How to Get Rid of Zombie Cells Naturally
At first, “zombie cells” may make you think about a recent trending show or related video game (even if you don’t watch much TV and aren’t much of a gamer), but zombies don’t just live in the world of fiction. In fact, zombie cells reside in my body… and in yours. Right now. And if left unchecked, they appear to negatively affect health and longevity.
What are Zombie Cells?
Also called “senescent cells,” zombie cells are cells that no longer divide and perform normal functions, but they continue to live on. Thus, the name—they’re no longer fully alive, yet they survive. Worse, they can even “infect” healthy cells by emitting inflammatory chemicals. (Cue creepy music.) You can imagine them being like a piece of moldy fruit in a bowl. Soon, even the freshest fruits can start to mold if you don’t remove the dying piece.
Of course, cell death is a natural part of biology. It’s known as apoptosis, and according to biologists, each cell can divide and multiply around 40 to 60 times before reaching this state of self-destruction. This natural phenomenon is important for the health of the body. It allows new, healthy cells to replace older, less efficient ones. It also has a role in preventing cancer cells from growing and eliminates other cells that can threaten survival.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion on the effects of zombie cells and how to eliminate them to potentially stave off disease and extend lifespan. More recent research, though, has switched up some of the thinking. Here’s a quick recap of what’s known so far…
Zombie Cells and Their Effects on Health
Senescent cells were first discovered around 60 years ago by scientists at the University of California San Francisco. The cells are found throughout the body and begin life as stem cells. Before their discovery, scientists believed stem cells would continue to reproduce indefinitely. Instead, as mentioned above, cells can only divide so many times before they either die off or become senescent.
Naturally, more of these rogue cells accumulate as we age. They then appear to dampen the immune response and send out proinflammatory signals like cytokines, chemokines, and proteases. So, the body isn’t able to fight as vigorously against infections and diseases it comes into contact with. This, in turn, can lead to a gradual health decline that increases the risk of infections and various disease states and also accelerates the aging process.
In addition, zombie cells have been found to produce toxins and increase inflammation that may damage surrounding cells and have been linked to age-related conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Bone loss
- And more.
Research with laboratory animals, for instance, found that when zombie cells were cleared from the body, the animal’s bones stayed dense even through chemotherapy. It was also found—again, in animal studies—to reduce age-related cognitive dysfunction, cataracts, muscle weakness, and other signs of aging. 1, 2
Researchers then theorized that if we can learn how to get rid of zombie cells, we can increase health span, allowing more people to enjoy old age disease-free. In other words, scientists hoped that by eliminating senescent cells, they could improve multiple conditions instead of treating each disease one at a time.
Not so fast. It turns out, zombie cells aren’t all bad. Newer research from October of 2022, shows that even though there are harmful zombie cells, we don’t want to just wipe them out. These cells aren’t just part of aging. They’re also found in young, healthy tissue where they help promote normal repair when damage has been inflected.
For example, recent research has found that in lung tissue, the small intestine, the colon, skin, and other organs that act as barriers, when zombie cells are eliminated, injuries actually heal more slowly. This appears to be because these cells also stimulate stem cells in the area to grow and start the repair process.
Like so many aspects of human health (e.g., gut health), it appears the right amount or the right kind of cells is a balancing act. Too many zombie cells, and we age faster and begin to develop diseases. But if all of them are killed off, this can also lead to problems. Some promote normal healing. And these cells even play a role in embryonic development and in childbirth. 3, 4
How Do Zombie Cells Develop?
Our cells are constantly being bombarded with potentially damaging influences, including:
- Radiation from the sun
- Oxidative stress
- Poor dietary choices, such as eating too much sugar or fast food and refined fats 5
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Excess alcohol intake
- Smoking (or second-hand smoke)
- Metabolic disorders, including obesity 6
- Chronic inflammation
- DNA damage
- Medical interventions (e.g., radiation or chemotherapy)
- Illness (such as those caused by viruses and bacteria)
- Changes in the gut microbiome
- And more.
All of which can damage physical as well as mental health.
How to Get Rid of Zombie Cells
Drugs are being developed (called senolytics) that can eliminate zombie cells in the body to help reduce the effects of aging. 7 After all, while humans have extended lifespans in the past few generations, once over a certain age, many of us become frail and can suffer from decreased mobility and have other physical dysfunctions that lower quality of life. According to one study, 45% of women over 85 fit this description, even if they don’t have a diagnosable disease. 8
Unfortunately, these drugs remove all (or at least most) of the zombie cells, which can create unintended consequences. Because a younger body can better recognize and eliminate stray zombie cells than an older body, one suggested solution is to wait until much later in life (i.e., over the age of 80) to consider starting treatment with senolytics to avoid the potential downsides (e.g., damage to healthy cells). And, animal studies have found that this later treatment extended both life and health span by up to 35%. Plus, tumors were delayed, and excess inflammation was reduced.
Of course, more research is needed. Luckily, there are currently dozens of clinical trials working to determine how effective senolytics are at battling:
- Alzheimer’s progression
- Lung disease 9
- Macular degeneration
- And more
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Several others are in the recruitment stage to examine the effects of senolytics on kidney disease, transplant survival, frailty in cancer survivors, fatty liver disease, age deceleration, etc.
Other suggestions are to give breaks between doses of the senolytics as in research that did so (e.g., bone-loss studies), there were more positive effects on healing than the studies on lung and skin, which gave daily doses and showed slower healing.
This gives way to the current research direction of finding where specific zombie cells are found in the body and only targeting those that appear to be accelerating the aging or disease process. This method could, in theory, allow scientists to create precision therapeutics that help reduce excess inflammation without damaging healthy cells.
Other researchers suggest only using senolytics periodically when inflammation levels get above certain levels. In other words, the drugs would be used like antibiotics and given just to clear excess zombie cells over a couple of weeks before stopping treatment.
How to Get Rid of Zombie Cells Naturally
Again, unlike in a favorite video game, the goal isn’t necessarily to eliminate all zombies. Rather, we want to ensure they don’t overwhelm the body, so controlling zombie cells naturally with diet and exercise may be a better way to rebalance the body and help prevent an apocalyptic situation.
Some of the potential ways to help adjust the dial on zombie cells to improve balance include:
1. Eating a nutrient-rich diet
Consuming plenty of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, and high-fiber foods (e.g., whole grains) has also been shown to reduce the number of zombie cells in the body. In addition, these foods are high in antioxidants, which help protect cells from the damage inflicted daily by the environment. This, in turn, can help promote healthy aging. 10 (Ultra-processed foods high in refined sugar and refined fats, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect and advance aging.)
2. Reducing calories
Eating lower calories than the body needs (aka “food deprivation”) can help decrease the number of zombie cells due to, in theory, the process of apoptosis or programmed cell death. 11, 12
But reducing calories to below maintenance isn’t always easy, is often stressful, and may not be sustainable, especially when you’re already at a healthy weight. Intermittent fasting may provide the best of both worlds. Research has found that time-restricted eating can help reduce zombie cell accumulation by promoting autophagy (or the process of cells clearing out damaging components) without eliminating zombie cells.
Plus, IF may help promote healthy levels of inflammation and reduce oxidative stress, which may decrease the premature formation of senescent cells. 13, 14 This may explain why IF may often positively affect aging. Further research is both needed and expected. 15, 16
3. Exercising regularly
Perhaps the most promising way to prevent the buildup of zombie cells in the body is to exercise regularly. Exercise triggers autophagy, or the process of cell breakdown and recycling of useful materials. In other words, exercise is an important tool for helping cells repair and maintaining healthy cells. 17 – 19
4. Supplement smartly
There’s not a lot of research on supplements and their effects on senescent cell removal. But there are some promising studies on nutrients that support the process, including:
- Quercetin, an antioxidant flavonoid found in vegetables, fruits, and teas, which has been shown to aid in a healthy inflammatory response. 20 – 22
- Resveratrol, the antioxidant abundant in red wine and grapes, may help support the natural apoptosis process. 23 – 25
- Curcumin, perhaps the most potent compound found in turmeric, may support the body’s ability to flush out senescent cell buildup. It may also help support a healthy inflammatory response and provides antioxidants to lower free radical damage, both of which affect the aging process. 26, 27
- Vitamin D3 is another highly beneficial nutrient that may help support immune functioning and healthy aging. 28
- Ashwagandha has been found in research to help aid cognitive function, including memory, attention, and information processing. These effects may be due to this herb’s influence on apoptosis. 29, 30
- Fisetin is a lesser-known (for now) polyphenol flavonoid (or plant pigment) that’s found in fruits like strawberries and apples, vegetables like cucumbers and onions, tea, and wine. Research indicates this nutrient may help clear away senescent cells—at least in laboratory animals—to support a longer, healthier life. 31 It also works as an antioxidant and may help support healthy levels of inflammation. However, there are currently few human studies on fisetin.
A Zombie Cell Apocalypse?
Fears of a full-on zombie apocalypse of frailty late in life likely isn’t due only to senescent cells. And fortunately, there is a lot we can do to stay strong and healthy years (even decades) into the future. One way is to change how we view aging. Another may be to keep zombie cells in check to help the cells in our bodies live their best lives. That often starts with a regular exercise routine combined with a nutrient-rich, calorie-controlled diet.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about zombies, where they’re hiding in the body, their dangers, how to combat them, or… when we can start bingeing on the next season of that popular zombie show.