Is NMN The Fountain of Youth?

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Will we finally discover the Fountain of Youth...in a pill?

"Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it."

What do they, and roughly 8.7 million other species of life do? They die. Flies live four weeks; horses, thirty years. The longest known and verified human lifespan is 122 years. Hedgehogs often live 200 years. What do hedgehogs know that we don't? Biologists and biotech companies are in a race to find out.

Silicon Valley hedge fund manager, Joon Yun, has offered scientists a one-million-dollar prize for coming up with the human 'code of life'. After studying actuarial data from the U.S. Social Security office, which states that a 25-year-old person has a 99.9% chance of living an additional year, he reasoned that if a person could keep this risk of dying constant throughout his life, he would live for 1000 years. Yoon's 'Palo Alto Longevity Prize will be awarded to the first scientific team who restores vitality and extends lifespan in mice by 50%. [1]

Yoon's mission, akin to a modern-day quest to discover the "Fountain of Youth", is only one of many similar missions sweeping through Silicon Valley. Billions of dollars are now on the table, betting that science can prolong human 'healthspan' and lifespan. Healthspan in this context refers to the length of years a person lives with his body in a reasonably healthy, functional condition. Of course, healthspan and lifespan are by necessity intertwined, but the focus on 'healthspan' recognizes the undesirable possibility of a person's lifespan being extended, while suffering one or more chronic, debilitating diseases.

One famous longevity researcher, Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard University, thinks he may have come up with a natural supplement that could prolong, both lifespan and healthspan.  Sinclair is widely recognized for his work on ‘Resveratrol’, and was listed by Time Magazine as one of their ‘100 most influential people in the world’ in 2014. The supplement, known as NMN (Nicotinamide mononucleotide) is a derivative of Niacin (Vitamin B3).  Human studies on the molecule are ongoing, but if the already completed animal studies translate to humans, people might be able to retard, or even reverse the aging process, with human lifespans stretching out to 120 years. 

Man's Quest for The Fountain of Youth

Our modern obsession over aging and longevity is nothing new. Ancient people had the same fixation on, not just longevity, but immortality. History abounds with accounts, both fact-based and allegorical, of man's quest to cheat old age and death.

In St. Augustine Florida, there is a 15-acre tourist trap called, "Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park". The famous sixteenth-century explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, is alleged to have discovered the legendary fount in Florida, while serving as governor of Puerto Rico for the Spanish king. This, as the famous story goes, after a life-long quest for immortality. But historians have attacked the account, saying that Ponce de Leon never visited the St. Augustine area, and furthermore, there is no record in any of his personal writings, both formal and informal, of him expressing any interest at all in achieving eternal youth. But that's besides the point.

Actually, some other New World Spaniards did have some interest in the Fount. The Spanish historian, Lopez de Gomara, wrote of some local Arawak native accounts of a magical river, waterfall, or spring that could reverse aging and could be found in the lands north of Cuba and Haiti. In 1513, Pietro Martire d'Anghiera, an Italian geographer living in Spain, wrote of the fountain as well, saying:

"Among the islands of the north side of Hispaniola, about 325 leagues distant, as said by those who have searched for it, is a continual spring of flowing water of such marvelous virtue that the water thereof being drunk, perhaps with some diet, maketh old men young again" [2]

The legends of 'Prester John' put the Fount somewhere in Asia. Other stories have Cuban natives revealing the location of the Fount to Prester John on an island off the coast of Honduras called, "Bionca". But since Prester John was himself, an allegorical figure, it's probably not on Bionca. Asia's pretty big though. Maybe it's in Asia.

The Greek goddess, Panacea, had the power to cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. Herodotus, the fifth century BCE Greek historian, weighed in on the Fount. He wrote that it existed in the land of the 'Macrobians', and afforded the people of that region with exceptionally long lives. A couple of centuries later, Alexander supposedly crossed an eerie and frightening land, known as 'The Land of Darkness", in search of the Fount's bounteous waters.

Good stories have a way of perpetuating themselves, in one form or another, so it is not surprising that the Fountain of Youth made its way into popular medieval writings, like "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville", which mentions the Fountain of Youth as located at the foot of a mountain outside Polombe, India (now modern Kollam).

The Philosopher's Stone, The Elixir of Life, and the Grail, Et al

 Has David Sinclair discovered the Philosopher's Stone?

Throughout history, the promise of youth and longevity has been associated with a number of iconic means; not just the Fount. From the school of alchemy, we have the 'Philosopher's Stone', which along with turning base metals into gold, had the additional power to convey eternal life. The Philosopher's Stone also made its way into Hindu and Buddhist lore, being known as 'Chintamani', and is believed to be carried on the back of the 'wind horse', depicted on Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags.

Then, there is the 'elixir of life', also known as the 'elixir of immortality'. A drink of this potent potion purportedly conveys eternal youth, eternal life, and/or cure from all diseases. A long list of Chinese emperors are said to have invested much of their inherited fortunes in search of the fabled brew. Not to be outdone, the Indians eventually began writing about the elusive elixir, finding various ways to tie it in with Hindu's pantheon of deities.

Eventually, European writers did likewise. 'Arthurian' chroniclers came up with the 'Holy Grail', which is something (maybe a chalice?), that afforded miraculous powers, including happiness, eternal youth, and infinite abundance.

Longevity or Immortality?

Ancient Persia had its 'Cup of Jamshid', which was, of course, filled with the Elixir of Immortality. It was believed that a person who looked into the cup could witness all the seven heavens of the universe.

Then there is the Norse goddess, Iðunn, who, amongst other things, was the bestower of eternal youthfulness. China also has its 'Peaches of Immortality', which are consumed by the 'immortals' (because they convey immortality).

Bhogar and His Kaya Kalpa Tablets

Indian sages were not immune to the hypnotic call of longevity and immortality. One famous yoga master, Bhogar, devoted much of his life's work to the studies of metallurgy, alchemy and herbology. He was an historic figure, known for his prolific body of writings, including 'Bhogar's 7000', a collection of 7000 hymns on yoga, spirituality, and mysticism.

Bhogarnath, the great Indian yogi, circa 500 BCE 

Bhogar, who lived around 500 BCE, accompanied his master, Kalinginath, to China, where they taught yoga to the people there. Kalinginath eventually left China, to retire near his home in Southern India, leaving Bhogar in China to complete the mission. Bhogar was especially interested in immortality and longevity and decided to use his skills as an herbalist to devise a formula which would convey immortality to anyone who consumed it. He crushed the herbs and pressed them into pills, which he called the 'Kaya Kalpa' tablets. In one of his hymns, he states;

"With great care and patience, I made the kaya kalpa tablets,
And then swallowed them,
Not waiting for the opinions of fools and skeptics,
Who could not appreciate.
Steadily, I lived with the foreigners,
Never aging, never ailing."
[3]

One day, Bhogar called for his three favorite disciples and his faithful dog, and led them to a nearby mountaintop. He offered a kaya kalpa tablet to the dog. The dog keeled over dead. He then offered his leading disciple, Yu, a tablet. Yu fell over dead. He then offered tablets to his two remaining disciples. They took the tablets, but terrified by what they had seen, they hid them. Then Bhogarnath consumed the remaining tablets and he keeled over. In a state of panic and grief, the two disciples hurried down the mountain to find help to haul the dead bodies for burial.

When they returned, the bodies were nowhere to be found. They searched, but all they found was a note written by Bhogarnath.

"The kaya kalpa tablets are working.
After awakening from my trance,
I restored my faithful Yu and the dog.
You have missed your chance for immortality."
[4]

Actually, Bhogar had a pretty good idea. He produced his formula for immortality in the form of a pill. Is NMN the twenty-first century's answer to Bhogar's kaya kalpa tablets?

DNA, Cells, and NMN

 Science's quest for the fountain of youth

Silicon Valley, its venture capitalists, and the biotechnology juggernaut is hell-bent to solve the riddle of aging. You can't solve it by finding cures for diseases, per se, because the way the aging syndrome works, when we reach a certain 'biological age', everything seems to break down at the same time. If you cure somebody of one chronic disease, another one will crop up a few weeks or a few months later. Chronic diseases come in clusters. [5]

Researchers have surmised that you have to take a broader, more fundamental approach to the problem. You have to tackle the physiological processes that cause and lead to diseases. This necessitates approaching the problem from a cellular and/or genetic perspective.

On the cellular level, scientists are looking for ways to reverse the process of 'senescence'. Older cells, for instance, which have undergone some type of stress, can't repair their DNA properly. They then either have to go through normal die-off (apoptosis), or they will enter senescence, a state where the old, damage cell remains, but can no longer replicate itself. Eventually, these senescent cells begin to build up and the immune system no longer has the capacity to remove them. Meanwhile, they continue to secrete harmful, proinflammatory chemicals, like cytokines and chemokines, in an attempt to flag the immune system for removal. These chemicals cause damaging and painful inflammation. One researcher quipped, "They're like zombies. They should be dead, but instead, they survive and cause havoc." Animal studies involving senescent cells have demonstrated their alarmingly, harmful effect. [6]

Most of today's work on longevity technologies centers around genetic approaches; finding ways to improve and repair DNA. NMN, along with similar biological molecules like NAD, have been shown to work wonders in animal studies, appearing to not only slow down the aging process, but to actually reverse it. [7]

The quest toward anti-aging and longevity brings with it a variety of social issues and questions:

  1. With an increasing population, how will we provide for necessary resources, like food and water?
  2. What impact will an increasing population have on the economy? Will everyone who wants to work, still be able to find a job?
  3. Will technologies that offer life-extension properties be affordable? Is this a pursuit that will only be feasible for the very rich?

These are important questions. Fortunately, with respect to NMN, it is a food supplement, readily available to everyone. It is not a cheap supplement, by comparison, but in time, the cost of NMN will become more and more affordable as more people begin consuming it.

You just can't count on anything these days. Old age and dying… might become a thing of the past. Well, at least we'll have taxes.

"This article has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Its purpose is to provide information and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

Show references
  1. http://www.drjoonyun.com/
  2. How To Keep Young, Chrys Chryssanthou
  3. http://www.energyenhancement.org/Tamil-Siddar-BHOGAR-Kundalini-Yoga-and-Spiritual-Alchemy.htm
  4. Ibid
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3823581/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5748990/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5668137/
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