Could Drinking Heavy Atoms Lengthen Your Life?

deuterium and carbon-13In a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks it down. He smiles. It's my turn.

I put a spoonful of the liquid in my mouth and swallow. It tastes slightly sweet, which is a surprise. I was expecting it to be exactly like water since that, in fact, is what it is - heavy water to be precise, chemical formula D2O. The D stands for deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with an atomic mass of 2 instead of 1. Deuterium is what puts the heavy in heavy water. An ice cube made out of it would sink in normal water.

My sip of heavy water is the culmination of a long journey trying to get to the bottom of a remarkable claim that Shchepinov first made around 18 months ago. He believes he has discovered an elixir of youth, a way to drink (or more likely eat) your way to a longer life.

Many anti-aging medications are based on supplementing your body's own defenses with antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, though there is scant evidence that this does any good.

Shchepinov realized there was another way to defeat free radicals. While he was familiarizing himself with research on aging, his day job involved a well-established - if slightly obscure - bit of chemistry called the isotope effect. On Christmas day 2006, it dawned on him that putting the two together could lead to a new way of postponing the ravages of time.

The basic concept of the isotope effect is that the presence of heavy isotopes in a molecule can slow down its chemical reactions.

All of this is conventional chemistry: the isotope effect was discovered back in the 1930s and its mechanism explained in the 1940s. The effect has a long pedigree as a research tool in basic chemistry for probing the mechanisms of complex reactions.

Shchepinov, however, is the first researcher to link the effect with aging. It dawned on him that if aging is caused by free radicals trashing covalent bonds, and if those same bonds can be strengthened using the isotope effect, why not use it to make vulnerable biomolecules more resistant to attack? All you would have to do is judiciously place deuterium or carbon-13 in the bonds that are most vulnerable to attack, and chemistry should take care of the rest.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Since time immemorial, man has searched for the Fountain of Youth. Nothing has changed in that regard, only the methods of inquiry and discovery have progressed, catching up with some of the most outlandish sci-fi scenarios imaginable.

Personally, I’m not one to want to veer too far from the natural order of things -- I don’t even want to eat a piece of genetically modified corn. But the technology and science enthusiast in me can’t help but be intrigued by the ideas and radical advances in the field of extreme life extension.

This is one of the latest installments in the ongoing quest, and Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov believes he may have discovered the type of water needed to make the Fountain of Youth deliver on its promise.

The Free-Radical Theory

The most widely accepted idea for life extension is the free-radical theory. According to this theory, we begin to self destruct” as we age. Our DNA becomes damaged beyond our body’s ability to repair and we eventually accumulate enough damage that can’t support life, and we die.

The main agents of this destruction are oxygen free radicals; aggressive chemical compounds created as a byproduct of your natural metabolism. Over a lifetime, this progressive damage accumulates to the point where your body’s basic biochemical processes fail.

This is one of the primary reasons that Coenzyme Q-10 works and why I take the reduced form, ubiquinol, every day.

One of the most destructive processes is protein carbonylation, in which oxygen radicals attacks the carbon-hydrogen bonds in proteins. This process has been implicated as a cause for many age-related diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, chronic renal failure and adult-onset diabetes.

Antioxidants continually combat these free radicals – which is why a diet high in natural antioxidants is so important for your health – but over the years, your biological defense systems eventually begin to suffer from oxidative damage as well and can’t function as effectively. Your state of health suffers as a result, and “age-related ailments” set in.

This is where Shchepinov’s theory for youth extension comes in.

The basic concept of his discovery is that heavy isotopes can slow down a molecule’s chemical reactions. Hence prolonging the time it takes before the molecule suffers damage.  

Is it Safe to Drink “Heavy Water"?

It’s important to note that some heavy isotopes are radioactive and obviously should not be consumed. 

But others, like the ones studied by Shchepinov (deuterium and carbon-13) are stable and occur naturally in your body. And, so far, they appear to be non-toxic when ingested -- up to a point.  

In mammals, toxic effects become apparent once 20 percent of their body water is replaced with heavy water, and is deadly once you reach the 35 percent mark.  

That said, a research team at the Institute for the Biology of Aging in Moscow recently tested Shchepinov’s idea on fruit flies. Though large amounts were deadly, smaller quantities increased the flies’ lifespans by up to 30 percent. But whether this was due to the isotope effect, or simple calorie restriction – which is another well documented life extension technique – is still unclear. 

Aubrey de Grey Weighs in on Heavy Water

Shchepinov’s idea has been embraced by one of my favorite biogerontologists,  Aubrey de Grey, Dr. de Grey is a Cambridge researcher, and chairman and chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation. He is one of the leading pioneers in aging research and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing de Grey about his fascinating ideas for “engineering immortality.”

If you missed that remarkable interview, I highly recommend you listen to it now.

Aubrey de Grey is also the editor of the journal Rejuvenation Research that published Shchepinov’s theory in 2007. Since then, de Grey has become the scientific advisor of Retrotope, the company Shchepinov launched to pursue his anti-aging theory.

Currently, Retrotope is not advocating heavy water as a cure for aging. Rather, they’re considering creating what Shchepinov calls “iFood.” This would be food products that have been already altered by the isotope effect (for example by feeding chickens heavy water), so your body’s proteins would receive nutrients that already had their vulnerable bonds strengthened, hence being less prone to free radical damage.

I’m not surprised that Dr. de Grey has chosen to support this new anti-aging theory. After all, his own “strategies for engineering negligible senescence” (SENS) plan focuses on finding the main causes of age-related damage and using science to prevent or reverse them.

According to Dr. de Grey, nature has not specifically pre-programmed you to die, as there is no “death gene”. You don’t perish because of some internal clock counting down to death, but because nature doesn’t bother to promote self-healing past a certain point.

He claims there are seven major known causes of aging:

    1. cell loss
    2. death resistant cells (that overstay their welcome)
    3. nuclear DNA mutations
    4. mitochondrial DNA mutations
    5. intracellular junk
    6. extracellular junk
    7. extracellular crosslinks (which link together molecules that should be kept separated)

From a strictly biological standpoint, the maximum lifespan of human beings seems to be set at around 120 years. However, I do believe it’s possible to extend your lifespan well beyond this with the regenerative technologies that Dr. de Grey discusses.

And, who knows, perhaps heavy water will one day be one of them, although I believe there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done before we unleash yet another manipulated food product. The theory appears sound, but nature has a way of rebelling against too much of a good thing.

Remember, too many antioxidants can be just as bad as too few! This is yet another reason to make sure you’re getting your antioxidants from healthy, raw, organic foods, rather than supplements.

How to Live Longer, Starting Today

Regulating your insulin pathways, and all the other important lifestyle changes I advocate, would clearly increase not only the quantity of your years but the quality of them as well.

Proper nutrition; feeding your body the fuel it needs based on your individual biochemistry rather than a one-size-fits-all regimen, exercise, and maintaining emotional well-being should never be underestimated in the anti-aging quest.

If living your life to its full potential appeals to you, I’ve listed nine of my top tips to maximize your lifespan in this past article.