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Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself

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A big thanks to my friend J.J. Virgin for turning me onto Dr. William Li and his book “Eat To Beat Disease” – a really great book that delves into the research-based healing powers of a variety of foods. A few of my big takeaways include:

– Regarding stem cells: Some foods like dark chocolate, black tea, and beer can mobilize them and help us regenerate. Other foods, like purple potatoes, can kill deadly stem cells that spark cancer growth.

– We all have cancer growing in our body. Every single one of us, even you. Over time, however, some tiny nests of cancer can overwhelm the defense system and overcome antiangiogenic countermeasures by releasing huge amounts of the same growth factor signals involved in wound healing. In lab experiments, once new blood vessels sprout into the small cluster of cancer cells, a tumor can grow exponentially, expanding up to sixteen thousand times in size in only two weeks after angiogenesis starts.

– Even as little as thirty minutes of exposure to tobacco smoke exhaled by someone else is enough to stun your stem cells.

– Not surprisingly, air pollution is similarly damaging. Researchers have found that in people living in communities with major air pollution problems, exposure to fine particulate matter during pollution flares lowers the number of endothelial progenitor cells in their blood.

– Among the Malmo participants, researchers found that those with the highest levels of stem cell factor had a lower risk of heart failure by 50 percent, a lower risk of stroke by 34 percent, and a lower risk of death from any cause by 32 percent compared to those participants with the lowest levels of stem cell factor.

– During the cholera epidemic of 1892 in France, Metchnikoff mixed bacteria together in a petri dish and found that some bacteria could stimulate cholera growth, but to his surprise found that other bacteria hindered it. This led him to speculate whether swallowing some types of helpful bacteria might be useful for preventing deadly diseases. He was also struck by the fact that some people lived to a ripe old age despite harsh rural conditions and poor hygiene associated with poverty. In Bulgaria, he noted, there were peasants in the Caucasus Mountains who lived beyond one hundred years. He observed that the oldest villagers were drinking fermented yogurt containing the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus. Metchnikoff suggested that one secret to longevity is consuming healthy bacteria.

– A study of 1,095 “ridiculously healthy people” who have no health issues or family history of serious disease across all age groups (from age three to more than one hundred years old) showed that a common denominator in both young and old is an almost identical microbiome.

– The scientists concluded that some healthy bacteria are resilient and can bounce back from a dietary insult, while others cannot. They called the persistent defect a “scar” left on the microbiome due to diet. Here’s where it gets interesting in this study. The microbiome scar became larger over generations when the researchers began breeding the mice and exposing each generation of mice to the high-fat, low-fiber Western-style diet. With each generation, more and more of the original bacteria from the healthy human disappeared from their microbiome. By the fourth generation (great-grandchildren of the original), a sobering 72 percent of the microbes from the initial healthy mice were no longer detectable. Generations of eating the same unhealthy high-fat, low-fiber diet killed off healthy gut microbes permanently.

– But wound healing was only the beginning. In the lab, L. reuteri also reduced abdominal fat and obesity in mice, even if they ate a junk food diet of potato chips. L. reuteri can stimulate the growth of thick, shiny, healthy hair; improve skin tone; boost the immune system; and prevent the growth of tumors in the colon and in the breast. And that’s not all. Experiments have shown that in male mice, L. reuteri in drinking water increases testicular size, testosterone production, and mating frequency. A truly fascinating finding was that L. reuteri stimulates the brain to release the hormone oxytocin, which is the social bonding neurochemical that is released from the brain during a hug or handshake, by close friendship, during kissing, breast feeding, and orgasm. The depth of research conducted with this one bacteria is so impressive it led to an article in The New York Times called “Microbes, a Love Story.” Needless to say, this is a probiotic worthy of taking because of the scientific evidence for its actions and potential benefits.

– Do you wear sunscreen every time you get on a flight? You should. A 2015 study by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco published in the journal JAMA Dermatology showed that pilots flying for just one hour at thirty thousand feet altitude receive the same amount of UV radiation through the cockpit window as they would from a twenty-minute session in a tanning salon.

– Solvents off-gassing from carpets, new cars, and chemicals in ordinary household products like nail polish remover, shampoo, and paint damage DNA, too. If you drive a car that uses gasoline, when you fill up the tank, you are breathing in fumes containing benzene, which damages DNA. It is wise to stand upwind of the vapor while you are at the gas station.

– Other epigenetic changes from exercise can block harmful genes. These are seen after swimming, sprinting, interval training, and high-intensity walking.

– A study by researchers at University of California, San Francisco showed that breastfeeding improved the length of telomeres in the child. In a group of 121 children, those who were exclusively breastfed when they were infants had longer telomeres by the time they were of preschool age (four to five years old) compared to children who were formula fed. This shows the durability of the telomere effect—that the benefits of breastfeeding remain years after a child is weaned and eating solid food. 

– Scientists from the University of Southern California showed that fasting cycles can be used to build a fresh immune system. Remarkably, they showed that fasting two to four days in a row forces the human body to go into a recycling mode, which gets rid of the older, worn-out immune cells. Then, when food is started again, it jump-starts the hematopoietic stem cells in your bone marrow to start regenerating fresh immune cells thus rebuilding the immune system.

– Soyfoods represent dozens of different kinds of foods made from soybeans, an ancient legume that originated in eastern China three thousand years ago. From fresh soy products, such as edamame, soymilk, and soy nuts, to soyfoods that are fermented, such as soy sauce, tofu, miso, natto, tempeh, and more, soy is encountered in many forms. Asian markets will often have fresh soybeans, but you can also often find them in the frozen section of the grocery store. Fresh tofu is versatile and is a common food in Asia. In Western countries, the best sources to find tofu varieties are Asian markets. Look at the menu of a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese restaurant, and you’ll find many soy offerings. Soy contains antiangiogenic bioactives known as isoflavones, specifically genistein, daidzein, equol, and glyceollins. Fermented soy products have higher concentrations of them.

– Research has revealed that chicken thighs and drumsticks are especially healthy choices. Dark chicken meat contains vitamin K2, or menaquinone, a naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamin.

– At the Angiogenesis Foundation, we began studying teas for their biological properties using lab testing systems originally designed to evaluate antiangiogenic cancer drugs. We found that tea extracts had really exceptionally potent angiogenesis inhibitory effects, indeed comparable to that of drugs. What was interesting was that different varietals of teas exhibited different potencies. We found Chinese jasmine tea to be more potent than Japanese sencha tea, and Earl Grey tea was even more potent than jasmine tea. The most remarkable finding was that when we crossed cultures and mixed sencha (Japanese) with jasmine (Chinese) tea, the resulting tea blend had a synergistic effect on blood vessel growth that was more than twice as potent against angiogenesis than either one alone.

– At the Angiogenesis Foundation, we conducted research on the antiangiogenic activity of six different wines made by different grape varietals from the same winery (Vintage Wine Estates) and the same vintage, grown on the same terroir. Among the six, we identified the most potent antiangiogenic wines (code: GREENFIELD10) as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.

– At the end of the study, the researchers compared bloodwork from before and after the experiment. Amazingly, participants who drank the high-flavanol hot cocoa had twice as many stem cells in their circulation compared to the people who drank the low-flavanol cocoa.

– Scientists at the University of Montreal discovered that a diet rich in fish oil increases production of endothelial progenitor stem cells that can regenerate oxygen-deprived muscles.

– Squid ink, which actually usually comes from cuttlefish, contains bioactives that not only inhibit angiogenesis, but also can protect stem cells.

– Scientists at the University of Warsaw in Poland examined endothelial progenitor cells in the blood of healthy young individuals and found that exposing them to chokeberry extracts could protect the stem cells against stress. The exposure to chokeberry also improved the ability of the stem cells to migrate and participate in regenerating blood vessels.

– Zeaxanthin is a bioactive known as a carotenoid. It is a pigment that gives corn and saffron their yellow-orange color, but it’s also common in leafy green vegetables, like kale, mustard greens, spinach, watercress, collard greens, Swiss chard, and fiddleheads. The results of this study suggest that eating zeaxanthin-containing foods may help the performance of our stem cells for organ regeneration.

– The ellagic acid of the black raspberries activates stem cells.

– The leaves, stalks, and seeds of Chinese celery are all edible and contain a number of health-promoting bioactives, including a tongue twister: 3-n-butylphthalide (NBP). NBP is important because it was approved as a pharmaceutical drug in 2002 by regulatory agencies in China for doctors to use as a neuroprotective treatment in patients who have suffered a stroke. NBP, also found in supplements containing celery seed extract, improves brain circulation, lowers brain inflammation, grows nerves, and limits brain damage from stroke. Researchers from Soochow University in China studied how NBP helps patients recover from a stroke. They recruited 170 individuals who had suffered an acute ischemic stroke, meaning a blood clot caused an interruption of blood flow and killed part of the brain.

– While these results are from a drug form of NBP, it shows that a bioactive present in Chinese celery has stem cell–activating properties that may help heal and regenerate organs after a medical catastrophe like a stroke.

– Green tea has many well researched health benefits, and now among them is activating the regenerative system. This has been studied in people who smoke. Cigarette smoking chemically scorches the blood vessel lining, which leads to increased risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Cigarette smoking is also damaging to stem cells, and reduces the number of circulating stem cells. People who smoke have 60 percent fewer stem cells in their bloodstream compared to nonsmokers—another reason not to smoke. Researchers from Chonnam National University Hospital in Korea and the Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan examined the effects of drinking green tea on the stem cells of smokers. They enrolled twenty young men in their late twenties who had smoked for six years and gave them four cups of green tea to drink each day for two weeks (a total of 56 cups). Their blood was drawn at the beginning and at the end of the study to count the number of circulating endothelial progenitor cells present. The results showed that drinking green tea increased the number of circulating stem cells by 43 percent over two weeks. The health of the smokers’ blood vessels was also improved by green tea over the study period. Their vascular dilation response was improved by 29 percent. In the lab, scientists have discovered that green tea and its catechins can stimulate regeneration of brain, muscle, bone, and nerves and can promote wound healing.

– They found that one strain of L. reuteri in a sourdough starter that had been handed down from one baker to another since 1970 had actually evolved to live and thrive in bread dough. To dominate in their new turf, some L. reuteri strains in the starter actually developed the ability to produce a natural antibiotic called reutericyclin that kills other harmful bacteria growing around it. While the bacteria itself does not survive the high oven temperatures used for baking, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that the benefits may not require live bacteria at all when it comes to L. reuteri. In the lab, scientists completely pulverized the bacteria so no live L. reuteri survived, but they found that substances coming from the particles of dead bacteria could create the same benefits as the live bacteria. This is a complete surprise, because it’s always been assumed that the benefits of gut bacteria require them to be alive.

– The Lion’s mane mushroom, renowned for its culinary and medicinal properties, was the subject of a study by scientists at Jiangnan University in China to test its effects on the microbiome. In the lab, they fed mice with severe gut inflammation the human equivalent of one tablespoon of Lion’s mane mushroom. The results showed that Lion’s mane could decrease the symptoms and the proteins associated with gut inflammation by as much as 40 percent. The mushroom increased the healthy bacteria Akkermansia while decreasing the harmful sulfur toxin-producing Desulfovibrio.

– In a study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers documented coffee and caffeine consumption in 5,826 adults and showed that drinking more coffee was associated with longer telomeres.

– Tea drinking was associated with increased telomere length, but only in elderly men, not women. When the amount of tea consumed by men was analyzed, those who drank three or more cups of tea per day had longer telomeres compared to those who drank less than a third of a cup of tea. The difference in telomere length was equivalent to a calculated difference of five years of additional life between high-and low-level tea drinkers. No other food group was associated with any telomere lengthening in this elderly population. The study did not specifically ask which type of tea, but green tea and oolong tea are the most commonly consumed teas in China.

– At the end of six weeks of eating blueberries, the participants did a 2.5-hour treadmill run. First, researchers drew their blood before the run. Then, an hour before exercise, the blueberry eaters ate a larger than usual amount of blueberries (375 grams, or 2.7 cups worth of fresh blueberries). Immediately after the participants’ run, researchers took another blood sample. One hour later, blood was drawn one final time to see what happened to their immune cells and what the effect of eating blueberries was. The blood samples were analyzed for different immune cells, including T cells, B cells, and natural killer (NK) cells. The results were eye opening. Blueberry eaters had almost double the number of NK cells before exercise compared to those who did not eat blueberries. Normally, NK cells would be expected to rapidly decline after intense exercise. But in the group that consumed blueberries, the NK cells remained elevated for at least one hour after exercise ceased.

– Most cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish, octopus) squirt a black ink to escape predators. This ink is collected by fishermen from a sac in the creature’s body and is a flavorsome delicacy used to make rice and pasta dishes in the seaside cuisine of the Mediterranean. Some famous dishes featuring the ink include Spain’s black rice (arroz negra), Venice’s risotto di nero di seppia, and black spaghetti known as pasta al nero. Lab research on the ink has shown it can have antioxidant, antiangiogenic, stem cell–protecting, and immune-enhancing effects. Squid ink can even protect the gut microbiome against the nasty side-effects of chemotherapy treatment.

In my TED Talk, some of the biggest audience reactions came when I showed the results of a study where we did a head-to-head comparison of the potency of different foods versus drugs on angiogenesis. We examined four cancer drugs, seven other common medications (anti-inflammatory drugs, statins, a blood pressure medication, and an antibiotic), and sixteen dietary factors from foods associated with lowering the risk of various cancers. Remarkably, fifteen of the dietary factors were more potent than one of the cancer drugs in the experiment we did.

As you can see, there's plenty to be gleaned from this book. You can get it here!