Many years ago, it was proposed that a common event could explain many of the findings we associate with diseases of various sorts, such as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, arthritis, lupus, Alzheimer's disease, and other degenerative diseases of aging. That common event appears to be the destructive oxidation of tissues by free radicals, a process I have already described.
Some have tried to separate disease from normal aging, while others have insisted that aging is a disease and that it is not normal for tissues to deteriorate with aging. This latter group of thinkers has grown in the last several decades to form a whole discipline dedicated to anti-aging medicine. Whether aging is a disease or a natural event, we know that both share a common factor: damage to cells and tissues by a constant barrage of free radicals, and other reactive molecules, over a lifetime.
Aging begins even before birth; in fact, free radicals are formed from the very moment of conception. They produce some damage, but because of the tremendous growth and reproduction of cells and tissues, it is inconsequential. Of course, some free radicals are necessary for normal development, since they act as signals for development and normal functioning of cells. As long as the production of free radicals is controlled, they do not present serious health consequences. We know that the antioxidant network is poorly formed in the early stages of development, and, as a consequence, the child depends on its mother for protection. This is why the mother's diet is so important. As the baby begins to develop its body features these antioxidant enzymes increase in concentration and continue to do so after birth, well into adolescence.
As these antioxidant-network enzymes increase in activity and concentration, so, too, must the other components of the antioxidant network such as the vitamins, minerals, thiols, and flavonoids; again, all heavily dependent on the child's and mother's diet. It should be remembered that not only is the child dependent on the mother for nourishment during gestation, but also soon after birth. This means that mom must maintain a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins, complex carbohydrates, and special fats to assure that the newborn baby's brain and body will continue to grow and develop to its maximum potential: this, of course, includes a highly functioning antioxidant network.
Now let us take a hypothetical case, one that is repeated millions of times in this country. Before a mother-to-be even realizes she is pregnant, her diet is that of the typical American and includes carbonated drinks, coffee or tea made with tap water, highly processed foods, regular consumption of red meats (usually seared over a hot flame), and plenty of french fries and snack foods cooked in either hydrogenated or polyunsaturated vegetable oil. Throughout this time, the baby's cells are struggling to form by dividing and moving in a dance of life that very quickly begins to resemble the shape of a baby in the making.
At this stage, the new baby is totally dependent on its mother for nutrition, which is delivered through a highly complex blood exchange system within the placenta. What the mother eats eventually ends up in the baby's blood stream, but, as we shall see later, not in the same concentrations. So all of this junk food, filled with numerous additives, bad fats, toxic amino acids, pesticides and toxic metals, flows into the tissues of the baby, not only depriving the baby of needed nutrients, but actually poisoning the developing cells.
As for the rest of us, free radicals appear to play a central role in virtually every disease you can name, either directly or secondarily. Of the diseases known to be related to free-radical injury, the best evidence exists for: lupus, multiple sclerosis, all of the degenerative brain diseases (Alzheimer's dementia, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, olivopontocerebellar degeneration, and ALS), strokes, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, all infectious diseases (viral, fungal, mycoplasmal, and bacterial), rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, smoking-related diseases, diabetes, and all other inflammatory diseases.
Even when other primary mechanisms appear to be involved, such as autoimmunity in rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, it is the unrelenting generation of free radicals that causes the damage we associate with these diseases. Which disease will develop depends on the site of the free-radical attack. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis free-radical injury occurs within the joints. You must also appreciate that, even though the primary attack is within the joints, free radicals spill out into the blood stream causing damage to other far-removed tissues, including the brain, muscles, nerves, heart, and kidneys.
In lupus, injury is concentrated primarily in the connective tissues of the body. The reason the symptoms associated with lupus are so widespread and varied is that connective tissue exists throughout the body, and in all the organs. The brain and peripheral nerves are commonly affected in lupus for this same reason. This universal free-radical attack makes lupus an especially damaging and serious disorder, and antioxidants should play a major role in every autoimmune disease patient's care.
Even in cases that would seem far removed from the mechanism of free-radical injury, such as a stroke or a traumatic brain injury, these damaging particles do play a major role in the event's outcome. Experimental evidence clearly indicates that powerful antioxidants significantly improve the neurological outcome of both stroke and brain trauma, making the difference between a full and useful life or one of repeated hospitalizations, suffering, and disability.
Free radicals play such an important role in strokes and head trauma because the injured brain reacts by releasing enormous amounts of glutamate, which in these concentrations behaves as a powerful toxin (called an excitotoxin). Excitotoxins in turn generate enormous numbers of free radicals that injure the surrounding damaged, but still living, brain. If this free-radical attack is not stopped, this brain tissue will die as well. If it is protected, then the surrounding brain tissue can recover its normal function. With large strokes and injuries, even the surrounding normal brain will come under free-radical attack, since the excitotoxin accumulation extends far out into the brain. Excitotoxic destruction following a brain injury can persist for more than a week after the initial injury.
Several recent studies using animal models have shown that the use of antioxidant therapy can reduce the volume of destroyed brain in cases of strokes by more than 50 percent. Animals without antioxidant treatment had a very high mortality rate, and those which survived still had serious neurological deficits. The animals receiving antioxidants not only survived in greater numbers, but many appeared to be entirely neurologically normal. Unfortunately, most doctors treating strokes and head injuries do not use antioxidants in their patients' treatments. Actually, it is worse than that, because not only do they make no attempt to increase their patients' antioxidant defenses, they make no effort to even replace the antioxidants that might be lost due to the stress of injury or to pre-existing nutritional deficiencies.
Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a condition that has become epidemic in the industrialized world, especially in the United States. For many years conventional wisdom held that this fatty destruction of the arteries was due to excess cholesterol in the diet. This led to a national obsession with eating only foods that did not contain cholesterol or that boasted very low cholesterol content, thus creating a whole new industry for food manufacturers. More than fifteen years ago it was discovered that cholesterol is not dangerous unless it is oxidized, and the reason high cholesterol levels are associated with elevated rates of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease is that the more cholesterol you have in your blood stream, the more likely some of it will become oxidized.
Later it was determined that certain types of cholesterol were good and others bad, in terms of risk. Low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol has been dubbed the bad cholesterol. On the other side of the coin, high-density cholesterol or HDL cholesterol is now considered to be a good cholesterol. The reason LDL cholesterol is bad is that it is much easier to oxidize than HDL cholesterol. But oxidized HDL cholesterol is just as dangerous as oxidized LDL cholesterol.
Recent research has challenged the cholesterol theory of atherosclerosis, however. Newer studies have shown that many people afflicted with heart disease and advanced atherosclerosis also have certain types of bacteria—including chlamydia, helicobacteria, and mycoplasmal organisms—growing within the fatty crud lining their arteries. It is thought that this chronic infection and the resulting attempt by an impaired immune system to clear the organism results in a focused, intense generation of free radicals within the wall of the vessel. The resulting damage leads to failed attempts by the body to heal the damage, a condition doctors call arterial plaque. This plaque build-up slowly occludes the vessels.
There is growing evidence that high antioxidant intake, especially from fruits and vegetables, dramatically reduces the incidence of cardiovascular disease and strokes. Even more exciting is the confirmed finding that eating large quantities of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables can dramatically reduce damage following a heart attack or stroke; that is, antioxidants are effective even if taken after a heart attack. More about this in chapter ten.
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