How vitamins prevent cancer and heart disease

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News stories pop up routinely explaining how 75 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient or how half the country doesn’t get enough magnesium each day, but no one really pays attention to these statistics since they don’t feel any symptoms. Severe vitamin deficiencies will cause symptoms (like scurvy), but in our modern world of over-abundance, no one is ever going to be completely deficient. Even crappy processed foods throw in some vitamins to make their labels appear a little healthier. Since most people feel fine, they just assume they’re either getting enough of what they need each day or all this talk of vitamins must not be important after all. The problem is that our bodies have evolved a simple trick to keep us going strong when our supply of vitamins is inadequate. Unfortunately, it does this by sacrificing your long-term health to ensure your short-term survival.

Why plan for tomorrow if you can’t survive today?

Think of micro and macro nutrients as your body’s currency. If you have plenty of money on hand, you can take care of all your day-to-day needs and still have a little extra that you can put aside for your retirement. However, when money is tight, you need to prioritize making the rent next month or buying groceries today, and the concept of retirement planning never even comes to mind. This is the basic concept behind the Triage Theory of nutrition.

Your body uses micronutrients like magnesium and vitamin K as cofactors to activate certain enzymes so they can serve their biological functions. When the supply of micronutrients is plentiful, all the enzymes can be activated, but when the supply is limited, your body prioritizes the ones it needs today (like ones that help with blood clotting and reproduction) and ignores the ones that stave off aging, decline, and chronic illnesses (like ones that repair damaged DNA to prevent cancer, the ones that prevent telomere shortening to lengthen your lifespan, or the ones that prevent calcium from hardening your arteries and causing cardiovascular disease).

Compounding damage

In sticking with the saving for retirement analogy, the little bit of money you put aside today can eventually grow into a pretty healthy nest egg due to compound interest. Unfortunately, this also holds true with the tiny amounts of damage your body ignores each day in favor of focusing on short-term concerns. We tend to believe things like cancer, heart disease, dementia and other scary illnesses associated with aging are beyond our control. We chalk it up to bad luck or bad genes, but it’s actually a lifetime of tiny damage that our body was unable to deal with. I know that also sounds like it’s out of your control, but it’s actually the opposite. With enough micronutrients, your body can deal with the problems of today and still repair any damage that might hurt you tomorrow.

Our DNA suffers damage all the time. Ultraviolet light, viruses, exposure to man-made chemicals and plant toxins, and simple errors during replication can cause 10,000 to 1 million molecular lesions per cell per day. This may sound like a lot, but it’s still a tiny percentage of the 3 billion base pairs found in every strand of DNA. Breaks that aren’t repaired before replication can lead to cell death, senescence (when cells lose the ability to divide), and mutations. Over time, the damage that missed out being repaired gets passed along through replication. This compounding of damage can add up to all kinds of disfunction and disease. It’s why we treat the symptoms of age-related diseases rather than hoping to cure them. The time to cure them passed decades ago.

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Invest in these nutrients

As I’ve said before, your best bet is to try to prevent disease states from occurring rather than hoping to reverse them. I mentioned two important micronutrients, magnesium and vitamin K2, in the article about the dangers of calcium supplements. Calcium is important for bone health, but it can also stray into the blood vessels and cause them to calcify which drastically increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. These two micronutrients help keep the calcium where it belongs which will significantly reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They also have other benefits. I want to quickly go over a few important nutrients and how you can add them to your diet. I’m just going to quickly rattle off the benefits. If you want to check the sources, I suggest reading through Dr. Bruce Ames original review where he first proposed the Triage Theory of nutrition.

Magnesium: Low levels of magnesium has been associated with colorectal and other cancers, hypertension, osteoporosis, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. When looking at human cells directly, they found magnesium deficiency led to mitochondrial DNA damage, accelerated telomere shortening, activation of cell-cycle arrest proteins, and premature senescence. As I mentioned above, it also helped prevent arterial calcification. You can primarily find it in leafy greens like spinach, nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, and whole grains. Many of these foods are also excellent sources of calcium, so it’s a better way to increase your calcium levels as well.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is strongly associated with colon, breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancer, and it also has been associated with cardiovascular disease. The best source is exposure to about 20 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight. If you’re worried about skin cancer risks, you can also get it from fatty fish like salmon and tuna, fortified milk, and egg yolks.

Omega 3: I already went over the importance of this one recently, but to quickly summarize, it reduces inflammation throughout your body (which is a primary cause of many diseases) and it is an important component of brain tissue. If you want to keep your brain healthy and prevent cognitive decline, you should either eat fatty fish twice a week, eat omega-3 rich eggs, or supplement with fish oil daily.

Calcium: Calcium helps with more than just bone health. Low levels of calcium has also been associated with diabetes, chromosomal breaks and colon cancer. As I mentioned in the article about the dangers of calcium supplements, it can cause arterial calcification if you don’t also take the other important cofactors like magnesium and vitamin K2. Calcification can also occur if you’re calcium deficient, so don’t think avoiding calcium is the answer. I suggest getting your calcium from food sources like milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, seafood, or legumes because they also tend to contain the cofactors that help deliver the calcium to where it belongs.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with chromosomal breaks, cognitive dysfunction, and multiple sclerosis. Vitamin B12 is commonly found in fish, meat, eggs, and dairy. This demonstrates why I suggest food sources instead of supplements for these micronutrients. You’ll typically find a handful of important ones in the same products, and many work together synergistically.

Vitamin K2: Vitamin K1 is used to help with blood clotting. Since this is related to short-term survival, it typically gets priority. If there is enough vitamin K1, it can be converted into vitamin K2 which helps prevent arterial calcification by delivering calcium to the bones. To get enough vitamin K2 to ensure your long-term survival, you can look for foods like full-fat dairy from grass-fed cows, eggs, and liver. It’s also found in some fermented foods like natto, sauerkraut, and certain cheeses like brie and gouda. You can also supplement with MK7 if you’re not a fan of these foods.

Zinc: Zinc is important for DNA repair and defense against oxidative stress. It can be found in oysters, crab, lobster, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and some dairy products.

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