Few things are as certain in life as death. The Elixir of Immortality, or Elixir of Life, is a substance that confers eternal life or eternal youth. All ancient cultures have some myths about it; the search for lasting youth, beauty, and health is a perennial human expression.
After Qin Shi Huang became the ruler of a unified China in 221 BC, he envisioned a perpetual empire that was purely his own. He declared himself the First Emperor, and proceeded to purge the country of the past. He ordered books burned and scholars buried alive. He barricaded the country by building the Great Wall to protect against ‘barbarian’ invasion, but also to prevent the infiltration of foreign ideas. Only his death would stand in the way of fulfilling such an agenda and, after a number of high-profile assassination attempts on his life, he knew he had to do something about it. He sent expeditions overseas in search of the Elixir of Immortality. When those efforts came up empty, he had a Terracotta Army of 8,000 soldiers built to protect him in his afterlife.
In the scientific world, this enterprise is carried out at the molecular level. In the 1960s, a group of Western scientists went to Easter Island. They collected numerous blood samples from the natives and brought back soil samples. In one of those jars were found bacteria that were able to significantly prolong the lifespan of mice. They were named rapamycin, after Rapa Nui, another name for Easter Island. It was found that rapamycin inhibits the expression of a protein named TOR (Target Of Rapamycin), and in so doing retards the process of aging and decay. Although Rapamycin is used in some cancer-combatting drugs, it is not suitable as a longevity substance because it is an immunosuppressant with
serious side effects. Its importance here is the light it throws on mTOR (mammalian Target Of Rapamycin), a genetic protein that is essential for healthy, normal growth and development of life in its early stage, but also responsible for its degeneration in its late stage. The expression of mTOR mediates the life process. The search now is for safe substances that may inhibit mTOR.
The Elixir of Immortality that the Daoists talk about may refer to several things. First of all, there is the difference between Nei Dan and Wei Dan. Nei Dan is the cultivation of internal elixir by practicing qigong or meditation. Wei Dan is the ingestion of external substances, like minerals and herbs. Cinnabar was a common form of Wei Dan. It was taken in minute amounts to aid meditation. Cinnabar contains mercury and is highly toxic. It killed quite a few Daoists, including several emperors. A different kind of Wei Dan is a group of herbs, many of them mushrooms, regarded as having a spiritual affinity. They can be safely taken for a long period of time. The top three may be ginseng, lingzhi (reshi), and cordyceps. They are regarded as longevity herbs because they build health and protect against diseases. Many studies show that they protect the vital systems and functioning of the body and inhibit tumor growth. They retard the aging process as the inhibition of mTOR seems also to do.