidiol’s story has been epic. It began with the discovery of CBD in the laboratory of chemist Roger Adams in 1940. In the eight decades that have followed, despite clashes with political forces that have attempted to restrict its use, we can now see its potential to restore our youth, contribute to the cure or prevention of aging-related diseases, and confer a longer, healthier life to each of us. While it may not be the elixir of mythic legends, CBD has a sound scientific place in our longevity toolbox.
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