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We all want to look younger. We’re bombarded every day with ads promising us the fountain of youth in this or that cream, pill, juice, or supplement. Beauty really does start within–feed yourself crap food filled with chemicals, preservatives, corn syrup, and man made trans fats, and you’ll put yourself on the fast track to degeneration. Your skin will show it.

Aging means oxidation. Oxidation occurs when oxygen is combined with another element. Oxidation is necessary in our bodies because oxidized blood must be transported to tissues to keep them nourished and healthy; however, this same process generates free radicals that are highly reactive and can damage cells and DNA over time. Think of what happens when you leave a bicycle out in the rain and it rusts, or you cut an apple and it turns brown. That’s oxidation. And while it’s a normal part of aging, oxidative stress can occur when free radicals overwhelm our body’s antioxidant defenses, and this is what causes damage to cell membranes and DNA, contributing to inflammation and degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants are technically molecules that inhibit oxidation; some examples are vitamins A, C, E, zinc, selenium, melatonin, glutathione (avocados are a great source, yay!), and various phytonutrients (read: fruits & veggies) and polyphenols. So basically, the more antioxidants you get from your diet, the less free radical damage you’ll incur as the antioxidants attach to the free radicals and render them neutral.

Without further subjection to science class, I present you with a list of six diet and lifestyle factors that will age you quickly and contribute to free radical damage in the body.

How to Age Quickly

1) Eat too much refined white table sugar and corn syrup, and you’ll age quickly. Sugar is sugar. There are arguably better forms that others (see my post about it here), but eating too much sugar raises insulin levels, causing increased fat storage, high triglyceride levels, and an increase in oxidized LDL cholesterol, which contributes to plaque buildup in arteries, contributing to heart disease. Also, sugar makes you fat. It suppresses immune function, feeds cancer cells, causes yeast overgrowth and inflammation, and is linked to myriad diseases. Sugar makes the body acidic, contributing to degenerative disease. Avoid refined sugars if you want to stay young, and stick to the unprocessed sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and molasses. Too much sugar makes your skin dull and acne-prone.

2. Stress. We all know stress is a killer. Stress, in my opinion, is the first rung in the ladder to an imbalanced system and arguably the first cause of all disease. Stress raises cortisol levels, putting the body in a constant state of fight or flight, affecting metabolic function (read: causes weight gain). This study finally links aging to what happens on a cellular level in a stressed body. Reduce stress by identifying the sources in your life and changing or making adjustments to what you are able. Obviously we all have work and family and financial stress, but balance that out with good sleep, good food, healthy relationships, laughter, exercise, and meditation/deep breathing.

3. Eat fake food and refined, processed foods. If the label on whatever you’re buying is a laundry list or you can’t pronounce whatever laboratory-produced chemicals it contains, avoid. Better yet, buy food that doesn’t have labels. Stuff that comes from an animal or out of the ground. Anything boxed or packaged has been processed, stripped of nutrients, enriched, and/or preserved. These chemicals build up in fatty tissue in the body because they can’t be processed. The build-up creates, you guessed it, free radical damage. And endocrine imbalance. And weight gain. Eat real food. Whole food.

4. Don’t exercise. Exercise burns off stress hormones and boosts human growth hormone production. That’ll keep you young. It also improves cardio function, lowering blood pressure (and gives you a rosy glow). Being sedentary increases the likelihood of premature aging. Want a study? Here. Interestingly, however, over-exercising increases free radical damage, so quit running marathons. Our bodies aren’t designed for that type of intense activity.

5. Lack of sleep. Sleep is the fountain of youth, truly. Just ask anyone who isn’t getting any. The powerful anti-aging antioxidant melatonin is produced only during sleep (and darkness, which is why those working the night shift are more prone to cancer and premature aging), and your immune and detox systems are most active at night, scavenging for abnormal cells and cleaning things up. Lack of sleep raises cortisol and leads to sugar cravings. Get 8-9 hours.

6. Stay in toxic relationships. Emotional well-being is the key to good health, because happy people can better manage stress. We already established that stress can be the first step of disease. Toxic relationships are a main cause of stress. People in happy relationships are healthier and live longer. Happy people laugh more. People in toxic relationships have higher blood pressure and are more likely to engage in destructive activities. Also, being in toxic relationships can cause depression, which affects health. Examine your relationships and if needed, seek therapy to understand destructive patterns and why you’re attracted to them.

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