Doctor’s Tip: Food as medicine — your body’s five defense systems
William Li, M.D., gave an impressive talk at the Plantrician Project’s International Conference on Plant-Based Nutrition in September. He recently came out with a book: “Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.”
Dr. Li is a practicing internist who is also a cutting-edge medical researcher, and is in touch with similar researchers throughout the world. He also heads the Angiogenesis Foundation, and has a popular TED talk on the Internet called “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” In his book he notes that “the biggest health threats for people worldwide are the noncommunicable diseases, which include cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and neurodegenerative conditions.” He has a particular interest in finding common denominators of disease.
Much of “Eat to Beat Disease” is devoted to a discussion about what he calls the body’s five defense systems:
• angiogenesis: This refers to the thousands (literally) of miles of blood vessels in the human body. Forming new blood vessels is important in diseases such as heart disease, but can contribute to other diseases, such as cancer and diabetic retinopathy.
• regeneration: This refers to the more than 75,000 stem cells in our bone marrow, lungs and liver, which allow almost all the organs in our body to regenerate every day. However, in the case of cancer, rogue stem cells can be deadly.
• microbiome: Some 40 trillion bacteria inhabit our mouth, nose, intestines and skin. They influence digestion, control our immune system, “and even help produce hormones that influence our brain and social function.”
• DNA protection: “Our DNA is our genetic blueprint, but it is also designed to be a defense system. It has surprising repair mechanisms that protect us against damage caused by solar radiation, household chemicals, stress, compromised sleep and poor diet, among other insults.”
• immunity: Our immune system fights infection, cancer-causing mutations of our cells, and other disease-causing agents. However, an overactive immune system can cause problems: autoimmune diseases, such as M.S., rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and lupus.
Certain medications can affect all five of these defense systems. But most doctors aren’t aware of the power of food to affect all five of these defense systems. As Dr. Li puts it: “What’s missing in the toolkit of most doctors is the ability to guide an individual, whether they are healthy or sick, on how they can use food as a way to resist disease.” Or treat and even reverse disease.
The next five columns will discuss each one of these defense systems, then some of the medications and foods that can help or harm them. In the epilogue to his book, Dr. Li notes that the studies he selected for the book come from clinical studies on humans; large-scale epidemiological studies (where you look at a large population of people, see what they eat, what diseases they get, and what they die from); animal studies; and laboratory studies. Laboratory and animal studies must always be questioned, because they may or may not apply to what happens in humans. Dr. Li notes that human studies “are what matter most.”
Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He gives a free presentation at 7 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the Third Street Center in Carbondale; is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718); and conducts a shop-with-a-doc session at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of the month at Carbondale City Market.
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