Green Power

If you want to stave off infections, aging—even liver cancer—
get your fill of chlorophyll, a vital nutrient in plants.

By Charles Scott

January 2005

The green in plants possesses unique powers. Green landscapes soothe the soul. A verdant expanse of green vegetation offers comfort, peace and ecological consolation. What makes some plants, including vegetables, green: Chlorophyll, a substance that is also a crucial nutrient for better health.

Chlorophyll is a special chemical that consists of molecules which enable plants to collect sunlight. In a complex molecular process, vegetation then uses chlorophyll to harness the power from the sun’s rays and build carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. Those carbohydrates form the basic nutritional building blocks that we and other animals need to survive and thrive.

Besides enabling the creation of carbohydrates, research shows that chlorophyll itself can help lower our risk of diseases like cancer. A recent study in China demonstrates that daily supplements of a chemical derived from chlorophyll can protect DNA, the genetic material in cells. When DNA is damaged and malfunctions, cells may reproduce wildly and become cancerous tumors.

The latest experiments, performed by scientists affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Oregon State University (OSU), show that chlorophyll and its chemical relatives may insulate DNA from unhealthy changes linked to aflatoxin, a fungus that often contaminates corn, peanuts and soybeans. In China, liver cancer associated with aflatoxin is a widespread problem.

“In the area of China in which we did our study about one in 10 adults die from liver cancer, and it’s the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide,” says George Bailey, PhD, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at OSU. “The findings of this research could be enormously important to many areas of China, Southeast Asia and Africa, where aflatoxin-related liver cancer is a real concern. Many of these deaths might be preventable with supplements that cost pennies a day.”

This research looked at about 180 people in Qidong, China. When people in the study were given supplements containing chlorophyll derivatives, they had less than half the DNA damage of people who didn’t take supplements.

According to the scientists, chlorophyll and similar substances may act as interceptor molecules, blocking the absorption of carcinogens. As John Groopman, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, observes, the supplements these people took “…can effectively reduce aflatoxin levels, which should reduce the risk of liver cancer.”

Closer to home, other researchers point out that chlorophyll-rich vegetarian foods may help protect us from carcinogens in the typical American diet.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a hunk of grilled meat, you’ve consumed substances scientists call heterocyclic amines, which are contained in the charred part of meat cooked on a grill. Studies have shown that these tasty tidbits can increase your risk of breast and other types of cancer. (Your risk from charred meat greatly increases if you are also a smoker.) However, if you eat a food like spirulina, a blue-green algae high in antioxidants that also contains plenty of chlorophyll, its protective substances can bind with these carcinogens within your digestive tract and keep them from being absorbed.

Green Keeps You Younger

While we always hear that eating more fruits and vegetables enhances our health, new research shows that eating green foods adds extra power to an anti-aging program.

Two experiments at the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair, published in the Journal of Neurobiology (7/15/02), show that spirulina and other greens can help shield the brain from the antioxidant damage that accumulates as one ages and may help reverse declines in learning and memory.

The first study found that a diet rich in spinach helped lab animals stay smart as they grew older. Spinach’s benefits, according to the researchers, are due to its rich antioxidant content, which can counteract free radicals (caustic molecules) created in the body during normal metabolism and increased by exposure to environmental pollutants, sunlight and radiation. When free radicals attack, cell walls and other cellular structures are compromised and DNA can malfunction. A lifetime of free-radical damage can slow your thinking and may be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, says Dr. Paula Bickford, lead author on the project.

The second study found that the protective effect of green plants may be linked to their ability to reverse age-related accumulations of potentially harmful inflammatory substances in the brain. In this research, spirulina improved neuron function, lowered inflammation in the brain and reduced levels of chemicals linked to oxidative damage. In fact, spirulina didn’t just slow the deterioration of neurotransmitter interactions caused by aging, it actually improved their function.
“Not all foods are created equal,” says Dr. Bickford. “Cucumbers taste good and have lots of fiber.

But unlike spirulina and apples, they are not rich in phytochemicals that have antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects in the brain.”

Green Immunity

Aside from assisting brain function, spirulina also seems able to help pump up the immune system. Researchers at the University of California at Davis found that adding spirulina to cultured immune system cells significantly increases the production of infection-fighting cells called cytokines.

A number of previous laboratory studies have found that spirulina can balance immune response: While easing allergic reactions, this powerful green food also was found to enhance the ability of immune cells called macrophages to both destroy bacteria and eliminate cancerous cells.

“We found that nutrient-rich spirulina is a potent inducer of interferon-g (13.6-fold increase) and a moderate stimulator of both interleukin-4 and interleukin-1b (3.3-fold increase),” notes Eric Gershwin, professor at UC Davis. “Together, increases in these cytokines suggest that spirulina is a strong proponent for protecting against intracellular pathogens and parasites, and can potentially increase the expression of agents that stimulate inflammation, which also helps to protect the body against infectious and potentially harmful micro-organisms.”

What this means for you: Spirulina holds the potential to help the body protect itself against battalions of infectious invaders.

“People have used foods like yogurt and spirulina throughout history,” says Judy van de Water, PhD, associate professor at UC Davis. “Through research, we are learning exactly how these foods improve immune system function and how they are a beneficial addition to our diet.”

Throughout the history of life on earth, the healthy development of animal and human life has depended on green plants. Today, as our environment deteriorates and our bodies are under attack from an increasingly polluted world, we need those health-boosting greens more than ever.

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