Doctor’s Tip: Prevent oxidative stress with lifestyle changes
This is the sixth column in a series based on Dr. Dean Ornish’s latest book “Undo It, How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.” Today’s column is about oxidation and anti-oxidants.
Electrons, which normally travel in pairs, contain energy. Dr. Ornish explains that electrons in fat, protein and carbohydrate combine with oxygen in your blood to provide energy for your mind and body. This process occurs in mitochondria, the “powerhouse” in each of your cells. Sometimes, one of the two electrons in molecules becomes detached, creating an unstable “free radical.” As Dr. Ornish says, “when unstable molecules ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules throughout your body in order to stabilize themselves, this is called oxidation.”
Damage to cells from what we call “oxidative stress” contributes to many health problems: 1) DNA damage, which can lead to cancer; 2) damage to arteries, leading to hypertension, blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, heart failure and erectile dysfunction; 3) damage to cell membranes, leading to premature aging and wrinkles; 4) damage to your pancreas, leading to diabetes; 5) damage to brain cells, leading to dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, multiple sclerosis and depression; and 6) damage to proteins in your body, causing your immune system to “turn on itself,” resulting in rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
Methionine, one of the essential amino acids, enhances oxidation. Meat, fish and dairy products contain high levels of methionine, whereas whole plant foods (vegetables, fruit, unprocessed grains) have low levels.
It’s important to eat food with lots of anti-oxidants. Animal products have few; plant-based food has lots. Intensely colored fruit, vegetables and whole grains, along with intensely flavored plant-based food are particularly loaded with antioxidants. Plant-based physicians tell people to eat herbs and spices (intensely flavored plant food) daily. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, we tell people to “eat the rainbow.” Examples of intensely colored vegetables are greens, beans, red cabbage, red onions, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, beets and sweet potatoes. The most intensely colored fruits are berries — strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and goji berries. An example of an intensely colored grain is black rice (also known as forbidden rice) — avoid white rice.
One way to tell if a food contains high levels of antioxidants is to note how long it lasts in your refrigerator before turning brown (oxidizing). Kale and red cabbage last for weeks, iceberg lettuce not so long. Blueberries last for days, bananas (a white fruit) not so long. A listing of antioxidant levels of over 3,000 different foods can be found at http://bit.ly/antioxidantfoods.
Exercise in moderation reduces oxidative stress, as does stress reduction and establishing loving relationships (even with a pet). However, too much exercise such as ultramarathons and repeated marathons causes oxidation and contributes to aging.
People often wonder if they can get their antioxidants in a pill. The answer is no, in spite of what supplement and multi-level marketing schemes would like you to believe. As Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (one of the two physicians who has shown that a plant-based, whole food diet can reverse heart disease) says, if you eat a variety of vegetables, fruit and whole grains every day, you will be eating a “symphony of nutrients,” some of which haven’t even been discovered yet. These interact with each other, often in ways we don’t understand yet. There’s no way you can get from a pill the same benefits you can get from a plant-based, whole food diet. Furthermore, the high doses of antioxidants in pills can be pro-oxidants, causing harm instead of preventing it. As Dr. Fuhrman (author of several books including “Eat to Live”) says, “You have to earn your health,” by which he means you have to put out the effort to eat healthy and move more.
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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