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 3: The Causes of Our Free Radical Burden
The program I outline in this book is going to help you create a healthy balance between the antioxidants in your body and “oxidative stress.” I’ve already mentioned some causes of oxidative stress, but in this chapter we’re going to have a closer look. You’ll already be familiar with many of these causes—they’re clearly harmful—but what might be less obvious to you, as it is to people when they first come to see me at my practice, is how the actions of free radicals link these factors to our health.
A woman I’ll call Maria recently came to my clinic with symptoms of both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, including debilitating fatigue and persistent muscle pain. But she didn’t have the typical history—she had never had the Epstein Barr virus. Her blood on a general screening showed nothing remarkable, but when I tested her free radical levels they were very high. Next I tested hair and urine samples for the presence of toxins, and found high levels of arsenic and mercury. I started Maria on alpha-lipoic acid, a strong antioxidant, immune regulator and heavy metal mover. I raised and lowered the dose over the course of treatment depending on her urine analysis results. I also prescribed oral chelation therapy for three months. After six months, her free radical levels had dropped to normal ranges and the heavy metal levels in her hair and urine had dropped to almost nil. Maria said she was pain-free and that she had not been so energetic for at least ten years. In my practice, I find that both chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) and fibromyalgia are both on the rise not because of the virus that has been linked to them but because of our toxic diets and environment.
A few decades ago, you rarely heard the word “toxin.” If something could poison you, you called it “poison.” Everyone knew what poisons were. They were the products labelled with a skull and crossbones: the caustic lye in the garage, the bleach in the laundry room, the bottle of iodine in the medicine cabinet.
Today, toxin is a word on everyone’s lips, perhaps literally. Late-night infomercials—which of course none of us watch—deliver urgent, low-budget warnings about toxins, then offer us the miracle of detoxification. We’re familiar with detoxification too—“detox” as the health-store clerks cozily call it—every celebrity seems to sign up for it. It’s a painless process, this detoxification, normally requiring little more than following the product directions on a bottle and eating, say, beets for a month. A tremendous value at $399.99, plus local taxes where applicable.
Most of us at least nod in recognition when toxins are mentioned but, if my practice is anything to go by, we don’t give them much effective thought otherwise. We’ve all splashed ourselves a few times with a corrosive cleaner while cleaning the toilet. We may share our region with a nuclear reactor. We’ve drunk municipal tap water all our lives. Somehow we’re still here to read this book.
The topic of toxins can seem like new-age vagary elevated to news status by a hungry media; bowel flushes and lymph cleanses sure seem like the brain hatchlings of tree-hugging vegans and fringe health fanatics. In the face of a flood of information, what are we supposed to do, put on a radiation suit when someone walks into the office eating a non-organic apple?
Scientists once thought that the womb protected developing babies from toxic pollution. But a new study of, pesticides and other pollutants. In 2004 researchers at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., tested cord blood from ten newborns for the presence of 413 chemicals, including a diverse range of pesticides, flame retardants and stain- and grease-proof coatings. The newborns averaged 200 contaminants, and the study identified 209 pollutants that had never before even been detected in cord blood.
Since the Second World War, an estimated 85,000 synthetic chemicals have been registered in the United States alone. Toxicological screening data are available for just 7 per cent of these chemicals. This means that tests can detect only one in fourteen chemicals. If 200 trace chemicals were found in a newborn, we might in theory be looking at as many as 2,800 synthetic chemicals in one small body.
I’ll discuss below the dangers of the plastics that deliver our food. But producing that food employs an array of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides to kill the insects and weeds that harm the crops. These obvious toxins run off from fields and enter the water table; we’ve all heard about their effects on our collective health. Sometimes we may think about it when we pass the little organic produce counter at the supermarket, where a small number of worried souls (including myself) prefer to buy their food. You too may choose to buy there. But as I contemplate the vast stocks of non-organic fresh produce elsewhere in the store, I’m compelled to wonder: if it weren’t for pesticides, would over 300 million North Americans even have access to these healthful, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables?
We try to improve our standard of living, and the new adhesives, carpets and building materials outgas volatile organic compounds. We sand away the pre-1960 paint, and so release lead into our homes. We tear down old ceilings in schools and offices, and invisible threads of asbestos insulation float out to lodge in lungs and produce mesothelioma, a usually incurable cancer. We demand our dentist remove the amalgam from our teeth, and we’re told we’ll release a flood of mercury into our bodies. We attempt to eat more healthily by upping our fruits and vegetables, and in doing so are exposed to levels of pesticides strong enough to cause neurological disease if we are so predisposed. And if or when we finally succumb to the toxic burden and go to see our doctor, he or she prescribes us a medication that is likely to increase our total level of free radicals. Is there no escape?
For our purposes, the important fact is this: a growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that toxins are toxic because they increase our free radical burden. If we know what we’re dealing with, we can act to use antioxidants and changes in the way we live and eat to reduce that burden. Let’s start by looking at some broad categories of familiarly “toxic” substances.
They’re everywhere and we love them. We wear them, slip our feet into them, see through them. We sit on them, eat on them, eat from them, eat with them, walk on them, drive around in them, watch them and play with them. The synthetic polymer, a critical component of the chemical industry, has in many respects become the very substance of our material lives.
The first “plastic” was invented about 1910 by Leo Baekeland, who called it Bakelite. Since then, industrial chemists have churned out a polysyllabic catalog of plastics: polymethylmethacrylate (Plexiglas), polyesters, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), polyhexamethylene adipamide (the original nylon polymer), polytetraperfluoroethylene (Teflon), polyurethane and a host of others. But these new substances have been in existence just a few generations; only now are we beginning to understand the impact they’re having on our health. And so dependent are we on plastics, even if it were proven tomorrow that they were directly linked to cancer, it might take decades—if ever—to find an alternative that would be accepted and mainstreamed. In 1945, a year after Baekeland died, annual plastic production in the United States had reached some 400,000 tons. In 1979, the annual volume of plastic manufactured overtook that of steel, the classic symbol of the industrial revolution. Today there are over 50,000,000 tons of plastic produced annually in North America.
Ana Soto is a medical doctor and a professor at Tufts Medical School. Her main research interest for the last twenty-eight years has been breast cancer. In 1989, with Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein, she discovered that certain types of plastic—bisphenol A and epoxy resins—emit chemicals that mimic the female hormone estradiol and can cause breast cells to multiply in cancerous fashion. Even more recent research, from the biological sciences department of the University of Missouri, suggests that infants and children are unable to flush bisphenol A from their system. Formula from plastic bottles and plastic-lined cans expose children to worrisome amounts of the synthetic estrogen. This plastic exposure (especially in our youngsters) during the past half-century may account for the observed swift increase in the lifetime risk of breast cancer. In the 1940s, a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer in the United States was 1 in 22. Today, the risk is 1 in 8. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women aged 34 to 54. This increase cannot be attributed to genetics alone; the increased risk of breast cancer and other cancers has paralleled the proliferation of synthetic chemicals. Researchers are now implicating the outgassing from plastics in other hormone-sensitive cancers. Common household items such as toys, carpets and computers are being linked to other conditions, such as asthma and migraines.
As government agencies have come to recognize the dangers of plastics, some regulation has been put in place. You can look at Appendix B to see how plastics are categorized according to their chemical types. Not all plastic containers are labelled, but several deserve special mention.
PVC (category #3) is used in food packaging, including plastic trays for boxed cookies or chocolates, candy bar wrappers and bottles. Cling wraps, including the kind used commercially to wrap meats, cheeses and other foods, are often made of PVC. Traces of toxic chemicals—especially the phthalates used to soften PVC—can leach into our food, especially fatty foods at higher temperatures. (Never microwave your food in plastic, nor cover it with plastic wrap while heating or freezing it; this enhances the contamination.) We are all exposed to these chemicals every day, but we can lessen our children’s exposure. PVC is commonly used in teethers and soft squeeze toys for young children, in beach balls, bath toys, dolls and other products such as knapsacks, raincoats and umbrellas. Again, scientists are increasingly aware of the dangers of phthalates and concern is rising for children who play with these soft PVC toys.
A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that some styrene compounds leaching from polystyrene food containers are also able to mimic estrogen and may therefore disrupt normal hormonal functioning. Worryingly, styrene is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. To get a sense of just how extensively we’re exposed, the next time you go shopping, take a look inside your (plastic) grocery bags and ask yourself this: Every week, when I arrive home with the groceries, do I also want to deliberately swallow a pill that could cause cancer? If not, it’s high time to make some hard decisions about using alternatives to plastics.
Ironically, many plastics regarded as “green” or “healthy”—those used in Nalgene bottles, the big water bottles used for water coolers, Brita pitchers, Advent and other baby bottles, most plastics with recycling number #7 on the bottom, the lining of tin canned foods, and the various dental “sealants”—contain bisphenol A, the potential estrogen-mimicking agent and hormone disruptor. Some studies have suggested that bisphenol A may have a negative impact on our health, even at the parts-per-trillion level—the equivalent of one drop of chemical in a lake. Such a finding is alarming since most chemicals are marketed as having a safe “threshold” for consumption. The plastics industry acknowledges that leaching can take place at parts-per-billion levels—leaching of most chemicals found in plastic is more likely to take place through heating or when the container is scuffed, scratched, old and worn—but disputes the claim that parts-per-trillion levels could be harmful. As a practitioner of homeopathy, which often employs medicines in ultradilute form, I know that parts-per-trillion can aid in recovery. So I’m inclined to believe that other substances, similarly diluted, could cause harm. Health Canada announced further testing on bisphenol A—one of two hundred chemicals—in 2007.
What is the link between plastics and free radicals? When an error in cell division results in the “daughter” cells having the wrong number of chromosomes, that error is called “aneuploidy.” In some cases there is a missing chromosome; in others cases an extra one. A great deal is known about the effects of aneuploidy, but less is understood about its causes. Many scientists suspect that the underlying cause of aneuploidy is our friend the free radical. Free radicals attack the genetic code, and thereby replace good code with faulty code. When this happens early in conception—and it often does—it is called “meiotic” aneuploidy and results in the spontaneous miscarriage of the fetus. The human body is usually ingenious in its ability to detect and deal with mutation. But babies who survive to birth after aneuploidy are likely to have birth defects, including Down’s syndrome: meiotic aneuploidy causes 10 to 20 per cent of birth defects in people.
Another type of aneuploidy is associated with almost all solid-tumour cancers.
The free radicals generated by the plastic toxin bisphenol A have been implicated in both these types of genetic mutations.
I don’t want to overwhelm you all at once with all the chemicals and other harmful substances that daily life brings us in contact with. Our chemical industries work day and night to produce stuff we want and—more often than not—believe we need. The book you’re holding, for example. The paper mill that made the paper digested trees to make a pulp and separated the fibres from the impurities, then bleached, dewatered, pressed and rolled the pulp while emitting plenty of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, dioxins and greenhouse gases. If the pulp mill didn’t do that, you couldn’t be reading this now. And you wouldn’t be reading anything else either. That’s the modern dilemma.
Shampoo, shaving cream, lip gloss, hand soap, dish detergents, laundry detergents, moisturizing creams, perfumes, air fresheners, cosmetics and deodorants. In our heart of hearts, we know these useful little additions to our daily lives start out as nasty raw materials—we just don’t like to think about it. Dyes and pigments, rubber, the fabrics that make up our clothing, the paint on our houses, the tube of glue in the kitchen drawer—we know they started out in places with chimneys belching sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid, carbon dioxide and dioxins. We know—but we don’t want to know.
In fact, I don’t want to bog you down here with worry on your path to better health, so for more info please consult Appendix B, where along with the plastics list, I provide information on automotive toxins; dioxins and furans; pesticides; heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic and lead; and the impact of radiation, including the sun’s rays, radon gas and mobile telephone radiation.
But I do want to spend some time on certain important areas that burden our systems with excess free radicals every day.
Of course we want food that is fresh and hasn’t spoiled, so that it doesn’t poison us. We want food to look fresh too, even if it isn’t. We want it to smell good, feel good and taste good. The food industry, to whom added preservatives have always been important, continues to respond to our desires with an array of enhancers. In Appendix C I list a few you can chew on the next time you open a package of chips, cookies or almost anything eaten from a package. I refer to them as “unknown” and “sneaky” ingredients because only limited literature supports their negative side effects, but manufacturers know that we’re beginning to look for them because users increasingly attribute side effects to them. To keep us guessing, manufacturers often resort to derivatives with slightly different names and acronyms.
When most food came from farms, shopping was in fact easier and food more nutritious. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet. Most people may not be able to pronounce the names of many of these chemicals, but they still want to know what the chemicals do and which ones are safe, which are poorly tested and which may be possible causes of their health complaints. Serious studies have thrown the safety of many of food additives into doubt, or condemned them altogether. A simple rule about additives is to avoid those found in the charts in Appendix C. Not only are they among the most questionable additives, but they are also used primarily in foods of low nutritional value.
I know that it can be hard to take warnings about additives too seriously. After all, they appear in famous products, brightly lit in the aisles of supermarkets. Can they really be so bad? Yes, they can. The Additive Cemetery is filled with sweeteners, preservatives and colourants once accepted as safe and now banned altogether.
What about those “natural” additives, sugar and salt? They seem so harmless, these brother crystals, and processed food manufacturers wouldn’t dream of selling you a product without one of them—usually both of them. But sugar in excess causes inflammation and cellular damage; salt imbalances electrolytes and can cause high blood pressure and may in fact be a major contributor to our present-day epidemic of hypertension. Together they may pose the greatest risk of all because we consume so much of them.
Like industrial toxins, food additives are so pervasive it’s difficult to avoid them entirely. That’s why I want you to understand that they exert their destructive effects—when they do—through the mechanism of free radical action. Choice examples are the additives glutamate and its derivative monosodium glutamate (MSG). Glutamate, when added to products above the natural levels found in food, can cause excess free radicals in our cellular mitochondria that cause deterioration of cell membrane function; that damage seems to be a contributing cause of oxidative neuron death in neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. MSG, the sodium salt of glutamate, at dose levels above 4 mg/g of body weight has been shown to induce oxidative stress and free radical accumulation in liver cells. Many of us have come to know the after effects of MSG as “Chinese restaurant syndrome”—a nasty response to too much MSG that can range from headache to stomach upset and diarrhea.
As a society we generally believe that maintaining health is as simple as occasional restoration through a prescription written by our doctor for a drug produced by the pharmaceutical industry. We don’t normally think of prescription drugs as toxic since our doctor has told us to take them to combat a malady. We believe that we can often achieve a quick and easy fix for something that is the result of a lifetime of poor choices.
All drugs have side effects; we’re familiar with that notion. But a side effect is actually a nice way of saying a primary and unwanted effect that a prescription medication may have on your body. The simple fact is, all drugs cause toxicity, and this is especially likely when they are used for reasons other than those intended. The abuse of over-the-counter drugs is especially widespread. Acetaminophen, for example, the active ingredient in Tylenol, has recently been shown to have far more toxic effects on the body then previously believed, even after a few doses. Scientific studies show that acetaminophen induces profound elevation of free radicals and oxidative stress and reduces the levels of our own natural antioxidants.
It would be too much like high school chemistry class to lead you through the broad range of pharmacopoeia and biochemical side effects of major prescription drugs. But allow me to partially summarize by drawing on the work of Dr. Ray D. Strand, whose recent book Death by Prescription: The Shocking Truth Behind an Overmedicated Nation addresses this issue. He writes that the leading drug problem today is not the use of illegal drugs, but the use of legal prescription drugs. Strand argues that prescription drugs are five times more likely to kill you than an automobile accident or AIDS. The fourth leading cause of death in the United States is properly prescribed and administered medication. Add improperly prescribed medication, and prescription drugs become the third leading cause of death. Strand cites over two million hospital admissions and 180,000 deaths each year in the United States alone due to adverse drug reactions.
There is a time and place for all modalities of medicine—including pharmaceutical drugs that are properly prescribed. But when you decide to accept a precription from your doctor, you need to know that taking the drug will increase the free radical burden in your body. The pressure of a drug-induced free radical burden affects the liver. Every drug you ingest (including caffeine and alcohol) ties up liver enzymes and puts a strain on the body’s supply of antioxidants. In a healthy liver, antioxidants transform harmful free radicals into harmless water-soluble substances that the body gets rid of through urine, feces, sweat, and even breath. Over the long term, any prescription medication causes the liver to become hindered and sluggish, and raises the amount of free radicals in the body. By virtue of the pharmaceutical drugs we are pushing through our systems, we raise our free radical load enormously.
IMS Health is a pharmaceutical information and consulting company with a presence in over a hundred countries worldwide—just about every major pharmaceutical and biotech company in the world is a client. IMS recently reported that global spending on prescription drugs in 2005 topped U.S.$600 billion. To put this into perspective, the estimated economy of the entire world in 2006 was at US $65 trillion. That means that at for every hundred dollars in circulation around the globe, approximately one dollar is being spent on prescription medication. For example, Pfizer’s cholesterol pill, Lipitor, is the best-selling drug in the world, with annual sales of $12.9 billion, more than twice as much as its closest competitors: Plavix, a blood thinner from Bristol-Myers Squibb; Nexium, a heartburn pill from AstraZeneca; and Advair, the asthma inhaler from GlaxoSmithKline.
Armed with the knowledge that certain drugs increase your free radical load, what are you to do? The simple answer is to read on and then follow the instructions in the Action Plan of the book: you’ll cover all your bases no matter what prescription drugs you’re taking. But I’ve got some immediate and simple answers for people taking the most common prescription drugs on the market for your heart. If you’re taking Lipitor for elevated cholesterol, take the antioxidant Coenzyme-Q10 (CoQ10). Lipitor is among the “HMG-CoA reductase” inhibitors that create a deficiency of CoQ10 in all of your cells and results in the breakdown of your tissues causing kidney damage and sore achy muscles. Consider taking 100 mg of CoQ10 twice daily with food.
If you’re taking Plavix, you’ll be happy to know that there is no known free radical side effect from it. It may actually protect against free radical accumulation. However, you might want to research nattokinaseas a potential and effective natural alternative to Plavix, since the drug has been known to cause abnormal liver function and clotting disorders.
Lastly, perhaps you’ve been put on Norvasc for high blood pressure. (This drug represents about $5 billion in annual sales.) Norvasc is a calcium channel blocker and may also protect you against certain free radicals that may be damaging your artery linings. But it may cause free radical damage in the kidney. If you are taking this drug, I would strongly recommend that you consider 100 mg of alpha-lipoic acid daily as a part of your antioxidant supplement routine.
We say that our bodies “burn” food to generate energy. What we mean is that our bodies’ cells combine oxygen with food molecules for this purpose: it’s important to remind ourselves that this fundamental metabolic process produces oxidative stress. Research is now confirming what common sense would suggest: too much or too little of certain foods will affect the numbers of volatile radical by-products we produce.
If you eat more than your body needs to generate energy, it forces you to metabolize fuel that your body doesn’t need, which it stores as fat. This metabolic process causes the accumulation of excess free radicals. Heart disease at the level of the artery doesn’t start with deposits of plaque; it starts well before that, with free radical injury to the lining of the artery. It’s after the free radical injury to the lining of the artery that your body initiates the healing response by depositing the plaque.
And, of course, damaging, free radical-generating substances—pollutants and micro-organisms—can enter our bodies with our food. But beyond this indirect role in sickness, our diet’s greatest contribution to our health lies in choosing what we eat to balance our free radical burden. In the chapter on nutrition, we’ll look specifically at how to employ the powerful antioxidant tool that diet can become.
If our diet is the sum of what we take in—the fuel of our metabolism—then exercise represents part of the other side of the metabolic process: our energy output. Since, like any burning of fuel, the metabolic process is an oxidative process, it’s not surprising that too little or too much exercise will affect our free radical levels.
We all know that not getting enough exercise is bad for our health. Heart disease—along with artery lining dysfunction, plaque formation, the storage of toxins and fat and poor circulation—are all proven consequences of inactivity. It’s our predominantly sedentary lifestyle—not to mention overconsumption—that prompts our doctors to warn us so frequently to start exercising (or keep up the good work) if we want to remain free of cardiovascular disease. The ultimate consequence of too little activity is free radical strain on the liver. Down at the molecular level, our cells succumb to “metabolic syndrome”—later known to patients as a combination of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity.
You may consider “hero” athletes such as cyclist Lance Armstrong to be the epitome of health, and for the most part they are. But where many of these athletes fail is in their antioxidant protection routines. I can’t prove it, but I suspect Armstrong contracted cancer in part because of the excessive free radical-producing exercise routines that were necessary to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. Tests have shown that Armstrong has a high aerobic threshold (the oxygen-carrying capacity in his blood) and can maintain a higher tempo or cadence (often 120 rpm) in a lower bicycle gear than his competitors. This style is in direct contrast to previous champions, who used a high gear and brute strength to win. But the high-cadence pedalling style, which allows the leg muscles to recover faster, and so allows the cyclist to sustain effort for longer periods of time, transfers the stress to the heart, which is at higher risk of free radical damage.
Lactic acid is responsible for the feeling we get when a muscle is exhausted—often a cramp under the rib cage from running beyond our ability. The most unusual aspect of Armstrong’s physiology is his exceptionally large heart and lung capacity and his ability to maintain low lactate levels. He consequently feels less fatigue from extreme exertion.
But it’s actually right there where a substantial amount of free radical damage may be done. Lactic acid often acts in the body as a delayed “stop” signal. There comes a point at which, depending on our level of athleticism, our muscles, lungs and heart are not supposed to endure further oxidation and free radical damage, and free radical damage to DNA and body tissues begins to accelerate. In my opinion, Lance Armstrong had some cancer code ravelled deep within his DNA that said, “Slow down, Lance. If free radicals turn me on, you’ll get testicular cancer.” Lance couldn’t hear those genes, of course.
Stress is a collective, scientific-sounding term for our more unpleasant emotions. Some people still find it a bit surprising to see the connection between our “mind”—our subjective thinking and feeling—and changes in body chemistry that scientists can actually measure. In fact, the link between mind and body has been intensely investigated in recent decades and some remarkable findings have emerged.
Here’s an example. You’ve probably heard everywhere, for example, how omega-3 fatty acids and other so-called essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential to humans and yet cannot be synthesized by the body. They must be obtained through our diet and our diets are often strikingly deficient in them. That’s why we’re starting to see signs in supermarkets advertising products such as eggs and dairy with added “omega-3.” You might assume that the big benefit of the essential fatty acids is to your heart or arteries. But a host of laboratory and population studies suggest that, outstanding among the many benefits of essential fatty acids, they are important to our mental and emotional health. Countries where diets are deficient in these fatty acids show a higher incidence of mental illness. A lack of essential fatty acids has also been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Other studies have demonstrated that the addition of EFAs to diets can relieve such conditions as depression, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia.
So it should come as no surprise that stress—obviously a feature of our mental lives—affects our physical selves at every level.
You and I may never have been the sort of child who would put a kitten in a harmless headlock just to watch it squirm in desperation. But anyone can understand the experience well enough: being threatened while being forcibly constrained is terribly stressful. I mention the kitten because—like it or not—researchers investigating stress have subjected animals to something similar in order to analyze the chemical outcome of this so-called immobilization-stress state. They have found it to be associated with increased free radical production, decreased antioxidant enzyme levels, increased oxidized lipids in tissues (which has been linked to heart disease) and oxidized lipids in brain tissue—linked in some studies to degenerative brain diseases. This free radical activity has in turn been found in human studies to be clearly associated with impaired cognitive function. Major stress for a single eight-hour period increases oxidative stress and free radical attack on the brain, with accompanying decline in memory and cognitive function. Antioxidant nutrients have been shown to mitigate these effects when administered before or after the stress-induced circumstances.
The chemical specifics of stress go something like this. We’re unexpectedly faced with the prospect of losing our job. With the speed of light, a chemical cascade begins. Our nerves fire off from the various awareness centres to the hypothalamus, deep inside the brain. There, a hormone known as CRH is released directly into a connecting pathway to our pituitary gland. The pituitary now secretes its own hormone known as ACTH straight into our main bloodstream. ACTH acts on our adrenal glands (little pyramid-shaped structures that sit on top of our kidneys) causing them to release cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones arouse our body to meet the presenting challenge, and they do so with such intensity that the cells of our organs begin working overtime. Of course free radicals—the natural result of accelerated body processes—begin to appear. When this happens too often, the free radicals cannot be neutralized and become truly harmful.
Acute stress, with its knee-jerk reactions, happens too quickly to register consciously, but we soon experience dramatic physical changes that we interpret as “stress”: the dry mouth, the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the shallow breathing, the burst of physical energy. If the stressful event is exciting and not just awful, our brain releases the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. We may or may not exhibit behaviour that may or may not qualify as temporary insanity. Then a suborgan of our brains—the amygdala—may step in to play a delayed role as regulator. Eventually our serotonin and dopamine levels decline, perhaps leaving us depressed and emotionally frazzled. At last, when we’ve had time to debrief ourselves, input from the sensory regions of our brains is edited and filed away as a learned experience. However, this debriefing mechanism is always a little late to stop a flood of free radicals.
Chronic long-term stress caused by lack of sleep, deadlines, always rushing, always being on the go, is clearly a factor in aging. When someone is subject to this sort of stress, we can almost see them age before our eyes: their expression changes, their posture changes, their voice changes.
Now it’s time to recall the kitten in the headlock. The great dilemma of stress in modern humans is that our brain chemistry is outdated. We simply haven’t had time to fully evolve into Homo technocraticus. Our reactions evolved under conditions of physical dangers tens—hundreds—of thousands of years ago, when they could help us spring to our defence when we were attacked by sabre-toothed tigers while struggling with stone-pointed spears to bring down a mammoth. But these emergency stress responses, when they appear in the face of dangers that call for no physical response—we’re like stressed-out kittens held immobile by our lifestyles—have become an added burden to our health that pushes us towards our personal health threshold. Today, ringing telephones, dinging emails, looming deadlines and abstract responsibilities threaten to overwhelm us and elicit the prehistoric chemical cascade. Unfortunately (and, well, fortunately), we encounter telephones and computers far more often than our distant ancestors encountered sabre-toothed tigers. The effects of cortisol and the other stress hormones, when they flow through the blood for too long and in too concentrated a form, are highly undesirable and lead to uncontrolled weight gain and, of course, elevated levels of free radicals.
Elevated levels of oxidative stress may not be the only consequence of stress. Loss of our protective antioxidant factors is just as destructive. In studies at the Department of Neurology, Medical College of Wisconsin, researchers placed subjects under controlled stress by having them study for tests and depriving them of sleep. The results were measurably lower levels of protective antioxidants in the blood, leaving the subjects vulnerable to free radical attack. It’s easy to extrapolate from this the effects of sustained stress. Studies on psychological effects of stress in the work force suggest that the higher the employee’s stress, tension and anxiety, the higher the damage done by free radicals to their DNA.
We should hardly be surprised that stressful events trigger molecular events inside our bodies. Our modern view is generally that the mind cannot be separated from the body and, for more than half a century, science has been bent on demonstrating this. Researchers have induced such subjective experiences as fear, calm, anger and psychological stress in laboratory environments and traced the biochemical cascade of brain chemistry that is implicated in these feelings. The findings are conclusive: We are endowed with an intricately woven neural net that connects the psyche to visceral health. The brain—the seat of the subjective mind—can be shown to have a direct effect on such “chemical” systems as immunity and genetic expression.
Just as you can’t separate mind from body, you can’t separate mind from the immune system. The immune system responds automatically to viruses and bacteria and other foreign molecules just as the brain responds automatically to stress. And these two response systems respond to each other, working constantly together to maintain an internal balance.
Our nerves link the brain to every organ and tissue in our body and to those very organs responsible for stress responses. Challenging or threatening situations arouse the brain’s stress response and this process releases hormones that regulate the immune system. But if you’ve already reached your health threshold, a variety of molecular, cellular and behavioural responses may go so far as to initiate self-attack. Under ideal circumstances, any time your body has been invaded by a foreign organism, your immune responses would attempt to counteract the looming threat. But when your individual threshold has been exceeded, the body’s resources are simply spread too thin to come to your aid, and the body breaks down.
Contemporary science is just beginning to understand the many ways in which the brain and the immune system are connected, how they help to regulate and balance each other and how they can malfunction and produce chronic disease. When my patients report a point since which they’ve “never been well”—a bout of pneumonia, say—I explain that this episode wasn’t what caused them to develop their later disease. It was simply the one that brought their system to the “boiling point.” Now, treatment becomes, in part, a matter of mind: if we do nothing more than establish a positive thought process, we reduce the burden on our threshold and begin the healing process.
The “mind” doesn’t just affect the “body.” It works the other way, too. A series of recent studies suggest that if we have an infection or an inflammatory condition, or any ailment for that matter, and free radicals begin to circulate in our blood at higher than desirable levels, the result may be a clinical depression. Your biology becomes your psychology.
You’ll remember our friend Will Powers from Chapter One, the broker with the borderline health threshold. Will has long had a recurrent cold sore that crops up every time he loses sleep, works too hard or get stressed out, which is pretty often since he went back to work as a broker. These cold sores are a type of herpes virus and a perfect example of the psychoneuroimmuno-modulatory phenomenon. Will picked the virus up from a nice girl when he was eighteen and, although his first cold sore healed after a while, the virus has stayed dormant at the dorsal root of his spinal cord, only to peek out again whenever his immune system’s attention is diverted. This is especially likely when Will exceeds his health threshold, which—yep—he’s doing again. When his stress-triggered cortisol levels have remained high long enough, such that his immune system is sufficiently depressed, his first-line defence is effectively sidetracked and there’s the sore on the same spot on his lip.
This interwoven mind-body-immune relationship of nerves, hormones and organs also regulates our food intake and reproductive behaviour. Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to such unhealthy and unappealing developments as infertility and belly fat. Will Powers hasn’t been too troubled about his sperm count recently but he has noticed that his abdominal muscles are things he has to dig his fingers in to find these days.
If you think that with careful living you can avoid all sources of oxidative stress, think again. You’ll remember that mitochondrial energy creation—the process within our cells that powers our bodies—creates free radical accumulation, just as exhaust is the consequence of an internal combustion engine. In fact, simply living and breathing day to day is a primary source of free radical accumulation in the body. That’s why we creatures have evolved an internal cellular antioxidant capacity—our antioxidant armour—to neutralize free radicals. But our internal capacity to neutralize this metabolic, free radical exhaust is not enough. Day-to-day metabolism seems to cause the creation of more damaging free radicals than there are antioxidants to clean them up. Our bodies need help, and if they don’t get it, we pay the price in ill health.