Combating Air Pollution Effects with Food

There is a food that offers the best of both worlds—significantly improving our ability to detox carcinogens like diesel fumes and decreasing inflammation in our airways—all while improving our respiratory defenses against infections.

Outdoor air pollution may be the ninth leading cause of death and disability in the world, responsible for millions of deaths from lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory infection. In the United States, living in a polluted city was associated with 16, 27, and 28 percent increases in total, cardiovascular, and lung cancer deaths, compared to living in a city with cleaner air. As well, living in a city with polluted air may lead to up to a 75 percent increase in the risk of a heart attack. “Additionally, the possibility of dying in a traffic jam is two and a half times greater in a polluted city.” No one wants to be living in a traffic jam, but it’s better than dying in one.

In addition to causing deaths, air pollution is also the cause of a number of health problems. It may not only exacerbate asthma but also increase the risk of developing asthma in the first place. These pollutants may trigger liver disease and even increase the risk of diabetes. Indeed, “even when atmospheric pollutants are within legally established limits, they can be harmful to health.” So, what can we do about it?

Paper after paper have described all the terrible things air pollution can do to us, but “most…failed to mention public policy. Therefore, while science is making great strides in demonstrating the harmful effects of atmospheric pollution on human health, public authorities are not using these data” to reduce emissions, as such measures might inconvenience the population “and, therefore, might not be politically acceptable.” We need better vehicle inspections, efficient public transport, bus lanes, bicycle lanes, and even urban tolls to help clean up the air, but, while we’re waiting for all of that, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?

As I discuss in my video Best Food to Counter the Effects of Air Pollution, our body naturally has detoxifying enzymes, not only in our liver, but also lining our airways. Studies show that people born with less effective detox enzymes have an exaggerated allergic response to diesel exhaust, suggesting that these enzymes actively combat the inflammation caused by pollutants in the air. A significant part of the population has these substandard forms of the enzyme, but, either way, what can we do to boost the activity of whichever detoxification enzymes we do have?

One of my previous videos Prolonged Liver Function Enhancement from Broccoli investigated how broccoli can dramatically boost the activity of the detox enzymes in our liver, but what about our lungs? Researchers fed some smokers a large stalk of broccoli every day for ten days to see if it would affect the level of inflammation within their bodies. Why smokers? Smoking is so inflammatory that you can have elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels for up to 30 years after quitting, and that inflammation can start almost immediately after you start smoking, so it’s critical to never start in the first place. If you do, though, you can cut your level of that inflammation biomarker CRP nearly in half after just ten days eating a lot of broccoli. Broccoli appears to cut inflammation in nonsmokers as well, which may explain in part why eating more than two cups of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, or other cruciferous veggies a day is associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of dying, compared to eating a third of a cup a day or less, as you can see at 3:41 in my video.

What about air pollution? We know that the cruciferous compound “is the most potent known inducer” of our detox enzymes, so most of the research has been on its ability to fight cancer. But, for the first time, researchers tried to see if it could combat the pro-inflammatory impact of pollutants, such as diesel exhaust. They put some human lung lining cells in a petri dish, and, as you can see at 4:11 in my video, the number of detox enzymes produced after dripping on some broccoli goodness skyrocketed. Yes, but we don’t inhale broccoli or snort it. We eat it. Can it still get into our lungs and help? Yes. After two days of broccoli sprout consumption, researchers took some cells out of the subjects’ noses and found up to 100 times more detox enzyme expression compared to eating a non-cruciferous vegetable, alfalfa sprouts. If only we could squirt some diesel exhaust up people’s noses. That’s just what some UCLA researchers did, at an amount equal to daily rush hour exposure on a Los Angeles freeway. Within six hours, the number of inflammatory cells in their nose shot up and continued to rise. But, in the group who had been getting a broccoli sprout extract, the inflammation went down and stayed down, as you can see at 4:58 in my video

Since the dose in those studies is equivalent to the consumption of one or two cups of broccoli, their study “demonstrates the potential preventive and therapeutic potential of broccoli or broccoli sprouts,” but if broccoli is so powerful at suppressing this inflammatory immune response, might it interfere with normal immune function? After all, the battle with viruses like influenza can happen in the nose. So what happens when some flu viruses are dripped into the nostrils of broccoli-sprout eaters compared with people consuming non-cruciferous alfalfa sprouts? After eating broccoli sprouts, we get the best of both worlds—less inflammation and an improved immune response. As you can see at 5:55 in my video, after eating alfalfa sprouts, there is a viral spike in their nose. After eating a package of broccoli sprouts every day, however, our body is able to keep the virus in check, potentially offering “a safe, low-cost strategy for reducing influenza risk among smokers and other at risk populations.”

So, better immune function, yet less inflammation, potentially reducing the impact of pollution on allergic disease and asthma, at least for an “enthusiastic broccoli consumer.” But what about cancer and detoxifying air pollutants throughout the rest of our body? We didn’t know, until now. Off to China, where “levels of outdoor air pollution…are among the highest in the world.” By day one, those getting broccoli sprouts were able to get rid of 60 percent more benzene from their bodies. “The key finding…was the observed rapid and highly durable elevation of the detoxification of… a known human carcinogen.” Now, this was using broccoli sprouts, which are highly concentrated, equivalent to about five cups of broccoli a day, so we don’t know how well more modest doses would work. But if they do, eating broccoli could “provide a frugal means to attenuate…the long-term health risks” of air pollution. More on air pollution here.

I’ve been reading about the terrible effects of air pollution for a long time and I am thrilled there’s something we can do other than uprooting our families and moving out to the countryside.


For more on cruciferocity, see my videos Lung Cancer Metastases and Broccoli and Breast Cancer Survival Vegetable.

There’s a secret to maximizing broccoli’s benefits. See Flashback Friday:Second Strategy to Cooking Broccoli.

For more on Cooking Greens: How to Cook Greens and Best Way to Cook Vegetables.

What about broccoli sprout pills? See Broccoli: Sprouts vs. Supplements.

Speaking of respiratory inflammation, what about dietary approaches to asthma? Learn more:

There are sources of indoor pollution, too. See Throw Household Products Off the Scent.

There is one way what we eat can directly impact air pollution, beyond just personal protection. Check out Flashback Friday: Diet and Climate Change: Cooking Up a Storm.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Does Drinking Soy Milk Do to Hormone Levels?

The vast majority of breast cancers start out hormone-dependent, where estradiol, the primary human estrogen, “plays a crucial role in their breast cancer development and progression.” That’s one of the reasons why soy food consumption appears so protective against breast cancer: Soy phytoestrogens, like genistein, act as estrogen-blockers and block the binding of estrogens, such as estradiol, to breast cancer cells, as you can see at 0:24 in my video How to Block Breast Cancer’s Estrogen-Producing Enzymes.

Wait a second. The majority of breast cancers occur after menopause when the ovaries have stopped producing estrogen. What’s the point of eating estrogen-blockers if there’s no estrogen to block? It turns out that breast cancer tumors produce their own estrogen from scratch to fuel their own growth.

As you can see at 1:03 in my video, “estrogens may be formed in breast tumors by two pathways, namely the aromatase pathway and sulfatase pathway.” The breast cancer takes cholesterol and produces its own estrogen using either the aromatase enzyme or two hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzymes.

So, there are two ways to stop breast cancer. One is to use anti-estrogens—that is, estrogen-blockers—like the soy phytoestrogens or the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen. “However, another way to block estradiol is by using anti-enzymes” to prevent the breast cancer from making all the estrogen in the first place. And, indeed, there are a variety of anti-aromatase drugs in current use. In fact, inhibiting the estrogen production has been shown to be more effective than just trying to block the effects of the estrogen, “suggesting that the inhibition of estrogen synthesis is clinically very important for the treatment of estrogen-dependent breast cancer.”

It turns out that soy phytoestrogens can do both.

Using ovary cells taken from women undergoing in vitro fertilization, soy phytoestrogens were found to reduce the expression of the aromatase enzyme. What about in breast cancer cells, though? This occurred in breast cancer cells, too, and not only was aromatase activity suppressed, but that of the other estrogen-producing enzyme, as well. But this was in a petri dish. Does soy also suppress estrogen production in people?

Well, as you can see at 2:34 in my video, circulating estrogen levels appear significantly lower in Japanese women than Caucasian American women, and Japan does have the highest per-capita soy food consumption, but you can’t know it’s the soy until you put it to the test. Japanese women were randomized to add soy milk to their diet or not for a few months. Estrogen levels successfully dropped about a quarter in the soy milk supplemented group. Interestingly, as you can see at 3:04 in my video, when the researchers tried the same experiment in men, they got similar results: a significant drop in female hormone levels, with no change in testosterone levels.

These results, though, are in Japanese men and women who were already consuming soy in their baseline diet. So, the study was really just looking at higher versus lower soy intake. What happens if you give soy milk to women in Texas? As you can see at 3:29 in my video, circulating estrogen levels were cut in half. Since increased estrogen levels are “markers for high risk for breast cancer,” the effectiveness of soy in reducing estrogen levels may help explain why Chinese and Japanese women have such low rates of breast cancer. What’s truly remarkable is that estrogen levels stayed down for a month or two even after the subjects stopped drinking soy milk, which suggests you don’t have to consume soy every day to have the cancer protective benefit.

Wait, soy protects against breast cancer? Yes, in study after study after study—and even in women at high risk. Watch my video BRCA Breast Cancer Genes and Soy for the full story.

 What about if you already have breast cancer? In that case, see Is Soy Healthy for Breast Cancer Survivors?

 And what about GMO soy? Get the facts in GMO Soy and Breast Cancer.

 Okay, then, Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy? Watch my video and find out.


What else can we do to decrease breast cancer risk? See:

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In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Best Source of Resistant Starch

Resistant starch wasn’t discovered until 1982. Before that, we thought all starch could be digested by the digestive enzymes in our small intestine. Subsequent studies confirmed that there are indeed starches that resist digestion and end up in our large intestine, where they can feed our good bacteria, just like fiber does. Resistant starch is found naturally in many common foods, including grains, vegetables, beans, seeds, and some nuts, but in small quantities, just a few percent of the total. As I discuss in my video Getting Starch to Take the Path of Most Resistance, there are a few ways, though, to get some of the rest of the starch to join the resistance.

When regular starches are cooked and then cooled, some of the starch recrystallizes into resistant starch. For this reason, pasta salad can be healthier than hot pasta and potato salad can be healthier than a baked potato, but the effect isn’t huge. The resistant starch goes from about 3 percent up to 4 percent. The best source of resistant starch is not from eating cold starches, but from eating beans, which start at 4 or 5 percent and go up from there.

If you mix cooked black beans with a “fresh fecal” sample, there’s so much fiber and resistant starch in the beans that the pH drops as good bacteria churn out beneficial short-chain fatty acids, which are associated both directly and indirectly with lower colon cancer risk. (See Stool pH and Colon Cancer.) The more of this poopy black bean mixture you smear on human colon cancer, the fewer cancer cells survive.

Better yet, we can eat berries with our meals that act as starch blockers. Raspberries, for example, completely inhibit the enzyme that we use to digest starch, leaving more for our friendly flora. So, putting raspberry jam on your toast, strawberries on your corn flakes, or making blueberry pancakes may allow your good bacteria to share in some of the breakfast bounty.

Another way to feed our good bacteria is to eat intact grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. In one study, researchers split people into two groups and had them eat the same food, but in one group, the seeds, grains, beans, and chickpeas were eaten more or less in a whole form, while they were ground up for the other group. For example, for breakfast, the whole-grain group got muesli, and the ground-grain group had the same muesli, but it was blended into a porridge. Similarly, beans were added to salads for the whole-grain group, whereas they were blended into hummus for the ground-grain group. Note that both groups were eating whole grains—not refined—that is, they were eating whole foods. In the ground-grain group, though, those whole grains, beans, and seeds were made into flour or blended up.

What happened? Those on the intact whole-grain diet “resulted in a doubling of the amount excreted compared to the usual diet and produced an additional and statistically significant increase in stool mass” compared with those on the ground whole-grain diet, even though they were eating the same food and the same amount of food. Why? On the whole-grain diet, there was so much more for our good bacteria to eat that they grew so well and appeared to bulk up the stool. Even though people chewed their food, “[l]arge amounts of apparently whole seeds were recovered from stools,” but on closer inspection, they weren’t whole at all. Our bacteria were having a smorgasbord. The little bits and pieces left after chewing transport all this wonderful starch straight down to our good bacteria. As a result, stool pH dropped as our bacteria were able to churn out so many of those short-chain fatty acids. Whole grains are great, but intact whole grains may be even better, allowing us to feed our good gut bacteria with the leftovers.

Once in our colon, resistant starches have been found to have the same benefits as fiber: softening and bulking stools, reducing colon cancer risk by decreasing pH, increasing short-chain fatty acid production, reducing products of protein fermentation (also known as products of putrefaction), and decreasing secondary bile products.

Well, if resistant starch is so great, why not just take resistant starch pills? It should come as no surprise that commercial preparations of resistant starch are now available and “food scientists have developed a number of RS-enriched products.” After all, some find it “difficult to recommend a high-fiber diet to the general public.” Wouldn’t be easier to just enrich some junk food? And, indeed, you now can buy pop tarts bragging they contain “resistant corn starch.”

Just taking resistant starch supplements does not work, however. There have been two trials so far trying to prevent cancer in people with genetic disorders that put them at extremely high risk, with virtually a 100-percent chance of getting cancer, and resistant starch supplements didn’t help. A similar result was found in another study. So, we’re either barking up the wrong tree, the development of hereditary colon cancer is somehow different than regular colon cancer, or you simply can’t emulate the effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber in plant-rich diets just by giving people some resistant starch supplements.

For resistant starch to work, it has to get all the way to the end of the colon, which is where most tumors form. But, if the bacteria higher up eat it all, then resistant starch may not be protective. So, we also may have to eat fiber to push it along. Thus, we either eat huge amounts of resistant starch—up near the level consumed in Africa, which is twice as much as were tried in the two cancer trials—or we consume foods rich in both resistant starch and fiber. In other words, “[f]rom a public health perspective, eating more of a variety of food rich in dietary fibre including wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, and pulses [such as chickpeas and lentils] is a preferable strategy for reducing cancer risk.”


What’s so great about resistant starch? See my video Resistant Starch and Colon Cancer.

I first broached the subject of intact grains in Are Green Smoothies Bad for You?.

Why should we care about what our gut flora eats? See Gut Dysbiosis: Starving Our Microbial Self.

Did I say putrefaction? See Putrefying Protein and “Toxifying” Enzymes.

Berries don’t just help block starch digestion, but sugar digestion as well. See If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit?.

The whole attitude that we can just stuff the effects into a pill is a perfect example of reductionism at work. See Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality and Why is Nutrition So Commercialized? for more on this.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: