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Youth is wasted on the young. Many people take those days when they didn’t have to worry about aging skin, aching joints, or cognitive decline for granted. But as you get older, you may be searching for anything that can slow down these and other natural signs of aging.
In that search, you’ve probably come across recommendations for anti-aging supplements, touted for a variety of benefits. But do these supplements work?
Here’s the honest answer: no supplement can add years to your lifespan (at least we don’t have any evidence of that yet). Still, certain supplements may help slow down specific parts of the aging process. Keep reading to see which supplements may be worthwhile.
Which anti-aging supplements are most promising?
There are hundreds of dietary supplements available, many of which people claim are effective for anti-aging. The truth is, most of these supplements have little—if any—research behind them. Many popular “anti-aging” supplements have only been studied on a cellular level or in animal studies, so we don’t know if they have the same effects in humans.
Certain supplements have more evidence of potential benefits than others, and in general, these benefits are only relevant for people with a known deficiency of these vitamins. Let’s look at which supplements have the best chance of combatting signs of aging:
Theoretically, we should get enough vitamin D through our diet and from the sun, but for many of us, that’s not the case. In the United States, 35% of adults and 61% of people over the age of 65 are deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, weakness, and bone fractures in the elderly, among other things. Recent studies also show a link between vitamin D deficiency and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer (Sizar, 2020).
Some studies have shown links between vitamin D supplements and lower blood pressure, decreased symptoms of depression, better cognitive function, and stronger muscles (Nair, 2012).
However, the jury is still out about whether vitamin D supplements alone can lead to a longer life (Zhang, 2019).
Vitamin B12 deficiencies are common, with anywhere between 1.5% and 15% of Americans not getting enough B12. The deficiency is often due to a poor diet or common diseases of the gut like Crohn’s disease that keep the body from absorbing enough nutrients. There’s some evidence that supplementing with B12 improves cognitive function, cardiovascular disease, and bone health. None of these benefits is well-established, though since studies have been small or limited (Hughes, 2013).
Resveratrol is a molecule found in grapes (and red wine), berries, and peanuts. In clinical trials, resveratrol has shown some effects on age-related diseases, including (Berman, 2017):
- Cardiovascular disease—Resveratrol may lower LDL cholesterol and other processes involved in atherosclerosis.
- Inflammation—In smokers (who have high rates of inflammation and oxidative stress), resveratrol may reduce inflammation levels.
- Neurological disorders—Resveratrol may improve certain markers associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. But that doesn’t mean it prevents or treats Alzheimer’s (Farzaei, 2018).
The caveat: Most resveratrol trials have included fewer than 100 participants, and better trials are needed (Berman, 2017). There’s also some concern that resveratrol may have toxic effects at very high doses, but in standard doses, resveratrol is safe and well-tolerated (Shaito, 2020).
Carnitine is an amino acid that’s important for transporting long-chain fatty acids into the cells. There’s evidence that carnitine can improve some key markers of aging, specifically cardiovascular disease.
In one meta-analysis of over 20 clinical studies in humans, carnitine was linked to better cardiovascular health, such as lower cholesterol levels (total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol), fasting glucose, and hemoglobin A1c (Asadi, 2020). These are all factors that raise the risk of coronary artery disease (Brown, 2020).
However, carnitine is a mixed bag. There’s some evidence that gut bacteria transform the non-absorbed parts of carnitine into a chemical called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO has been linked to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. We need more research to know its full effects on heart disease (Papandreou, 2020).
When studied in mice, nicotinamide riboside (NR) shows some potential for anti-aging effects. The few human studies on NR have been small or limited.
Its most promising effect is that it increases levels of a coenzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD, sometimes referred to as NAD+). NAD is involved in repairing DNA, and cellular damage, so increasing NAD levels through NR supplementation could theoretically have anti-aging effects (Mehmel, 2020).
Researchers also hypothesize that NR may positively affect cardiovascular disease, neural and cognitive function, muscular injuries, and longevity (Mehmel, 2020). It’s also possible it can improve exercise performance (Dolopikou, 2020).
We need more information about NR, but it’s certainly promising. And it’s very safe, even in relatively high doses (Mehmel, 2020).
This plant-derived polyphenol could be helpful for boosting the immune system. Results are somewhat mixed, but at least in some studies, quercetin was associated with fewer sick days from upper respiratory tract infections and lower rates of post-exercise illness. More clinical studies in humans are needed to clear up conflicting results to see if quercetin can improve immune function (Li, 2016).
CoenzymeQ10 (CoQ10) is an essential part of the mitochondria (the powerhouse of our cells). CoQ10 levels tend to decrease with age. Supplementing with CoQ10 is associated with a number of potential benefits. It can improve mitochondrial function and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (Hernández-Camacho, 2018).
Like all the other supplements we’ve discussed so far, more research is needed on CoQ10 to know for sure what effects it might have. It’s quite safe, though (Hernández-Camacho, 2018)
Choose your supplements carefully
There are countless supplements with alleged anti-aging effects, but that doesn’t mean you should take all of them. Some other supplements that may have good effects, but are a bit more complicated, include:
- Curcumin—This is one of the active components in turmeric. It’s been shown to be a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects. But it’s unclear how well the body can absorb it or if it has any benefit for healthy people (Hewlings, 2017).
- Vitamin C—Vitamin C is another powerful antioxidant that’s primarily beneficial in skincare. It may encourage collagen production, improving elasticity. Topical vitamin C seems to work best when applied with vitamin E. The caveat: We don’t know enough about how well the body absorbs vitamin C, either when taken orally through a soft gel or applied topically (Pullar, 2017).
- Omega-3 fatty acids—Also known as fish oil, these fatty acids are found in many types of fish. Omega-3 fatty acids have gained a lot of popularity as an anti-inflammatory supplement with promising effects on heart health, but it turns out there’s more to the story. The typical dosage recommended (1 g daily) doesn’t seem to affect heart wellness, though higher doses might. More research is needed, though (Li, 2019).
- Selenium—This is a trace mineral (an essential mineral we must get from food) naturally present in many foods. Selenium supplementation may improve some specific conditions related to cardiovascular health, brain function, and musculoskeletal health. However, the research is inconclusive for any of these benefits. As a trace mineral, selenium is only needed in very small amounts and considered toxic above 400 micrograms per day (Shreenath, 2020).
What causes aging?
Why do we age, and what does aging mean, anyway? And what are we hoping to achieve or avoid when we take supplements touted for their anti-aging benefits?
Aging involves many complex processes. Here are just a few (López-Otín, 2013):
- The body’s DNA gets damaged.
- Proteins become less stable (a process called proteostasis).
- The mitochondria in the cells stop functioning properly because free radicals have damaged them.
- The stem cells in the body get exhausted.
Over time, those processes can lead to signs of aging across all the body’s systems, especially (Flint, 2020):
- Neurological (Brain)
- Gastrointestinal (Gut)
- Renal (Kidneys)
- Cardiovascular (Heart and blood vessels)
- Respiratory (Lungs)
- Endocrine (Hormones)
When we talk about a supplement for anti-aging, we don’t mean that it actually stops aging (science hasn’t come that far yet, unfortunately!). Instead, what we mean is that a supplement can slow down a particular aging process in one or multiple specific body systems.
The bottom line: Just because a supplement is popular doesn’t mean it’s something you should take. Consult your healthcare provider if you’re unsure about any new supplement or multivitamin.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.