#100 8 Nutrients to Prevent Cancer and Slow Aging

May 9th, 2015 by

8 Nutrients to Prevent Cancer and Slow Aging

In 1744 all of England was busy discussing George Anson’s tragic sea voyage around the world. Anson had set sail in 1740 with a crew of 1,854 only to return four years later with just a crew of 188 people.  What went wrong?  How did 1,666 people die from this around the world sea voyage?

Intuition would tell you that most of the people probably died from pirates, enemy ships, or even a shipwreck.  Interestingly, what killed most of the people on this ship was scurvy.  Indeed, the number one cause of death on the sea, prior to 1753, was not from pirates or war but rather malnutrition from a lack of vitamin C.

Malnutrition is something that only occurs in impoverished third world countries, right?  Wrong.  Despite our overabundance of calories and the obesity epidemic in the U.S., most Americans suffer from malnutrition.

If you suffer from a deficiency in any of the 8 nutrients I am going to discuss in this article, you could be putting your DNA at risk for developing cancer cells or other chronic diseases leading to a premature death.

How Do You Know if You Have a Nutrient Deficiency?

Certainly, you could be tested for many different essential nutrients to see if you have enough for optimal health.  The problem is that many of the commercially available tests may not be accurate.  For example, the standard magnesium blood test does not adequately reflect the body’s store of this important nutrient.

Certainly, if you get sick easy or heal slowly then you probably have a nutrient deficiency.  Likewise, if you have always had troubles losing weight, or you are hungry all the time, then there is also a good chance you are deficient in a key nutrient as well.  Indeed, hunger may be our body’s signal that it is lacking an essential nutrient to carry out its necessary life functions.

The Triage Theory of Cancer and Aging

Nearly 20 years ago during my cardiology training at Stanford University our student loans were coming due.  As Jane and I had just finished our graduate studies, we were deep in debt from the costs of these private universities.  To survive financially, I had to “moonlight” by working as an emergency room physician at nights and on the weekends during my cardiology training.

In the emergency room the most important thing to learn is how to properly triage patients.  In other words, the emergency room team needs to quickly determine who needs emergent treatment and who can wait.–Who gets admitted to the hospital and who is sent home to follow up with their regular physician.  Lives depend on properly triaging the life-threatening from the minor medical problems.

The same is true with our bodies.  Our body is a complex structure that must perform a nutritional “triage” every day.  One such example of the triage theory of cancer and aging is vitamin K.  This theory is championed by the legendary scientist, Dr. Bruce Ames of U.C. Berkley.

Vitamin K is required for blood to clot properly.  The body will do everything it can to ensure that we have enough vitamin K to prevent us from life-threatening bleeding.  If our dietary intake of vitamin K is compromised then everything available will be used to prevent bleeding rather than converting vitamin K1 to vitamin K2 which may prevent heart disease and osteoporosis.

This “triage” allows us to escape life-threatening bleeding now while sacrificing future health problems from heart disease and osteoporosis.  The same may be true of the other essential nutrients.  To keep us alive now, our bodies may put us at risk for cancer and premature aging later if we suffer from nutritional deficiencies.  Clearly, if we want to prevent cancer and slow the aging process we must ensure we have all the essential nutrients our bodies need.

8 Nutrients to Prevent Cancer and Slow Aging

According to the Triage Theory of cancer and aging, if we are deficient in any nutrients the body will favor survival over preventing future damage to our DNA which could lead to cancer cells and premature aging.  Our bodies are constantly turning over.  For example, every 2-3 days we grow new cells that line our intestines and every 2-3 weeks we have completely new skin.

As part of this turn-over process, cells are constantly dividing.  As part of each cell division, our DNA, which is our genetic blue print, must be copied perfectly.  Any mistakes could lead to cancer or premature aging.  This process requires the right amount of micronutrients for the body to both make a perfect DNA copy and to correct any damage to our DNA that occurs during life.

In the remainder of this article, I will discuss 8 must have nutrients to minimize the risk of DNA damage during our lifetimes.  Unless you have chronic gut issues, all of these nutrients should be easily obtained from a healthy diet.  Much of the information I will share is based on the lifetime of scientific discoveries by Dr. Bruce Ames.

1. Folate Deficiency

We all know how important it is for a pregnant woman to ensure she has enough folate in her diet in order to have a healthy baby.    Folate not only prevents neural tube defects with pregnancy but also has been extensively studied as a way to keep our DNA healthy.

While folate deficiency is relatively uncommon in the U.S., studies suggest that approximately 10% of Americans may not have enough folate to protect their DNA.  Up to half of low income children and the elderly may be folate deficient.  Even minor deficiencies in folate may put us at risk for cancer.

Fortunately, it is easy to get enough folate in our diets.  For example, just one serving of beans, lentils, asparagus, or spinach nearly provides all of the folate we need for the day.  Thus, for most people eating a diet high in legumes or vegetables, folate is not something you need to worry about.

2. Magnesium Deficiency

Studies show that approximately 60% of all Americans are deficient in magnesium.  This is something that I see everyday in my cardiology practice as magnesium deficiency is associated with many heart conditions.  In a previous article (blog #27), I discussed 10 common symptoms associated with magnesium deficiency.

Not only will getting enough magnesium help to prevent heart disease but it will also keep our DNA healthy.  Indeed, in a study of 4,035 people, those with the highest levels of magnesium were 40% less likely to develop heart disease and 50% less likely to suffer from cancer.

Keeping our magnesium levels up is far more challenging that folate.  For example, if you are under a lot of stress you will quickly become magnesium depleted.  Also, if you are taking acid reducing medications, these medications can block magnesium absorption in the gut.

To make sure you are getting enough magnesium in your diet, focus on nuts, seeds, and greens.  Indeed, if you eat nuts, seeds, and greens each day then you will probably get enough magnesium in your diet.  Of the greens, spinach is best as one serving of spinach provides 39% of the magnesium we need for the day.

3. Vitamin B6 Deficiency

Studies show that up to a quarter of all Americans have vitamin B6 deficiency.  This is surprising because, unless you eat a lot of empty calories from processed foods, vitamin B6 is plentiful in both meat and plant-based foods.

Great plant-based sources of B6 include potatoes, sunflower seeds, bananas, and spinach.  Many studies have linked low levels of vitamin B6 with cancer.

4. Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Surprisingly, given our meat heavy diet in the U.S., 14% of the elderly still suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency.  Along with folate and vitamin B6, the B vitamins play an important role in keeping our DNA strands healthy and free from genetic blueprint errors.  My favorite way to get enough vitamin B12 is with wild salmon.  For example, even a small, 158 calorie, 4-ounce serving of salmon has 236% of the vitamin B12 we need for the day.

5. Vitamin C Deficiency

Fully 23% of Americans are deficient in vitamin C.  Contrary to popular belief that you need a glass of orange juice to get enough vitamin C, the three very best sources of vitamin C are not orange juice but rather papaya, peppers, and broccoli.  Indeed, just one serving of broccoli will provide you with 135% of the vitamin C you need for the day.  In a study of 56,423 people, the minimal number of servings of fruits and vegetables each day to minimize your heart disease and cancer risk, as well as to prolong life, was five.

6. Vitamin E Deficiency

Vitamin E is yet another important nutrient we need to protect our DNA.  Fortunately, it is extremely easy to get enough of this nutrient.  For example, just one serving of sunflower seeds will give you 82% of the vitamin E you need for the day.  If sunflower seeds are not your thing, then most nuts and vegetables are also packed with vitamin E.

7. Zinc Deficiency

Zinc is critical for many DNA processes.  Once again, given our meat heavy diets in the U.S., it is surprising that 12% of Americans are deficient in this nutrient.  For vegetarians, excellent sources of zinc include nuts, seeds, and legumes.

8. Biotin

Biotin is a B-complex vitamin that researchers are just beginning to understand.  In addition to helping to balance blood sugar levels, biotin has been shown to protect DNA from degradation.  Convincing data are not yet available that it prevents cancer in humans.

Biotin is also another nutrient that we are often lacking.  For example, 40% of pregnant women are deficient in this nutrient.

Biotin is extremely easy to get from the diet.  For example, a single serving of peanuts or peanut butter provides 88% of this nutrient.  Almonds are also very high in biotin.

Other Nutrients

While I have specifically discussed 8 nutrients that are important in protecting our DNA, there are also many other nutrients to be aware of to keep our DNA intact.  These other nutrients include the following: iron, selenium, calcium, copper, niacin, choline, riboflavin, and others.

Every day we are exposed to DNA strand breaks that could lead to cancer or a premature death.  If we give our bodies everything that it needs, it will go a long way in keeping everything working properly.

Can I Take Supplements to Get All My Nutrients?

You may be thinking, this is too hard so I’ll just take supplements.  Unfortunately, supplements have not been shown to prevent cancer.  If anything, studies show that supplements may increase the risk of cancer.

Cancer cells also require the same nutrients to grow, spread, and metastasize.  The problem is that supplements are often massive doses of just isolated compounds whereas the nutrients we get from food are balanced with thousands of other nutrients and cofactors to make sure we get the right amount.

One of many examples of this from the medical literature involves a large and well designed study from Norway.  In this study, people taking folic acid and vitamin B12 supplements had a much higher risk of cancer than those who did not take these supplements.  Similar findings have been seen with many other supplement studies.

The key to successful aging and cancer prevention is to have the right balance of nutrients.  For most people, this is best done by eating nutrient dense foods and then letting our body use what it needs to keep everything in balance.  As long as you don’t have any chronic gut issues, all of these nutrients can be readily available in the diet–without the need for supplements.

If you have a specific nutritional deficiency then supplements may be indicated.  However, this should be done under the direction of your healthcare provider.  If you have the nutrients your body needs then it won’t have to “triage” and can instead focus on keeping your DNA healthy for a long and cancer free life.

A Simple Approach to Ensuring Adequate Nutrition

If you want to make sure your body has enough nutrients to keep everything working properly, here is a simple rule of thumb that will work for the vast majority of people.

1. Shoot for a goal of 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.  To get to “9” daily will likely require you to include vegetables with your breakfast.

2. Eat nuts and seeds everyday.

3. Eat a serving of legumes each day.

4. Eat oily fish at least twice weekly.

5. Minimize empty calories.  These include processed foods, especially processed grains, sugar and other items.

What works for you?  How do you make sure you get all the nutrients your body needs?

#066 NFL Players vs. Dwarfs: Longevity and IGF-1

January 19th, 2015 by

NFL Players vs. Dwarfs: Longevity and IGF-1

Retired National Football League (NFL) football players have the lowest life expectancy in the U.S.  These American football players typically die while still in their 50s and also suffer from high rates of heart disease.  Could high levels of IGF-1 from the lifestyle required to be a NFL football player be the cause?

On January 26, 1986 all of America was glued to the TV screen as they watched the Super Bowl XX match up between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots.  Favorite among Americans was the massive rookie defensive tackle of the Chicago Bears, William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

Perry seemed to have it all.  He was one of the biggest and fastest players to ever play the game.  He started the season at 380 pounds.  Not only was he formidable on defense but he was also a powerful secret weapon on offense as well in the role of a running back.  Perry represented the modern NFL player built much bigger and stronger than previous generations of NFL players.

In the third quarter of the Superbowl game with the ball on the 1-yard line the call was made to give the ball to “The Refrigerator” Perry.  On one of the most famous NFL plays of all time, “The Refrigerator” Perry scored the touchdown run as scene in this video of the event helping the Chicago Bears to go on to win their first Super Bowl.

What is IGF-1?

Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) is a hormone similar in structure to insulin.  IGF-1 is one of the most potent hormones stimulating growth.  IGF-1 levels are highest during the childhood growth periods and continue to play a role in growth and muscle development even in adults.

NFL football players and body builders likely have the highest circulating levels of natural IGF-1 due to their lifestyles.  For some NFL players they still wanted even higher levels of IGF-1 through performance enhancing drugs.  For example, IGF-1 was suddenly thrust into the spotlight during the 2013 Superbowl game when it was revealed that Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis was doping with IGF-1 from deer-antler pills.  Deer-antlers contain high levels of IGF-1 as IGF-1 is what causes the antlers to grow so fast each year in the life of a deer.

On first blush it seems like IGF-1 is something all of us want.  Who wouldn’t want to possess super human size and strength?  Is it any wonder New York Yankees baseball legend, A-Rod or Alex Rodriguez lied under oath that he did not use performance enhancing IGF-1 despite evidence to the contrary?

The Laron Dwarfs: People with Genetically Low Levels of IGF-1

At the same time “The Refrigerator” Perry was dominating the NFL, far away to the South, Dr. Guevara-Aguirre discovered the Laron Dwarfs in Ecuador in 1987.   Dr. Guevara-Aguirre was interested in these three to four foot dwarfs as legend had it that they lived very long lives free from cancer or diabetes.

At the time no one believed Dr. Dr. Guevara-Aguirre’s findings.  It was impossible that there were no reported cases of cancer or diabetes in any group of people.

Currently, there are about 300 known people in the world with the Laron-type Dwarfism.  Of these 300 people, most reside in Ecuador.  Researchers have reported that most of these dwarfs could probably live much longer if it were not for their high rates of alcoholism and accidents likely from their short stature.

The reason why Laron Dwarfs don’t develop cancer is really quite simple.  IGF-1 stimulates growth.  If growth is not stimulated then cancerous cells do not grow and multiply.  Likewise, with low levels of IGF-1 their blood glucose levels remain low even if they become obese.

Aside from their short stature, the other challenge Laron Dwarfs face is that of a decreased intelligence.  In addition to growth and muscles, IGF-1 also enhances cognitive performance.

Interestingly, if you inject IGF-1 into these Laron Dwarfs, like A-Rod, during their adolescent growth periods they will grow to a normal size.  However, if IGF-1 is given after puberty then they will remain as dwarfs.  Clearly, IGF-1 administration has to be critically timed to reverse their dwarfism.

Acromegaly and Excessive IGF-1

On the other end of the spectrum from the Laron Dwarfs is acromegaly.  Acromegaly is a condition where people continue to grow due to a pituitary gland abnormality.  As opposed to the Laron Dwarfs, these people are giants and have very high levels of IGF-1.  Unfortunately, these giants tend to die very young.

One of my favorite Hollywood movie stars growing up was André the Giant who reportedly stood at 7 feet 4 inches (224 cm) and starred in the classic movie The Princess Bride (affiliate link).  Unfortunately, André the Giant suffered from acromegaly and died at the young age of 46 due to complications from this condition.

Dog Size, IGF-1, and Longevity

Elizabeth with Andi

We love our dog Andi.  We rescued this golden lab at the age of 7.  Currently, she is 11 years old.

Even though her health is excellent, we all know that, in general, bigger dogs don’t live as long as smaller dogs.  Given how attached our children are to Andi, we know they will be devastated when this happens.

Why is this the case?  Could the same IGF-1 link hold true in dogs as well?

Recent studies in dogs have shown a similar outcome when it comes to IGF-1 levels and survival.  Larger dog breeds tend to have higher levels of IGF-1.  Consequently, they don’t live as long as the smaller breeds with lower levels of IGF-1.

Unfortunately for me (my height is 6′ 2″ or 189 cm), taller humans have also been shown to not live as long based on IGF-1 levels.  It seems that at least in some studies there is a trade off based on height versus longevity.

Centenarians, Genetics, Cognition, and IGF-1 Levels

Interestingly, studies of centenarians and their offspring have consistently shown lower levels of IGF-1 in those who live the longest.  This link is not just confined to certain ethnic groups.  As we have been very fascinated with the long-term health and longevity of people living in China’s Longevity Village, the same finding holds true with the Chinese.  Chinese living into their ninth or tenth decades of life consistently show lower levels of IGF-1.  These studies seem to suggest that at least in long lived families, there may be a genetic component to IGF-1 and longevity.

While in the extreme cases, like Laron Dwarfs, extremely low levels of IGF-1 are associated with cognitive impairment.  However, in healthy adults like the centenarians mentioned above, IGF-1 levels are not associated with cognitive performance.

7 Ways to Optimize Our IGF-1 levels?

Is there some middle ground between the muscle bound hulking NFL lineman and the diminutive Ecuadorian dwarf?  What is the goal IGF-1 level for optimal muscle strength, cognitive function, longevity, and freedom from cancer and diabetes?

From this article it could appear that there is a trade off when it comes to IGF-1.  On one end of the spectrum you have muscles and strength with high levels of IGF-1 (growth) while on the end you have longevity with freedom from cancer or diabetes with low levels of IGF-1 (repair).  Is there a way to have the best of both worlds?  Can we have both growth and repair going on simultaneously?

Like with most things, there is a healthy range.  For example, when it comes to the heart there is definitely an IGF-1 sweet spot.  Studies have shown that when IGF-1 levels are too high or too low the risk of heart disease is increased.

While in clinical studies or specialized clinics you can test your IGF-1 levels, for most people these lab tests are not available.  However, there are things we can do to keep our IGF-1 levels in the optimal range.

1. Maintain a Normal Vitamin D Level

IGF-1 and vitamin D levels often go hand in hand.  People who have low levels of vitamin D tend to have low levels of IGF-1 as well.  Vitamin D supplementation for people who are low in this hormone tends to normalize IGF-1 levels.

2. Avoid Excessive Animal Meat and Cow Milk

Excessive animal meat and dairy may raise your IGF-1 levels too high.  In contrast, vegans who eat plant-based proteins tend to have low levels of IGF-1.  Could this be one reason why vegans may have a lower risk of cancer and may also live longer?

3. Minimize Simple Carbs

A diet high in the simple carbs has also been shown to raise IGF-1 levels.  Could this explain the reason why a diet high in the simple carbs also leads to an increased risk of cancer and diabetes?

4. Avoid Isolated Soy Protein

Isolated soy protein significantly raises IGF-1 levels.  If you enjoy soy then it should be eaten how it has traditionally been eaten in Asia where they eat a non-GMO variety in the whole bean form.

5. Exercise Regularly

There have been many studies done on the effect of exercise to IGF-1 levels.  The results seem to be mixed.  My research on this topic suggests that regular moderate levels of exercise seems to optimize IGF-1 levels.

In contrast, extreme levels of exercise or excessive weight lifting can significantly raise IGF-1 levels.  Could the excessive animal meat and simple carbs in conjunction with extreme levels of exercise and weight lifting result in very high IGF-1 levels for NFL football players?

6. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Diabetes, obesity, cancer, and premature death all seem to run together.  Researchers feel that there may be a link with IGF-1.  If we want to maintain healthy levels of IGF-1 we also need to maintain a healthy weight.

7. Intermittent Fasting

Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can help to normalize levels of IGF-1.  Could this explain why intermittently fasting may increase longevity? Certainly, excessive fasting or extreme caloric restriction can be dangerous and could drive IGF-1 levels too low for optimal health.

Epilogue: “The Refrigerator” Perry Today

You may be wondering what happened to “The Refrigerator” Perry.  Unfortunately, his post-NFL football career has not turned out well.  Contrary to internet and Twitter rumors, he is still alive at age 52 but his health is extremely poor.  According to this report, he can barely walk, he weighs 400 lbs (181 kg), and he has spent considerable time in the hospital over the last few years.

What are you doing to optimize your IGF-1 levels?