Aging, Inflammation, and Brain Biochemistry


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The tumor necrosis factor, a protein comprised of amino acids, is the body’s alarm signal. It tells the body to respond to trauma. The distinguishing feature of a peptide is how it bonds. Two amino acids form a planar bond: TNF is characterized by its ribbon-like nature or planarity. Copyright image by John A. Jaksich, all rights reserved.

The role of diet and health is well established in many instances—but do we fully understand its role in our potential for reaching the ripe old ages of 90 or 100?

Moreover, to those who would have us believe that a Fish Oil supplement can replace real Salmon or tuna in our diet, and help us live longer – well, therein lies a biochemical debate, as research has shown many supplements to be either ineffective or to not metabolize in the small or large intestine.

When there is irreversible damage, (in the form of Alzheimer’s disease, for example), the realization that lifestyle can prevent a negative outcome should allow our descendants to alter the course of aging.

Armed with that information, we learn that inflammation and the Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha hold key roles in our body’s ability to age well.

Omega Fatty Acids: Diet and Health

On April 1, 2015, The New York Times echoed a result from the Journal of the American Medical Association of 2014. In effect, the researchers stated that Omega fatty acids (certain fish oils) have little positive effect on one’s health.

A closer examination of the report finds the results were little more than the summation of a JAMA article. Little was added to expound on why anyone should believe the results-other than as an appeal to authority.

However, the broader picture may be clearer. Postmortem examinations of centenarians revealed an excess of ‘fish oil-type’ compounds (Omega-3-fatty acids) in their large intestine (the gut) as opposed to individuals living to the US average age (mid-to-late 80s).

The discovery of ‘fish oil’ or Omega-3-Fatty Acids in the gut of deceased centenarians raises the question, do Omega-3-Fatty Acids affect one’s longevity? Past evidence of a gut/brain or gut/body axis seems to indicate that our diet does affect our well-being. As many MDs and dietitians state: We are what we eat.

Fish Oil: Natural vs. Supplementation

Omega-3-Fatty Acids, also commonly known as Fish Oil, are fats. Fats and oils are found throughout the plant and animal kingdom. It is in the plant kingdom that many Omega-3 oils are found in the seeds or the fruit-such as Flax seed oil, and olives.

In the animal kingdom Omega-3-Fatty acids originate primarily in cold water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Fish Oil or Omega-3 supplements primarily come from the pulp of discarded cold water fish.

There are two primary issues for the supplements vs. the natural food issue: food synergy and purity.

The issue of food synergy lies at the heart of how foods that are high in omega 3’s tend to be better absorbed and digested than supplements. The synergy of food implies that the oemga-3s are absorbed when someone digests tuna or salmon because they are eating all components.

It is a concept known as ‘like dissolves like’- all components are fully digested-as opposed to eating or swallowing a capsule with water on an empty stomach. It’s like when you put a drop of vegetable oil into a cup of water-the two components do not readily mix.

Another problem is purity, an after-effect of poor environmental stewardship. In a landmark study, only 25 percent of fish oil supplements (studied in 2010) were found to meet FDA standards. One problem centers upon finding metals (Iron-Fe, Lead-Pb, Aluminum-Al, and other known poisons) in the oils that rendered the product inedible. Other issues center upon PCBs -polychlorinated biphenyls, being found in the fish oil supplements, and farmed fish as well.

In the end, whole foods trump supplements.

EPA-- Fish Oil

EPA-A fatty acid that is found in fish and flaxseed. It is important for brain function. However, the acid is susceptible to degradation from oxidative stress and inflammatory stresses. Copyright image constructed with Chem Draw 14 by John A. Jaksich. All Rights Reserved.

Aging Implies Inflammation?

Inflammation due to stress contributes to the body’s eventual demise. However, many 100-somethings reached this rare age because they successfully managed life’s difficulties. When looking for biomarkers addressing the longevity paradox, what becomes apparent is centenarians possess healthy bio-defenses. Their lives have seemingly centered on producing fewer inflammatory stress-related biomarkers.

While one view of stress is the anguish and nervousness that comes from navigating life’s difficulties, the physical manifestations (from the effects of stress) overtake the body’s coping mechanisms.

We may think of inflammation as a puffy, red sore area surrounding a superficial flesh wound or cut. In truth, however, inflammation is a chemical signal—or a warning if you will.

A Biochemical Definition of Inflammation

Often, a flesh wound becomes inflamed at the outset of infection, and the body releases chemical substances known as cytokines. The cytokines mediate the body’s immune response to the wound (or trauma site if you will). Cytokines are proteins-many amino acids linked to form a larger molecule.

Cytokines mediate in every aspect of a living organism but figure prominently in inflammation. Interestingly, cytokines are found in excessive amounts in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. One cytokine identified in Alzheimer’s disease is the Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha.

The Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha naturally fights cancer cells in the body. However, Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha is also one of the body’s major alarms-responding to trauma.

Research indicates that it plays a role in the degeneration in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The evidence, recently published in Neurobiology Discussions, paints the TNF-alpha as one primary reason for the advancement for Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well.

Although the reasons seem unclear for the presence of TNF-alpha, brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s patients may be a reason.

TNF-Alpha and Disease?

Cytokines (like TNF-alpha) respond to trauma in the body. While pain and inflammation, if not addressed, may lead to worse problems, the production of cytokines leading to aging seems somewhat mysterious at the outset. Moreover, it should be so.

TNF-alpha, as previously alluded to, is found anywhere there is bodily trauma or stress. However, TNF-alpha plays multiple roles in the brain.

  • In younger brains, where inflammation plays less of a role, TNF-alpha assures that the brain can assemble new connections between neurons.
  • TNF-alpha promotes healthy functioning of the brain.
  • TNF-alpha, if overproduced, alters the equilibria in any part of the body. It induces an auto-diseased state. In the case of Alzheimer’s, an excess of TNF-alpha stimulates the presence of glutamic acid (an amino acid) that, in part, initiates neuron death-neuron degeneration. Although the cascade of events leading to Alzheimer’s is more complex than this, the medical community can monitor the cerebral-spinal fluid carefully, on alert for an overabundance of TNF. Monitoring of TNF-alpha would allow Science to seek a way to modulate it, thereby potentially altering the outcome for Alzheimer’s patients.

The difference between a healthy brain and a diseased brain with Alzheimer: Prevention may be the first line of defense. Image by NIH. All Rights Reserved.

The Fate of a Diseased Brain: Prevention or Cure?

Inflammation is a ‘sign of aging.’ When addressing “stress,” the connection between body and mind is hard to ignore. As the ‘healthy’ body ages, the biochemistry acts to keep inflammation and stress to a minimum. The cytokines, the body’s natural messengers, play the role of signaling pain and its effects. When doctors monitor cytokines, they can offer a potential path to healthier aging.

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