How to Prevent Ulcerative Colitis with Diet

Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet.jpg

What has driven the dramatic increase in prevalence of the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn's disease in societies that rapidly westernized--a disease practically unknown just a century ago? What has changed in our internal and external environment that has led to the appearance of this horrible disease?

Japan suffered one of the most dramatic increases, and out of all the changing dietary components, animal protein appeared to be the strongest factor. There was an exponential increase in newly diagnosed Crohn's patients and daily animal protein intake, whereas the greater the vegetable protein, the fewer the cases of Crohn's, which is consistent with data showing a more plant-based diet may be successful in both preventing and treating Crohn's disease (See Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease). But what about other inflammatory bowel diseases?

In the largest study of its kind, shown in my video Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet, 60,000 people were followed for more than a decade. Researchers found that high total protein intake--specifically animal protein--was associated with a significantly increased risk of the other big inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. It wasn't just protein in general, but the "association between high protein intake and inflammatory bowel disease risk was restricted to animal protein."Since World War II, animal protein intake has increased not only in Japan but also in all developed countries. This increase in animal protein consumption is thought to explain some of the increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in the second half of the 20th century.

Other studies found this as well, but why? What's the difference between animal protein and plant protein? Animal proteins tend to have more sulfur containing amino acids like methionine, which bacteria in our gut can turn into the toxic rotten egg smell gas, hydrogen sulfide. Emerging evidence suggests that sulfur compounds may play a role in the development of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon and rectum characterized by bloody diarrhea.

The first hint as to the importance of our gut flora was in the 1970's when "analysis of stools showed that their bulk was made up of mostly bacteria, not undigested material." We're pushing out trillions of bacteria a day and they just keep multiplying and multiplying. They do wonderful things for us like create the protective compound, butyrate, from the fiber we eat, but unfortunately, the bacteria may also elaborate toxic products from food residues such as hydrogen sulfide "in response to a high-meat diet."

Hydrogen sulfide is a bacterially derived cell poison that has been implicated in ulcerative colitis. We had always assumed that sulfide generation in the colon is driven by dietary components such as sulfur-containing amino acids, but we didn't know for sure until a study from Cambridge was published. Researchers had folks eat five different diets each with escalating meat contents from vegetarian all the way up to a steak each day. They found that the more meat one ate, the more sulfide; ten times more meat meant ten times more sulfide. They concluded that "dietary protein from meat is an important substrate for sulfide generation by bacteria in the human large intestine."

Hydrogen sulfide can then act as a free radical and damage our DNA at concentrations way below what our poor colon lining is exposed to on a routine basis, which may help explain why diets higher in meat and lower in fiber may produce so-called "fecal water" that causes about twice as much DNA damage. Fecal water is like when researchers make a tea from someone's stool.

The biology of sulfur in the human gut has escaped serious attention until recently. Previously it was just thought of as the rotten egg smell in malodorous gas, but the increase in sulfur compounds in response to a supplement of animal protein is not only of interest in the field of flatology--that is, the formal study of farts--but may also be of importance in the development of ulcerative colitis.

I have several videos on our microbiome, including:

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:

Image Credit: illustrator © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

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How to Prevent Ulcerative Colitis with Diet

Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet.jpg

What has driven the dramatic increase in prevalence of the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn's disease in societies that rapidly westernized--a disease practically unknown just a century ago? What has changed in our internal and external environment that has led to the appearance of this horrible disease?

Japan suffered one of the most dramatic increases, and out of all the changing dietary components, animal protein appeared to be the strongest factor. There was an exponential increase in newly diagnosed Crohn's patients and daily animal protein intake, whereas the greater the vegetable protein, the fewer the cases of Crohn's, which is consistent with data showing a more plant-based diet may be successful in both preventing and treating Crohn's disease (See Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease). But what about other inflammatory bowel diseases?

In the largest study of its kind, shown in my video Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet, 60,000 people were followed for more than a decade. Researchers found that high total protein intake--specifically animal protein--was associated with a significantly increased risk of the other big inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. It wasn't just protein in general, but the "association between high protein intake and inflammatory bowel disease risk was restricted to animal protein."Since World War II, animal protein intake has increased not only in Japan but also in all developed countries. This increase in animal protein consumption is thought to explain some of the increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in the second half of the 20th century.

Other studies found this as well, but why? What's the difference between animal protein and plant protein? Animal proteins tend to have more sulfur containing amino acids like methionine, which bacteria in our gut can turn into the toxic rotten egg smell gas, hydrogen sulfide. Emerging evidence suggests that sulfur compounds may play a role in the development of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon and rectum characterized by bloody diarrhea.

The first hint as to the importance of our gut flora was in the 1970's when "analysis of stools showed that their bulk was made up of mostly bacteria, not undigested material." We're pushing out trillions of bacteria a day and they just keep multiplying and multiplying. They do wonderful things for us like create the protective compound, butyrate, from the fiber we eat, but unfortunately, the bacteria may also elaborate toxic products from food residues such as hydrogen sulfide "in response to a high-meat diet."

Hydrogen sulfide is a bacterially derived cell poison that has been implicated in ulcerative colitis. We had always assumed that sulfide generation in the colon is driven by dietary components such as sulfur-containing amino acids, but we didn't know for sure until a study from Cambridge was published. Researchers had folks eat five different diets each with escalating meat contents from vegetarian all the way up to a steak each day. They found that the more meat one ate, the more sulfide; ten times more meat meant ten times more sulfide. They concluded that "dietary protein from meat is an important substrate for sulfide generation by bacteria in the human large intestine."

Hydrogen sulfide can then act as a free radical and damage our DNA at concentrations way below what our poor colon lining is exposed to on a routine basis, which may help explain why diets higher in meat and lower in fiber may produce so-called "fecal water" that causes about twice as much DNA damage. Fecal water is like when researchers make a tea from someone's stool.

The biology of sulfur in the human gut has escaped serious attention until recently. Previously it was just thought of as the rotten egg smell in malodorous gas, but the increase in sulfur compounds in response to a supplement of animal protein is not only of interest in the field of flatology--that is, the formal study of farts--but may also be of importance in the development of ulcerative colitis.

I have several videos on our microbiome, including:

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:

Image Credit: illustrator © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

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How to Mitigate and Prevent Crohn’s Disease with Diet

NF-Sept20 Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet.jpeg

Crohn's disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects more than a million Americans. It is an inflammatory bowel disease in which the body attacks the intestines. There is currently no known cure for Crohn's disease; current research focuses on controlling symptoms. There is no definitive medical or surgical therapy. The best we have is a plant-based diet, which has afforded the best relapse prevention to date.

Researchers got the idea to try a plant-based diet because diets rich in animal protein and animal fat have been found to cause a decrease in beneficial bacteria in the intestine. So, researchers designed a semi-vegetarian diet to counter that, and 100 percent of subjects stayed in remission the first year and 92 percent the second year. These results are far better than those obtained by current drugs, including new "biological agents" that can cost $40,000 a year, and can cause progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a disabling and deadly brain disease. And a healthy diet appears to work better.

But what about preventing Crohn's disease in the first place? A systematic review of the scientific literature on dietary intake and the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease found that a high intake of fats and meat was associated with an increased risk of Crohn's disease as well as ulcerative colitis, whereas high fiber and fruit intakes were associated with decreased risk of Crohn's.

These results were supported more recently by the Harvard Nurse's Health Study. Data revealed that long-term intake of dietary fiber, particularly from fruit, was associated with lower risk of Crohn's disease. Women who fell into in the highest long-term fiber consumption group had a 40 percent reduced risk, leading the accompanying editorial to conclude, "advocating for a high-fiber diet may ultimately reduce the incidence of Crohn's disease."

The irony is that the highest fiber group wasn't even eating the official recommended daily minimum of fiber intake. Apparently, even just being less fiber deficient has a wide range of benefits, including a significant reduction in the risk of developing Crohn's disease, but why? The authors suggest it's because "fiber plays a vital role in the maintenance of our intestinal barrier function."

Our skin keeps the outside world outside, and so does the lining of our gut, but in Crohn's disease, this barrier function is impaired. You can see this under an electron microscope as shown in my video Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet. The tight junctions between the intestinal cells have all sorts of little holes and breaks. The thought is that the increase in prevalence of inflammatory bowel diseases may be that dietary changes lead to the breakdown of our intestinal barrier, potentially allowing the penetration of bacteria into our gut wall, which our body then attacks, triggering the inflammation.

We know fiber acts as a prebiotic in our colon (large intestine), feeding our good bacteria, but what does fiber do in our small intestine where Crohn's often starts? We didn't know, until a landmark study was published. Researchers wanted to find out what could stop Crohn's associated invasive bacteria from tunneling into the gut wall. They found the invasion is inhibited by the presence of certain soluble plant fibers, such as from plantains and broccoli at the kinds of concentrations one might expect after eating them. They wondered if that may explain why plantain-loving populations have lower levels of inflammatory bowel disease. But, the researchers also found that there was something in processed foods that facilitated the invasion of the bacteria. Polysorbate 80 was one of them, found predominantly in ice cream, but also found in Crisco, Cool Whip, condiments, cottage cheese--you just have to read the labels.

What about maltodextrin, which is found in artificial sweeteners like Splenda, snack foods, salad dressings, and fiber supplements? Maltodextrin markedly enhanced the ability of the bacteria to glob onto our intestinal cells, though other additives. Carboxy-methyl cellulose and xanthan gum appeared to have no adverse effects.

This may all help solve the mystery of the increasing prevalence of Crohn's disease in developed nations, where we're eating less fiber-containing whole plant foods and more processed foods. What we need now are interventional studies to see if boosting fiber intake and avoiding these food additives can be effective in preventing and treating Crohn's disease. But until then, what do we tell people? The available evidence points to a diet low in animal fat, with lots of soluble fiber containing plant foods, and avoiding processed fatty foods that contain these emulsifiers. We also want to make sure we're not ingesting traces of dishwashing detergent, which could have the same effect, so make sure to rinse your dishes well. Researchers found that some people wash dishes and then just leave them to dry without rinsing, which is probably not a good idea. We don't currently have studies that show that avoiding polysorbate 80 and rinsing dishes well actually helps. Nevertheless, advice based on 'best available evidence' is better than no advice at all.

Here's a video about using a more plant-based diet to reduce the risk of relapses: Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease.

I get a lot of questions about additives like polysorbate 80. I'm glad I was finally able to do a blog about it. Here are some videos on some others:

If you, like me, used to think all fiber was good for was helping with bowel regularity you'll be amazed! See for example, Dr. Burkitt's F-Word Diet.

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Graphic Stock

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How Plants Can be Both Safer and More Effective

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During the last decade, the drug industry has followed an assumption that a single drug hitting a single target was the "rational" way to design drugs. We're learning that Mother Nature may be a bit too complicated for that. "Strategies for targeting single genes or proteins ignore a very important fact that most, if not all diseases, involve a sophisticated network system." For example, one little family of immune molecules involves about 50 different keys fitting into about 20 different locks, often acting with redundancy, making selection of an appropriate drug to antagonize one key or one lock ineffective in the long run. A whole list of agents has been developed to target a specific molecule for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, for example, but they have all flopped. That's why drug companies are now working on so-called "promiscuous" drugs that try to affect multiple pathways simultaneously.

Meanwhile, since ancient times, natural agents derived from plants--fruits, vegetables, spices, beans, and grains--have been preferred as potential therapeutics for most chronic diseases, not only because of their safety, affordability, and long-term use, but also "for their ability to target multiple cell signaling pathways, a therapeutic virtue." (See Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous Plants).

One example of a successful promiscuous plant-based drug is aspirin. It doesn't just target inflammation and offer pain relief, but can act as a blood thinner and help prevent preeclampsia and even some types of cancer. Curcumin is another hopeful plant-based medicine. Aspirin is an extract of the willow tree bark (and is present in other fruits and vegetables); curcumin is an extract of turmeric root. It's so anti-inflammatory that it may even work through the skin--a traditional use was to wrap sprains and injuries with turmeric soaked poultices, a use that continues to this day. Curcumin is so anti-inflammatory that it can help counter the effects of mustard gas.

In a petri dish, curcumin extinguishes the response of spleen cells to an inflammatory cytokine. Promising effects have also been observed in patients with a variety of inflammatory diseases. One of the great things about curcumin is that it also appears to be very safe. One of the reasons may be that despite its powerful pharmacological effects, the same pathway promiscuity that may account for its effectiveness may act synergistically to neutralize side-effects. For example, turmeric has been traditionally used as a bronchodilator to open airways in conditions like asthma. Many of the adrenaline-like drugs that do the same thing can raise blood pressure. The reason turmeric doesn't may be because it has different components with opposing activities, such as calcium channel-blocking effects that may actually lower blood pressure, and so the side effects may cancel each other out.

This strength in promiscuity, though, is also a weakness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been reluctant to approve plant extracts, which by definition are composed of mixtures of different compounds. It's a Catch-22. One drug, one chemical, one mechanism of action and you can patent it, get FDA approval, and make a billion off it, but it may not work very well. On the other hand, there might be a safe, natural alternative that works better, but industry and the government may not be interested.

However, there is hope on the horizon. The FDA approved a green tea ointment as a prescription drug for the treatment of genital warts (See Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea), making it the first prescription plant approved in the United States. If you think that's neat, check out Treating Gorlin Syndrome With Green Tea.

So have drug companies abandoned their model and started pouring money into plants? No. "Having discovered that so-called magic bullet has been largely unsuccessful, they just propose creating non-selective drugs. Instead of magic bullets, magic shotguns."

I go into more detail about the Catch-22 in my last video Plants as Intellectual Property - Patently Wrong?

Aspirin isn't just found in willow tree bark, but throughout the plant kingdom, including fruits and vegetables. See: Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods.

My video Power Plants shows how plant foods are not to be underestimated.

More on turmeric curcumin and inflammation here:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Shu / Flickr

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The Top Four Anti-Inflammatory Spices

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Once in a while I come across a study that's so juicy I have to do a whole video about it (Which Spices Fight Inflammation?).

A group of researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville and Pennsylvania State set up a brilliant experiment. We've known that ounce per ounce, herbs and spices have some of the greatest antioxidant activities known. But that's only ever been tested in a test tube. Before we can ask if an herb or spice has real health benefits, it is first necessary to determine whether it is bioavailable -- whether the active ingredients are even absorbed. This had never been done, until now.

The researchers could have taken the easy route and just measured the change in antioxidant level in one's bloodstream before and after consumption, but the assumption that the appearance of antioxidant activity in the blood is an indication of bioavailability has a weakness. Maybe more gets absorbed than we think but doesn't show up on antioxidant tests because it gets bound up to proteins or cells. So the researchers attempted to measure physiological changes in the blood. They were interested in whether absorbed compounds would be able to protect white blood cells from an oxidative or inflammatory injury--whether herb and spice consumption would protect the strands of our DNA from breaking when attacked by free radicals. I cover the DNA findings in my video, Spicing Up DNA Protection. They also wondered if the consumption might alter cellular inflammatory responses in the presence of a physiologically relevant inflammatory insult. What does this all mean?

The researchers took a bunch of people and had each of them eat different types of spices for a week. There were many truly unique things about this study, but one was that the quantity of spices that study subjects consumed was based on the usual levels of consumption in actual food. For example, the oregano group was given a half teaspoon a day--a practical quantity that people might actually eat once in a while. At the end of the week, they drew blood from the dozen or so people they had adding, for example, black pepper to their diets that week, and compared the effects of their blood to the effects of the blood of the dozen subjects on cayenne, or cinnamon, or cloves, or cumin. They had about ten different groups of people eating about ten different spices. Then they dripped their plasma (the liquid fraction of their blood) onto human white blood cells in a Petri dish that had been exposed to an inflammatory insult. The researchers wanted to pick something really inflammatory, so they chose oxidized cholesterol (which is what we'd get in our bloodstream after eating something like fried chicken. If oxidized cholesterol is a new concept for you, please check out its role in heart disease progression in my video Arterial Acne). So they jabbed the white blood cells with oxidized cholesterol and measured how much tumor necrosis factor (TNF) they produced in response.

TNF is a powerful inflammatory cytokine, infamous for the role it plays in autoimmune attacks like inflammatory bowel disease. Compared to the blood of those who ate no spices for a week, black pepper was unable to significantly dampen the inflammatory response. What about any of the other spices? The following significantly stifled the inflammatory response:

  • cloves
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • turmeric

And remember, they weren't dripping the spices themselves on these human white blood cells, but the blood of those who ate the spices. So the results represents what might happen when cells in our body are exposed to the levels of spices that circulate in our bloodstream after normal daily consumption--not megadoses in some pill. Just the amount that makes our spaghetti sauce, pumpkin pie, or curry sauce taste good.

There are drugs that can do the same thing. Tumor necrosis factors are such major mediators of inflammation and inflammation-related diseases that there are TNF-blocking drugs on the market for the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis, which collectively rake in more than $20 billion a year ($15,000-$20,000 per person per year). At that price, the side effects better be hugs and rainbows. But no, the drugs carry a so-called "black box warning" because they can cause things like cancer and heart failure. If only there was a cheaper, safer solution.

The spice curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, is substantially cheaper and safer, but does it work outside of a test tube? There's evidence that it may help in all of the diseases for which TNF blockers are currently being used. So with health-care costs and safety being such major issues, this golden spice turmeric may help provide the solution.

See Antioxidants in a Pinch and How to Reach the Antioxidant RDA to see the extent to which even small amounts of spices can affect one's antioxidant intake.

Another elegant series of "ex vivo" experiments exploring the cancer fighting power of lifestyle changes can be seen in the videos starting with Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay.

Mushrooms (Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation), nuts (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell), and purple potatoes (Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Purple Potatoes) may also reduce inflammation (along with plant foods in general, see Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants and Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods). In fact so well that plant-based diets can be used to treat inflammatory conditions. See, for example, Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease, Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Potassium and Autoimmune Disease. Animal products on the other hand may increase inflammation through a variety of mechanisms, including endotoxins (How Does Meat Cause Inflammation?), arachidonic acid (Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation), and Neu5Gc (The Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5Gc).

-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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: jo-marshall (was Jo-h) / Flickr

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Our Immune System Uses Plants To Activate Gut Protection

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It might seem that our skin is the first line of defense between our insides and the outside world, but our greatest interface with our environment is actually through the lining of our intestines, which covers thousands of square feet. And all that separates our gut from the outer world is a single layer of cells, 50 millionth of a meter thick - less than the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Compare that to our skin. In the video, The Broccoli Receptor: Our First Line of Defense, you can see a layer of skin, dozens of protective cells thick, to keep the outside world outside of our bodies. Why don't we have multiple layers in our gut wall? Because we need to absorb stuff from food into our body. It's a good idea for our skin to be waterproof, so we don't start leaking, but the lining of our gut has to allow for the absorption of fluids and nutrients.

With such a thin, fragile layer between our sterile core and outer chaos, we better have quite a defense system in place. Indeed, that's where "intraepithelial lymphocytes" come in.

Intraepithelial lymphocytes serve two functions: they condition and repair that thin barrier, and they provide a front-line defense against intestinal pathogens. These critical cells are covered with Ah receptors. Ah receptors are like locks, and for decades researchers have been searching for a natural key to fit in these locks to activate those receptors and sustain our immunity. We recently discovered a key: broccoli.

Cruciferous vegetables--broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts--contain a phytonutrient that is transformed by our stomach acid into the key that fits into the Ah receptor, stimulating our intraepithelial lymphocytes. In other words, broccoli leads to the activation of our immune foot soldiers.

In an editorial about Ah receptors and diet, researcher Lora V. Hooper from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute noted, "From childhood we learn that vegetables are good for us, and most of us eat our veggies without giving much thought to the evidence behind this accepted wisdom or to the mechanisms underlying the purported health-boosting properties of a vegetable-rich diet." But now we know that "specific dietary compounds found at high levels in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are essential for sustaining intestinal immune function." Green vegetables are in fact required to maintain a large population of those protective intraepithelial lymphocytes.

Maybe that's why vegetable intake is associated with lower risk of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis, whereas the more meaty Western diet is associated with higher risk of inflammatory bowel diseases. This may be because the activating receptors on our intestinal immune cells are basically sensors of plant-derived phytochemicals.

This raises a broader question: Why did our immune system evolve this requirement for broccoli and other plant foods? Well, when do we need to boost our intestinal defenses the most? When we eat! That's when we may be ingesting pathogens. Linking heightened intestinal immune activation to food intake could serve to bolster immunity precisely when it is needed. At the same time, this would allow energy to be conserved in times of food scarcity, since maintaining these defenses takes considerable amounts of energy. Why remain at red alert 24 hours a day when we eat only a couple of times a day? We evolved for millions of years eating mostly weeds--wild plants, dark green leafy vegetables (or as they were known back then, leaves). By using veggies as a signal to upkeep our immune system, our bodies may be bolstering our immune defenses when we most need them. Thus, the old recommendation to "eat your veggies" has a strong molecular basis. (Did we really evolve eating that many plant foods? See my video Paleolithic Lessons).

This discovery has been all exciting for the drug companies who are looking into Ah receptor active pharmaceuticals. "However," as one research team at Cambridge concluded, "rather than developing additional anti-inflammatory drugs, changing diets which are currently highly processed and low in vegetable content, may be a more cost effective way towards health and well-being."

As remarkable as this story is, it is just the tip of the cruciferous iceberg! See, for example:

How else can we protect our immune function? Exercise (Preserving Immune Function In Athletes With Nutritional Yeast) and sleep (Sleep & Immunity)!

Given the variety and flexibility of most mammalian diets, a specific dependence on cruciferous vegetables for optimal intestinal immune function would seem overly restrictive, no? I address that in my video, Counteracting the Effects of Dioxins

-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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Images thank to Nomadic Lass / Flickr.

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Should Carrageenan Be Avoided?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Carrageenan Be Avoided?

Six hundred years ago, people living along the coast of Carragheen County Ireland started using a red algae, which came to be known as Irish moss, to make a jellied dessert. This moss is now the source of carrageenan, a fat substitute (perhaps most famously used in the failed McLean Deluxe) and a food additive used as a thickener in dairy and nondairy products.

In 2008 I raised a concern about carrageenan. We had known for decades that it had harmful effects on laboratory animals, but in 2008 the first study on human cells to “suggest that carrageenan exposure may have a role in development of human intestinal pathology” was conducted. This was all five years ago, though. What’s the update? (See Is Carrageenan Safe?)

After the activation of inflammatory pathways was demonstrated in actual human colon tissue samples, Europe pulled it from infant formula, concerned that infants might be getting too much at such a vulnerable age. The latest suggests carrageenan consumption could possibly lead to a leaky gut by disrupting the integrity of the tight junctions that form around the cells lining our intestine—the barrier between our bloodstream and the outside world. This was just an in vitro study, though, done in a Petri dish. We still don’t know what effects, if any, occur in whole human beings. Some researchers advise consumers to select food products without carrageenan, accusing the FDA of “ignoring [its] harmful potential.”

Personally, after having reviewed the available evidence, I continue to view carrageenan the way I view acrylamide, another potential, but unproven hazard. Acrylamide is a chemical formed by cooking carbohydrates at high temperatures. So should we avoid eating such foods, like the EPA suggests? Well, “Food safety concerns must also be considered [in the context of dietary] consequences.” Where’s it found the most? Foods that are already unhealthy.

So sure, we can use our concern about the probable carcinogen,acrylamide as yet another reason to avoid potato chips and French fries, but until we know more I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods like whole grain bread. (For more on Acrylamide, see my video Acrylamide in French Fries).

Similarly, I’d use potential concerns about carrageenan as additional motivation to avoid unhealthy foods like cream cheese, but I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods until we know more. I would, however, suggest that those with inflammatory bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal problems try cutting out carrageenan at least temporarily to see if symptoms improve.

Titanium dioxide is another additive used in nondairy substitutes. See Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease for the latest on its safety.

Other videos on food additives include:

-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 Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: cafemama / Flickr

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