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FeatureLiving Well

Forever young.

Keen to live forever? Let's go hunting for the magical 'elixir of life'.

Sep 12, 2023

Words: Tim Leeson
Images: NASA

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Do you have kids, or were you ever a kid yourself? Did you go through a ‘potion-making’ phase? You know, roaming around the garden hunting for leaves and flowers to crush, rub, marinate or float in water, often turning the water a new hue – pink, yellow, purple or red – that’d give you and your crew different ‘powers’.

Damn, imagination is cool.

Geraniums or pelargoniums were a fav plant to raid when we were groms. I’m not a botanist so I’ll keep to the scientific designation I’ve known them by for most of my life – Nana Plants. Even as an adult travelling across South Africa, where pelargoniums are native, I remember tripping out thinking, “Do they even realise how many potions they could create here?!.”

Of course, we'd never play games like that as adults. But if we did, we'd have to come up with a fancier (faux) name to maintain the facade of seriousness.

Something like the “elixir of life”… A cure-all. A deeply scientific potion that grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth, as well as the ability to cure all diseases. Yeah, surely that’d never catch on?

Humanity’s infatuation with slowing, halting or even reversing the ageing process makes sense.

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Apparently, the first reference we can find to a magical drink isn’t Asterix, but way back to around 2000 BC via the Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh, fearing his own mortality, heads off for a paddle to find a special plant at the bottom of the sea. Good news, he finds it! Bad news, a serpent finds him and things go a bit pear-shaped.

For the four thousand years since then, numerous cultures around the globe have told legends about an elixir of life.

A legend from ancient China says that there were once 10 suns in the sky simultaneously and the earth became scorched. A gun archer shot down nine suns and saved the people. As a reward, he asked the mother goddess for the elixir of life. The archer gave the elixir to his wife, but then someone tried to steal it from her, so she…sculled it!

Chang’e, the dear lass who put it down the hatch, then became lighter and lighter until she rose up to the moon. Apparently, she’s been living there ever since.

In the early 2000s, China sent up a handful of lunar probes to investigate the moon and they were all named after Chang’e – but we’re pretty sure they used rocket fuel to get up there this time.

Turns out that the first emperor of unified China had a bit of a thing for the elixir too. Not satisfied with creating thousands of terracotta warriors, he sent a famous alchemist, Xu Fu, to the seas to the east to find a legendary mountain that was supposedly home to the elixir. Sailing with the alchemist were 500 young virgin men and 500 young virgin women, an attribute we’re sure they all still possessed when they returned from sea all those months later… But then, after they analysed the failings of the trip, they must have realised “Not enough virgins!”, as they embarked on a second voyage with 3000 young men and women. This pleasure cruise never returned, and there’s evidence to suggest that they made it to Japan and called it ‘home’.

A couple of years ago, a container was unearthed from a 2000-year-old burial tomb and it was still storing over three litres of a concoction believed to be the elixir. When they opened it up, it smelt like alcohol (hands up if you’re surprised), but as far as we know, none of the archaeologists were keen to load up a shoey and give it a chug. Ironically, many of the ingredients put in the ancient Chinese elixirs – jade, cinnabar, gold and mercury – are quite effective at rapidly reducing your life span, not extending it.

Ye olde Europeans were also quite keen on a tipple of gold to extend one's life. Many alchemists of the period added a sprinkling of sulphur or a smattering of arsenic to their killer cocktail mixer. At least the Germans dished up something that, while still including a dubious combination of ingredients, doesn’t sound like it would kill you outright. One recipe suggests aloe, rhubarb, gentian root and Spanish saffron. Another sticks with the aloe, rhubarb and gentian root combo, but adds a hearty slug of grain alcohol.

In trying to find the elixir of life, I’m surprised that booze isn’t referenced more. It certainly has the ability to make people regress to a less mature state. Maybe the next day’s pain, aka hell reincarnate, has you feeling a little less than eternally youthful?

But today, it’s impossible to argue that we’re less obsessed with staying young or extending our lives than the ancients. For instance, the global supplement industry is estimated to be worth between $USD70–150 billion, and that’s not factoring in the lotions, creams and concoctions we rub into our skin too. While we may scoff at the concept of a magical potion to make us younger, many of us have normalised the idea of using something (anything!) to take off just one tootsie from the crow that’s apparently behind the wrinkles near our eyes.

If we can’t look young, we can go to the fridge for a suite of tonics that will help us attack life with a more youthful abandon – energy drinks. A recent study found there are over 500 varieties on the market, that nearly 50% of young Australian adults have downed one in the past month and that ‘energy drink users’ have 1.3 cans per day. Yet, we’re all going to have to up consumption if Australians are going to make more of a dent in the 11.5 billion cans of Red Bull sold annually.

Bryan Johnson, the biohacker and entrepreneur behind the $USD2-million-a-year anti-ageing program Project Blueprint isn’t going to be touching any of that energy drink sugar – no way! You don’t reverse a 45-year-old biological age, to have the heart of a 37-year-old and the lung capacity of an 18-year-old, and still consume any sugar, or salt for that matter. You do it through 111 daily supplements, apparently.

Are you aware of Bryan? Interesting cat. Sold his business for $USD800 million or so, think there was a divorce in there too, so he decided it was time to try and live forever. He’s determined that injecting blood plasma from his son isn’t helping him, but eating nearly 32 kilograms of vegetables per month and eating all his 2,250 allocated calories per day between 6am and 11am is beneficial. Check a photo online; apart from some interesting fashion choices, the guy does appear to have a youthful glow about him.

One of his biggest tips to wind back the clock is sleep – going to bed at 8:30pm and waking up at 5am every day. Sleep…now, this is something I can get behind. Serve me up a piping hot cup of zzz’s!

Humanity’s infatuation with slowing, halting or even reversing the ageing process makes sense. For many of us, being alive is better than the alternative – dead.

Modern science is making headway too, constantly gaining a better understanding of our genome, the intricacies of why we age and how other living entities postpone decay or death. Right now, there’s a swag of scientists deeply researching new compounds from animals or plants that may keep as sprightly. I’ve been thinking, given all my previous experience with Nana Plants, I probably should offer up my research. But first, a nap. Sounds as though sleeping like a baby may be the best remedy to staying young like one.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 28

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