In the spirit of the latest controversy around antioxidants and whether they may contribute to cancer, and today’s Dr OZ show, I have posted the first three chapters of my first book The Antioxidant Prescription: How to Use the Power of Antioxidants to Prevent Disease and Stay Healthy for Life. It is available in full from your local Indigo or Chapters book store or online at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca (soft cover, kindle, and e-book all available)
Bryce Wylde BSc, RNC, DHMHS, HD
Random House Canada
PART 1: THE CAUSE OF ALL DISEASE
Chapter 1: The Human Health Threshold
We live in an era strangely cursed and blessed. We’re increasingly surrounded by invisible dangers our great-grandparents could not have dreamed of. In fact, until recently, most of us hardly dreamed of them ourselves. But what we once suspected or heard rumoured, we now know for certain: Our air, our water, our food and many of the everyday objects we employ are a constant threat to our health and safety. And yet—and this is the blessed part—this same knowledge is our hope for a bright future for ourselves and for humanity at large.
The subject of human health is almost unimaginably vast, and our body’s interactions with our surroundings are almost too complex to grasp. But in this book I’m going to zoom in and focus on the meaning of human health through the lens of a single natural phenomenon—I’m tempted to say “drama”—that plays out at a scale so tiny that ordinary microscopes cannot see its workings. There are villains in this drama but, as in any good story, these characters are dynamic. The fact is they often spend much of their time doing us a tremendous service. Even if we were able to round every one of them up and do them in, we’d be the ones to suffer in the end. That’s why our task will be to understand them first, then deal with them wisely—perhaps I should say “humanely,” since they’re a necessary part of life.
This gang of wild molecules are called “free radicals.” They’re notorious these days and almost everyone has heard their name. Wanted posters appear regularly advertising methods for their capture and execution. I recently saw a video game devoted to a free radical mission. Yet a great deal remains to be conveyed about their behaviour and how we need to respond to that behaviour in order to stay healthy or to regain our health. Much of this hasn’t been conveyed, in part because it’s a breaking science story.
We hear even more these days about antioxidants, the molecules that neutralize free radicals and are supposed to be on our side in this battle. Are they the cure-alls they’re made out to be? Are some antioxidants better than others? Can we swallow too many antioxidants? To establish your knowledge level about both free radicals and antioxidants before you carry on, take a moment to do the quiz you’ll find in Appendix A.
In this book, I’m going to set out what you need to know about free radicals. I’m going to show you how and why free radicals lie at the root of all disease. I’m not just talking here about chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and allergies. I’m also talking about diseases that stem from infectious agents—bacteria, parasites and viruses. I’m then going to show how and why the antioxidant family of molecules works to offset the destructive impact of free radicals. Finally—based on the latest science—I’m going to show you how you can determine your own free radical and antioxidant levels and provide you with a simple prescription for supplements, diet and lifestyle that will balance your body’s supply—or burden—of both these families of potent molecules.
I grew up in Toronto, Canada, a vegetarian and unvaccinated. I had the sort of mom who you could imagine treating the common cold by putting garlic between her son’s toes, covering his feet with cold, wet socks to bring down a fever and maybe administering a twice-daily concoction of eye of newt and bat wing. In fact she did practice the cold-sock therapy and it turned out to be one of her good ideas. I also began every morning by swallowing ten vitamins and minerals. Our soaps and shampoos smelled of tea tree oil and were certainly free of harmful agents, though otherwise, er, not perfected. Junk food in my family was a sesame seed snap. Anything with sugar in it was considered to be deadly, and eating hotdogs was equivalent to swallowing poison. Birthday cakes were suspect. I went to school every day with a SoyPro, sprouts-and-tomato sandwich on thick German-style bread, the kind you could see the grains in. Needless to say, I kept this lunch hidden for fear of being ridiculed and possibly beaten. On occasion, I was able to “misplace” my lunch altogether and claim the peanut butter and jelly on soda crackers that the lunch room staff kept for those unfortunates who forgot their lunch.
Our family doctor, Dr. John McLean, was a chiropractor, a homeopath and a naturopath. Unless we were near death, my mother wouldn’t bring us near the regular medical profession for fear its practitioners would fill us with antibiotics or surgically remove some vital organ we’d most certainly need later in life. I should mention that my mother’s view of the medical profession was very different then than mine is now.
When I grew older, I determined to become a clinical psychologist and spent a year volunteering at Toronto’s Queen Street Mental Health Centre. My first day there was spent talking to a schizophrenic man in the patient library who was threatening to inject himself with Javex. After a year or so of similar efforts, I came to the realization that we were trying to make a difference for people who were little more than pharmaceutical overdose cases. One afternoon I stumbled across some old patient files in the facility’s basement storage room. In them, I found evidence that, back in the early 1950s, some clinicians in that very institution had been incorporating homeopathic medicines with considerable success to treat mental illness. I decided that from that point forward, I’d try to make a real difference in the lives of others, not simply struggle to supersede the side effects of powerful drugs. It would be my mission to prevent people from getting to the point of incarceration in one of these hellholes.
I went to the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine in Toronto to study homeopathy, nutrition and medical sciences. I’d previously studied mainstream biology and psychology, so it was two years before I felt comfortable with the idea of homeopathy—an alternative medical system with its roots in the late eighteenth century and its practice based on carefully diluted and natural medicines.
Then came an epiphany of sorts: homeopathy did indeed work in the student clinic. It was indeed scientifically validated. There were no real side effects from its treatments. But it also suffered from a great shortcoming: a homeopathic remedy never held its course of healing unless the patient’s case was resolved for what homeopathic practitioners know as “obstacles to cure.” These are the obstacles—observed in almost every case—presented by diet, lifestyle and genetic code that impede the homeopathic medicine from having its full and lasting effect. Practitioners often seemed confused as to why a patient’s recovery was only temporary and the patients often judged homeopathy not to work. This insight—that homeopathic medicines, no matter how effective in the short term weren’t effective in the long term unless the practitioner addressed diet, lifestyle and constitution—led me to my passion for preventative nutrition, preventative antioxidant medicines and preventative vitamin/mineral supplementation. It was my search for the “obstacles to cure” that allowed me to grasp the idea that the actions of free radicals are the underlying cause of all disease. Ultimately, that insight led to my becoming a practitioner of what is now being called “functional medicine” as opposed to “alternative” medicine.
The shortfall of alternative medicine, as I came to see, was that it was stuck in the alternative posture, forever opposing the developments of science-based medicine. Conventional medicine on the other hand was stuck opposing many good ideas accepted by alternative practitioners. The medical profession has been highly effective in treating acute and life-threatening conditions and should be held in high regard for that ability. But where I saw regular medicine routinely fail was in the preventative realm and in the treatment of chronic disease. That’s where natural medicine’s search for the underlying causes of illness and its aim to resolve the patient of obstacles to cure can make a real difference. It was clear to me that integrating so-called alternative ideas with the discoveries of medical science was a rich field waiting to be explored.
One of mainstream medicine’s main concerns has been our vulnerability to bacteria, viruses and parasites—the bad guys of the traditional medical drama, which are collectively and politely referred to as “microbes.” We holistic practitioners recognize microbes as ancient agents of human misery, but we’re convinced that an individual’s personal level of health decides his or her reaction to infectious disease agents. Microbes have been with us for eons. Without them, we wouldn’t have evolved to what we are today. In other words, it’s not solely the trillions of agents themselves—the bacteria, viruses, parasites and all the other uglies—that cause disease. Our individual characteristics must play a role, or we’d all be dead from infection. Scientifically educated holistic practitioners recognize that pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and funguses are often major contributing factors in ill health, but they are never the reason why we succumb to illness and eventually die.
Some people get sick when exposed to a flu bug, whereas other (even unvaccinated) people show no debilitating symptoms. Granted, certain people are immune, or perhaps partially immune, as a result of a previous exposure to the organism. But others simply deal with the invader effectively, showing no symptoms of long-term consequence. These individuals clearly possess a robust immune system. Scientists acknowledge that theoretically there could be people who are totally immune to the Ebola virus, bird flu and even HIV, yet have never received protective treatment of any sort. If you are in good health when you are exposed to an “ugly,” your front line defences may deal with the offending agent before your system is even breached. In other words, the level of our response to disease-causing agents depends on our genetic makeup and general health. The search for a single pathogen—a single external agent—as the cause of a particular disease has driven much of modern medical science, but finding that single pathogen is not the whole solution to treating disease.
It now appears that our health is the end result of many cumulative factors. One of these factors is toxicity. Historically, natural medicine has been much concerned with toxicity, but now even staunchly conservative scientists no longer consider the idea far-fetched. Later, we’re going to have a close look at the insidious and accumulative effects of toxic substances in our environment, especially those recently introduced by humankind.
But what underlies our responses to both microbes and toxins? When it comes to this question, informed natural practitioners are geared to search for fundamental causes, an approach they share with scientists everywhere. This is the same approach that led me to the concept of the human health threshold.
I’ve practised homeopathy and functional medicine for nearly a decade now and my present practice focuses on improving the health of thousands of patients. I treat people with everything from eczema to Parkinson’s disease, the common cold to cancer. Some of my special interests are digestive ailments; cardiovascular support; mood and emotional imbalances, including depression and insomnia; immune dysfunction and autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and arthritis; hormonal issues such as menopause and andropause; and autism and attention deficit disorder. I’ve been able to help people lose sixty or more pounds and keep it off through diet and a healthy lifestyle. Patients who’ve been struggling with chronic or life-threatening conditions often view the improvement in their health as something of a miracle, but I always stress that there is no miracle to natural medicine: the miracle is in the way your body works when you bring mindfulness to bear. The addition of antioxidant nutrients derived from nature simply gets your body doing the things it does best to heal itself.
My experience with my patients has brought home to me in so many ways that human health consists of an interplay of variables that include our genetics, our environment, our toxic load, our stress accumulation, our nutrition and emotional state, our exposure to microbes, our level of fitness and a plethora of other factors. Each of us has an individual ability to cope with these factors. The limit of that ability—the point at which, if we exceed it, our health fails—is our human health threshold.
If we imagine a thermometer that registers the sum of all these interacting factors, our health threshold is the boiling point. But the human health threshold is not a predetermined, fixed point, the health equivalent of 100 degrees Celsius; it is unique to each of us. Our capacity for managing those influences that affect our health is not a matter of simple arithmetic. Nonetheless, when we are pushed past our individual thresholds, we are no more able to remain healthy than water can prevent itself from boiling when it’s heated to the boiling point. Today many of us run so dangerously close to that threshold that we increase our probability of an early decline in the functioning of our bodies. We may be living longer than the generations who came before us, but we are living longer with chronic disease and discomfort.
Let’s slip the imaginary thermometer under the tongue of a person who appears to be healthy enough. He gets up in the morning, he goes to work and with sufficient caffeine he seems to be able to rise to any work crisis. This person—let’s call him Will Powers—is a moderately prosperous stockbroker of forty-six whose personal health threshold is 110 degrees. Will has some poor genetic factors running in his family—early cancer and heart disease. These factors raise his health “temperature” to 40 degrees. You can’t do what Will does for a living anywhere except in a busy city: the urban environmental burden raises his temperature another 30 degrees. You’ve probably guessed that Will is a type A personality and this emotional factor accounts for another 20 degrees, bringing him to 90 degrees. Okay, so he also prides himself on being no-nonsense when it comes to his food: he likes his steak and french fries. His dietary factors add 30 degrees. The result: Will’s current health status is 120 degrees, well over the 110-degree threshold. He’s ripe for disease at any time. The longer he stays above his threshold, the more likely he’s going to develop whatever his genetic code has in store for him—probably heart disease or cancer. But if he acts fast, he could prevent the disease that’s on the way.
Our health “temperature” constantly changes with our changing levels of stress, environmental burdens, and our eating and exercise habits, just as the mercury in a thermometer slides up and down in response to changing temperatures. Though Will has little awareness that he’s running 20 degrees above his health threshold, he nonetheless decides he can’t stand the pace another minute. He decides to drop out for a time to take a job as a deckhand on a buddy’s yacht. As soon as he’s on board, his daily stress drops by 15 degrees. He’s eating better, too, so his diet factor improves by 20 degrees, dropping him further, to 85 degrees. Now his body can better deal with the varied health challenges—such famous infectious agents as viruses, bacteria and funguses—that come aboard the yacht as it carries adventure tourists to the Solomon and Galapagos Islands. I call this margin between Will’s current health status and his health threshold a human health buffer zone.
But though he’s enjoying the break, if he is honest with himself, Will is still hungry for the excitement of the deal. Just off the Galapagos, he receives a satellite call from his old boss who offers him a promotion to vice-president, with massive stock options as a further incentive. The stress, of course, will be even greater than before. Too bad Will hasn’t had a chance to read Chapter Four on the price we pay for long-term free radical overload. His burdened health status, soon to be far in excess of his threshold, threatens once again to turn on those defective genes of his. Major bonuses and further promotions lie just ahead, but so do immune-system breakdown, chronic inflammation and eventually, cancer.
The fact behind the threshold phenomenon is that free radicals underlie all disease. They are the common denominator in all the components that make up our health status, and they’re the largest contributor to the burden on that health status. If traditional science-based medicine had not recently begun to integrate with natural practice, that fact might not be understood today. And if I hadn’t followed the course I followed—from bean sprouts to biology—I might not have learned about it. This book is my best attempt, based on science and what I’ve found effective in my own clinical practice, to describe the dramatic relationship between antioxidants and free radicals. More than that, I hope that it will become your map on a journey to excellent health.