A review of more than a decade of research in nutritional science suggests most American diets are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals now believed to play a role in promoting longevity. These vital nutrients are also believed to be useful in the prevention of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as neurodegenerative conditions.
The study calls out vitamins A, C, D, E and K, as well as minerals like calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and zinc. The researchers also highlight the usefulness of compounds like astaxanthin, ergothioneine and pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ).
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can oftentimes be difficult to identify because you may not develop symptoms until the deficiency has become quite pronounced. One of your best strategies to promote health and longevity is to eat a balanced, whole-food diet.
Research Suggests Nutrient Deficiencies Contribute to Aging
A review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 1 by Bruce Ames, Ph.D., senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) and Professor Emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, flags specific nutrients as the keys to longevity and disease prevention.
Ames is a prolific author of 555 scholarly papers, some of which have focused on uncovering strategies to reverse aging, including research on mitochondria. He is also the creator of the Ames test, a system for cheaply and easily testing the mutagenicity of compounds such as flame retardants. In the current review, Ames analyzed more than a decade of research conducted at the CHORI laboratory and elsewhere, applying what he calls the "triage theory."
As discussed in the featured video, the triage theory suggests moderate deficiencies in one or more essential nutrients can lead to DNA damage that accelerates aging. 2 In a 2011 interview published in Life Extension magazine, Ames explained the theory, which borrows the term "triage" from the field of urgent medical care, in which patients are treated in priority order to ensure the best possible chances of survival, stating: 3
"Our bodies evolved to do pretty much the same thing. Faced with limited nutritional resources, the human physiology must 'decide' which biological functions to prioritize in order to give the total organism — and the species — the best chance to survive and reproduce.
Under this scenario, the body will always direct nutrients toward short-term health and reproductive capability — and away from regulation and repair of cellular DNA and proteins that increase longevity."
Are You Deficient in Any of These 'Longevity Vitamins'?
In the current research, Ames arrived at a list of what he calls "longevity vitamins," noting the nutrients (i.e., proteins and enzymes) you need to stay healthy can be classified as either "survival proteins" or "longevity proteins." 4
Like Ames, who will celebrate his 90th birthday later this year and has enjoyed an illustrious research career spanning seven decades, I see value in paying attention to your nutrient levels. Below is a list of the particular vitamins called out by Ames for their role in extending longevity. 5
Vitamin A — Nearly half of American adults and teens are at risk for insufficiency or deficiency of vitamin A. 6 Your body needs a daily dose of this fat-soluble vitamin to maintain healthy bones, cell membranes, immune function, skin, teeth and vision.
The best source of vitamin A your body can actually use is found in animal products such as grass fed meat, pastured poultry and wild-caught salmon, as well as raw, organic dairy products like butter. 7
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) — Thiamine supports important tasks such as the flow of electrolytes in and out of your nerve and muscle cells, as well as enabling your body to use carbohydrates as energy. B1 is found in grass fed beef and liver, nuts, oranges and peas. 8
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) — B2 helps break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins and plays a role in maintaining your body's energy supply. Good sources of riboflavin include almonds, avocados, grass fed beef and leafy greens like spinach and mushrooms. 9
Vitamin B3 (niacin) — B3, which is available in more than one form, supports your digestive system, nervous system and skin. Among the foods rich in niacin are green vegetables, organic pastured eggs, raw milk and wild-caught fish. 10
Vitamin B5 (p antothenic acid ) — B5 is found in many foods, making deficiencies rare. B5 helps convert food into glucose, synthesizes cholesterol and forms red blood cells. It is found in avocados, grass fed beef, pastured chicken and sunflower seeds. 11
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) — B6, which is found in chickpeas, bananas, pastured chicken and potatoes, is important for normal brain development. It also promotes the health of your immune and nervous systems. People suffering from kidney disease or a malabsorption syndrome are at increased risk of B6 deficiency.
Vitamin B7 (biotin) — B7 is particularly important for pregnant and nursing mothers and promotes hair, nail and skin health. Sources of biotin include almonds, cauliflower, leafy greens like spinach, organic pastured egg yolks and raw cheese. 12
Vitamin B9 (folic acid) — B9, which is called folic acid in its synthetic form and folate when it naturally occurs in food, is needed for proper brain function. It also plays an important role in your emotional and mental health.
B9 joins with B12 to help make red blood cells and regulate the use of iron. Food sources of folate include asparagus, avocados, beets, Brussels sprouts and turnips. 13
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) — Vitamin B12 is known as the energy vitamin, and you need it for blood formation, DNA synthesis, e nergy production and myelin formation. Nearly 40 percent of the American population may have marginal vitamin B12 status 14 — not low enough to qualify as deficiency, but low enough to introduce neurological symptoms.
Vitamin C — Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant, boosting your immune system and helping to protect your cells from the damage caused by free radicals. It is found in vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, as well as all citrus fruits. 15
Vitamin D — An estimated 1 billion people worldwide have low vitamin D levels, with deficiencies noted across all age and ethnic groups. 16 It works synergistically with calcium, magnesium and vitamin K2 to promote bone growth, among other roles. The optimal vitamin D level for general health and disease prevention is 60 to 80 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml).
Vitamin E — Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant designed to combat inflammation and make red blood cells. It also helps your body use vitamin K, which is important for heart health. Seventy-five to 90 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin E. 17 It is found in leafy greens, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin K — Vitamin K refers to a group of fat-soluble vitamins prized for their role in blood clotting, bone metabolism and regulating your blood calcium levels. Dark leafy greens are the best source of this vitamin, which is also found in grapes and natto. 18
Animal-based omega-3 fats — Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and vital for supporting your brain function, joints, skin and vision, as well as your heart. 19 , 20 While available from plants, I recommend you focus mainly on animal-based sources, such as anchovies, salmon and sardines. You can also take a krill oil supplement. Learn more in "The Crucial Differences Between Omega-3 Fats From Plants and Marine Animals."
Minerals That Promote Health and Longevity
Following is a list of the minerals Ames and his team have called out as being important to your health and longevity: 21
Calcium — Beyond its contribution to strong bones and teeth, your body needs calcium for blood clotting, your heartbeat and muscle contractions. It is the most abundant mineral in your body. Sources: collard greens, goat's milk, sesame seeds, sardines, spinach and yogurt.
Chloride — Necessary for fluid regulation and electrolyte balance, chloride also helps maintain your blood pressure. Sources: celery, olives, salt and seaweed.
Chromium — Chromium is an essential trace mineral your body needs in very small amounts. It can be useful to improve your insulin sensitivity and also enhances your metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Sources: broccoli, green beans, nuts and organic pastured egg yolks.
Cobalt — As a key component of vitamin B12, cobalt is useful in making red blood cells and maintaining your nervous system. Sources: broccoli, leafy green vegetables, nuts and oats. 22
Choline — Choline supports the functioning of your liver, brain, muscles, nervous system and overall metabolism. It is critical during fetal development. Sources: cauliflower, organic pastured egg yolks and wild-caught salmon, as well as organic, grass fed beef liver.
Copper — Copper is useful for bone growth, hormone secretion and nerve conduction. Sources: Beans (but be mindful of lectins), nuts, potatoes and shellfish.
Iodine — Iodine is necessary to make thyroid hormones, which control your metabolism and other vital functions. Sources: cheese, sea vegetables, strawberries and yogurt — as always, raw, grass fed, organic sources are best.
Iron — Iron is essential for life because it transports oxygen in your body, helps regulate cell growth and maintains your brain function, metabolism and endocrine system. However, iron overload is actually far more common than iron deficiency, but is rarely checked. Sources: grass fed beef and liver, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and spinach.
Magnesium — Magnesium is important to the heath of nearly every one of your cells, playing a role in over 600 different reactions in your body, including reducing your risk of hypertension and heart disease. Sources: avocados, Brazil nuts, cashews, dark leafy greens, raw cacao and seaweed.
Molybdenum — This little-known trace element is crucial to nearly every life form on earth mainly because it is an essential catalyst for enzymes. Molybdenum helps metabolize carbohydrates and fats and facilitates the breakdown of certain amino acids in your body Sources: cheese and leafy greens.
Phosphorus — Phosphorus, which is the second most abundant mineral in your body, helps utilize carbohydrates, fats and proteins for cell growth, maintenance and energy. Sources: raw, organic dairy products, nuts, organic pastured eggs and seeds.
Potassium — Potassium balances low blood sugar, helps your muscles contract, lowers your blood pressure, regulates your body fluids and transmits nerve impulses. Sources: avocados, bananas, broccoli, cantaloupe, oranges and spinach.
Selenium — Selenium protects you from oxidative damage and plays a role in DNA synthesis, reproduction and thyroid hormone metabolism. Sources: Brazil nuts, chicken, grass fed organ meats, sardines and sunflower seeds.
Sodium — Symptoms of sodium deficiency may include cramps, heart palpitations, muscle fatigue and spasms. These symptoms are likely to disappear after you add more salt to your diet, particularly if you are in the habit of eating whole, unprocessed foods.
Sulfur — Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in your body and it plays important roles in hundreds of physiological processes. Sources: broccoli, grass fed meat, homemade bone broth, organic pastured eggs and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
Zinc — Zinc is an essential trace mineral that plays a vital role in your immune system and preserving your DNA strands. Sources: Alaskan crab, cashews, chickpeas and oysters.
Important Compounds That Can Help Your Body Age Gracefully
Ames and his team also highlighted 11 compounds — including amino acids, carotenoids and micronutrients — as useful for promoting graceful aging. They are as follows: 23
While all of these compounds called out by Ames are important, three of notable interest, which are readily available in supplement form, include:
• Astaxanthin — Commonly called "king of the carotenoids," astaxanthin is a naturally occurring substance found in a specific type of microalgae, as well as certain seafood. Its red color is responsible for turning the flesh of crab, lobster, salmon and shrimp pink.
Astaxanthin is a potent anti-inflammatory and may be useful for treating joint problems like carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. It also supports healthy vision and can be used as an "internal sunscreen."
• Ergothioneine — Found in porcini mushrooms, ergothioneine appears to play a specific role in protecting your DNA from oxidative damage. Along with glutathione, it may offer protection against age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer and heart disease.
• PQQ — Particularly important for the health and protection of your mitochondria, PQQ has been shown to protect against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. It also works synergistically with CoQ10, producing better results than when either one is used alone. Celery, parsley and kiwi are dietary sources of PQQ.
Eating a Healthy Diet Is a Good Place to Start
Based on his findings, Ames underscores the value of adhering to a balanced, healthy diet. "Diet is very important for our long-term health, and this theoretical framework just reinforces you should try to do what your mother told you: Eat your veggies, eat your fruit [and] give up sugary soft drinks and empty carbohydrates," he says. 24
While I agree with Ames' advice, especially with respect to eating more vegetables (preferably organic) and giving up sugary beverages and empty carbs, because fruit contains fructose, I suggest you limit your total fructose intake to 25 milligrams (mg) or less per day if you are healthy and less than 15 mg if you are dealing with a chronic illness like cancer or diabetes.
That said, even when you eat a balanced, whole-food diet similar to the one presented in my nutrition plan, you may still fail to get the right balance of vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal health. Because many factors contribute to your body's ability to derive nutrients from the food you consume, you can eat a healthy diet and still lack proper nutrition.
Changes in animal feed, climate, farming and food-processing methods, soil conditions, water quality and weather patterns, as well as the increased use of genetic engineering and toxic pesticides, can have a negative effect on the quality of food available to you.
Beyond that, your age, genetics and health conditions — such as digestive issues — also impact your body's ability to absorb nutrients from your food. Often, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be difficult to identify because you may not develop symptoms until the deficiency has become quite pronounced.
All this to say: Do the best you can. As often as you can, eat fresh, organic whole foods, especially vegetables, as well as healthy fats and moderate amounts of grass fed protein. Your style of eating and the timing of your meals also play a role. Now is a great time to learn more about the ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting, two approaches to eating I believe can revolutionize your health.
If you need help tracking your intake of nutrients from food and supplements, you may want to check out Cronometer , a free tool I highly recommend. As noted by Ames, "Because nutrient deficiencies are highly prevalent in the [U.S.] (and elsewhere), appropriate supplementation and/or an improved diet could reduce much of the consequent risk of chronic disease and premature aging." 25