Plant Extracts May Slow Aging Process, Study Says

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It's embarrassing to admit (given that I'm a reporter covering science and health), but my bathroom drawers are bulging with products promising to turn back the clock by removing fine lines around my eyes or creases on my forehead.

Nostalgia for my teenage skin helps me ignore the evidence -- or lack of it -- surrounding anti-aging products, containing ingredients like green tea extract or maca root.

That's why when a study gets published in the journal Oncotarget claiming researchers have discovered revolutionary anti-aging molecules, well, color me interested.

The research team, from Concordia and the Quebec-based biotech company Idunn Technologies, conducted more than 10,000 trials to screen for plant extracts with anti-aging properties. What they found is  that six groups of molecules in specific doses successfully slowed down aging in yeast. The plant extracts included celery root, valerian root, passionflower, ginkgo biloba, black cohosh and white willow bark.

Okay, great. But yeast?

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“Cellularly speaking, aging progresses similarly in both yeast and humans,” says Vladimir Titorenko, the study’s senior author and a biologist at Concordia. “It’s the best cellular model to understand how the anti-aging process takes place.”

For the initial trials, yeast was also attractive because the researchers could get results much faster than by using a small animal, Titorenko says. For example, a mouse’s lifespan is two to three years, so testing whether the chemicals slowed aging would take at least that long to know if they were effective.

Titorenko says trials on worms and then mice are next. What about humans? He hesitated to predict when those might begin.

The most successful anti-aging molecule cited by the study was willow bark, which dates back to the time of Hippocrates in 400 B.C., when it was used for its medicinal properties. (It has a high concentration of salicin, a chemical that mimics the effects of aspirin.)

The study showed that willow bark extract increased the average and maximum chronological lifespan of yeast by 475 percent and 369 percent, respectively. Titorenko says that’s at least five times better than rapamycin or metformin, two drugs known for extending lifespan.

Idunn Technologies plans to create commercial products based on the study.

“The goal is to a have a healthy life, and increasing the quality of life can happen by reducing the rate of disease and aging,” says Éric Simard, the company’s founder.

Negative Effects Possible

But before you race to your nearest natural foods store and stock up on willow bark (yes, I’m tempted), it's best to wait for more data.

“Exceeding a specific beneficial dose of willow bark can cause negative effects and even be dangerous," Simard says. "The concentrations are very delicate and I would not recommend rushing out and taking the plant extracts until more research has been done.”

Dena Dubal, a neuroscientist at University of California San Francisco who studies aging, strongly agrees.

“It’s an intriguing start, but the research needs to be replicated in other labs,” says Dubal. “One thing I would caution is that these are very specific doses in very specific conditions on a very simple organism. Right now it’s an isolated finding. This is in no way ready for testing on ourselves.”

Dubal says human trials are likely at least a decade away. She emphasizes that plant extracts are not regulated by the FDA, and they can be unsafe.

"Remember some of the most toxic compounds come from plants, like cyanide," she says. "We don’t know what we are buying off the shelf. It may be that these compounds have a future in healthy aging, but we are not at the point of knowing that yet.”

In the meantime, Dubal offers some simple advice.

“When it comes to the science of longevity, we should stick with the science that has matured to the human level, like diet, brain stimulation, and socializing,” she says. “Take a walk, learn a new language, share a good meal with friends. And, then stay tuned for what’s being done in laboratories.”

As I was interviewing Dubal, I started feeling guilty about my bloated bathroom drawers.

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Maybe it's time for a spring cleaning.

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