My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones,
Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in
The World of Anti-Aging

Lauren Kessler
Kessler has written a peppy book on the billion dollar industry of Americans keeping young (and peppy) and sexy long after they should have been sent off to Geezerville or laid in the grave. What is original here over the thousand or so other titles on Staying Young is that Kessler elected to use her own body as the litmus.

Kessler is around sixty years old --- she refuses to tell us exactly --- and during the year of her study, she puts herself through a variety of special diets (including "superfoods), tried a variety of supplements, contemplated medical procedures, used a selection of "exotics," almost made it through the "complete raw food diet," did "detox." And, best of all, at least for the readers, she consulted dozens of "experts."

In the anti-geezer biz, there are two main types: the pushers who come to Las Vegas or Orlando and infest late-night television for the chance to sell us something. But attendees also include some of the best scientific geeks, solidly educated professionals who have real scientific studies to inform and enlighten. The key site for this sometimes comic dialectic is the semi-annual conference of the International Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine and Regenerative Biomedical Technologies. (The umbrella organization is known as A4M --- the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.)

Counterclockwise details the many options available to those of us who want to be young, lovely, sexy, and buxom again. We find that this pursuit of youth can at times be ridiculously silly, sometimes dangerous, often costly ... and certainly unnerving.

Take, for instance, the options available in going under the knife. Turning back the clock can involve "elective surgery, needles, cannulas, drains, silicone bags, autologous fat transfers, compression garments, scars, keloids, and the unhappy knowledge that you let vanity win a battle that can never be won."

The biggie is called "full body lift."

    This is the mother of all plastic surgeries, up to nine hours in the operating room with four or five surgeons, more than a dozen incisions, and, depending on whether it's performed at a doctor's surgical facility or in a hospital, an $18,000 to $40,000 price tag.

"The procedure removed extra skin and fat from the belly, hips, butt, back, arms, and outer and inner thighs ... [The doctor's] banter was unnervingly lighthearted as they recounted the one square yard of skin they have removed from a recent patient and the 10 feet of sutures that were necessary to sew the lady back together again."

Less invasive, and far more interesting for those of us who don't plan to see sixty-five again --- and are not fans of of being dissected before our number is up --- are the chapters on "superfoods," "detox," and "eating raw,"

Kessler does four weeks of a self-designed course of "superfoods" ... "the ones with big price tags from faraway places." Some she tries are:

  • goji berries from Mongolia ("oversized past-the-prime red-orange raisins");
  • açai berries from the Amazon ("purple, grapelike");
  • maca from Peru ("silty, wheat-colored powder");
  • chia seeds from Guatemala ("ever-so-slightly peppery and pleasant until they turn gluey in your mouth");
  • hemp seeds from Manitoba ("taste just like sunflower seeds");
  • kombucha ("a not distasteful carbonated, fermented drink rich in antioxidants").
She finds açai "bitter, sour, tart, not like any berry you'd want to eat." (To see if the bitterness will mix out, she sneaks some into her daughter's daily smoothie. "I am forbidden from ever again making a smoothie for her," she reports.)


    Before moving on to more pleasant topics, let me say a word about the spirulena powder I bought at the store: blech. That's the word. Spirulena is a microalgae, which is a nice way of saying pond scum. It smells like the green slime that grows just below the waterline on the pilings of old wharves.

Wheatgrass? It tastes like "liquid lawn."

Her favorite of the many superfoods she tries is bee pollen, which is often touted for more energy, enhanced immunity, and even possibly an anticanceroid. Kessler doesn't commit herself on any of these, but does find it pleasant, even addicting. She says it is "excellent sprinkled on Greek yogurt, and I salute the industrious bees for their great work, but I'm not banking on this stuff."

During her time in this part of her experiments she comes down with a sore throat and the sniffles --- she says she hasn't had a cold in three years. She then finishes the kombucha, munches on the goji berries and hemp seeds, and makes a cup of açai green tea. Two hours later her sniffles have gone. Her conclusion: "I can neither blame them for my momentary lapse of good health nor praise them for my quick recovery."

§   §   §

During our time with Kessler, we not only learn what we might try, but also what we should try --- including some [see below] that I will be starting as soon as I can pick them up. There are also those that I'm going stay the hell away from.

In the first category, there is a treatment called IPL, intense pulsated light, with a non-invasive laser "facial." "About the IPL," Kessel says, "it works" ... it can quickly take away some spots and blemishes from our old tired faces. But, then, again, the procedure hurts. The literature for it reads,

    When the pulse of light is delivered, patients will experience a mild pinching or stinging sensation.

She adds, "How about an electric zap that raises the hair on the back of your neck? How about a sharp sting like being jabbed by a needle?" (See how nice it is to have a stand-in for you?)

Early on, our author speaks with a PhD expert on aging, Douglas Seals, a physiologist from the University of Colorado. His field is "vascular aging." "This guy is all about arteries. Flexible, unclogged arteries are the key to successful aging." Dr. Seals, she tells us, "manages to be simultaneously passionate and wonky about the subject."

He tells her about nitrites: "yes, the allegedly evil stuff used in curing meats --- and nitrates, yes, the compound used in fertilizers and explosives." (And yes, the tiny nitroglycerine tablets that I use, almost daily, to ward off angina, the miracle medicine that takes away that daily stab in the chest --- clears it in about sixty seconds.)

After finishing this book, and among the pills I'll be ordering now, we can include L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). There is no predetermined set amount of how much L-carnitine to take, because most of the testing has been done on rats, but it helps to know that some of them are now living to be 125 years old or more. I'm pulling your leg, but the non-joke is that the test results results are so good, that Kessler is taking and I will be taking 500 - 1,000 mg a day.

ALA is also a potent antioxidant. One scientist started research to disprove its benefits, "but what he found left him intrigued."

    In one very small study, [Dr. Tony] Hagen found --- to his delight --- a reversal of measurable, age-related stress factors" when taking alpha-lipoic acid.

With very few other options, that's good enough for me.

§   §   §

There are some thing here you definitely don't want to do. One of her experiments was with CR --- calorie restriction, which is "calculated under-eating without accompanying undernutrition." The ideal is to eat 40% less calories than one normally eats, because it has been shown in 2,000 studies that "the less you eat (assuming good nutrition) the longer and healthier you'll live."

Mice who have been subject to underfeeding are "long-lived, active, and healthy. Very healthy."

    It appeared that so-called CRON (Calorie Restriction with Optimum Nutrition) protected mice against cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and cardiovascular, respiratory, and autoimmune diseases while slowing the aging of their brains.

And a recent, on-going study --- under the auspices of the National Institute on Aging --- found that human participants have: "bad cholesterol down; good cholesterol up; arterial plaque, inflammation, glucose levels blood pressure, markers of DNA damage --- all reduced. They see that CR works. It turns back the clock."

But ... and this is why we so like having Kessler to do real live tests all this stuff for us so we don't have to do it ourselves: on her fifth day of CR "I would happily trade the promise of 20-year-old arteries for a slice of roasted red pepper, caramelized onion, chèvre pizza."

    Or, truthfully, a slice of any pizza. You know you are in trouble when Pizza Hut billboards cause excessive salivation, when foods you've never before considered eating, junk that would normally turn your stomach --- greasy ersatz panini from the corner convenience store, a Krispy Kreme doughnut, a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos --- makes you swoon.

Her conclusion: "this abbreviated experiment with CR has taught me that exerting too much control can sometimes take the gusto out of life, not to mention make you (that is, me) almost impossible to live with."

Despite all this, if we want to torture ourselves with calorie restriction, Kessler reminds us that in one of the primary studies from sixty years ago --- called the Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment --- revealed that even though CR can apparently make us healthier, you can also get significant increases in "depression, hysteria, and hypochondria."

    Most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression, and there were a few extreme reactions, including self-mutilation.

§   §   §

In one of the early chapters of Counterclockwise, we get to meet the head of the Face Aging Group at the University of North Carolina. In their laboratory there's a machine programmed so you can peer in and see your future face ... though I can't figure for the life of me why anyone would want to suffer through that: I figure we'll know soon enough, and I'm just as happy not knowing.

They write up a computer program for Kessel, and then ask "the computer to create images of my face beginning at age 30 and then every five years thereafter until age 75." She wants to go whole hog right at the start, so asks for the ultimate. And, after looking at it awhile, she thinks,

    Beyond an immediate urge for surgical intervention, I make this note. When I get old, I have to remember to smile. A smile would really help that face. A smile is an antigravity move. Also: Should I ever, ever think about how good I'd look with a tan, I must call up and stare hard at this photo. I don't need any extra aging help from the sun, that's clear.

§   §   §

This is a lively book, is crammed with information on things you never dreamed of to do to keep yourself looking like you did just after running away from home. One of the most endearing facts about the author is that we have a chance to spend some time with her and her personal strengths and weaknesses. Starvation diets can turn her sullen. She is tempted by some of the more difficult, possibly flaky procedures. One is known as hCG --- human chorionic gonadotropin.

Kessel went through three weeks of it. The best part of it: "After the first two days, I was not hungry. Really. I was also not very energetic."

The worst:

    Three weeks after I stopped the protocol, I had regained all but 2 of the 17 pounds --- and, according to my Tanita scale, none of the weight gain was muscle. I was now fatter than when I started.

And my favorite bit of information about her. It's that she's just like the rest of us. She knows --- just knows --- that it is bad for her, but every now and again, while you and I aren't not looking, she sneaks off to get herself a big fat calorie-ridden sugar-laden bad-for-you monster bowl of Captain Crunch.

--- Sarah Whittaker
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