David Carpenter, MD, is the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at University at Albany (State University of New York), a Collaborating Cen-tre of the World Health Organization in Environmental Health.
No matter where you live, you’re likely exposed to pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates, and flame retardants. Scientists have found that exposure to these substances can cause oxidation, a kind of internal rust, and put your immune system into overdrive, causing chronic, low-grade inflammation. The end result is cellular damage and a higher risk of disease.
Illnesses linked to pollution include all the big killers, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Exposure to some air pollutants for even one day can quadruple the risk of dying from a heart attack. That’s just the start. Pollution is linked to cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory illness, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, age-related macular degeneration, infertility, acne, psoriasis, and Parkinson’s disease.
While you can’t entirely avoid pollution, you can take steps to protect yourself. Scientists at major universities around the world are rapidly accumulating evidence that some foods can help prevent, slow, or reverse the cellular damage caused by pollutants.
Fruits and vegetables. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been used in hundreds of industrial applications and products, and they permeate the soil, water, and air. Once they’re ingested, they’re stored in fat. Research links high blood levels of PCBs with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, but the risk is much lower in people with a high intake of fruits and vegetables, which deliver a wide range of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant compounds). PCBs are also linked to heart disease and cancer, and researchers from the College of Medicine at the University of Kentucky say that eating more fruits and vegetables may lower the risk of pollutants triggering those diseases.
Aim for at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day. If you’re not a fan, try hiding them in other foods. A handful of spinach disappears in chili, while minced cauliflower blends seamlessly into just about any recipe. Also, since PCBs are stored in fat, minimize your consumption of fatty meats, such as strip steak and ribeye.
Vitamin C. One reason fruits and vegetables are protective is that they are rich in vitamin C, which is particularly protective for some of the people most vulnerable to air pollution—those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. In one study, researchers from the United Kingdom noted that exposure to air pollution increased hospital admissions in people with COPD and asthma, but people with the highest blood levels of vitamin C had a 35 percent lower risk of being hospitalized. Boost your vitamin C by eating citrus, strawberries, broccoli, and tomatoes.
High-fiber foods. Foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, bran cereal, popcorn, and nuts, reduce the absorption of pollutants and help you excrete those that have been absorbed. Aim for 21 to 25 grams a day for women and 30 to 38 grams a day for men.
Green tea. In a scientific paper published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, researchers from the University of Tennessee and several other institutions cited more than 70 studies that detailed how green tea—rich in the phytochemical epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)—may help protect against environmental toxins of all kinds, including pesticides, smoke, mold, PCBs, and arsenic. (More than 2 million Americans have well water with a high level of arsenic, a carcinogen.) Try to drink two cups per day.
Beer contains hops, which are rich in xanthohumol, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemical that can protect cells from pollution-induced damage to DNA, which can trigger cancer. Xanthohumol is also found yogurt, chocolate, and muesli.
Sesame-based foods. According to a scientific paper recently published in Reviews on Environmental Health, sesame is uniquely protective against disease processes triggered by pollutants. The “bioactive” components in sesame seed and oil include lignans, sasamin, sasamol, and sesamolin. These components reduce oxidation, boost the antioxidant power of vitamin E, kill cancer cells and stop them from multiplying, lower high cholesterol and blood pressure, strengthen the liver, a detoxifying organ, protect brain cells against damage, and downregulate inflammatory immune factors.
You can use sesame oil like any vegetable oil. Sesame-based foods include tahini (a nut butter), hummus, baba ghanoush (a dip with mashed cooked eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, and seasonings), and halva (a dessert).
Cranberry. Several types of air pollutants—including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon dioxide, and particulates—have been linked to a wide range of respiratory problems, including lung and esophageal cancers. According to Bernard Hennig, PhD, at the University of Kentucky, cellular studies have shown that cranberry can protect against those and other cancers, including cancers of the colon, prostate, and brain (glioblastoma). You can ingest cranberry as a food, in juice (choose a low-sugar variety), or in supplemental form.
Selenium. Research shows that this trace mineral binds to toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and methylmercury, forming a so-called “insoluble precipitant” that is easily excreted. Seniors are more likely to be deficient in the mineral.
Brazil nuts and seafood are the richest sources of selenium. Other good sources include red meat, grains, and dairy products. Seniors may want to include a selenium supplement. Look for a product with at least 55 micrograms (mcg) and take it once a week. (Too much selenium can be toxic.)
Quercetin. Cellular studies show that quercetin can protect the arteries from PCBs. This phytochemical is found in apples, onions, cherries, citrus fruits, red grapes, and green leafy vegetables.
Curcumin. This anti-inflammatory compound is the active ingredient in turmeric. Several cellular and animal studies show that curcumin—also available in supplement form—can help prevent lung and heart damage from air pollution, including diesel exhaust. Curcumin can also prevent inflammation from cadmium, a heavy metal.
Curcumin is very difficult for your body to absorb, so when using it in cooking, combine it with a fat and/or black pepper to boost its bioavailability. If taking a supplement, look for one that is formulated for enhanced bioavailability, such as products with added oil, piperine (a pepper extract), or a smaller particle size.