Beauty, Health and Longevity:  Aging with grace

by Temecula psychologist Linda Comin, Psy.D.

I thought we would begin by defining what beauty is.  After researching the definition of beauty I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.   Beauty in is purest form, according to generic definitions is described as a quality that a person or object possess, which is interpreted by the mind as a pleasurable experience, and is manifested through our bodily senses of sight, sound and or touch.  Webster defines beauty as, “The quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit, synonymous with loveliness.”   There are two elements in both of these definitions that I believe to be very important first is quality and the second is mind.  Quality is connected to a defining characteristic that someone possesses.   Mind in most definitions brings with it the element of spirit and states that this is synonymous with loveliness.   Loveliness is defined, as, something that is exquisitely charming and beautiful.  Possessing beauty appeals to the heart and or the mind as well as to the eye, such as a person’s face.

I am sure that we have all heard the phrase “beauty is only skin deep,” is this truth or fiction?  I believe what is truly important is balance between the mind body and the spirit.  According to Jennifer Lopez an unknown person stated the following to her, which I believe sums this up beautifully, “Until you are twenty you have the face you were born with after that you have the face you deserve.”  I think we all need to consider this concept that we are what we think, believe, and feel.   Then we all need to examine how that shows up in our lives and how we conceptualize beauty.

Most women and now men have become prey to the hype of the cosmetic industry and their claims for longevity and a wrinkle free, saggy free, face/body.  In the world of impermanence, where everything changes, and our belief system supports this paradigm, aging is an inevitable fact.  So much so that there is a billion dollar industry built on this fact, we are bombarded with media suggesting how we can stay young and beautiful.  There is no fountain of youth or instant pill or remedy that promises youth and beauty forever.  So we can fight this aging process or we can go gracefully into this process of aging with love, compassion, appreciation and gratitude for who we are in the moment.

Women are the largest population of consumers especially when it comes to beauty, the cosmetic industry, plastic surgery and fitness.  In this article I am going to explore the myths and truths of beauty and aging and present another way of conceptualizing our true beauty and youth, so that we can be released from the illusions of our society.  This article will be exploring what defines us, and asking you the following questions: Who are you? And what is your truth? And how do you want to live out the rest of your life?

The media industry would have us all believe that beauty and youth are synonymous.  Do you think it is?  What I am suggesting is a paradigm shift a stretch from what we see, hear and touch.  Beauty is not only about youth, perfection and what we see.  It is about more than this and why should we have to be defined by this illusion.  Can we really be expected to attain this external beauty and youth that keeps us all on the constant search for what is unobtainable?  Can we all be expected to aspire to a visual picture of what beauty and a youthful body is “supposed” to look like?  I think not!  This is an impossible journey of uphill battles and struggles to attain and be what others think we should be.  Can one picture of beauty and fitness fit us all?  Is this our truth?  Are these the standards by which we choose to live or do we want to aspire to something higher than what the media would have us believe?  It has been my experience that no matter how hard we try to attain what our culture dignifies as beautiful, it is a never ending up hill battle from birth onward.  Do we keep telling our daughters and sons that they must follow the rules of beauty and fitness in our culture or do we give them the tools to attain strength, stamina, individuality and the courage to say no!  Do we accept this superficial worldview of beauty and fitness or do we learn to discern what is in our best interest.   No matter what the world would have us believe there is only one truth, we all know it but we forgot.  We forgot because we are so busy playing roles in our lives that we lose sight of what is truly beneficial for our spirit.  In the end it is truly what we believe, value and give energy to that creates the vision that others see.  When we change our minds we change our lives and we change the paradigm that we all created.

So what does age have to do with health, fitness and beauty?  Everything, there is a difference between your chronological age and your “real age”, a term that was coined by Michael F. Rozien in the 1999.  Real age is based on body maintenance, how well you take care of your body.  Chronological age/calendar age is years from birth to present day.  There is a test that measures real age if you would like to know what that is go to www.realage.com.  There is a difference between our chronological age and our “real age”.   The difference between the “real age” and the chronological age may have a large gap in either direction.  For instance, you could be a 50-year-old man or a 50-year-old woman and your real age could be that of a 35 year old or you could be 50 and your real age could be 70.   These numbers have a lot to do with your lifestyle.

If you cultivate a healthy lifestyle that begins early and extends throughout life then, the likelihood of longevity and a quality of your life experience is on your side. Nurturing good habits is a very important element in building a lifestyle that extends on for a lifetime.  It is true that our body’s age and our internal organs were not made to last forever but the quality of how we live our life is important to living life to it’s fullest potential.  Remembering to care for the body and mind is important to your life experience and fulfillment of your purpose.

Working on being balanced, and not doing anything to excess or extremes is important to your body’s health.  The body is our means of expression and its purpose is to communicate and connect with others.  If we are too busy to care for ourselves by observing a healthy lifestyle then the body will respond by not providing us with the best outcome later in life.   There is an idiom that states, “You only get what you put in.”  This literally means if you want your body to be there for you, then you have to put good things in it.   The body needs proper nourishment, water, sleep, exercise, rest/stress management/meditation and healthy relationships.

Let’s begin with diet.  An unhealthy diet, overeating, or under eating can have deleterious results on our body.   A healthy diet is essential for balancing our hormones, bones and joints, brain health, and all of our internal organs.  Hippocrates a Greek physician consider the father of medicine stated in 460 BC-370 BC “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food.”  The Western world has forgotten the wise advice.  This is perhaps one of the most important things that you can do for yourself in life is to choose foods that nourish and sustain your health.  When we choose foods we don’t usually think of how it affects our internal organs, in fact most of us unconsciously eat and are not at all mindful of the affect that the food may have on our health.  In fact as we age the foods that we decide to ingest have a very different affect on our bodies and minds.  When we were young we may have been able to drink and eat high caloric, fatty, high carbohydrate foods but as we age we notice that our bodies are less tolerant of these types of foods and if we continue to eat them we begin to put on weight in areas where we may not want it.  For many of us, that would appear around the midsection of the body resulting in clothes not fitting properly.  Along with this unsightly bulge there are added risks of heart disease, Type II Diabetes, gastric esophageal reflux disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic kidney disease, early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and some type of joint disease due to inflammation such as arthritis.  Given the aforementioned issues why then wouldn’t we want to choose foods that may give us the best outcomes for quality of life.

There are many healthy lifestyle diets out there to choose from, to name a few vegetarian, Paleo, gluten free, anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean etc.   I recommend experimenting with different foods and seeing which foods work for your body.  The body will respond to the foods you ingest and if you listen it will communicate to you what is best.  Just remember that life is about balance so when choosing foods go for balance.

A diet that provides adequate amounts of protein is beneficial to our skin by giving it clear and sharp definition as opposed to soft blurred lines.  Protein is also necessary for our muscles, connective tissue and supports our bodies at every cellular level.  When the body is depleted of protein it begins to draw from reserves and the body literally feeds on itself.  The results from this are muscle and tissue breakdown.  Therefore, depriving yourself of food especially protein starves your body and accelerates the aging process.

I would also like to address the fat free or low fat diet, which translates to high carbohydrate.  There are unhealthy fats and healthy fats; the healthy fats are necessary for our bodies to properly function.   Healthy fats are important for our joints, brain, moods and facilitate utilization of food as well as burning fat.  The omega 3 fatty acids and the monounsaturated fats are powerful anti-inflammatory agents.  These healthy fats provide suppleness, moisture and smoothness to our skin.  These good fats are found in nuts, olive oil, avocados, seeds, acai, salmon, and other cold-water fish.

Just as most professionals in the wellness industry would agree that integrating a lot of green leafy vegetables and a variety of other vegetables in our diets are important.  There is also agreement on eating a variety of lean meats that are humanely treated, and not corn fed as well as, fish that are fresh not farm raised.  In short it does not matter which lifestyle you choose to follow as long as you find one that is right for you.  It is however important to choose one and eat healthy if you want to enjoy a quality lifestyle and longevity.

I believe most of us in the wellness industry would agree that sugars, high simple carbohydrate foods such as breads cereals and pastas are not the best in nutritional quality and actually cause inflammation.  These are known as pro-inflammatory foods.  These foods actually promote wrinkles, accelerate aging and result in the excess storage of body fat.  As a result your skin may appear less radiant, you may notice dark circles under the eyes, loss of skin elasticity, puffiness, fine lines and wrinkles.  Most professionals would agree that sugars affect your longevity and deprive you of youth, health and beauty.

Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and using drugs also have consequences to our health and longevity.   Cigarettes have many health consequences and most of us our aware of those problems such as, cancer emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Suffice to say that cigarettes also accelerate the aging process and shorten the lifespan by an average of more than 10 years.  Cigarettes seem to influence the aging process by affecting the collagen protein in the skin.  Did you ever wonder why smokers have dry, course, wrinkled skin?  It actually has a name it is called “smoker’s skin” and it is due to the smoke triggering oxidation allowing oxygen based free radicals that are known to age the skin attack the skin cells.  The result is damaged skin cells that are unable to repair DNA and the connective tissue, which then leads to wrinkles, lines and discoloration.  Furthermore, if you are exposed to second hand smoke you can experience the same results damaging your skin and putting yourself at risk for premature aging.  Along with this there are other results to your skin associated with smoking and aging such as poor wound recovery, psoriasis, and skin cancer all from someone else’s cigarette smoke.

Alcohol also contributes to aging and it is not just due to dehydration.  So do not assume that just because you drink enough water that will counteract the problem.  What alcohol creates is an inflammation process to occur throughout the body including the skin and the results of this far outweigh the dehydration.  There are molecules in the alcohol called aldehydes that are destructive and cause damage to the cell plasma membrane as well as other parts of the cell.  The inflammation due to alcohol also causes small blood vessels in the skin to enlarge resulting in more blood flow close to the skin’s surface producing a flushed skin color and warmth to the skin, which that leads to broken capillaries on the face.  Alcohol induced dehydration produces skin that is prone to fine lines and wrinkles, as well as dullness, enlarged pores, discoloration, sagging and a lack of elasticity in the skin.  Of course an occasional glass of red wine can have some health benefits but just like anything else in life moderation is key.

Adequate sleep is also essential to our longevity.  There seems to be some disagreement on the number of hours that is best.  The number of hours of sleep seems to vary between 6-8 hours a night.  If you want your skin to look radiant and vibrant as well as youthful get an adequate nights sleep.  It is a well-known fact that when we sleep the effects of stress is lessened and the negative effects of cortisol, and the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine are depressed.  Growth hormone is also released during sleep and this is known as the anti-aging hormone.   Sleep is the time when our bodies repair and regenerate.  Studies suggest that people who exercise regularly have better quality of sleep, fall asleep quicker, awaken less and sleep longer. 

Exercise is highly beneficial to your longevity health and fitness.  There is an enormous amount of research out there that supports the importance of exercise in our daily lives.  Besides maintaining healthy body weight, improving muscle tone, lowering your risk of heart disease, decreasing high blood pressure, improving bone density, stabilizing your mood, decreasing stress and anxiety, it helps with sleep disorders, lessens risk of some types of cancer, and will lend a beautiful radiant glow to your skin.  It is important to remember that everything in moderation is healthy and anything that is overdone is out of balance and results in inflammation, which over taxes the body and results in disease.  The key here is do not over exercise this taxes your body causing inflammation and do not under exercise this has no benefits to you.  It is suggested to work out at least 3-4 days a week aerobically add strength training and stretching 2-3 days a week.

Proper hydration throughout life by drinking water is key to your health.  Water is important for hydration of our cells and organs.  Without water our bodies could not function.  Water is necessary for maintaining the electrolyte balance of our bodies.  It plays a role in normal blood pressure, and cell membrane balance as well as the absorption of vitamins and minerals and the excretion of toxins from our body through urine, feces and sweat.  For men the suggested amount of water per day is approximately 11 eight-ounce cups and for women it is 8 eight-ounce cups.  A dehydrated body promotes aging by literally drying us out like a dehydrated fruit.  To promote beauty and longevity drink plenty of clean water and your skin will be soft, supple and radiant.

Stress although can be a normal part of life if protracted and insidious can result in problems.  Anything we choose to do in excess results in body imbalance.  Our bodies are intricate and complicated and if there is a deficiency in one area or an elevation in another area it affects the optimal performance of the body.  Stress in the body sends a signal to the brain that there is a problem and the body responds by sending out neurochemical messengers known as neurotransmitters.  Those neurotransmitters are serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine.  In the case of prolonged stress it is epinephrine that is considered the hormone managed by the adrenal system. The brain is alerted and the adrenal glands take over and produce adrenaline the fight or flight hormone.  This surge of adrenaline communicates with the fat cells to quickly release energy to the brain keeping the adrenaline level up till it receives communication that the stress related incident is over.   Consequently the elevated adrenaline levels increase the appetite and the body responds by eating more calories than it can metabolize to replenish the fat cells that were utilized during the adrenaline surge.   If it is a short-term stress related situation the adrenaline level will normalize.  However, if it is protracted, chronic stress that persists for three months or greater, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol.   Chronic cortisol levels remain elevated till the stress is resolved.  Extended elevations of cortisol can cause chaos in the body.  When cortisol levels remain high the hormone attacks healthy muscles and bones, slows down the healing process, impairs digestion, affects the production of other hormones, clouds the mind, weakens the immune system and interferes with endocrine functions.  All of this contributes to increased weight gain.  Therefore, stress is not something that we would want to continue in our bodies for a lengthy period of time not only does it affect our internal organs, sleeplessness, exhaustion, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, it also affects our external bodies by causing weight gain, and a lack of radiance.

Last but not least healthy relationships promote health and longevity.  We are relational people and by interacting with others we either create connectedness, joy, and peace or loneliness, sorrow and pain.  The later creates the same sort of response in your body as stress does and therefore contributes to inflammation and a compromised immunity system.  Furthermore, current research is suggesting that loneliness increases the likelihood of the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease; this was based on a study of 823 seniors in the Chicago area.  The findings suggest that the higher the loneliness index the greater the person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  This finding suggests that the important factor is not the quantity of relationships but rather the quality of the relationship, which matters.  This evidence is very compelling and would advocate that we keep our relationship connections just as healthy as our bodies and when our relationships are in trouble we need to seek professional assistance with a psychologist or psychotherapist.  Therefore our choices either contribute to health and longevity or disease and premature aging.

The facts of life are that the choices we make, the attitude and beliefs that we solidify in life have everything to do with the quality of life we will live during our 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even into our 80’s and 90’s.  Our thoughts, beliefs and practices will either work for us or against us; it is a delicate balance between healthy and unhealthy.

I thought using myself to exemplify the importance of healthy balance in life at this point might bring my point home.  I have always eaten a healthy conservative diet and for nearly 40 years I was a vegetarian.  Watching what I ate became second nature for me.  I have exercised regularly since my early 20s at which time I took up long distance running.  Shortly after that around 24 I added yoga to my regime.  I gave up running at age 36 because I realized that my joints and bones were not holding up under the constant pounding on the concrete.  I began incorporating other types of exercise into my life, aerobics, the step, the slide, biking, spinning, cross training, weight training, you name it I tried it.  I made up my mind that I was always going to remain active, and I have.  The one constant in my life has always been yoga.  From the first time I was introduced to yoga to current day I have had a yoga practice that has graced my life daily.  At 60 years old I continue with a daily strenuous and vigorous yoga practice that reminds me to breath, balance, slow down, rest, create, relate and mindfully think about life.

There was a time in my life where I believe even though I thought I was doing everything right I was out of balance.   At this time I believe being active and utilizing yoga actually saved my life.  Let me clarify “saved my life”, at age 40 during my daily yoga practice I found several lumps in my abdomen that were later diagnosed as renal carcinoma.  If I had not maintained a relationship with yoga and exercise, which felt gave me the ability to be highly sensitive to the changes in my body and mind I probably would not be telling this story today.  This is what I learned from that experience, being out of touch with my body is dangerous to my health.  At that particular time of my life I was so busy with school, building a private practice, raising children, being married and taking care of patients that I was doing all of the right things but I was disconnected from my feelings.  Consequently I was overwhelmed, stressed out, overworked and running scared trying to put out fires wherever they occurred.

As I mentioned above chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body and I was a prime example of that.  So even though I was eating right and working out everyday, which included a yoga practice, I was not taking care of my mind, I was not sleeping well or taking rest/quiet time or utilizing stress management techniques, i.e. EFT (emotional freedom technique), meditation and relaxation.  Relaxation and adequate sleep is essential for the maintenance of our body’s balance.  It crucial to be exquisitely in tune with your body’s messages.  When we are in tune with ourselves our body will tell us what it needs and make choices that are healthy.  It is when we do not listen to our body’s biofeedback system we get into trouble.

In closing I hope that I have imparted the message that it is important to take care of the body and mind because we utilize them everyday and we all want them to work for us and give us a quality life with longevity.  Remembering always to stay in touch with ourselves so that we do not miss the messages our bodies give us daily about the foods we eat, the water we drink, the thoughts we have that either harm us or support us, and our relationships.  Our bodies and minds are very intricate in nature and have a natural communication loop with each other that we may miss out on if we do not pay attention to the messages.  The key to success in life is to be sensitive and kind to yourself by doing things that support you through life and result in balance and equanimity for your mind and body.