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They virtually control the release and synthesis of all other hormones. So, in many ways, they’re kind of the “Intel computer chip” that runs our body, and yet because of these eicosanoids, virtually control every aspect of our physiology is under very profound dietary control. With our diet we control the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, and the better we maintain that balance the more well we become. Conversely, the more we let that balance get out of whack, making more pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, the more rapidly we move toward chronic disease.
David: You say that “ Eicosanoids are really your master hormones.” While it’s clear that Eicosanoids are very important, it’s not clear why they are “your master hormones.” What makes them more important than, say, pregnenolone or DHEA?
Dr. Sears: Eicosanoids were the first hormones developed by living organisms. They control all other hormones because of their impact on cyclic AMP levels in individual cells that ultimately controls the release or synthesis of other hormones.
David: I have a master’s degree in psychobiology, and I never learned anything about eicosanoids in my endocrinology classes.
Dr. Sears: When I first wrote the book there were probably five people in the country who could pronounce the word. (laughter) There are many more now, but still it’s a very arcane part of endocrinology.
David: You mentioned earlier that taking high-dose ultra-refined EPA/DHA concentrates [pharmaceutical grade fish oil] is part of the Zone diet. Can you talk a little about the specific benefits of taking fish oil?
Dr. Sears: The primary benefits are the long-chain fatty acids–such as EPA and DHA–which, at high enough levels, have these profound anti-inflammatory effects. By taking these fatty acids we can attack the problem by doing what’s referred to in pharmacology as “going upstream.” See, most drug companies develop drugs that go “downstream.” That is, they try to inhibit the enzymes that make the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, yet all those pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are derived from arachidonic acid. So the opposite way is to go “upstream,” and simply decrease the production of arachidonic acid. It’s a much more elegant, much more sophisticated approach, and that’s what the Zone diet does. It uses diet and the fish oil to reduce the levels of arachidonic acid, and by doing so you choke off the substrates to making excessive amounts of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids.
David: How does one know if the fish oil that they are taking is pharmaceutical grade or not?
Dr. Sears: It’s hard unless you have a half million dollars of instrumentation in your kitchen, which most people don’t. But here’s an easy first test. Take your fish oil home, and if it’s in capsules, break open the capsules and pour the contents into a small shot glass. Now put that in the freezer and come back five hours later with a toothpick. If the fish oil is rock solid, you can probably believe that the fish oil is the sewer of the sea. On the other hand, if you can put the toothpick through it, and it’s either mushy or liquid, then it’s probably the good stuff.
David: Why do you recommend that people take fish oil and not hemp seed oil–which contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a 4:1 ratio?
Dr. Sears: Hemp seed oil contains short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid is very inefficiently converted to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that do all the work in controlling inflammation. So if you’re willing to basically take fifty to hundred times the volume of hemp seed oil, you might get the same effect of a much smaller volume of fish oil.
David: Why is it dangerous to have chronically elevated cortisol levels and what can people do to prevent their bodies from producing too much cortisol?
Dr. Sears: The trouble with excess cortisol is that three things can happen. It makes you fatter, because it increases insulin resistance. It makes you dumber because it destroys the nerve cells in the hippocampus, where all your memories are stored. And three, it makes you sicker because it turns off the immune system. So these are three pretty good reasons why you want to control excess levels of cortisol.
Now, how to go about doing that. The easiest way is take adequate levels of fish oil, because by reducing inflammation in the body you’re reducing the need for the body to secrete more cortisol to keep it under control. The second way to keep cortisol under control is to control blood-sugar levels. If blood-sugar levels drop too low the brain will send out signals to make more cortisol to break down muscle mass and convert it into glucose. And the third way is an old time-tested way. It’s called meditation. You take some time to stop and smell the roses.
So, again, like with insulin and the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids, it’s better if you’re not increasing those hormones. It’s better to actually be decreasing those hormones, and bringing them back into an appropriate zone that’s consistent with long-term wellness.
David: You say that one can reduce cortisol levels with fish oil. Are there any studies which demonstrate this?
Dr. Sears: In patients with cachexia is it known that fish oil reduces cortisol levels (Nutrition and Cancer 40: 118 (2001) and in normal subjects undergoing mental stress (Diabetes Metabolism 29: 289 (2003).
David: How does exercise help to lower inflammation in the body?
Dr. Sears: Exercise helps lower inflammation by actually lowering insulin. As I said earlier, it’s excess insulin that stimulates that enzyme to make arachidonic acid, the building block of these inflammatory eicosanoids. So by lowering insulin through exercise you’re taking another step toward reducing the overall inflammatory load on the body.
David: Why do you think that taking mega-doses of antioxidants may suppress the immune system?
Dr Sears: Because we have to have some bad eicosanoids, otherwise we’d die, and to make eicosanoids–both good and bad–you need a certain amount of free radicals. When you take very high levels of antioxidants the free radicals necessary to form eicosanoids get inhibited, and this puts the body at great risk in terms of its ability to fight off bacterial infections, or to inhibit the process needed to repair injuries.
David: What do you think are the primary causes of aging?
Dr. Sears: I think the primary cause of aging is basically the increased inflammatory burden, and therefore if we really want to talk about anti-aging medicine, we should talk about anti-inflammatory medicine. But if I use the word “anti-aging medicine” I’d be laughed at if I went to Harvard Medical School. However, if I use the term “anti-inflammatory medicine” they welcome me with open arms. I’m talking about exactly the same thing, but again, this demonstrates the power of words to convey certain messages.
David: So do you think that the Zone diet actually reverses or slows down the aging process?
Dr. Sears: Definitely, because we know the Zone diet is a calorie-restricted diet, which we know does slow down the aging process. We know the Zone diet is an anti-inflammatory diet, which also slows down the aging process.
David: You say that aging is caused by an “increased inflammatory burden,” that can be alleviated by the Zone diet. Does this mean that our Paleolithic ancestors, who ate the type of diet that you recommend, didn’t age?
Dr. Sears: Aging can be defined as the cause of mortality. Today, the cause of mortality is primary chronic disease conditions accelerated by inflammation (ie. CHD), whereas 10,000 years ago the primary cause of mortality was famine or injury.
David: How long do you think it’s possible for human life span to be extended?
Dr. Sears: I think realistically, probably to age 90. For right now, we’re at about age 78. But it’s not the length of life span that’s important, it’s really our health-span; that is, longevity minus years of disability. And here our track record is not quite as good. So I think that when we ask what we really want, the answer is basically to live a full life–a life with as little pain as possible, with maximum wellness, and to die when our time comes. The fact is we’re all going to die. I’m just saying that we want to die on our terms, and basically in a state of relative wellness. So I think that the great goal is to have the population live a life; that is, full of vitality and follows what is called a rectangular curve–great vitality and then you die the next day. That’s really what we’re looking for. To extend life span to over a hundred may not be what we want. If you’ve ever been to a nursing home, you say, yeah they’re living to 100 and 102, but that’s not the quality of life I want to go out with.
David: What are some of the new anti-aging treatments that you foresee coming along in the near future?
Dr. Sears: I only really see one: diet. But actually there are three things:, diet, exercise, and stress reduction. None of those can be put into a capsule or pill. Those three things are the verities of human wisdom, and they have to be done on a consistent daily basis to keep your hormones in the zone. That is the key to aging well.
David: A lab in Spain recently found that cannabinoids can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in mice due to their anti-inflammatory properties. What role do you think our body’s own endocannabinoid system plays in maintaining health?