Your Health Is In Your Hands
By Catherine Monahan

Lifestyle Choices Can Defy Disease

We wage war on cancer, battle heart disease and stubbornly search for cures, but in an age of medical miracles, many of us overlook a simple truth—most diseases can be prevented.

Prevention is far from drastic. It's the foods you eat and how you cook them. It's what you demand of your body and how you repay it. In this issue, we'll examine practical ways to prevent four complicated conditions. Each feature article this month tackles a different health problem—heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis—and outlines the foods, supplements, herbs and lifestyle choices that can reduce your risks. Consult your health care practitioner to determine which approaches will work best in your prevention program.

After all, major heart disease risk factors—including high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity—are all manageable. Diet causes one in three cancer cases, cigarette smoking begets another third. And Type II diabetes risk as well as osteoporosis risk are both largely governed by diet and exercise.

Study after study bears out that prevention is the best way to sidestep disease. Whether it's walking briefly each day or slightly changing the dinner menu, small adjustments have big benefits. Losing as little as five to 10 pounds can significantly lower blood pressure, and each one-point drop in diastolic blood pressure cuts heart attack risk by 2 to 3 percent.

Food can either help or hinder health, says Todd Thoring, N.D., a women's health specialist in Los Angeles. The typical American diet—highly processed and brimming with simple carbohydrates, salt, additives and trans-fatty acids—might fill your stomach, but it's starving your body.

In contrast, a diet of vegetable-based protein, complex carbohydrates and a wide variety of vegetables supplies the exact vitamins, minerals and enzymes your body depends on. "This kind of diet just promotes wellness," says Thoring.

People who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest cancer rates, most likely because such foods contain large amounts of proven anticancer compounds, including the antioxidant vitamins C and E, as well as carotenoids, folates and dietary fiber. The foods in your crisper are also good sources of minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium that help prevent or lower high blood pressure and stave off osteoporosis.

"Diet can actually treat and prevent disease," says Thoring. "I use diet first and foremost and it's very successful." As demonstrated in numerous studies, a vegetable-based diet low in saturated fats does indeed help reverse heart disease. It's also a sure route to weight loss, which in turn, diminishes diabetes risk.

The list of foods that prevent disease is extensive: Dietary fiber decreases colon cancer risk, lowers cholesterol and helps regulate blood sugar; soy beans reduce breast cancer risk; garlic cuts cholesterol and decreases blood clotting; and tomatoes trim prostate cancer risk, to name just a few examples.

"Food is the best source of nutrients," explains Thoring. That's because the vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals in food are together more powerful than any single isolated compound. "It will completely override any nutrient you can get in a bottle," he adds.

To get the most out of your foods, consider certified organics, which are free of pesticides—chemical toxins that have been shown to increase cancer risk. Organics also ensure the food does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs); much concern surrounds GMOs because no long-term studies have been conducted to prove their safety.

Ideally, we would get all the nutrients we need from our diets. That said, life is hectic and healthy eating is easily overlooked. Combined with what some see as the wholesale nutrient depletion of the soil and the foods that grow in it, our diets can stand a little help.

"Supplementing the diet is a good idea," says Thoring. "And that's what a multivitamin should be—a supplement, not something to live on." He advocates monitoring your daily diet and using vitamins to fill the nutrient gaps.

Supplements are also useful if you're genetically prone to certain diseases, says Thoring. A family history of cancer, for instance, calls for zinc, selenium and vitamins A and C as part of a regimen tailored to enhance immunity. Likewise, heart disease risk warrants extra vitamin E and Co-Q10, combined with foods geared to lower cholesterol.

Disease-preventing herbs "nourish the body on a deep level and help to build vitality and organ strength," says Laurel Vukovic, an herbalist in Ashland, Ore., and author of Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).

At their most basic, herbs are concentrated foods and many, like hawthorn and garlic, are packed with powerful antioxidants. "Free radicals cause most of the damage on a cellular level," Vukovic says.

"Nurturing herbs help to protect cells and often have an affinity for one part of the body, such as bilberry for the eyes, garlic for the cardiovascular system or ginkgo for the circulatory system."

Vukovic recommends enjoying herbs fresh rather than taking a standardized pill. "You could drink hawthorn tea for the heart, eat blueberries to strengthen vision, or eat garlic to keep your cardiovascular system healthy," she says. "On the other hand, it's unlikely you can get the required dosage of gingko unless you're taking a standardized extract. Become familiar with herbs; find out."

That's the beauty of herbs—in small amounts as food or tea, they are effective preventives. At higher doses, in standardized forms, they become medicinal. Specific antioxidant or immune-stimulating herbs such as astragalus and shiitake mushroom are also helpful if you have a family history of disease.

Simple choices you make in everyday life, such as exercising regularly and avoiding environmental toxins, can also play a great role in reducing the risk of disease.

Stress reduction is another major factor in maintaining health. As the association between psychological stress and disease risk builds, there's much to be said for the preventive value of bodywork, such as acupuncture and massage.

"Stress can create high blood pressure and heart disease," says Beth Miller, a massage therapist in North Miami Beach, Fla. "So massage for relaxation is very important for disease prevention."

Massage delivers a host of specific health benefits as well. "It heats up the body, increases circulation and lowers blood pressure," says Miller, adding that by increasing circulation, massage encourages toxic waste-product release and increases red blood cell oxygenation.

A good massage also engenders a feeling of well-being, a quality some studies suggest is associated with living a longer and healthier life.

And therein lies the secret. To be effective, prevention must feel good. If not, chances are you'll exchange it for more convenient and less healthy habits. The key is enjoyment, says Thoring. "The whole process of enjoying your food adds to its therapeutic value—cook with mushrooms and herbs, put flaxseed oil on food, serve seaweed salad."

So why wait? Go ahead, book a massage appointment and add another garlic clove to the sauce.

Catherine Monahan is a health and science writer and a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.