The Science of Healing Naturally
Part Two: Local health expert shares the latest scientific findings covered by nationally recognized Marin nutrition authors Rebecca Katz, Elson Haas and James Haig.
DAIRY AND MEAT served with a dose of antibiotics and hormones? Veggies soaked in pesticides? Packaged foods rich in chemicals and hydrogenated fats? No thanks. Unfortunately, for the sake of price, taste, texture, and shelf stability, the food industry has adulterated much of our food with inflammation-causing fats, sugar, chemicals, herbicides and pesticides.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the average American now eats 50 pounds of chemicals and 150 pounds of sugar annually. Though Americans are overfed, we are actually undernourished. How do you explain away those excess pounds, frequent headaches, afternoon energy crashes, acne, sluggish thyroid, bouts of anxiety, depression and other problems? Do you chalk them up to aging? What is actually going on inside the body to cause these disturbances?
So often when troublesome symptoms arise, a diagnosis is made and medication prescribed without any investigation into the root cause. Many chronic symptoms are signs of toxin-provoked inflammation — the root cause of almost all disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently discovered that 80 percent of cancers can be traced to toxins, in both our environment and our food. This month my colleagues and I, all local health experts and authors, offer you a menu of healthful eating strategies to reduce toxins, improve well-being and prevent disease by cooling inflammation. The power to reverse symptoms and prevent disease is in your hands and on your plate.
FOOD IS MEDICINE
The food we eat literally becomes our blood, our cells and our tissues. You really are what you eat, and what you choose to consume is critical to feeling well both physiologically and emotionally. Like smoking, eating inflammatory foods (e.g., nonorganic foods, GMO foods, processed foods, sugar, and for some people, gluten and dairy products) can brew trouble, including overproduction of free radicals, hormone imbalances and changes in gene expression, all of which can lead to inflammation. Many symptoms may ensue, as well as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Food can also impact the microbiome — the 100 trillion microbes living in the gut that serve as the epicenter of immunity and emotional wellness — allowing harmful bacteria to flourish.
FOOD AND MOOD IMPACT OUR GENETICS
Over the past decade, groundbreaking research in the field of epigenetics — the study of the on/off switches in our DNA — has revealed that our diet, emotions and lifestyle choices play a significant role in the expression of our genes, influencing almost every aspect of our health. Toxins can switch on “bad genes” that code for inflammation and diseases, causing those genes to become expressed. Conversely, healthful compounds such as plant phytonutrients can turn those genes off.
As described by Deepak Chopra, M.D., and Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., in their latest book, Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, up to 95 percent of threatening gene mutations are influenced by our lifestyle choices. Healthy habits can literally change the course of our health.
For example, the emotional stresses of road rage, a frustrating job or loneliness can negatively impact our gene expression much like that of processed foods high in chemicals, pesticides and sugar. On the other hand, healthy relationships, exercise, gratitude and a calm, positive outlook can mimic the protective genetic influence of green leafy vegetables. We are not stuck in a particular genetic destiny as was once thought to be the case. And because genetic expression is hereditary, our choices affect generations to come.
THE SKINNY ON A HEALTHFUL DIET
Fortunately, nature provides us with many foods filled with natural agents that calm the genes coding for inflammation, such as leafy greens, berries, herbs, spices, garlic and green tea, to name a few.
“Food solutions can dramatically reduce your risk of disease as well as help heal existing conditions and discomforts,” says Rebecca Katz, nutritionist and author of four cookbooks, including her award-winning The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen and her most recent, Clean Soups: Simple Nourishing Recipes for Health and Vitality. Plants can be the ultimate superfood. “So many common foods — everything from broccoli to blueberries — have multiple disease-fighting properties [that range] from controlling inflammation to preventing cancer,” adds Katz, whose recipes are abundant in health-supportive vegetables, herbs and spices with benefits backed by thousands of published studies.
Alkalizing to restore pH balance and rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber, plant foods also help fill you up, stabilize blood sugar and curb unhealthy cravings. Aim for 2.5 to 5 cups or more of colorful veggies and some fruit daily. Eating organic is preferable, as it eliminates harmful pesticides and herbicides while maximizing nutrients from healthier soils. See how your food stacks up by visiting the Food Scores page at Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides.
To further minimize the junk, “eat as close to nature as possible and read labels to avoid the artificial ingredients and chemicals in processed and fast foods,” says Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin, a 32-year old integrative medical center in San Rafael. An integrative family physician, Haas is author of 11 books on health, nutrition and detoxification, including his most recent, Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine: Integrating Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. Haas advises patients to get their nutrition from foods first, followed by supplements and detoxes, if needed, to correct underlying inflammatory issues due to deficiencies and toxins. Almost as important is how we eat. To enhance digestion and nutrient absorption, Haas emphasizes chewing thoroughly and eating in a relaxed setting, without the stress or distraction of electronic devices.
By now most of us know we should avoid sugar. Devoid of nutrients and a big cause of inflammation, sugar raises insulin levels and can lead to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Every time you raise your blood glucose, you tell your body to store fat. And blood sugar highs and lows can increase anxiety and hormone imbalances that cause unhealthy food cravings, fatigue and acne. Accordingly, the American Heart Association now recommends limiting added sugar to six teaspoons (24 grams) daily for women and nine teaspoons (36 grams) for men.
But we’re not just talking about table sugar. Simple carbs that are quickly digested into sugar also put us at risk, including soda, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, alcohol, and refined flours in bread, bagels, pizza, pasta, pretzels and baked desserts. Instead, choose complex carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes and nuts high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and protective phytonutrients. To satisfy a sweet tooth, try fruit, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions and a square of dark chocolate (70 percent or higher).
GOOD FAT IS GOOD, BAD FAT IS BAD
Recent studies reveal that healthful fats actually douse inflammation and are essential for healthy brain and nerve function, cholesterol and hormone production and blood sugar stability. And when we consume good fats and limit simple carbs, the body naturally burns fat rather than craving sugar for energy. Beneficial fats are in food sources such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acid, including wild salmon, sardines and anchovies. Limit your intake of saturated animal fat. And by all means, avoid artery-clogging hydrogenated “trans” fats used in processed foods and yellow vegetable oils (e.g., corn and soy) and spreads.
THE ROLE OF PROTEIN
Critical to every cell in the body, protein helps build muscles, supports brain function and digestion and balances hormones and mood; it also helps stabilize blood sugar and boosts metabolism and immunity. Eating protein at every meal can help increase satiety and curb sugar cravings. As for how many grams of protein per day you should be eating, figure .36 per pound of your body weight. Be sure to choose high-quality sources: grass-fed meats, organic eggs or poultry, organic dairy and wild-caught fish contain more trace minerals, vitamins and healthy fatty acids and fewer pollutants, heavy metals, hormones and antibiotics than their conventionally farmed counterparts. Plant foods such as beans, rice, quinoa and kale also provide some protein.
Vegan, paleo, low FODMAP or gluten-free? With so many regimens, it seems many of us have specific food needs. One person’s food is another person’s poison. Since we are each bio-individuals, determining the root cause of your particular food-symptom connection is essential, which you can do by conducting an elimination diet. In my book Gutsy, I discuss my own challenges with lupus and arthritis and complete recovery after discovering a gluten intolerance, as well as similar stories shared by others. A food elimination plan (included in the book) or specialized testing can help you pinpoint any offending foods.
A detrimental inflammatory reaction to certain foods, food intolerances now plague 75 percent of us. Like chemicals, food containing dairy, gluten, soy, corn and yeast as well as eggs and nightshade vegetables can cause the microbiome to become imbalanced and the digestive lining to become inflamed and leaky. Wayward food particles can then migrate to the bloodstream, where immune cells mount attacks on the food and, inadvertently, on certain tissues and organs. The result: joint pain, muscle aches, constipation, diarrhea, rashes, autoimmune diseases, asthma and hyperactivity. Even cancer risk may increase as determined by Alessio Fasano, M.D., chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Many sufferers find symptom relief by removing the culprit from their diet. “In general, a hypoallergenic diet (one free of your known triggers) that doesn’t cause inflammation gives your immune system the best support,” states Haas.
Many struggles with weight loss can also be attributed to inflammation with its link to insulin and leptin resistance, hormones that control blood sugar, appetite and metabolism. “Metabolic type is the characteristic way in which a person responds to and metabolizes food,” says James Haig, nutrition consultant, health educator, owner of Metabolic Balance in San Rafael and co-author (along with the late dental surgeon Harold Kristal) of The Nutrition Solution: A Guide to Your Metabolic Type. Certain foods like whole grains, fruit and even protein may help control inflammation in some but actually exacerbate inflammation in others, which may explain why there is so much conflicting information about diet and weight loss.
Haig determines metabolic type by simple, in-office testing revolving around a modified glucose challenge. “Once [a person’s type is] known, I can recommend appropriate foods to minimize an inflammatory response and maximize an anti-inflammatory defense,” he says. “When this occurs, energy and weight tend to stabilize; cravings are minimized; there’s more resilience in the face of stress; and health challenges are handled more effectively.”
With any dietary modifications, cooking your own meals ensures you know what ’s in them. “Enjoy what you create,” Haas suggests.
Nan Foster is an integrative health coach living in Marin and author of Gutsy: The Food-Mood Method to Revitalize Your Health Beyond Conventional Medicine.