Doctor’s Tip: Regeneration (stem cells) — one of your body’s five defense systems
This is one of a series of columns on Dr. William Li’s five defense systems, from his new book “Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.”
Embryonic stem cells “can form any cell or tissue in the body, from muscle to nerve to skin to brain to eyeball.” In addition to making up embryos, these cells are found in the umbilical cord and placenta. In adults, stem cells make up only 0.002 percent of the 37.2 trillion cells in our body, yet they play a powerful role in normal body regeneration as well as regeneration after illness or injury.
“Normal body regeneration” refers to the fact that your small intestine regenerates every two to four days; immune cells every seven days, lungs and stomach every eight days; skin every two weeks; red blood cells every four months; fat cells every eight years; and skeleton every 10 years. According to Dr. Li, if your stem cells suddenly disappeared or stopped working “you’d be dead in a week.”
Adult stem cells hang out in “niches” in skin; the walls of intestines; the base of hair follicles; in testes and ovaries; in fat; in heart and brain, and especially in bone marrow. Injuries from events such as heart attacks, trauma, chemotherapy and radiation cause “distress signals” to be sent out resulting in stem cells rushing to the injured area to rebuild whatever tissue has been damaged.
Certain factors hinder the stem cell regenerative process, such as: tobacco smoke; air pollution; heavy alcohol intake; diabetes; high LDL (bad cholesterol; low HDL (good cholesterol);, and aging. On the other hand, boosting stem cell number and function is beneficial, as the following example illustrates: The endothelium is an organ system that lines our arteries, and endothelial progenitor cells are stem cells that repair the endothelium. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a higher level of these cells was associated with a 70 percent lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular cause. Another example is that stem cells that regenerate neurons in your brain help prevent dementia.
One of the current frontiers of medicine is the use of stem cells to treat and in some cases reverse disease: Chemo and radiation kill cancer cells but also kill normal cells, including stem cells in the bone marrow, necessitating a bone marrow transplant. Trials are underway to use stem cells to reverse multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, autism and macular degeneration (the most common cause of blindness in the elderly). In one study injection of fat-derived stem cells “led to a 50 percent decrease in the size of the damage caused by a heart attack.” Stem cells are being used to treat chronic, non-healing wounds, and to form new cartilage in degenerative arthritis.
What’s even more exciting and certainly much less expensive is that, according to Dr. Li, “The right foods can help boost the number and performance of your stem cells and their ability to regenerate your body.” Following are some examples of “the right foods”: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, berries, Chinese celery, beer, green and black tea, dark chocolate.
However, the following should be avoided because they damage stem cells: high fat (especially saturated fat) diets; high glycemic foods that raise your blood sugar rapidly, such as sweets, sugary drinks, and refined food; and high-salt diets. Dr. Li says that “by avoiding saturated fats in your diet, you may improve your ability to regenerate your circulatory system, improve your cognition, and help stop your stem cells from generating new fat cells or tumor cells.”
Some foods that kill cancer stem cells — that can contribute to recurrence of breast and other cancers — are: green tea, purple potatoes, walnuts, celery, oregano, thyme, capers, apples, peppers, green tea, red wine/red grapes, peanuts, pistachios, dark chocolate, cranberries, chestnuts, blackberries and pomegranates.
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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