The Healing Power of Food

Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, published in March 2019, is an excellent addition to the growing literature on the healing power of food. Author William Li, MD, emphasizes the scientific evidence that supports food’s healing power.

Part I of the book summarizes five natural defense systems that help us maintain good health. They include the angiogenesis defense system, stem cell regeneration of body tissues, our DNA protective system, our microbiome, and our immune system.

Part II reports research on health-boosting foods that activate these health defenses. Part III outlines Dr. Li’s plan for putting food to work to build good health. In this review, I’ll focus mainly on the amazing angiogenesis system.

The Angiogenesis Defense System

Early in his career at Harvard, Dr. Li centered his research on angiogenesis, defined as the process of growing and maintaining blood vessels. We have 60,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodies bringing critically needed oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body.

The angiogenesis defense system keeps this extensive network of blood vessels working properly. It is a monumental job. Dr. Li cites the healing of a cut as a simple example of angiogenesis defense.

A complex series of actions is triggered by the cut. Inflammatory cells rush in to clean up the debris caused by the injury. Growth factors are released to build new blood vessels and supportive tissues onsite. This new circuit is activated when blood begins flowing through it.

This process is organized by the angiogenesis defense system without any conscious oversight. We couldn’t cope with its complexity – millions of cells and millions of processes being coordinated in each cell. Yet this is only a tiny part of what the angiogenesis system does.

In addition to monitoring 60,000 miles of blood vessels subject to daily life stresses, it also senses where and when more blood vessels are needed to keep our vital internal organs working at their best.

Every part of the body interacts with the angiogenesis system to fine tune health. If this control of angiogenesis was perfect, we would enjoy optimal health. Unhappily, many factors can derail this system, leading to diseases involving inadequate or excessive blood supply.

Foods and Angiogenesis

Food plays a major role in this. All our defense systems are influenced for better or worse by the foods we eat. A diet high in typical fast foods is not good for health. On the other hand, more than 200 foods have been identified that help one or more of our defense systems.

A small number of foods boost all five of the health defense systems. Dr. Li has collected them in a list of “all-star” foods. He chooses foods from this “all-star” list every day as part of his overall healthy diet.

The fruit category includes apricots, blueberries, cherries, kiwifruit, lychee, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, and plums. All-star vegetables include kale, bamboo shoots, carrots, and eggplant. Flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts top the nuts and seeds list. Dark chocolate is the single entry on the “sweets” list, while the only oil included is extra-virgin olive oil. All-star beverages include coffee, black tea, green tea, and chamomile tea.

This is a good list of foods to choose from. Many other foods can be combined with them to make great food combinations. Balance and diversity are desirable, and no single food is a magic bullet.

Dr. Li points out that food isn’t a substitute for medical treatment. Food has far more healing potential than most people realize, but there is a place for medical treatment also. The difference between the medical and lifestyle approaches to health is subtle but profound. Understanding this difference is important.

Our medical system searches for early signs of disease to fight. It delivers good disease care. People who become ill or are injured in any kind of accident receive excellent care.The value of this care is not to be minimized. It’s important, but its primary focus is on disease care.

The focus on disease care saves many lives, but it is costly. It makes millions of people dependent on medications to control their diseases but leaves them short of optimal health. Worse, the ever-growing costs of disease care have reached the breaking point. Financial strain is bankrupting disease-care systems around the world.

Health is more than the absence of disease. A healthy lifestyle supports our five health defense systems and promotes vibrant health. It prevents many of the chronic inflammatory diseases that plague us today. This is the kind of health that Dr. Li advocates.

With decades of front-line experience as both a scientist and a practicing physician, he concludes that the best way to beat disease is to prevent it in the first place. Food is a major driver of health. Eating to beat disease puts you in charge of your health!

Be well!

Ed Dodge, MD, MPH

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