Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the September 2017 edition of TTAC’s Heroes Against Cancer member newsletter.
Every time my family and I go hiking or spend time out at the lake, I’m always amazed at the breathtaking beauty of nature. So many different species of trees, shrubs, grasses, animals, birds, and insects all living in harmony with one another as part of a vast, complex ecosystem. You might say that it’s a living, breathing “macro-organism” of sorts. One that both sustains and maintains itself without the need for human intervention (unless it starts creeping into your backyard and tearing through your grass and garden beds, of course).
Humbling is the word I would use to describe the persistent means by which nature exists. Its diversity of plants and animals having to continually adapt to changing weather patterns, unpredictable environmental conditions, and other factors that influence whether they live or die.
What’s even more intriguing is the fact that part of what makes nature thrive in this way is controlled destruction. I’m talking about a phenomenon as natural as the earth itself, but one that most people would probably assume to be a negative occurrence rather than a positive one: forest fires.
You may not know this (I know I didn’t at one point), but forest fires are actually a good thing for nature. So long as they’re frequent, low-intensity, and don’t spread out of control, forest fires actually help to clean up the forest floor of excess debris, for instance, opening it up to more sunlight and soil nourishment. Forest fires also clear out weaker trees to make room for stronger ones, which in turn provides new and expanded habitats for flourishing plant and animal kingdoms.
Forest fires further eradicate disease and pestilence that would otherwise kill off healthy trees and plants. In the process, all of the vegetation that’s burned generates more nutrients that are deposited into the soil to feed existing healthy trees. This helps to keep the life cycle in motion. Many tree species, believe it or not, are actually dependent on forest fires in order to survive and produce the next generation of arboreal life.1
Why am I talking so much about trees and forest fires? Because the human cellular system is a lot like a forest in that it requires a routine purging of the old in order to make way for the new. The cells in your body are constantly dying and being replaced with new cells, as a matter of fact. This is a completely normal and natural process that keeps your body healthy and strong. Controlled cell death, much like a natural forest fire for trees, is an important maintenance tool that our bodies use to keep us vibrant and free of disease.
It’s when your body actually stops the controlled demolition of these old cells, fails to dispose of them, or when these old cells decide to go “rogue,” that serious problems can arise. Like an overgrown forest that’s deprived of purifying fire, a dysfunctional cellular system eventually gets clogged up with cellular waste and other toxic debris. This creates conditions inside the body that can accelerate the aging process, damage the immune system, and even promote the formation of cancer.
Cellular Regeneration: How Things Are Supposed to Work
In a healthy biological environment, your body’s vast cellular “forest” of nearly 100 trillion cells is almost always on “fire,” so to speak. Cells that have reached the end of their life cycle are constantly being purged and eliminated in order to make way for new cells that pick up the baton where they left off. If a cell is no longer able to do its job, it will either repair itself or commit “suicide” via a process known as apoptosis. This is a streamlined process that keeps everything in the body balanced and running smoothly.
Since cells are the building blocks behind every organ and system in the body, it’s important that all of them meet the highest quality standards. Defective cells put the entire system at risk, and thus have to be eliminated. We call this process cellular regeneration. It functions a lot like the quality control unit at a manufacturing plant, where only the best components make it off the assembly line and into the final product, while everything else ends up in the scrap heap.
It’s how the integrity of the larger, interconnected cellular matrix is sustained. Though each individual cell is relatively self-contained and programmed to perform a variety of functions on its own, cells generally work together to get these jobs done and done correctly. That’s why all of them need to be in tip-top shape. There’s no room for slackers.
Cellular regeneration is also important for maintaining the integrity of human DNA. Healthy cells act as an airtight bunker to keep these blueprints of life locked away and fully protected in their nuclei, where they can’t be tampered with or corrupted. Expired cells, on the other hand, are like an old house with a leaky roof, where the genetic code is exposed to all sorts of damaging elements.
This is why it’s vitally important for cells that no longer work, or that have reached the end of their lives, to either regenerate themselves or get the heck out of the way. When they do this, the cellular system is in good working order. It is able to absorb nutrients from food, convert them into energy, use them to keep organs and tissue healthy and strong, and reproduce and proliferate as needed. This is the very bedrock of human life.
Cellular Senescence: When Cells Turn to the Dark Side and Refuse to Die
When we’re young, it’s easy for our bodies to do an exceptional job of this. They swap out used-up cells and replace them with new ones like it’s nobody’s business. But as we grow older, life catches up with us: poor diet, lack of exercise, and a stressful lifestyle further contributing to the demise of this important, life-sustaining process. If cellular maintenance continues to degrade, it can eventually cascade into more serious types of dysfunction that can bring about chronic disease.
One manifestation of this is cellular senescence, a state in which bad cells no longer complete their normal life cycle and instead stick around in a type of “zombie” state. Senescent cells are those cells that have somehow been damaged by stress – either internally or from some outside source – but that don’t either repair themselves or self-destruct. Though they’re no longer capable of doing anything beneficial, senescent cells remain present within the cellular terrain.
To clarify, healthy cells that become worn out or damaged are programmed to either repair themselves or commit suicide: this is how life persists. But senescent cells are different in that they do neither of these things. They actually impede the life cycle by getting in the way of it. Like a clogged drain, senescent cells gunk up cellular pathways and obstruct the flow of activity that’s responsible for regulating energy levels, sleeping patterns, organ functionality, and many other things.
One study explains cellular senescence as an “irreversible arrest of cell proliferation (growth) that occurs when cells experience potentially oncogenic stress”2 [Note: Oncogenic refers to the potential of cells to become cancerous and form tumors.] Senescent cells are permanently damaged, in other words, meaning they have no capacity to ever serve a useful purpose again. And yet they never go away.
This is obviously problematic, especially when considering the fact that senescent “zombie” cells accumulate in the body over time. The health effects of this are significant and may include symptoms you’re familiar with. Things like:
- Accelerated signs of aging
- Poor metabolism
- Fat accumulation
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Age-related memory loss
Just about the only thing even remotely positive about senescent cells is that, in some cases, they appear to be somewhat tumor-suppressive. They don’t replicate like cancer cells do. The fact that senescent cells even form in the first place is seen by some as being a good thing because, hey, at least they’re not cancer cells that reproduce and cause even more problems.3
It’s a lesser of two evils kind of thing, but unfortunately it still doesn’t tell the full story. The more that senescent cells collect, it turns out, the more they generate pro-inflammatory cytokines. Studies suggest these cytokines directly contribute to increased abnormal cell growth.4 For this reason senescent cells are really no better than cancer cells if they provoke the formation of cancer cells anyway. And inflammation, as you may well know, isn’t exactly a good thing when it comes to keeping cancer at bay, either.
One of the studies I mentioned earlier that looked at aging and cancer in relation to cellular senescence concluded that, because of their propensity to drive degenerative pathologies, senescent cells are definitively cancer-forming. As they accumulate, senescent cells create a tissue environment “that is permissive for the development, or at least the progression, of cancer,” the study concluded.
In other words, any perceived benefits to senescent cells are greatly overshadowed by their immense detriments. Inflammation aside, senescent cells are known to disrupt the structures of healthy tissue throughout the body, provoking all sorts of degenerative effects.
These include damage to the brain, as well as other typically age-associated pathologies such as:
- Memory loss and dementia
- Immune suppression
- Muscle loss
- Muscle loss that’s replaced by fat
What You Can Do to Minimize Cellular Senescence While Optimizing Cellular Health
From an official standpoint, there’s not much that can be done to get rid of senescent cells. Once they’re there, they’re not going anywhere – or so goes the claim. The truth of the matter is that there are many ways to help combat cellular senescence that work to give the body an upper hand in maintaining an optimal state of cellular regeneration. Perhaps the most obvious way is through diet (which many mainstream health experts ignore).
Nutrition, it turns out, can be a powerful weapon against “zombie” cells. It not only helps the body rid itself of them, but also prevents them from forming in the first place. The scientific literature is replete with evidence to show that nutritional deficiency is directly linked to cellular senescence. It is often the determining factor behind common health conditions like type-2 diabetes, obesity, chronic inflammation, hypertension, and various other markers of metabolic syndrome.5
Low glycemic diets rich in micronutrients – things like vitamins, trace minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants – have been shown to induce the opposite effect. Functional foods free of processed ingredients, refined sugars, and other damaging chemicals are protective against these types of conditions. The complexity of micronutrients they contain is essential for keeping the body well-tuned. These micronutrients aid in the production of digestive enzymes and hormones that further help to guard cells against senescence. Beyond this, micronutrients help to:6
- Convert carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into usable energy
- Support a strong and robust metabolism
- Minimize oxidative and free radical damage that leads to inflammation
- Protect against brain degeneration
- Support bone remineralization
- Synthesize DNA
- Repair damaged tissue
- Support muscle movement and flexibility
ATP: Fuel for Your Mitochondria
One of the key elements that cells require in order to function properly is adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. Also known as the “universal cellular energy molecule,” ATP is the fuel that cellular mitochondria need in order for cells to breathe, generate energy, and do their respective jobs.
This is another area where micronutrients come into play. They function as metabolic cofactors in food to ensure that healthy cells are given all of the building blocks they need to produce ATP. Without these micronutrients, cellular mitochondria would starve – leading to the exact opposite of the above listed benefits. Current research suggests that humans require more than 50 different micronutrients from three unique categories for health optimization.
1) Vitamins are essential for maintaining cellular health, helping to protect the body against oxidative stress. In the process, they aid in slowing the aging process and protecting against cancer as well. There are 13 vitamins in particular that are considered to be absolutely essential for human health, including both water-soluble and fat-soluble types.
Water-soluble vitamins include the entire B vitamin complex: B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5(pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate), B12 (cobalamin), as well as vitamin C.
Because these water-soluble vitamins tend to be easily lost via sweat and urine, it’s important to consume plenty of them on a daily basis. Here are some of the bodily functions they each support (and take note that many of these nutrients overlap and work together with one another in synergy):
- B1 (thiamine) – hair, skin, brain, heart, nervous system
- B2 (riboflavin) – metabolism, immune system, nervous system
- B3 (niacin) – digestion, hair, skin, brain, heart, circulation
- B5 (pantothenic acid) – energy, adrenal glands, nervous system, heart, hormones, brain
- B6 (pyridoxine) – protein digestion, mood, appetite, immune system, blood
- B7 (biotin) – glucose synthesis, metabolism, skin
- B9 (folate) – reproduction, heart, nervous system, mood, digestion, eyes
- B12 (cobalamin) – metabolism, nervous system, blood
- C -immune system, nutrient absorption, cardiovascular system
Fat-soluble vitamins are equally as important, but because they’re more easily stored in the body long-term, we generally don’t need as much of them (though I would suggest erring on the side of too much rather than too little). Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K, and they are vital for the following systems:
- A (beta-carotene) – immune system, mucous membranes, immune system, bones, eyes, skin
- D – nutrient absorption, bones, immune system
- E – immune system, muscles, blood
- K – protein activation, blood, wound healing, bones
2) Minerals hold a top spot in cellular health as well, helping to support healthy bone development, metabolism, brain function, and longevity. There are at least 18 different minerals that the body needs in order to maintain optimal functionality, including “macrominerals,” or electrolytes. These include things like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, along with “trace” minerals like copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium, and zinc, each of which offers the following benefits:
- Calcium – bones, digestion, blood
- Magnesium – nervous system, muscles, digestion, heart, blood, energy, brain
- Potassium – blood, heart
- Sodium – muscles, nervous system, fluid balance, enzyme function
- Copper – inflammation, brain
- Iodine – growth and development, thyroid
- Iron – oxygen delivery, energy
- Manganese – bones, blood, metabolism, inflammation
- Selenium – prostate, inflammation, reproduction
- Zinc – immune system, brain, cardiovascular system, reproduction
3) Antioxidants can include both vitamins and minerals, as well as other free radical-fighting compounds. Antioxidants are commonly found in whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, ancient grains, legumes, and pasture-raised animal products. Healthy living is contingent upon having enough antioxidants, including what’s considered to be the most important antioxidant of all: the “master” antioxidant known as glutathione peroxidase.
Maximizing Glutathione, “the Master Antioxidant”
What Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, refers to as “the mother of all antioxidants,” glutathione peroxidase represents the essence of cellular vibrancy. It lives inside every single cell in the body, and is absolutely critical for maintaining a healthy immune system. Glutathione further facilitates enzyme expression, detoxification, inflammation support, and programmed cell death as well – all things that directly counteract cellular senescence.7
Maximizing glutathione intake in order to optimize cellular health can be as simple as knowing the right things to eat. By consuming the following foods regularly, you can help your body to naturally produce more glutathione, and thus stave off cellular senescence and its life-destroying effects:
Cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens. Foods like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower are all rich in sulfurous amino acids that help to keep the body’s glutathione stores in an optimal state. Other sulfur-rich veggies worth adding to the mix include arugula, collard greens, Bok Choy, kale, mustard greens, radishes, watercress, and turnips.
Brazil nuts. One of the most beneficial glutathione precursor nutrients known to man is the mineral selenium. And one of the world’s richest sources of natural selenium is the Brazil nut. Just one ounce (6-8 nuts) of which contains about 544 micrograms of selenium. This is more than 100% of the recommended daily value. Other selenium-rich foods include grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish like yellow fin tuna, halibut, and sardines, pastured chicken and eggs, and spinach.
Folate-rich foods. Consuming the full spectrum of bioavailable B vitamins, or what are often referred to as methylation nutrients, is critical for the body to produce glutathione. These include vitamins B6, B9, B12, and biotin. Not to be confused with folic acid, its synthetic counterpart, folate is one of the primary components that the body uses to generate fresh, new cells. It also helps in transcribing DNA to these new cells from the old ones. Folate-rich foods include garbanzo beans, liver, pinto beans, lentils, spinach, asparagus, avocado, beets, black eyed peas, and broccoli.8
Whey protein. Considered by many to be a premiere food for increasing glutathione levels, whey protein contains a special amino acid known as cysteine that’s directly involved in the body’s production of the master antioxidant. Clean whey protein derived from grass-fed cows or goats is ideal, containing the full spectrum of other vital amino acids that are also necessary for cellular support.
Camu camu berry and acerola cherry. Vitamin C is one of the most beneficial antioxidants and it’s also a precursor to glutathione. Vitamin C-rich foods are thus an important part of a healthy cellular optimization lifestyle. Camu camu berry and acerola cherry top the list as the densest natural sources of 100% bio-available vitamin C.9,10 Other vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits as well as red peppers, kale, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
Foods rich in vitamin E. While vitamin C is busy increasing glutathione levels in red blood cells and lymphocytes, vitamin E helps to protects them, along with vital enzymes, against oxidative stress. The perfect pairing, these two classes of vitamin wield a death blow to cellular degeneration. This is why it’s important to eat foods rich in vitamin E. These include almonds and other raw nuts and seeds, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and avocado.
When I speak of vitamin E, by the way, I’m talking about eight different varieties of fat-soluble antioxidants that fall into two distinct categories: tocopherols and tocotrienols. These include alpha, beta, gamma, and delta varieties – four in each category – that each possess their own protective benefits in support of cellular optimization.
This collective of “tocols,” as they’re called, are what constitute true “vitamin E” – the full spectrum of which has been shown to aid in protecting against heart disease, cancer, and a variety of other chronic ailments.11
Beef liver. It might seem gross to some people, but the liver of animals is where nutrients tend to congregate. Liver from grass-fed cows, in particular, is densely packed with glutathione-producing nutrients like selenium that offer copious benefits with regards to cellular optimization. This offers added protection against cellular senescence.
Milk thistle. A flowering herb commonly used in traditional folk medicine, milk thistle (silymarin) has been shown to directly enhance glutathione levels in the body. Studies reveal that it helps to protect the liver and biliary tract against disease, and can even help to offset liver toxicity induced by alcohol consumption (which, for the record, is known to substantially decrease glutathione levels).
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Cellular regeneration is important for maintaining the integrity of human DNA.
Cellular senescence is a state in which bad cells no longer complete their normal life cycle and stick around in a type of “zombie” state.
Senescent “zombie” cells accumulate in the body over time and some symptoms include:
- Accelerated signs of aging
- Poor metabolism
- Fat accumulation
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Age-related memory loss
Nutritional deficiency is directly linked to cellular senescence.
There are 13 vitamins in particular that are considered to be absolutely essential for human health.
Glutathione further facilitates enzyme expression, detoxification, inflammation support, and programmed cell death.