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Anti-aging products--the fountain of youth?

By Doris Penner

People have been searching for the “fountain of youth” for thousands of years. We have accounts of how Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon,  for example, was on the search for a spring of water that apparently had restorative powers when he discovered Florida in 1513. While these stories are part legend, part truth, it seems people even today deplore aging, and attempt to remain “youthful” by applying potions, ingesting supplements and receiving injections. One need only look at what is marketed in magazines and sold at beauty counters to realize this is big business. While aging is a natural process—and no one is under the illusion youth can be retained forever—the wish to look and feel healthy and in top form is also natural and right. So what are the best ways to do this?

To figure this out, it is important to examine what human skin is composed of and what takes place when a person ages. A baby's skin, for example, is soft, plump and smooth which changes as the years go by. By the time one is 25, much of the plumpness is gone and when mid-life arrives, the skin begins to pucker a little and wrinkles appear which intensify as one gets older. At the same time, joints stiffen and sometimes ache after exercise, especially apparent in knees and hips.

These changes are due to the decrease of hyaluronic acid (HA) —an important component of skin produced by fibroblast cells—which happens naturally as one ages. HA is a gel-like water-holding molecule that is like a space filler and cushioning agent in all mammals. It protects joints and nerves, hydrates skin and hair, stimulates production of collagen and gives skin its elasticity and maintains fluid in the eye in addition to working as an antioxidant.

Protective agents

The average human body contains about 15 grams of HA, about one-third of which is degraded on a daily basis and replaced when one is younger. However, as is true of all protective agents in the human body, the manufacture of HA declines with age. It is estimated that by the time one reaches the mid-40s, the synthesis of HA is roughly half that required by the body. Thus, since about 50 percent of the HA is located in collagen where it helps keep skin smooth and fresh-looking by retaining water in the cells which acts as a natural moisturizer, and equally important, removes waste matter, it is not surprising skin begins to sag and pucker as a person ages.

Hyaluronic acid is also an active part of a group of compounds known as glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) which keep joints strong and flexible. The role of HA is to act as a shock absorber by lubricating the fluid in the joint tissue and stabilizing its breakdown, as well as removing waste products which ease joint pain. Is it any wonder that people begin to acquire aches and pains in joints when the lubricating medium and cushioning agent is diminished?

Because of the roles HA plays in the body, it has been a part of many skin care products for a long time. Topical products containing HA are considered effective at moisturizing surface skin cells to prevent water loss which keeps skin looking smoother and protects it from pollutants. Obviously topical applications stay on the surface layers of skin—they cannot penetrate deeply—so the product needs to be used on a regular basis. For a longer lasting effect, one would need hyaluronic acid injections which are done by a dermatologist or plastic surgeon and last from four to six months. Injections for cosmetic purposes should not be undertaken lightly since although considered safe, may cause temporary discomfort and are also fairly expensive. HA injections certainly have their place in relieving pain in knee joints or other connective tissue disorders.

Serum moisturizers

Although they will not give you the instantaneous  result that injections do, serum moisturizers containing HA are considered completely safe—no allergic reactions have been noted—and are relatively inexpensive.

Other ingredients in more recently developed anti-aging products are plant and fruit stem cells. The theory is that since stem cells are able to divide and regenerate for an extended period of time, they are a compound that could potentially regenerate or renew the body as human stem cells become depleted with age, and less than lustrous skin is the result.  Over the past decade, retrieving human stem cells has been a matter of hot debate, and for good reason. Extensive research has resulted in the ability to extract stem cells—capable of self-renewal and repairing damaged tissues—from plants and including them in topical skin care products. Studies have shown that plant and fruit stem cells have the ability to stimulate the growth of human stem cells and protect them from UV damage and oxidative stress that causes aging.

So while the plant stem cells show promise to help in rejuvenation, the concept is still new and may need time to prove itself. However, the formulas touting plant and fruit stem cells are loaded with ingredients such as collagen-building peptides, vitamin C (an antioxidant) and nourishing plant oils—all beneficial for the skin.