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:

Boosting Antiviral Immune Function with Green Tea

Unlike most antiviral drugs, green tea appears to work by boosting the immune system to combat diseases such as genital warts (caused by HPV) and the flu (caused by the influenza virus).

According to one study, “The belief in green tea as a ‘wonder weapon’ against diseases dates back thousands of years.” I’ve talked about it in relation to chronic disease, but what about infectious disease? I explore this in my video Benefits of Green Tea for Boosting Antiviral Immune Function. Interest in the antimicrobial activity of tea dates back to a military medical journal in 1906, which suggested that servicemen fill their canteens with tea to kill off the bugs that caused typhoid fever. “However, this effect of tea was not studied further until the late 1980s” when tea compounds were pitted against viruses and bacteria in test tubes and petri dishes, but what we care about is whether it works in people. I had dismissed this entire field of inquiry as clinically irrelevant until I learned about tea’s affect on genital warts. External genital warts, caused by human wart viruses, “are one of the most common and fastest-spreading venereal diseases worldwide.”

Patients with external genital warts “present with one or several cauliflower-like growths on the genitals and/or anal regions…associated with…considerable impairment of patients’ emotional and sexual well-being.” But rub on some green tea ointment, and you can achieve complete clearance of all warts in more than 50 percent of cases.

If it works so well for wart viruses, what about flu viruses? As you can see at 1:41 in my video, it works great in a petri dish, but what about in people? Well, tea-drinking school children seem to be protected, but you don’t know about the broader population until it’s put to the test. If you give healthcare workers green tea compounds, they come down with the flu about three times less often than those given placebo, as you can see at 2:02 in my video. In fact, just gargling with green tea may help. While a similar effect was not found in high school students, gargling with green tea may drop the risk of influenza infection seven or eight-fold compared to gargling with water in elderly residents of a nursing home, where flu can get really serious.

Unlike antiviral drugs, green tea appears to work by boosting the immune system, enhancing the proliferation and activity of gamma delta T cells, a type of immune cell that acts as “a first line defense against infection.” According to the researchers, “Subjects who drank six cups of tea per day had up to a 15-fold increase in [infection-fighting] interferon gamma production in as little as one week”—but why?

There is in fact a molecular pattern shared by cancer cells, pathogens, and “edible plant products such as tea, apples, mushrooms, and wine.” So, eating healthy foods may help maintain our immune cells on ready alert, effectively priming our gamma delta T cells so they “then can provide natural resistance to microbial infections and perhaps tumors.” I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; tea, after all, is a “vegetable infusion.” You’re basically drinking a hot water extraction of a dark green leafy vegetable.


For more on what green tea can (and cannot) do, check out videos such as:

How else can we improve our immune function? See, for example:

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: