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:

Eating Seaweed Salad May Boost Immune Function

Eating seaweed salad may boost the efficacy of vaccinations and help treat cold sores, herpes, Epstein-Barr virus, and shingles.

Billions of pounds of seaweed are harvested each year, the consumption of which “has been linked to a lower incidence of chronic diseases,” both physical and mental. For example, women who eat more seaweed during pregnancy appear to be less depressed and experience fewer seasonal allergy symptoms. There’s a problem with these cross-sectional, correlational studies, however, in that they can’t prove cause and effect. Maybe seaweed consumption is just an indicator that people generally are following “traditional Japanese dietary customs,” which have lots of different aspects that could protect against disease. To know for certain whether seaweed can modulate immune function, you have to put it to the test.

As I discuss in my video How to Boost Your Immune System with Wakame Seaweed, typically, researchers start out with in vitro studies, meaning in a test tube or a petri dish, which make for quicker, cheaper, and easier experiments. One study, for example, took eight different types of seaweed and essentially made seaweed teas to drip onto human immune system cells in a petri dish. Studies like these showed that the seaweed wakame, which is the kind you find in seaweed salad, can quadruple the replication potential of T cells, which are an important part of our immune defense against viruses like herpes simplex virus.

No one actually gave seaweed to people with herpes until a study published in 2002. Researchers gave people suffering from various herpes infections about two grams a day of pure powdered wakame, which is equivalent to about a quarter cup of seaweed salad. “All fifteen patients with active Herpetic viral infections”—including herpes virus 1, the cause of oral herpes, which causes cold sores; herpes virus 2, which causes genital herpes; herpes virus 3, which causes shingles and chicken pox; and herpes virus 4, also known as Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mono—“experienced significant lessening or disappearance of symptoms,” as you can see at 2:06 in my video. There was no control group in the study, but with no downsides to eating seaweed, why not give it a try?

Researchers also found that wakame boosted antibody production, so could it be useful to boost the efficacy of vaccines? The elderly are particularly vulnerable to suffering and dying from influenza. While the flu vaccine can help, ironically, the elderly are less likely to benefit from it because immune function tends to decline as we get older. So, researchers took 70 volunteers over the age 60. As you can see at 2:50 in my video, their baseline level of antibodies against a flu virus was about 10 GMT. What you’re looking for in a vaccination is to get a two-and-a-half-fold response, so we’d like to see that antibody level get up to at least 25 GMT to consider it an effective response. The vaccine only boosted levels to 15 to 20 GMT, though. What happened after the subjects were given some wakame extract every day for a month before the vaccination? Their levels jumped up to 30 to 35 GMT. The researchers used an extract in a pill rather than the real thing, though, so they could perform this randomized placebo-controlled study. After all, it’s kind of hard to make a convincing placebo seaweed salad.

“It is hoped that the popular seaweeds eaten daily in Japan, though almost unknown around the world outside of Japanese restaurants, will be consumed…for possible immunopotentiation”—that is, immune-boosting potential—“and for attenuating the burden of infectious diseases in the elderly.”

What else can seaweed salad do (other than taste delicious)? See my video Wakame Seaweed Salad May Lower Blood Pressure.

In general, sea vegetables are good sources of iodine, as I discuss in Iodine Supplements Before, During, and After Pregnancy, and may also be one reason Japanese women have historically had such low rates of breast cancer, which I cover in Which Seaweed Is Most Protective Against Breast Cancer?.

What else can we do to boost our immunity? Check out my videos:

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:

Using Green Tea to Help Prevent Cancer and Treat Cancer

Tea consumption is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death in general, with each additional cup of green tea a day associated with a 4-percent lower mortality risk. So, perhaps “drinking several cups of tea daily can keep the doctor away,” as well as the mortician—but what about cancer?

As I discuss in my video Can Green Tea Help Prevent Cancer, there is “growing evidence from laboratory, epidemiologic [population], and human intervention studies that tea can exert beneficial disease-preventive effects” and, further, may actually “slow cancer progression.” Let’s review some of that evidence.

Not only do those who drink a lot of tea appear to live longer than those who drink less, as you can see at 0:49 in my video, drinking lots of tea may also delay the onset of cancer. At 0:56 in my video, you can see a table titled “Average age at cancer onset and daily green tea consumption.” The green tea intake is measured in Japanese tea cups, which only contain a half a cup, so the highest category in the table is actually greater than or equal to five full cups of tea, not ten as it appears in the table. Women who did get cancer appeared to get it seven years later if they had been drinking lots of tea compared to those who had consumed less. Men, however, had a three-year delay in cancer onset if they had consumed more than five full cups of green tea daily, the difference potentially “due to higher tobacco consumption by males.”

Green tea may be able to interfere with each of the stages of cancer formation: the initiation of the first cancer cell, promotion into a tumor, and then subsequent progression and spread, as you can see at 1:24 in my video. Cancer is often initiated when a free radical oxidizes our DNA, causing a mutation, but, as you can see at 1:44 in my video, we can get a nice “spike of antioxidant power” of our bloodstream within 40 minutes of drinking green tea. “This increase may, in turn, lower oxidative damage to DNA and so decrease risk of cancer.”

Furthermore, in terms of genoprotective effects—that is, protecting our genes—pre-existing oxidation-induced DNA damage was lower after drinking green tea, suggesting consumption can boost DNA repair as well. We didn’t know for certain, however…until now.

There is a DNA-repair enzyme in our body called OGG1. As you can see at 2:15 in my video, within one hour of drinking a single cup of green tea, we can boost OGG1’s activity, and after a week of tea drinking, we can boost it even higher. So, “regular intake of green tea has additional benefits in the prevention and/or repair of DNA damage.” In fact, tea is so DNA-protective it can be used for sperm storage for fresh samples until they can be properly refrigerated.

What’s more, tea is so anti-inflammatory it can be used for pain control as a mouthwash after wisdom tooth surgery, as you can see at 2:41 in my video. In terms of controlling cancer growth, at a dose of green tea compounds that would make it into our organs after drinking six cups of tea, it can cause cancer cells to commit suicide—apoptosis (programmed cell death)—while leaving normal cells alone. There are a number of chemotherapy agents that can kill cancer through brute force, but that can make normal cells vulnerable, too. So, “[g]reen tea appears to be potentially an ideal agent for [cancer] prevention”: little or no adverse side-effects, efficacious for multiple cancers at achievable dose levels, and able to be taken orally. We have a sense of how it works—how it stops cancer cells from growing and causing them to kill off themselves—and it’s cheap and has a history of safe, acceptable use. But, all of this was based on in-vitro studies in a test tube. “It needs to be evaluated in human trials,” concluded the researchers. Indeed, what happens when we give green tea to people with cancer? Does it help?

Tea consumption may reduce the risk of getting oral cancer. Not only may the consumption of tea boost the antioxidant power of our bloodstream within minutes and decrease the amount of free-radical DNA damage throughout our systems over time, but it can also increase the antioxidant power of our saliva and decrease the DNA damage within the inner cheek cells of smokers, though not as much as stopping smoking all together. You can see several graphs and tables showing these findings in the first 35 seconds of my video Can Green Tea Help Treat Cancer?.

Might this help precancerous oral lesions from turning into cancerous oral lesions? More than 100,000 people develop oral cancer annually worldwide, with a five-year overall survival rate of less than the flip of a coin. Oral cancer frequently arises from precancerous lesions in the mouth, each having a few percent chance of turning cancerous every year. Can green tea help?

Fifty-nine patients with precancerous oral lesions were randomized into either a tea group, in which capsules of powdered tea extract were given and their lesions were painted with green tea powder, or a control group, who essentially got sugar pills and their lesions painted with nothing but glycerin. As you can see at 1:23 in my video, within six months, lesions in 11 out of the 29 in the tea group shrunk, compared to only 3 of 30 in the placebo group. “The results indicate that tea treatment can improve the clinical manifestations of the oral lesions.”

The most important question, though, is whether the tea treatment prevented the lesions from turning cancerous. Because the trial only lasted a few months, the researchers couldn’t tell. When they scraped some cells off of the lesions, however, there was a significant drop in DNA-damaged cells within three months in the treatment groups, suggesting that things were going in the right direction, as you can see at 1:46 in my video. Ideally, we’d have a longer study to see if they ended up with less cancer and one that just used swallowed tea components, since most people don’t finger-paint with tea in their mouths. And, we got just that.

As you can see at 2:15 in my video, there were the same extraordinary clinical results with some precancerous lesions shrinking away. What’s more, the study lasted long enough to see if fewer people actually got cancer. The answer? There was just as much new cancer in the green tea group as the placebo group. So, the tea treatment resulted in a higher response rate, as the lesions looked better, but there was no improvement in cancer-free survival.

These studies were done on mostly smokers and former smokers. What about lung cancer? As you can see at 2:46 in my video, population studies suggest tea may be protective, but let’s put it to the test. Seventeen patients with advanced lung cancer were given up to the equivalent of 30 cups of green tea a day, but “[n]o objective responses were seen.” In a study of 49 cancer patients, 21 of whom had lung cancer, the subjects received between 4 and 25 cups worth of green tea compounds a day. Once again, no benefits were found. The only benefit green tea may be able to offer lung cancer patients is to help lessen the burns from the radiation treatments when applied on the skin. Indeed, green tea compresses may be able to shorten the duration of the burns, as you can see at 3:21 in my video.

The protective effects of green tea applied topically were also seen in precancerous cervical lesions, where the twice-a-day direct application of a green tea ointment showed a beneficial response in nearly three-quarters of the patients, compared to only about 10 percent in the untreated control group, which is consistent with the benefits of green tea compounds on cervical cancer cells in a petri dish. When women were given green tea extract pills to take, however, they didn’t seem to help.

I talked about the potential benefit of green tea wraps for skin cancer in Treating Gorlin Syndrome with Green Tea, but is there any other cancer where green tea can come into direct contact? Yes. Colon cancer, which grows from the inner surface of the colon that comes into contact with food and drink. As you can see at 4:13 in my video, in the colon, tea compounds are fermented by our good gut bacteria into compounds like 3,4DHPA, which appears to wipe out colon cancer cells, while leaving normal colon cells relatively intact in vitro. So one hundred thirty-six patients with a history of polyps were randomized to get green tea extract pills or not. Now, this study was done in Japan, where drinking green tea is commonplace, so, effectively, this was comparing those who drank three cups of green tea a day to subjects who drank four daily cups. A year later on colonoscopy, the added-green tea group had only half the polyp recurrence and the polyps that did grow were 25 percent smaller. With such exciting findings, why hasn’t a larger follow-up study been done? Perhaps due to the difficulty “in raising funds” for the study, “because green tea is a beverage but not a pharmaceutical.”

There is good news. Thanks to a major cancer charity in Germany, researchers are currently recruiting for the largest green tea cancer trial to date, in which more than 2,000 patients will be randomized. I look forward to presenting the results to you when they come in.

What about prostate cancer? See my videos Preventing Prostate Cancer with Green Tea and Treating Prostate Cancer with Green Tea.

You may also be interested in these somewhat older videos:

How interesting was that about wisdom teeth? Green tea can also be used as an anti-cavity mouth rinse, which I discuss in my video What’s the Best Mouthwash?.

Is Caffeinated Tea Dehydrating? Watch the video to find out.

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: