We like to say all those bottles of pinot noir a night are the key to anti-aging, but why? Because it turns on your sirtuin gene.
Did you know animals live one-third longer with better health (the equivalent of a human living 150 to 160 years) if they are forced to eat between 15 and 35 percent fewer calories than normal? Why? This protective mechanism against famine ensures the survival of the individual through difficult times. The damage too many calories cause is often seen in a second set of DNA you have in all cells. This DNA is in the area of each cell called mitochondria. Your mitochondria are your energy factories—so, if you want to regain the energy of a 2-year-old, or even a 20-year-old, you want to keep your mitochondria young. When you damage that mitochondrial DNA, you produce less energy from the same amount of nutrients.
What does this have to do with red wine? The resveratrol in red wine (a substance that gives wine some of its red color) protects your mitochondria like calorie restriction does: by turning on a chemical named sirtuin. Unfortunately, you have to drink too much red wine to get enough of the ingredient to activate your sirtuin gene.
Sirtuins seem to have two ways of working to benefi t you. One is by influencing the way your DNA is formed. DNA is encased in proteins called histones that stabilize the structure of the DNA. When the sirtuin glue is activated through the starvation stimulus, a lot of red wine or a sirtuin drug (still being researched), the resulting protein compresses the DNA on the histones, and thus reduces errors during the process.
See, your mitochondria have strands, or threads of DNA. If these threads are wound tightly around a spool, the thread is much harder to damage. So that is one thing sirtuins do; they keep the spool wound tight. We worry about that mitochondrial DNA because your mitochondria are the energy-producing factories of your cells. Damage to your mitochondria means your body can’t produce energy efficiently. And that means less energy for you to keep up with your kids or grandkids. Mitochondrial damage seems to accumulate over a lifetime, so it’s important to do what you can now to stop it.
Think about it. If your body can’t produce energy efficiently, it means mitochondria stop getting the most energy out of the oxygen and sugar that feed their furnaces. Even if you have good nutrition in what you eat, your body has less ability to store and transfer it. These inefficiencies mean that sometimes the machinery “heats up” and free radicals are released, causing damaging oxidation. If you cut an apple and leave it out, the apple turns brown—that is oxidation. You can protect that with antioxidants, or by just not cutting the apple until it’s about to be eaten.
Same thing for mitochondrial DNA—we can generate more of our own antioxidants to prevent oxidation in our cells. (It turns out that the antioxidants in food are much less effective at protecting your DNA than the antioxidants you produce yourself.)
Or you can keep your DNA coiled on the spool until you need it—that’s what sirtuins do. Sirtuins are the just-in-time protection. Sirtuins are being studied extensively, and they seem to slow everything that causes your mitochondria to age, at least in animal models and now in humans with diabetes. Type II diabetics age one and a half years for every year they live with diabetes with average control, so slowing the aging of diabetics is important for not just diabetics but all of us.
Thus, sirtuin’s normal or first role is to help gag all the genes that a cell needs to keep suppressed. It does so by keeping the chromatin, the stuff that wraps around the DNA, packed so tightly that the cell cannot get access to the underlying genes.
But sirtuin has a second critical role, one triggered by emergencies like a break in both DNA strands of a chromosome. Double-stranded breaks cause cell death, resulting in a major lack of energy, or they cause cancers. After a double-strand break, sirtuin rushes to the site to help knit the two parts of the chromosome back together. But in this salvage operation, it leaves its post, and the genes it was repressing (keeping tight on the spool) are liable to come back into action—unravel from the spool, if you will—causing mayhem. So providing your body with extra sirtuin activators may help protect your energy-factory-creating chromosomes, letting you live with the energy of youth for many more years. Try apple pie with knotweed (a Japanese plant). Knotweed has 40-times more resveratrol per pound than grapes do—and it grows everywhere (and helps combine with apples to make a great apple-knotweed pie—skip the crust). Try a muscadine dessert chaser for the dessert course. Or just the pie. Muscadine grapes from the southeastern United States also have a ton of resveratrol (several times more than most red wines). By the way, you need 180 bottles a night of the average red wine (don’t try that by yourself) to protect your mitochondria. Try to reduce your calories by 15 percent. We know this is hard. We have no secrets here. Try the other lifestyle choices we’ve written about, and we’ll keep you posted on new ways to protect your health.