by Paulette Kamenecka
The fervent interest, across time and culture, to locate a fountain of youth reflects a common dream to travel back to an earlier version of ourselves—one with more quickness of action or thought. As a younger person, I could see the appeal. In my twenties the only thing I associated with aging was disease. I was hip to this connection before much of my cohort, thanks to the early acquisition of a variety of illnesses, which put me on a path that I’ve been on for many years to try and unwind my bodily woes.
In my quest for better health, I stumbled upon the current incarnation of the search for the fountain. Contrary to the approaches taken by early explorers, armed with maps and myths, 21st-century seekers traded telescopes for microscopes, turning the search inward. Making sense of our complex chemistry, scientists have traced out multiple routes that lead to the uncoupling of aging from age—with potentially profound consequences.
Once I’d imagined that youth and health were inseparable. But my body was unaware of this relationship, a fact that eventually fueled my personal protest. I wanted to understand how my body had crossed the threshold of good health, and how to drag it back over that unseen line—to plant my flag in a “normal” life. I was a baby, just 19, when my first autoimmune condition was uncovered. An errant number on a routine test suggested my thyroid already had one foot in early retirement. As a sophomore in college, the idea that I’d need to apply effort to maintain my body made me feel aged. Taking a pill every day to replace something I’d already lost—the innate ability to produce thyroxine—confirmed my body’s failure to grasp the connection between youth and fitness.
In my twenties, while I was busy pursuing life, I slowly lost my ability to produce saliva and then tears—two fluids notable in their absence. This was the clarion call of Sjogren’s syndrome, which also interfered with my fertility and tried to crash my pregnancies. Cancer announced itself in my thirties in the form of a nefarious looking lump on my neck, ushering in a period of fear and biopsies. While mortality was definitely a pressing concern in the early days of the diagnosis, my first few times in the oncology waiting room I was consumed by the fact that I was much younger than everyone around me. I understood the advanced age and frailty of my waiting room companions as a personal condemnation.
I came to think of myself as a traveler who’d picked up a pack of diseases through miscalculation or poor judgment—drinking the water in a place I shouldn’t have. I felt the weight of the moral deficiency I imagined premature illness implied, but couldn’t tell if the pressure of this feeling was internally or externally induced. Blame made sense to me. To blame myself for my poor health meant that other choices would’ve led somewhere different; ultimately, my choices led to consequences, implying agency. A scarier story to explain my predicament was that biology is beyond our control. I settled for the space between these possibilities: I tried to accept the limits of my power over my body and also set out to fix it—if not by myself, with the help of any willing expert.
I did not shamble into the fountain until I’d tried every other path first. When Sjogren’s syndrome and lymphoma made themselves comfortable in my body, the medical zeitgeist was that each separate disease was unhappy in its own way, and as such should be treated individually. I looked for answers in a variety of specialty practices: rheumatology, endocrinology, and oncology. I followed the work of researchers who investigated immune system dysfunction, and brought findings to my doctors as if spreading out tea leaves for them to decipher. But there was no way to combat the problems, in part because there had been no way to understand their origin.
I’d grown comfortable relying on data to make sense of all circumstances, because in the years I spent training to be an economist, it was a trick that always worked. But a handful of years into my lymphoma diagnosis, I slowly expanded my search for help to include approaches with a more tenuous relationship to the randomized controlled trial. I tried Ayurvedic medicine, which included pouring hot oil in my ears and taking copious amounts of herbs; acupuncture; massage; meditation; Rolfing (exceedingly painful massage meant to spread muscle fascia smooth like a tablecloth, no matter the resistance); naturopathy (with a practitioner who was very keen on the healing powers of marijuana before it was legalized); reiki (a form of energy healing that involves no physical touch); and various diets, all in the name of reversing whatever malignant messaging was going on beneath the surface of my skin. The allure of youth and vigor propelled me to try each approach, and when one didn’t work, to try the next one. In the end, no practice or procedure had any lasting effect, making me question my choice of Ponce de Leon as my patron saint.
I crossed the threshold of 50 when the world was fully in the grip of the pandemic. Being a spectator to the prowess of 21st-century science pressing hard to wrestle Covid-19 to the ground pushed me back into the arms of evidence-based medicine. And it was on this particular path that I found functional medicine. Born in 1988 at a foundational conference of doctors and naturopaths in Victoria, Canada, functional medicine doesn’t view the body as a loose collection of organs, but as an integrated network of systems that routinely communicate with one another. Rather than manage symptoms, the goal is to identify the initial insult that cascades through the body causing trouble that’s eventually identified as a diagnosis. My new doctor was unlike any I’d ever been to. She dug through my medical history in search of the seeds of my current state. We revisited childhood illnesses and tried to map out the wheres and whens of antibiotic use. Many fluids (and other materials) were collected from my body to decipher the specific errors in the script it had been reading. With this reconstructed backstory, my doctor suggested significant changes to my diet to help me crawl out of the troubled body I’d been living in.
Hand to Bible, I would’ve said that my diet was health-oriented before I went to the functional medicine doctor. But that assessment required me to walk fast past the handfuls of chocolate covered almonds, the chips, and the interest in dessert to “balance” the feel of a meal. These were habits I’d picked up despite my intimate awareness of the importance of a body’s ability to manage sugar and the physical costs of chronic low levels of inflammation. I’d (generally) been eating in service to these ideals. Under my new doctor’s orders I paid closer attention to my vegetable intake; I turned toward alternative flours, and away from sugar (once again). The dietary regimen was restrictive to start, in an effort to weed out foods that disagreed with my constitution, but as this approach became a lifestyle, I developed a physical awareness of the foods that I could and could not tolerate—a connection to my body I’d previously muted because it felt too complicated to untangle. I learned that previous efforts to reform my diet never moved me closer to better health because I’d failed to appreciate two significant shifts in medical thinking over the last few decades, the first to do with DNA and the second to do with food.
While we can’t (yet) change the DNA we’re born with, we can change its expression: if and what diseases show up, how we look, how we feel, and how we move in the world. This is where the game is won or lost, not in the code itself, but in the code’s translation. The specific recipe for your life is normally read in a controlled fashion—DNA is a tightly bound instruction manual that has to be uncoiled in particular ways. But our ability to control the bits that are read and those that are ignored degrades over time thanks to the malfunction of genes that control the folding and unfolding of these instructions. When the manual is opened to the wrong section, improper proteins are synthesized in place of what should be made. Knowledge of these mistakes and how they happen is part of a theory that just might explain the origin of cancer, autoimmune issues, heart disease, and more.
One empowering aspect of this theory is that DNA expression can be modulated by the environment. I hadn’t appreciated that “the environment” referred to tangible choices I made, like food and sleep and exercise, that impact the folding business, allowing me to make more of the right proteins and fewer of the wrong ones. Functional medicine is focused on ways to harness these environmental levers to resolve the diseases that develop. Understanding the interconnectedness of the systems in the body in conjunction with the insight that food is information leads to real results. In the year that I’ve been pursuing this approach, I’ve regained some of the abilities I lost decades ago. I have tears now—more than I know what to do with. I have more saliva and oodles of energy.
For the first time in a long time, I feel significantly younger. That’s how I would sum up the changes: more youth. That makes sense, and explains how I ended up in the fountain. Researchers have noticed that the processes that drive disease also drive aging. Cancer and kidney disease are slowly being rebranded as different manifestations of the same problem—that problem being aging. And the thinking goes: slow down or arrest aging, slow down and arrest disease formation.
To meaningfully slow down aging, we need to be able to measure it in the body. Chronological age measures trips around the sun, which is straightforward to track. But biological aging is a fuzzier concept. Scientists define it as the “health” of organs and have established “aging clocks” to calibrate degrees of health. Researchers have noticed that there are age-related patterns of gene expression. The tea leaves I’d looked for in the minutiae of scientific research could only be seen from a wider perspective—the leaves live in the patterns, and changes in patterns, that tell us how quickly or slowly organs are losing function. These clocks have been applied to mice, both to track their age and to reverse it. Although I have not yet sought out the biological age of my organs, this is what functional medicine is doing for me: restoring function.
If getting older is no longer intricately linked to a decline in health, I’m all for it. If getting older means that a growing share of experiences will carve out different facets of my personality and perspective while leaving my body intact, I’m here for that magic. I’ve spent years practicing how to let go of the instinct to control the intricate chemistry of my body. I have a visceral appreciation for the fact that all things are ephemeral. But in light of the latest science and my lucky acquaintance with it, now the goal is to hold my vigor lightly while appreciating a newfound ability to comfortably stay up late, run faster, feel looser in my limbs, and stretch out into the future, however long it lasts.
Paulette Kamenecka is a writer interested in health and the mysteries that persist about the human body. She is the author of Inside Job: A Story of Autoimmunity, Survival and Scientific Discovery, forthcoming and has been published in Creative Nonfiction and Longreads. She is also the host of the War Stories from the Womb podcast.