By Dr. Mercola
A recent article in The Week1 reviews seven things that will make you sick or lead to premature death according to science. Included in this list is smoking pot, being a pop star, playing football, and staying in an unhappy marriage.
More important, I think, are the following four dietary and lifestyle factors—only three of which made it into the featured story:
- Excessive sugar consumption
- Artificial sweeteners
- Trans fat
- Vitamin D deficiency
Too Much Sugar Reduces Your Lifespan
A diet high in sugar (which includes processed fructose and grains) causes a host of health problems that can take years off your life, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Processed foods are the primary culprit. Added sugars hide in 74 percent of processed foods under more than 60 different names,2 so you may not even be aware of just how much sugar you’re eating on a daily basis. According to the featured article:
“Sugar accounts for 15 percent of the average American's daily calorie intake, and the WHO recommends that number be reduced to no more than five percent, or roughly 25 grams — six teaspoons — per day. That's less than what's found in a single can of soda.
Free sugars are found in white and brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, and additives like high fructose corn syrup. ‘The key point is that we are consuming way too much added sugars for good health,’ says Rachel Johnson of the American Heart Association.”
While obesity alone is associated with one in five deaths in the US, sugar may also have other, perhaps more direct impacts on longevity specifically. Professor Cynthia Kenyon, whom many experts believe should win the Nobel Prize for her research into aging, discovered that non-vegetable carbohydrates directly affect specific genes that govern youthfulness and longevity.
By eliminating non-vegetable carbohydrates, Professor Kenyon was able to make C. elegans roundworms live six times longer than normal. Even more interesting, they also kept their health and youthful vigor until the end.
Her findings have been successfully repeated in other labs around the world using other animals, including rats, mice, and to some extent, monkeys. Humans also have these same genes, indicating these results should apply to us as well.
Insulin Resistance Drives Chronic Disease
Excessive amounts of refined sugar and processed fructose and grains cause insulin resistance, and most of the disease-promoting effects of a processed food diet can be traced back to this.
Insulin is a major accelerant of the aging process, and also affects many bodily processes, all of which can impact your longevity. For example, insulin alters the expression of numerous hormones; stimulates your sympathetic nervous system; and promotes vasoconstriction.
As noted by Dr. Robert Lustig, many of the chronic diseases we struggle with today are in fact insulin resistance states. In essence, whichever organ becomes insulin resistant ends up manifesting its own metabolic syndrome.
For example, when you have insulin resistance of the liver, you end up with type 2 diabetes. When you have insulin resistance of the brain, you end up with Alzheimer’s disease. Insulin resistance of the kidney leads to chronic renal disease, and so forth.
To reduce your risk of disease, you want to keep your insulin levels as low as possible, and one of the quickest and easiest ways to do this is to avoid processed foods and sweetened beverages of all kinds.
As a standard recommendation, keep your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day. If you are insulin resistant (and at least half of the American population is, whether overweight or not), you’d be wise to limit your fructose to 15 grams per day or less.
This may be particularly important if you have elevated uric acid levels, which can be used as a predictor for fructose toxicity. (For more information on this, please my previous interview with Dr. Richard Johnson.)
To counter the food industry’s propaganda that downplays the impact of a high-sugar, processed food diet, dozens of scientists at three American universities have created a new educational website called SugarScience.org.3
The site is aimed at making independent research available to the public. To learn more about what the science really says about sugar, I highly recommend browsing through the site.
Artificial Sweeteners Take a Toll on Your Health
Many mistakenly opt for artificial sweeteners to keep their sugar consumption in check, not realizing just how harmful this trade-off may be. Contrary to industry claims, research over the last 30 years—including several large scale prospective cohort studies—have shown that artificial sweeteners stimulate appetite and increase cravings for carbs.
They also produce a variety of metabolic dysfunctions that promote fat storage and weight gain.4,5 Research also shows that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame actually worsen insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar!
Other mechanisms of harm have also been revealed. Most recently, scientists discovered that artificial sweeteners disrupt your intestinal microflora,6,7,8,9 thereby raising your risk of both obesity and diabetes. Most importantly, this study proves causation.
Specifically, the researchers found that artificial sweeteners alter metabolic pathways associated with metabolic disease. Decreased function was observed in pathways associated with the transport of sugar in the body, for example.
Artificial sweeteners were also found to induce gut dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in otherwise healthy people. Glucose intolerance is a well-known precursor to type 2 diabetes, but it also plays a role in obesity, because the excess sugar in your blood ends up being stored in your fat cells.
Besides worsening insulin sensitivity and promoting weight gain, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners also promote other health problems associated with excessive sugar consumption, including cardiovascular disease, stroke10,11,12 and Alzheimer’s disease.
While poor diet is a major driver of Alzheimer’s in general (the primary culprits being sugar/fructose and grains, especially gluten), the key mechanism of harm here appears to be methanol toxicity—a much-ignored problem associated with aspartame in particular.
In a previous interview, toxicology expert Dr. Woodrow Monte (author of the book While Science Sleeps: A Sweetener Kills13), explains the links between aspartame and methanol toxicity and the formation of toxic formaldehyde.
Trans Fat –A Primary Driver of Heart Disease
For decades, saturated fats were said to cause heart disease. Responding to such health concerns, the food industry replaced saturated fats with trans fats, giving rise to a whole new market of low-fat (but high-sugar) foods. Trans fat is also a major contributor to insulin resistance. Americans' health has plummeted ever since, and millions have been prematurely killed by this horrible mistake.
Trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, is thought to act a pro-oxidant, contributing to oxidative stress that causes cellular damage, and many researchers agree that there is no threshold at which trans fats are safe. Dr. Fred Kummerow, author of Cholesterol Is Not the Culprit, has researched fats for eight decades, and he was the first researcher to note that trans fat clogs your arteries and promotes heart disease. Moreover, trans fats prevent the synthesis of prostacyclin,14 which is necessary to keep your blood flowing. When your arteries cannot produce prostacyclin, blood clots form, and you may succumb to sudden death. Trans fat has also been linked to dementia.
While trans fat consumption decreased by about one-third between 1980-2009,15 many are still getting far too much trans fat in their diet. The problem is that it’s oftentimes hidden. Even products boasting a “zero trans fat” label can contain trans fat, because food manufacturers are not required to list trans fat if it falls below a certain amount per serving. Using ridiculously tiny serving portion is a legal loophole that permits food manufacturers to mislead you about the trans fat in their products. As a general rule, to successfully avoid trans fats, you need to avoid any and all foods containing or cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, so be sure to check the list of ingredients.
Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed trans fats from the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, instead of reverting to healthy saturated fats like coconut oil, lard, and butter, trans fats are being replaced with other non-saturated vegetable oils that produce toxic cyclic aldehydes when heated. These byproducts appear to be so harmful they may even make trans fats look benign in comparison, and we may not realize the full ramifications of this switch until a decade or two down the line... To learn more about this, please listen to my interview with investigative journalist Nina Teicholz.16
Low Vitamin D Level Raises Your Mortality Rate
Last but not least, optimizing your vitamin D stores can go a long way toward preventing disease and living a longer, healthier life. Researchers have pointed out that increasing levels of vitamin D3 among the general population could prevent chronic diseases that claim nearly one million lives throughout the world each year. Compelling evidence actually suggests optimizing your vitamin D can reduce your risk of death from any cause.17 At this point, the known health benefits of vitamin D number in the hundreds, if not thousands, in part due to the fact that it influences about 10 percent of all your genes. Some of the key benefits include protection against:
Cardiovascular disease. Vitamin D is very important for reducing hypertension, atherosclerotic heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. According to longtime vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael Holick, research has shown that vitamin D deficiency can increase your risk of heart attack by 50 percent. If you have a heart attack and you're vitamin D deficient, your risk of dying from that heart attack is upwards of 100 percent. Autoimmune diseases. Vitamin D is a potent immune modulator, making it very important for the prevention of autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis18 (MS) and inflammatory bowel disease. Lung disease. In those who are deficient, vitamin D supplementation may reduce flare-ups of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms by more than 40 percent.19 Other research20 suggests vitamin D may protect against some of the adverse effects of smoking as well. Infections, including influenza. Vitamin D also fights infections, including colds and the flu, as it regulates the expression of genes that influence your immune system to attack and destroy bacteria and viruses. I believe it's far more prudent, safer, less expensive, and most importantly, far more effective to optimize your vitamin D levels than to get vaccinated against the flu. DNA repair and metabolic processes. One of Dr. Holick's studies showed that healthy volunteers taking 2,000 IUs of vitamin D per day for a few months upregulated 291 different genes that control up to 80 different metabolic processes. This included improving DNA repair; having a beneficial effect on autoxidation (oxidation that occurs in the presence of oxygen and /or UV radiation, which has implications for aging and cancer, for example); boosting the immune system; and many other biological processes. Brain health (depression,21,22 dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease). Vitamin D receptors appear in a wide variety of brain tissue, and activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain. Vitamin D is therefore important for optimal brain function, mental health, and for the prevention of degenerative brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. According to one recent study,23,24 seniors with low vitamin D levels may double their risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study25,26,27 found that people with the highest average intakes of vitamin D had a 77 percent decreased risk for Alzheimer's. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on your brain through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.
Cancer. Vitamin D has a number of specific anticancer effects, including the promotion of cancer cell death, known as apoptosis, and the inhibition of angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels that feed a tumor). There are well over 800 references in the medical literature showing vitamin D’s effectiveness against cancer.
One recent meta-analysis28 concluded that vitamin D helps protect against bladder cancer. In all, having a high serum level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D was associated with a 25 percent reduction in relative risk of bladder cancer. Similarly, a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine29 concluded that a vitamin D level of more than 33 ng/mL was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Sun Exposure Is the Ideal Way to Optimize Your Vitamin D Stores
Sensible sun exposure appears to be the best way to optimize your vitamin D level.
If your circumstances don’t allow you to access the sun, then taking a vitamin D supplement is certainly advisable. In this case, be sure to take vitamin D3—not synthetic D2—and take vitamin K2 and magnesium in conjunction with it, as both are essential for its optimal function. Vitamin D is fat soluble, so taking some form of healthy fat with it will also help optimize absorption.
There are a number of important reasons for these recommendations. For starters, the biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, and without sufficient amounts, calcium will build up in areas such as your arteries and soft tissues. This can cause calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries—a side effect previously thought to be caused by vitamin D toxicity. We now know that inappropriate calcification is actually due more to lack of K2 than simply too much vitamin D.
Magnesium is also important, both for the proper function of calcium, and for the activity of vitamin D, as it converts vitamin D into its active form. Magnesium also activates enzyme activity that helps your body use the vitamin D. In fact, all enzymes that metabolize vitamin D require magnesium to work. As with vitamin D and K2, magnesium deficiency30 is very common, and if you’re lacking in magnesium and take supplemental calcium, you may exacerbate the situation. Dietary sources of magnesium include sea vegetables, such as kelp, dulse, and nori. Vegetables can also be a good source. As for supplements, magnesium citrate and magnesium threonate are among the best.
As for dosage, GrassrootsHealth has a helpful chart showing the average adult dose required to reach healthy vitamin D levels based upon your measured starting point. It’s virtually impossible to make a general recommendation on how much vitamin D to take as the amount needed can vary significantly from one individual to another. Your best bet is to regularly monitor your levels, and take whatever amount of vitamin D3 you need to maintain a clinically relevant level.
The Reward of a Healthy Diet and Lifestyle Include a Longer, Healthier Life
The good news here is that avoiding refined sugar/processed fructose, trans fat, and artificial sweeteners is actually rather easy. By trading processed foods for real food—food that is whole (unprocessed, or minimally processed) and ideally organic and/or locally grown, you will automatically eliminate all three—plus a number of other hazardous ingredients, including cyclic aldehydes, acrylamide, and genetically engineered ingredients. Buying organic will also help you avoid harmful pesticides. Another piece of good news is that, according to Dr. Kummerow, your body will eliminate trans fats in about a month.
So, if you want to live a longer, healthier life, start cooking at home using fresh, whole, unadulterated ingredients, ideally organic. For step-by-step guidance, please see my free Optimized Nutrition Plan. Next, get your vitamin D level checked. This time of year, after several months of minimal sun exposure, is an ideal time to test your vitamin D levels to get an idea of what your levels are at their lowest. If you’re low, take proactive measures to raise your levels, and then retest in mid-summer.
The D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth is a very cost effective solution. To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five-year study, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every six months for your sponsorship of this research project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."