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Can food really be used as medicine? In this episode, Dr. William Li, author of Eat to Beat Disease, shares some interesting research about how foods have helped to beat different diseases. The key is eating whole foods rather than processed and fast food and also eating in moderation. He also talks about the things he’s been eating and taking during this COVID-19 era to ensure that he mounts a healthy immune response to any viruses.
Hello, true health seeker, and welcome to another exciting episode of the Learn True Health podcast. I am so excited for you to hear today’s interview with Dr. Li. He has some wonderful information about healing the body with food from a medical standpoint. I know you’re going to love it.
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I know you’re going to love learning some great tips today on the foods that you can eat and drink to support your overall health with Dr. Li. Enjoy today’s interview.
[00:01:06] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 432. I am so excited for today’s guest. We have Dr. William Li on the show, best-selling author of Eat to Beat Disease. He has an amazing TED Talk, Can We Eat to Starve Cancer? I love it. It has over 11 million views. You are a scientist first and a doctor. We’ve had a wonderful discussion before we hit record on COVID-19, so I’m interested in everything that all the science that you’ve been poring through, any advice that you can give to us on staving off disease, which is what your specialty is. Welcome to the show. This is going to be a really interesting discussion.
[00:02:03] Dr. William Li: Thank you, Ashley. It’s really a pleasure to be here, and certainly an interesting time in history. Generations from now, people will be referring back to 2020 at that time. The difference between now, that time, and the medieval ages where people were running from the plague and other deadly health scare is that we really have a lot of science to put wind in our sails. I think that’s really how we’re going to dig our way out of the mess we’re in right now, which is to use science to find the way.
[00:02:43] Ashley James: We need to find the science and look at that. I think what’s going on is we’re listening to the interpretations of the science and the predictions. We’re listening to a lot of predictions. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s a lot of fear-mongering. I would love for people to be grounded in science instead of grounded in their fear. Because we want to empower people to take appropriate steps to remain healthy, but being in fear mode is actually harmful to the immune system. That’s the thing we have to avoid is staying in that fear mode.
[00:03:22] Dr. William Li: That’s right. I’m a physician—internal medicine, I’m a scientist, I study blood vessels, I’m a vascular biologist, and an author. I wrote a book called Eat to Beat Disease. One of the things that I started my career doing is, like every other medical researcher, studying disease, and trying to understand what makes diseases similar, different from one another. Then I started to realize that studying common denominators that united different diseases could be really a powerful way to really make advances because if we could pull the bow back and send a single arrow through the common denominators of disease and of health, we could actually make a lot more progress.
What you’re talking about which is that fear with which is a really primitive response, it’s hardwired in our brain. Whether it’s a spider, a rattlesnake, or a saber-toothed tiger our fear nerve endings allow us to actually react smartly to get out of the way of something that could be damaging. But the problem that we’re all having right now with COVID-19 is that there’s really no break from this right now.
[00:04:47] Ashley James: It’s constant.
[00:04:48] Dr. William Li: This virus came out of the blue, took everybody by surprise, and put an entire civilization down on its knees. Every country, more than 180 different countries, have been affected. Pretty much organized economies around the world. There might be some aboriginals and the jungles of Borneo or Brazil that are actually just going about their way, but I think every other organized modern society has had to pause. When you pause, you’re actually more heightened to your emotions. Emotions of fear really have to do with uncertainty, lack of knowledge, and the feeling of lack of control. That’s really where science helps us because the more we study something we don’t know the more confident we are that we can actually navigate our own position with that threat that we are just starting to understand. I think that’s coming through with COVID-19 as well.
What started as this mystery illness from bat to wet market to human to air passenger and around the world, we’re beginning to really throw down the tools of biotechnology and medical research to understand, not only what is the virus like, but what does it do in our body. As we’re beginning to understand that we started to realize some interesting things. First of all, COVID-19 is a coronavirus, and coronavirus is the same kind of virus that causes the common cold. It’s very different from the influenza virus, which causes the flu. Lots of misconceptions out there that this is just like a bad flu. In fact, this is not even related to the flu. It’s more related to the common cold. Imagine if a common cold were potentially lethal, that’s really what we’re dealing with.
Again, even that piece of understanding allows us to actually put pieces into their place as we start getting deeper and deeper. One of the things that I am doing as a COVID-19 researcher is trying to get to the bottom of what do we know, what are the facts about this disease, and what possible ways do we have to protect ourselves to fort the damage it can cause. For people that are actually sick and maybe have recovered, how do we actually repair and heal ourselves more quickly?
[00:07:35] Ashley James: I’m really looking forward to you diving into that and sharing with us how we can prevent it, what we can do to support the body in mounting a healthy response, if we do come in contact with it, and how to then recover quickly. What I’ve seen in the last week is interesting information coming out of Italy. A pathologist was doing autopsies on over 20 people who passed away in the hospital—of COVID. They saw that there was a similarity that they all had blood clots in the lungs. He says that it’s not pneumonia that is causing blood clots in the lungs, and so our approach to treating it is all wrong. That we should be treating it with blood thinners, antiviral, and anti-inflammatories. Have you seen this? Have you seen any science to support this? What are your thoughts on that?
[00:08:35] Dr. William Li: Yeah. I actually know a lot about this because that’s exactly in my wheelhouse. My background is in vascular biology. I study blood vessels, which allow blood to flow or—when they’re damaged—blood to clot, which clotting is a good thing. If you’re wounded, you want the bleeding to stop. It’s a bad thing if you are not wounded and blood clots in your body and then you can’t get oxygen or nutrients to the rest of your cells in your body and then you wind up having big problems. That’s something that I have studied a lot. Here’s the picture of what we’re putting together. It’s not black or white, either-or, one person’s right, and one person’s wrong.
What I would tell you is that COVID-19 is a coronavirus. Like the cold virus, it’s a respiratory virus. We become infected by breathing it in. If you think about breathing in a virus and how easy it is to catch a cold, you can see how infectious this COVID-19 can be, which is one of the reasons of trying to wear masks is because if everybody wore a mask, then we would be cutting down the likelihood that the droplets—the water droplets that the virus hangs out in—would actually leave our mouths, and that would be yours and mine if we were in the same place at the same time, so we would be less likely to infect each other.
Mask-wearing actually, which was really confusing for a while, is now becoming so obvious how important it actually is. Most of the countries like Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, or Hong Kong are now beginning to demonstrate with real scientific evidence that wearing masks is not lip service, so to speak. It’s actually cutting down the risk of transmission. This airborne virus we breathe in can block with a mask, but if you breathe it in where does the virus go? Like a cold virus, it actually goes into the mucus in your nose. That mucus is what you blow into a handkerchief or a Kleenex. Our mucus in our nose is full of antibodies. We actually—what we call IgA—it’s like the nonspecific defense antibody line of first defense.
If it probably weren’t for COVID, a lot of the battle is fought and won right there in your nose just like the regular cold virus, but this thing is sneaky and it’s pretty aggressive. If it manages to get through your mucus and into your mucous membranes, the cells in your nose, it starts to be able to track into your body. We do know that it goes down to your lungs. When it’s in your lungs, let me be very clear, we do know that it causes pneumonia. Although it’s not the classic pneumonia you would get with a bacteria, it’s a viral pneumonia. That basically means an organism is causing massive inflammation and response and causing an interruption of your airflow. There’s no question this thing actually causes pneumonia. When it actually causes pneumonia, most people get over it but some people actually succumb or their breathing gets worse and worse.
For the people that are unable to make it back home make it at home, they have to be admitted as a hospital. Some percentage of those people actually wind up really crashing and they need to go on a ventilator to have artificial support or their breathing hopefully until their body actually is able to overcome the attack of the virus. This is an epic battle between the virus and our bodies. When our bodies start to win, we can get off the ventilator, we can leave the hospital, and we can go back home. Hopefully, if we win early enough meaning the security in our host is really, really solid, we won’t even go to the hospital at all. We might have something even as mild as a cold or a little bit of a viral syndrome and not downright crash.
What you’re hearing from Italy is now being seen around the world and verified by the research I’m actually doing. I’ve also looked at autopsy tissue from people who have died of COVID-19 and gone way deep to take a look at what is actually going on. What we are seeing is something really amazing. When the virus gets into your lungs, in addition to causing pneumonia, one of the first things it does is it makes a beeline for the blood vessels in your lungs. When it gets into the blood vessel lining, it causes that lining to be damaged. It damages that lining. Anytime a blood vessel has damaged lining it becomes what we call prothrombotic or more likely to clot. Then the blood vessels kind of go into a tizzy trying to recover from the blood clot and they start to respond in ways that make the blood more sluggish, the immune response tries to clear out the virus and the blood vessels, and the blood vessels get damaged kind of a collateral response.
Think about the SWAT team trying to rescue some hostages in a bank. There’s a lot of bank robbers there and when you’re trying to rush the bank, some of the hostages wind up getting killed. This is the thing that also happens with our immune system. It’s not that we have an autoimmune response. It’s that we have the right immune response, it’s just that it takes out a lot of healthy tissue along the way. We think that that contributes to even further likelihood of blood clotting. When blood clots in your lungs in small blood vessels, which is what you’re seeing, it becomes a problem because even if you’re moving air in and out, you’re not getting that oxygen from the air into your blood vessels to deliver to the rest of your body.
We’re beginning to see how these clots are actually responsible for some of the problems of breathing and circulation that we’ve observed. Of course, now we’re seeing blood clots in the lung, the brain, and other parts of your body as well. This respiratory virus does cause respiratory infection, that’s for sure, but what we now know is that this respiratory infection—the virus goes further to cause a whole-body—a systemic illness. That’s really where we are right now. That takes the research to present-day where we’re now diving even deeper into understanding what’s actually happening in all these other different parts and organs of the body including the blood vessels.
[00:15:59] Ashley James: If a patient has the infection, should they be put on a blood clotting drug to prevent the clot? Should anticoagulants be used preventively as their body’s fighting this virus?
[00:16:21] Dr. William Li: An article came out in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology two weeks ago showing that people who were in the hospital who are on anticoagulants and in fact with COVID-19 definitely had a better outcome. Now, based on that observation, which makes sense with the research that we were just talking about how the virus causes blood clotting, now the studies are being done to actually put people proactively on blood thinners to protect them. An interesting question is if you’re infected at home, should you be taking a blood thinner like an aspirin? Obviously, that’s an over-the-counter medicine. Anybody can go to a drugstore to pick up an aspirin, but like anything, medicines can have effects and side effects.
One of the things that’s happening in this pandemic of the virus that’s leading to a pandemic of fear is leading people to actually just knee-jerk and try to go out to buy everything they can and try to self-minister. Again, this is where teaming up with your doctor, and having medical researchers work on this is really important. Even something as simple as aspirin, which may indeed be life-saving in this particular case with COVID, can cause stomach bleeding, can cause other side effects. I’m one of the doctors that basically I don’t discourage my patients, people that I know, from taking their health into their own hands with things that are as safe as food for example, or even dietary supplements. But when it comes to medicines, really, I think it’s important to track along, follow along with real medical researchers. Because it’s only through the data that we get from science that we can actually know if what we’re doing has more benefits than risks.
[00:18:15] Ashley James: The people that were in the hospital that the journal wrote about, were they already on blood thinners, or were they put on blood thinners because they were infected?
[00:18:27] Dr. William Li: Most of the first reports were basically for people that were already on blood thinners. There’s a lot of people that are already on blood thinners. For example, if you had a heart condition like atrial fibrillation or if you had a valve replaced where you need your blood to be thin, many of those people are walking around on blood thinners all the time. If you’ve ever had a stroke in the past you probably were put on a blood thinner. Lots of reasons that people actually are on blood thinners. Of course, there are some genetic conditions where people are extra clotty so they wind up on blood thinners as well. I think this is where the science of observation—even observation can be a science, but the science of observation is really picking up patterns.
I think that this is where being alert in a situation that is foreign to us—this is called a novel coronavirus because humans have been walking around for 200,000 years and we’ve never encountered something like this. There’s no way you can Google all the answers. There’s no Wikipedia page that tells us everything. We’re learning as we go along—making observations, doing the research, going to the deep dive, we’re much better now than we were a month ago, and definitely much better than we were four months ago when all this started to break. I think it’s a very, very important advance to understand the importance of making sure blood doesn’t clot in people who are infected with COVID-19.
[00:20:16] Ashley James: My friend’s father is in the hospital currently. He’s had four brain surgeries because unfortunately, his doctor had him on aspirin and a blood thinner after a heart surgery he had for a valve a year ago. He had massive headaches a few months ago, went into the ER, and the ER doctor said, “You’re having a brain bleed. We have to get you into the emergency surgery right now.” That doctor said, “I can’t believe your cardiologist has you on this amount of blood there and an aspirin. This is what caused your brain bleed.” They took him off of the aspirin, they reduced his blood thinners after retesting his clotting factors, and he is still having brain bleeds, so they’re chasing with several procedures. That’s an example of if you’re on too much of a blood thinner, you can have a major problem.
We wouldn’t want to just arbitrarily get on a blood thinner like you said. You definitely want to work closely with a doctor. I’m wondering though if someone who has COVID could then be given a blood thinner if that would be fast enough to kick in, and if there’s any evidence to show that as of yet?
[00:21:35] Dr. William Li: I think that’s what’s going on right now. We don’t know yet. I would tell you that if you were concerned about it to talk to your doctor. I imagine that this is going to be one of the recommendations in the future. If you can document that you’ve got the infection and you have risks that might set up for a blood clot that the medical community will recommend that you go on a blood thinner. That’s probably right around the corner. What’s interesting when it comes to diet and lifestyle, there’s a school of thought that foods that contain vitamin K like spinach, kale, and many other greens that can thin the blood might not be good for all people to take. But here’s a situation where it might be actually beneficial to eat more foods, more whole green plant-based foods that actually contain vitamin K to keep you, not only healthier from all the other good stuff—the bio-actives that plants have, but also as an additional benefit that they might be able to keep our blood a little bit thinner.
[00:22:46] Ashley James: This is the funny part is he eats a whole food plant-based diet. He eats tons of vegetables, tons of leafy greens, and they brought this up to his cardiologist and his neurosurgeon or vascular surgeon. I’m not sure what the classification is for the person who’s working on closing up the vessels that are bleeding in his brain. They brought this up to his doctors and they said listen, he eats a whole food plant-based diet. They had never heard of that. They didn’t know what that was. They had to explain how he ate and they said that just sounds like eating healthy. His family said this is a diet that thins the blood naturally. His doctors said diet has nothing to do with this. You can’t affect the body with food. You can’t affect blood vessels with food. I was just floored, but so many doctors think this way that you can’t affect blood clotting or even the health of the brain or the blood vessels with eating.
[00:23:48] Dr. William Li: To some extent, you can’t blame doctors who haven’t been educated. Nutrition has really, until recently, not been a part of medical education or not adequately part of it. One of the reasons that I got into food as medicine, and I’m one of the people that are actually doing the research to study foods just the same way that we would study medicine with a lot of rigor and using the same type of testing systems is because—look, I was taking care of patients at a Veterans Hospital. Some of my favorite patients were people that used to serve the country in the Armed Services. They would receive these really terrible diagnoses from me. They were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Many of them were overweight, had cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. All kinds of problems.
After I gave them the diagnosis, wrote the prescriptions, and gave them referrals to the other specialists, a lot of these guys would put on their jacket and walk out the door. I would turn around to do my notes. They would turn back and come and pop their head in the door and say, hey doc, one more thing. What should I eat? Is there something I can do for myself? At that moment, I started realizing that I didn’t have the answer to that because I was never taught that. That just seemed wrong to me and that sent me really on this journey to understand how does diet actually works and what answers could we be giving people when they need to know.
The other thing that was interesting I thought from my experience that the Veterans Administration is some of these people that were in terrible shape—out of shape and in terrible shape—they might be morbidly obese, and really their bodies were a wreck let’s say in their 60s or 70s. I realized when they were in their 20s, they were the cut, fit buffs, perfect specimens that they couldn’t even get into armed services in the military unless they were in perfect shape. What the heck happened between the time of 18, 20, and the age 60 really are diet and lifestyle.
That really only underscored for me the importance to really dig deeper and try to answer that. Not surprisingly, this is not the typical experience of most medical doctors. I really believe that food as medicine is a concept whose time has come. I think more and more, the medical community realizes how important it is. The older doctors who’ve been out there longer who definitely weren’t taught this in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, they’re struggling with the idea even though each of them do know, on a personal level, how important diet could be. They just don’t have the intellectual framework to know what to do with their own instincts. This is getting back to basics in some ways, but now applying science to it, we ought to be able to make people more confident in understanding how food can be medicine.
[00:27:02] Ashley James: I love it. How have you changed your lifestyle? How have you changed your diet after diving into all the research?
[00:27:13] Dr. William Li: I’m a little bit of an unusual creature because between college and medical school, I did a gap year. In my gap year, I went to the Mediterranean long before the Mediterranean diet was popular. What I was interested in was the Mediterranean diet. I was interested in how foods in a particular part of the world shaped culture, and how that culture actually helped to inform the way that arts and sciences emerged from history. I was always interested in the history of regions. I was interested in the history of the Mediterranean and of Asia and trying to understand how do these old, old cultures, how did people live in the land, grow and assemble their foods into meals that today are regarded as amazingly delicious combinations and healthy to boot? How did that kind of life and lifestyle help shape things like painting, drawing, sculpture, mathematics, physics, and biology? It was an interesting thing.
I went to Europe. I lived there in Italy and in Greece. I was exploring diets. Again, this is long before anybody really knew what a Mediterranean diet was. I was living it. I wasn’t talking the talk, I was just walking the walk back then. For decades, I’ve actually lived a pretty Mediterranean style life. I have an Asian background so I grew up eating a lot of Asian-inspired cuisines. I’ll tell you what the common denominator of these old ancient healthy cuisines. They all tend to rely mostly on whole plant-based foods as their backbone. They tend to use fresh foods as opposed to a lot of prepared foods. There are very few ultra-processed foods involved in their diet.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds are common. Fish, not just salmon, but all kinds of fish—mostly seafood. Fish and shellfish also are common along the coastline, as you might expect, and very little meat. Not the absence of meat. Some people don’t realize this but the Sardinians, which is one of the blue zones where people routinely live to above a hundred, the villages of the Sardinian Blue Zone are in the mountains were nowhere near the sea. They need a fair amount of meat too, I mean they eat meat.
One of the things is that it’s a very naturalistic integration of plants that are easy to grow, seasonal, eaten fresh, cooked in combinations, incorporating different ingredients that are tasty, making you want to eat more, and diversity of cuisine. I would say between the Mediterranean and Asia, those are the common denominators. I’ve really just embarked on that type of a lifestyle for the last 20, 30 years. It makes me feel great.
[00:30:50] Ashley James: What isn’t in your diet that’s in the standard American diet?
[00:30:55] Dr. William Li: Look, I grew up in America. I grew up probably eating the same stuff that everyone has eaten—the stuff out of boxes. I’ve had a Twinkie, I’m not ashamed to say, when I was a kid, right? I wouldn’t have one now, but I certainly had them when I was growing up. I would tell you what I’m very careful to avoid—I don’t eat a lot of meat. I try to cut down or cut out red meat. I try to stay away from processed meats of any sort. I try not to eat foods that come out of boxes. I do look at ingredients when I shop for things. If I see a whole bunch of Greek and Latin words that refer to chemicals, I try to stay away from the ultra process stuff. If I have a choice between having something that is pre-made versus freshly made, I will go hands-down for the fresh stuff.
By the way, I would say the other thing that I tend not to do is really do a lot of errant snacking is what I call it. We know that actually restricting your calories is actually healthy. It re-primes your immune system. It actually slows down your cellular aging, it lowers inflammation and helps fight cancer by cutting off the blood supply. Lots of things that caloric restriction does. That’s the opposite of let’s call it the Vegas buffet mindset. Let’s go in there and stuff our face. The other thing I don’t do is I live a life where if I miss a meal or two because I’m busy or I’m doing something else, I’m okay with that. I don’t try to make it up by stuffing my face. Those are some of the things that I don’t do. I really don’t do fast food. Like I said, I grew up doing that kind of stuff, but I can’t remember the last time that I went to a drive-thru or picked up fast food. I would rather not eat, and I’m okay with that. I’ll find something healthier when I get home.
[00:33:11] Ashley James: Your mission is to teach people how to use food as medicine. The number one killer is heart disease. That’s number one. Heart disease is going to kill more people than all infections combined and yet we focus so much on worrying about infection when most people statistically will die of heart disease. What can we do to prevent heart disease?
[00:33:37] Dr. William Li: Heart disease is really interesting because it’s really not just about the heart, it’s about the blood vessels supplying the heart. That comes from my field of angiogenesis or how the body grows healthy blood vessels. The heart, of course, is part of the circuitry, part of the plumbing of our blood vessels, but most people don’t know that there are 60,000 miles where the blood vessels are packed inside our bodies. Think about a ball of yarn that’s 60,000 miles long. Literally, if you unspool that yarn, you could have a string that would wrap around the earth twice, right? That’s your blood vessels. That’s your garden hose in your body. Our heart, which is the pumping machine, actually just really jets out oxygen and nutrients through our blood to every single cell in our body.
If it has any problem sending out that oxygen and nutrients, then the heart winds up struggling. If it can’t pump, you wind up having heart disease. There’s a lot of ways that the heart can have trouble. For example, the muscle can get weakened by itself. The blood vessels feeding the heart can get clogged. Then the vessels, the circulation that the heart pumps blood into can go from being kind of soft and elastic to being really hard and rigid. Imagine trying to blow into a long metal pipe, you know how hard that is. If your blood vessels are really hardened, the heart has to work really, really hard, which tires it out, wears it down, and causes it to actually eventually fail.
All that means that to prevent heart disease we need to take good care of our blood vessels, prevent them from actually getting hard hardened, prevent them from clogging up, and make sure that these cells lining our blood vessels are as healthy as possible. Sleep, exercise, lowering stress, staying away from smoking, not drinking in excess, and physical activity. All those things are common-sense things. When it comes to food, here’s really where some really interesting research is happening. We used to think about heart health in our diet as cutting things out—no butter, no meat, no this, no that. You’re a bad person if you eat that. If you’ve got heart disease you got to cut out everything right away. It was really like guilt, fear, and shame mindset, an elimination program if you wanted to avoid heart disease.
Now what we know with science is that if you want to protect your heart and you want to avoid heart disease, you should be adding things to your diet. Yeah, sure, stay away from the bad stuff but really focus on the good stuff. We want to have good fiber in our diet because good fiber feeds our gut microbiome and our gut bacteria actually helps. When our gut bacteria are healthy because we’re feeding it fiber, those bacteria digest the fiber. As part of the byproducts of the bacteria’s own digestion—the metabolites—they create particles that actually lower our cholesterol, which then prevents our blood vessels from getting hardened.
They actually help our body metabolize cholesterol and sugar better so we can be able to use our blood glucose better. It’s like our bacteria is like our diabetes for better. Eating plant-based foods with a lot of fiber is super healthy for your heart. We also know that there are foods that, believe it or not, can actually help the lining of our blood vessels regenerate themselves and continuously repair themselves so they’re not quite as clotty. They don’t clog up or they don’t clot up quite as much.
Some of these things are, for example, omega-3 fatty acids, which you can find in nuts. You can find them in seafood, but you can also find them in nuts. You can also take it as a dietary supplement. A surprise would be cacao—dark chocolate. The cocoa bean actually can is used to make cacao. Cacao is the basis for making chocolate. Dark chocolate is where you have mostly cacao. That’s Mother Nature’s blood vessel helper.
What’s amazing is there’s been a study that was done in individuals who had heart disease, this was out of UCSF, where they gave two groups either a placebo drink or they gave people hot chocolate made with dark chocolate—dark cacao. The placebo, by the way, had the flavonoids and polyphenols were low, so it’s got low versus high. Then they fed the people we’ve known heart disease just two cups of hot chocolate a day for 30 days. Then they measured the number of stem cells in their bloodstream at baseline and compared it to the end of 30 days of drinking two cups of hot cocoa made with dark cocoa. They found that the people who had the dark chocolate version of hot cocoa had doubled the number of regenerating blood vessel cells, stem cells, in their bloodstream. They had better blood flow as well.
Again, human studies, plant-based foods, heart-healthy, these are the kinds of things that we should be leaning into and embracing. Now, for heart health, it’s all about leaning into the good stuff while, keeping in mind, we need to kind of cut down on the bad stuff as well.
[00:39:41] Ashley James: I love it. There’s a school of thought that consuming mass amounts of virgin olive oil is very, very healthy for the body, and just like the Mediterranean diet, every time I think of the Mediterranean diet we think of drinking gallons a year of olive oil. Then there’s a school of thought that we should not consume any oil once it’s been processed away from the plant, so we should eat olives not olive oil. For example, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who’s a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says that oil harms the endothelial lining, which is the skin on the inside of the blood vessels. He sees that consuming oil and animal fat harms it, inflames it, and that we should eat our fat from a whole food source and not from the processed source. Have you sided with either side? What does science say for you?
[00:40:43] Dr. William Li: There’s a couple of ways to look at this. First of all, consuming anything in gallon form is probably not good for you. My first position on most things when it comes to food is that more is not necessarily more. There’s actually a biological concept called hormesis, which describes this which is that a little but isn’t enough, a little bit more is good for you, even more is even better, and then a little bit more than that gives you the optimal amount. But then if you keep on adding more, you start losing the benefits. You keep on adding more, even more than that, you start losing it. It’s the classic upside-down u-shaped curve where there’s an optimum amount where you get the optimum benefit, but if you keep on going beyond that you actually lose it.
I know Caldwell Esselstyn. He’s an amazing guy—a friend. We worked together on a couple of projects. Really smart, and I think he’s right. You do not want to damage the lining of your blood vessels. That’s my field of angiogenesis as well, but here’s what I will tell you. Not all oils are created equal. Saturated fats are clearly more damaging to the blood vessel lining—the endothelial lining of our blood vessels. Polyunsaturated fats have less damage. Obviously, if you go too high in concentrations, I mean anything is bad for you in excess. But olive oils are polyunsaturated, for the most part. It has less to do with the processing. If you think about it, eating an olive out of a barrel is a plant-based food. That is packed with olive oil, right? A little bit of olive oil such as you would use in a dressing or use for in cooking, not bad for you.
Actually, most of the study has shown that if you actually have up to about three tablespoons of olive oil a day, that’s probably okay—and or less. If you use olive oil in cooking, you’re probably in good shape. Don’t forget, it’s not about the fat that’s the good stuff in olive oil. The fat of olive oil is less bad for you, but in fact, olive oil has these bioactive compounds like oleic acid and hydroxytyrosol. These are some of Mother Nature’s secret weapons that happen to be found in plant-based foods. For example, hydroxytyrosol has been shown to be one of those olive oil-derived substances that can actually improve your immune response.
In this COVID-19 era, we pay attention to things like that when we hear something is good. The next time you’re actually sautéing something I would say it’s okay to use a little bit of olive oil, don’t take too much of it. Never have gallons of anything.
[00:43:54] Ashley James: You said someone could be safe taking up to three tablespoons a day, what if someone does more than that? Could they be damaging their blood vessels, and is there a way to get all those great nutrients in a different form? Because you’re saying olive oil really isn’t a great way to get fat. You’re not actually taking the olive oil for the fat, you’re taking it for the medicinal extracts from olives. Whereas it would be more concentrated in an olive itself, wouldn’t it?
[00:44:21] Dr. William Li: It could be. By the way, a lot of the good stuff in olive oil, in olives, actually is not the oily part of it, it’s in the liquid part of it, which when you press an olive to make olive oil what comes out of olive is a liquid, which then is drained away, but the fat actually floats to the top and that’s what’s collected. In fact, there’s a lot of really great stuff in the olive water that gets drained away. That’s a whole other sustainability issue.
[00:44:47] Ashley James: Olive juice.
[00:44:48] Dr. William Li: Yeah, exactly.
[00:44:49] Ashley James: Why aren’t we drinking olive juice by the gallon?
[00:44:52] Dr. William Li: I love olive juice. Have you ever had it by the way? It’s just fantastic. It’s super concentrated olives. It’s like all the goodness of olive without the fat.
[00:45:02] Ashley James: Oh my Gosh.
[00:45:04] Dr. William Li: I’m actually not saying that olive oil is a bad fat. What I’m saying is that it’s actually a pretty decent fat, all things considered. By the way, if you look at clinical trials and if you look at population studies, people who live in regions where olive oil tends to be the predominant fat tend to be a little bit healthier. The [correlate] between consuming olive oil is healthier than not consuming olive oil. You’re asking though are there any other ways of getting healthy fats? I mean look, many nuts and flax seeds all contain healthy fats.
We probably shouldn’t be having a ton of fasts to begin with. There’s no food that is really just only the fat, right? There are other things that are good with it. We have to take a more considered approach to what we’re putting in. For example, if you’re having olive oil, it’s not just the polyunsaturated fats you’re having, you’re also getting all these other bio-actives. If you’re having a saturated fat, there’s probably nothing good that you’re taking in with it.
[00:46:15] Ashley James: Got it. This olive juice, this olive water, the extract that’s not the fat, that’s where all the polyphenols are, all these chemicals that you’re talking about. How would one go about getting this into their life? Just by eating olives or is there a place to buy olive juice?
[00:46:38] Dr. William Li: It’s a great question. I know that I was traveling once in the Mediterranean. There was, for the lack of a better word, an olive bar. I’m trying to remember where it was, but it was amazing. You could get little shots of pure olive juice from different types of olives. I’ll tell you, it was just such an amazing treat to sample that. Be on the lookout. I suppose, if you have time in a lockdown mode to actually try out different baking recipes, maybe we should try to make our own olive juice. I’m sure there’s a way of actually doing it.
[00:47:23] Ashley James: There’s a ton of people baking right now. We should be cold pressing olives and drinking the juice instead. That sounds delicious and so nutritious. I’m predicting in the next 20 years that’s going to be a big health trend like goji berries and kale. We’re going to have little bottles of olive juice. That’s really cool. You focus on food as medicine, you focus on preventing disease because it’s more important to prevent a disease than treat it. At least, we have more tools to prevent a disease than we do to have to treat it because by the time someone is so sick that they have the disease it’s much harder to reverse it. What actionable steps could we take today? What specific steps would you tell us to start doing today to prevent disease?
[00:48:19] Dr. William Li: The one thing that everyone needs to know is that we actually have, from the time we’re born, all the defensive weapons we need to stay to live long healthy lives. Our body really craves health. Health is not just the absence of disease, it’s really a result of our own bodies—hard-wired health defense system—working as hard as it can—I call it firing on all cylinders—from the time we’re born until our very last breath. Some people say I know somebody who developed cancer or heart disease, why did they develop that? I would turn it around to say why don’t more people develop cancer, and why don’t more people develop diabetes or heart disease?
It’s because when our body’s defenses are working at full capacity, full throttle, they naturally resist cancer growth, metabolism going on haywire, blood vessels clogging up causing heart disease. Actually, even fat cells growing to ridiculous sizes our body kind of knows how to do what it wants to do. The problem is that once we’re born and we’re living on planet earth, life itself exacts a toll like the tax we pay for living on this planet is that we’re continuously assaulted by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Modern life, we’re surrounded by off-gassing from furniture and carpets. I always tell these damages our DNA and cause all kinds of problems.
I always tell people if you still drive a car that uses petrol or uses gasoline and you get to fill your tank, do you stand upwind or downwind? A lot of people go I haven’t even thought about that. How about you, Ashley? Do you actually stand upwind or downwind when filling up your tank?
[00:50:16] Ashley James: I sit in the car while my husband does it.
[00:50:19] Dr. William Li: All right, the smartest one of them all. I’ll tell you what I do. I stand upwind because I realize that if I stand downwind and I can smell that gas, those solvents are actually going into my lung damaging my own DNA. Something like that, just even a small thing like that, is an assault on your body. The question is, how come we don’t have lung cancer every day, the next day, or the next week after we fill up a tank of gas? Because our body fixes itself.
The number one thing I think is super important is that our body already has the secret to actually stay healthy. Number two is that those defenses have to work harder and harder as we get older because there are so many cumulative stresses that we’re subjected to, our body’s defenses have to work harder and sometimes they can break down. The third thing I would tell you, so you want to sort of stay away from those dangers.
This is like wear sunscreen, stay physically active, avoid solvents and toxins, but there’s even more which is that we can actually do our health defenses a favor by feeding them because foods can activate, support, and even enhance our health defense system. What are those health defense systems? I wrote about five of them in my book Eat to Beat Disease. There’s angiogenesis, our circulation, that’s 60,000 miles worth of blood vessels that deliver oxygen to all of our cells. There’s our stem cells, the regeneration. We talked about regeneration a little bit. Our stem cells are actually found in our bone marrow. We got tons of them even as adults.
When we were kids, we were told that starfish and salamanders regenerate but people don’t, humans don’t. Well, that playbook’s been thrown out. We have a new chapter written. We know that humans do generate very, very slowly. Foods can actually make that regeneration happen from the inside out, and we can speed it up and make it more efficient. Our microbiome, gut bacteria, we got 37 trillion bacteria in our bodies and most of it’s in our gut.
When I was in medical school I was told bacteria are bad, kill the bacteria, prescribe antibiotics, and now we know, in fact, most of the bacteria in our body is good. Occasionally, there’s a bad actor that calls itself out. Sometimes, you need to actually bust out the pharmaceutical police to take care of that, but for the most part, we have a good ecosystem of healthy good bacteria. By feeding our good bacteria, it affects our mood, our brain, our emotions, our immune system, how good our skin looks, how fast we heal, whether or not we’ve got inflammation, our metabolism.
It’s so important, our bacteria, that we actually realize that we’re not even fully human anymore because we’ve got 39 trillion human cells, we’ve got 37 trillion bacteria, so we’re like 50-50. Half of us isn’t even human. By the way, Ashley, the term for an organism that’s made up of different species like we are, humans and bacteria, is called a holobiont. That’s what you and I are. We’re all holobionts. We’re an ecosystem walking around. The bacteria are just walking around inside our human shell. That’s really important and foods can actually boost that.
DNA is another defense system. We’re all taught that DNA is our genetic code, and it makes proteins, absolutely. That’s true, there’s no quarrel about that, but many people do not realize that our DNA is a defense mechanism that protects us against environmental damage. For example, we know that if you go out to the beach and lay out you’ll get tan and you’ll get burned if you stay out too long. If you get burned that can actually lead to skin cancer because it damages our DNA. We know if you want to speed up that damage you should go into a sun tanning booth and bingo, in an hour you’ll have done 20 years of damage to your skin—really a bad thing to do.
Did you know that actually even sitting in a car stuck in traffic on a beautiful day with the sun shining in through the windshield or with your arm out the window coming in stuck in traffic that also causes damage. Being in an airplane. Pilots receive huge amounts of ultraviolet damaging radiation just by sitting in a cockpit flying the plane. As do the passengers.
The fact of the matter is our DNA knows how to fix itself. It repairs itself, it can rebuild itself when it’s damaged, and our DNA is kind of a fuse like, a life fuse, that burns itself down in our cells so that the longer the fuse is the healthier and longer-lived we are. When our fuse burns down really short, they call these the telomeres that are protective they’re like the caps of a shoelace at the very end—the plastic tips. What happens when your shoelace loses the cap? Your shoelace frays open and immediately it starts to fall apart. That can happen to our DNA. Our DNA protects ourselves against damage including aging.
Then finally, our immune system. Everybody now thinks about immunity as one of the most important defenses against COVID-19, but listen, we’re surrounded by viruses, bacteria, molds, and fungi all the time. Our immune system does more than resist attacks from the outside, which is what we’re thinking about with COVID. Our immune system prevents us from being attacked from the inside by cancer cells. In fact, we know that the immune system is so powerful that even if you were in your 80s or 90s, like an elderly person, their immune system is powerful enough to completely wipe out cancer even if it’s spread if you give it a chance.
We figured this out through one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine in the last couple of decades, which was immunotherapy for cancer where you can now treat cancer some cancers with medicines that don’t actually kill the cancer cells directly. Instead, what they do is they actually help the immune system discover cancer and get rid of it by itself. A great example is President Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States and one of the oldest living presidents now. He actually had melanoma.
He was one of the most amazing people that after his presidency dedicated himself to building homes for people that needed to have homes constructed. He and his wife Rosalynn would go out and build houses in Habitat for Humanity. A lot of sunshine in the state of Georgia. Got a melanoma, spread to his liver and his brain. It was thought that someone in their 90s would never survive a melanoma that spread to the brain, but he got immunotherapy in the 90s that didn’t kill the cancer cells. All they did was rip open the cloak that cancers try to hide from your immune system. His 90-year-old immune system said aha, I see you, I’m going to get rid of you. His own immune system wiped out all visible traces of cancer. Amazing. I never thought we’d see that happen, not in my career, but here we are.
Five defense systems: angiogenesis, stem cells, microbiome, DNA repair, and immunity. The great news is that our diet can be used to activate these, so you can, in fact, Eat to Beat Disease.
[00:58:28] Ashley James: I love it. Your book is just full of the science-based evidence showing us that every single time we walk into the kitchen we’re walking into our pharmacy. That every time we put something in our mouth we can be healing our body or we could be harming our body. We really want to maximize the nutrition, the nutrient density of every meal to support the body’s ability to heal itself and maintain optimal health no matter what our age is. The more you dive into this and help people to shape their diet to support their overall health, what illnesses have you been surprised that were able to be reversed with diet?
[00:59:17] Dr. William Li: One of the most surprising is in fact cancer. We talked a little bit about this earlier. I’ll tell you about the experience. This immunotherapy that I told you about there’s a bunch of different treatments that are out there like this. Even the best ones sometimes aren’t effective, and we don’t know why. Some people who actually wind up getting immunotherapy will have this incredible, amazing, and complete response. Back to baseline—they just regain their health back even after cancer has spread. On the other hand, some people don’t respond at all. Getting the treatment doesn’t do them squat—diddly-squat. What’s going on?
My colleague, Dr. Laurence Zitvogel in Paris did this amazing important study. She took 200 cancer patients who were being treated with the immunotherapies. She just separated them out into people that actually had a good response and people who didn’t respond. Then she dove deeply to figure out what the differences were between the people who are responders and non-responders. It seems like a really simple logical thing to do, but in fact, it’s quite a complicated thing if you really wanted to look for differences.
What she found, when you accounted for sex, age, comorbidities, medications, other risk factors, diet, lifestyle, and all kinds of other things, the only difference between someone who responded and didn’t respond is one bacteria in their gut—one bacteria. If you had that bacteria, you responded. If you didn’t have that bacteria, you didn’t respond. That bacteria is called akkermansia muciniphila. It’s a normal healthy gut bacteria that we now are beginning to realize it actually governs and helps to control. It’s like air traffic control for our immune system—it conducts surveillance.
Here’s the amazing thing about that bacteria, when she took out the bacteria from patients who were responders to the treatment and went to the lab to figure out—she took lab animals, mice, who actually didn’t have any bacteria and put them in there—if she put a tumor on there and then treated them, the same thing that you saw in patients. The immunotherapy would allow the mouse’s immune system to completely wipe out cancer. If on the other hand, she put the bacteria in there, the animal had a tumor and she gave an antibiotic and wiped out that bacteria, no effect of the immunotherapy.
Powerful, powerful concept of a single bacteria helping your immune system function, but where the surprise is for me when it comes to diet has to do with the fact that you cannot actually eat this bacteria. There’s no probiotic for akkermansia. The only thing you can do is to eat foods that actually cause your own gut, your own intestines to secrete the mucus that this bacteria love to grow in. By the way, what is the food? Pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, and Concord grape juice. They cause our colons to secrete mucus. When that mucus is secreted, the akkermansia loves to grow. It’s like putting fertilizer into your garden. The flowers start blooming, and you can actually put yourself into a situation where you can then have the best possible chances of responding.
This isn’t a food versus medicine. This is food and medicine. To be able to get that kind of impact from diet, life, and that situation to me was a delightful surprise.
[01:03:13] Ashley James: Oh my gosh. That makes all the difference. It’s funny, I googled akkermansia muciniphila. Is that how you say it?
[01:03:22] Dr. William Li: Exactly.
[01:03:23] Ashley James: I googled it and the first thing that comes up is a bunch of probiotics, but as you’re saying, you don’t want to take a probiotic. You want to eat food to support the gut in creating the environment that then this bacteria comes and lives. Does it have to be grape juice? Can you eat grapes or grape juice is the best way to do?
[01:03:48] Dr. William Li: The studies have been done so far with grape juice, but obviously, the juice is just coming from the grapes so you might as well eat the grape too and you get all the other good stuff that’s good for other parts of your body including your blood vessel health and metabolism. I always go for the whole food if you can get it, if you can eat it, but the juice isn’t a problem either. I would say many people are concerned about the amount of sugar that’s found in fruit juices. What I would say is that number one yes, sugar is found in some fruit juices, and yes, having too much sugar, from any source, is bad. But sugar in a natural fruit juice is better than added sugar in a soda or in a cup of coffee. You choose your weapons, you choose your sugar wisely.
The good thing about fruit is that you actually wind up having a lot of other good stuff that comes along with it. If the sweetness of the fruit makes your mouth water and it makes you want to eat more of it, that’s not a bad thing necessarily. Again, moderation.
[01:05:02] Ashley James: Moderation is key. It’s interesting to know that fructose is the only carbohydrate, I believe, that will not trigger satiation. That’s why an 18-year-old could consider drinking two liters of Coke, but they would never drink two liters of milk in one sitting. The fructose does not trigger that satiation, so people tend to want to binge on or the brain wants to binge on fructose. It’s part of our mechanism for when we were hunter-gatherers. It’s just good to know for people who maybe have addictive tendencies that when they start drinking juice or start eating even just fruit or any form of fructose, it can help to trigger more of their addictive tendencies. But if you stay in moderation, like you said, everything in moderation, you have someone drank a few ounces a day of cranberry juice, which is very tart, I can’t see anyone wanting to over-consume that.
You said concord grapes, pomegranate juice, or cranberry juice, or someone could eat pomegranates. It’s kind of hard to eat cranberries. I actually have made a really delicious cranberry relish that didn’t have any sugar in it. It was raw cranberries diced in a food processor with a bunch of orange and orange zest. It’s very delicious.
[01:06:36] Dr. William Li: If you were to put cranberries with some mango, or cranberries some banana—I’m trying to think of other things you could actually blend with cranberries. I think you could actually find other ways to sweeten it. You don’t have to just do the old Thanksgiving recipe of dumping a cup of sugar with a cup of cranberries, as tasty as that might have been when you were a kid. Maple syrup is another kinder, gentler way of actually putting a little bit of sugar in something. I know you’re from Canada originally. It’s the home of maple syrup.
[01:07:13] Ashley James: Maple syrup courses through our veins.
[01:07:17] Dr. William Li: Exactly. I think it’s all about moderation.
[01:07:24] Ashley James: Right. That’s amazing. You’ve seen people reverse cancer with diet, but just understanding that those who consumed those foods so that their gut could have that bacteria made all the difference to them. Are there any other keys that you were really surprised to uncover?
[01:07:47] Dr. William Li: What was really amazing to me is that if you were to compare the potency of food side-by-side with a cancer drug or even a non-cancer drug, you can really get the sense of how powerful foods are. We did this actually with green tea where we tested green tea in the same system for doing cancer drug development. We found that it was at least as active as about half the cancer treatments that we had tested. What was also interesting, that was kind of a surprise to me, is when it comes to food and health, there’s a lot of science—more science to be done—but there’s also a lot of ideology, there’s a lot of belief system, there’s a lot of pride of thinking that’s out there. Sometimes that’s confusing with science.
What’s interesting is most people would say that tea is good for you and that green tea is really good for you and that black tea might not be so good for you because it’s been fermented and a lot of the polyphenols have been destroyed, but actually, we found in angiogenesis assays would say that in fact—and then people will say with green tea, that Japanese tea, is the best. When we actually were agnostic like we had no ideology. We said let’s just test some green tea from Japan and other places like China. Let’s test some black tea as well.
A big surprise for me was we found that jasmine tea from China actually was more powerful in an angiogenesis assay for blood vessel health than Japanese tea. But even more surprising was that a black tea, Earl Grey, which is black tea with bergamot which is kind of a citrus type of citrus peel was more potent than any of the green teas. What was even more surprising is when we did something unthinkable culturally, which is to mix, blend Japanese and Chinese tea together, we actually found that when you tested that combination that was even more powerful than any of the teas.
So it opened their ideas of food synergies, right? Because nobody eats food by itself. We really tend to mix things together. What don’t we know? I mean we know tomatoes are good for you, we know that olives are good for you, and we know that some spices or herbs are good for you, but do we know what happens if you mix them together? Does 1 plus 1 equal 10? That’s the kind of research that lies ahead that I’m super excited to be doing.
[01:10:48] Ashley James: Absolutely. What was the Japanese and Chinese combination that made the biggest difference?
[01:10:53] Dr. William Li: It was a Japanese Sencha, which most people revere. I mean it’s got a great taste, I love Sencha. Then we tested it against Chinese jasmine tea, which they call Dragon Balls. Teas rolled together with jasmine flowers. We tested either those, side-by-side, in an angiogenesis assay. A big surprise to me was that the Chinese tea was more powerful and potent than the Japanese tea, but then when we actually mixed the two together we got actually an effect that was more powerful than either, and even more powerful than the black tea. If you counted the potency, it was definitely synergy. They were more than additive. They actually did something yet different again. What’s the impact on the growing conditions, the soil from which they came, or the age or the season in which the leaves are picked. All these are amazing questions that need to be asked.
[01:11:57] Ashley James: When you did this study, did you figure out how much? What was the optimal brewing and consistency of the tea and how much someone would need to drink every day to maximize the benefits of drinking it?
[01:12:14] Dr. William Li: The way I do food as medicine research is by looking at lots of different types of data and lots of different types of studies. The reason that’s important is that you can’t really study food in the exact same way you’d study a drug. You study a drug like a pharmaceutical, what do you do? You give 1,000 patients the drug and you give another thousand patients a sugar pill or a placebo. Then you make them take that drug X number of times a day for a few months or maybe a year and then you measure the outcome. You can’t make anybody just eat only tomatoes, and you can’t make the other people not eat tomatoes for a year. The way that I approach the research is number one, we look in the lab. We see in cells and looking at the genetics and molecular biology, what does the food actually do or the substance within the food?
This can be done in tissue culture and genetic studies. It could be done with lab animals, animal models. All the standard stuff. Then you can go to clinicals in humans. For humans, you can actually do a clinical trial. The cacao, the hot chocolate study I told you about—regenerative blood vessel cells, stem cells—was actually a human’s trial done with people. Small studies because it’s really difficult to do long term studies like this. But then you have population studies where you cannot just do a couple of dozen people, you can do hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people. In fact, some of the largest epidemiological studies, they call them population studies, can involve hundreds of thousands of people.
There’s a gigantic study in Europe that is looking at 500,000 people across a dozen European countries and studying them over the course of their lifetime. The conclusions that you get are really by converging all that data, and then figure out what does the data tell you. When we were talking about tea earlier when you were asking about the right dose, well, many of the studies have been done in humans have shown that tea benefits that protect the heart, to protect against cancer, even protect against dementia, any range, anywhere from two to four cups of green tea a day, most of the studies have been done in green tea. So that would be the dose. The question is, how long would you need to take it? Many of these studies are conducted over a period of years, looking at people’s intake over the course of years.
This is, again, food isn’t like a drug. You just go out to the drugstore and you pop a pill and you’re done or pop it once a day for seven to ten days like an antibiotic. This is why having a great habit when you’re young can pay off later on in life, but it’s never too late. You’re never too old to actually shape-shift a little bit and lean towards what I like to say, a delicious healthy diet that pleases you that you love. In my book, I write about more than 200 foods. They all activate one or more of the body’s health defense systems. Everyone can find something that they love in that list of 200 plus foods. If you start with the foods that you love as healthy choices, you’re already way ahead of the game because you’re not about cutting out things you love, you’re adding things to your diet that you love.
[01:16:07] Ashley James: That makes total sense. I was amazed to learn about—I’m not going to say this right—anti-angiogenesis or the compounds that prevent new blood vessels growing to cancer.
[01:16:26] Dr. William Li: That’s anti-angiogenic foods.
[01:16:28] Ashley James: Right.
[01:16:30] Dr. William Li: Some of the really interesting ones are also surprises. I got involved in this many, many years ago. When there was a research paper that came out, I spied. It was a Greek researcher doing research in Germany. The lab had vials and vials and vials of frozen urine from Japanese villagers outside of Kyoto who all ate vegetarian diets, mostly soybean products. The laboratory was studying female hormones. Obviously, during menstruation, there are female hormones found in urine. That’s what the lab is originally doing. They had all this extra frozen urine around, and they were trying to figure out what type of experiments would be useful to do. They decided they would just see what’s in the urine and not be biased. They looked at everything that was in the urine, and they found a couple of really interesting surprising peaks.
Think about urine, you put it into a device that can measure all the chemicals. If there’s a chemical, the needle jumps and you get a little spike in the readout. There’s a sticker tape that comes out and the readout there. They found a couple of gigantic spikes. They’re like what the heck is this? It turns out they were not female hormones, but they were homormoneish-like. They found that it was a phytoestrogen that comes from soy. We now know this. Soy is a phytoestrogen. What they did though is they tested the chemical from the urine. They tested it on blood vessel cells and they found that it potently shut down the blood vessels that tumors would grow to try to feed themselves. It was anti-angiogenic cancer starving.
You say, wait a minute, we know that women are often told to stay away from soy products because these phytoestrogens are dangerous for breast cancer, right? That’s an urban legend. The urban legend is from well-intentioned people trying to interpret the information is that soy estrogen, plant estrogens look nothing like human estrogens. They’re called estrogens but they actually don’t do the same thing. In fact, plant estrogens block human estrogens. We know that human estrogens can be responsible for some types of breast cancer, and in fact, we give blockers of human estrogen to treat those cancers. Turns out, soy estrogens—phytoestrogens—do the same thing as those pharmaceuticals. They block the human estrogen.
How do we know that soy is safe to take? A study of 5000 women who already had breast cancer, so the highest risk women were studied and this was a study done out of Shanghai called the Shanghai women’s breast cancer study. They found that those women with breast cancer diagnosis who ate more soy had better outcomes, less mortality, and less chance of cancer coming back the more they ate. How much soy do they need to have? About 10 grams of soy protein a day. That’s the amount of soy you would get in about a glass of soy milk per day, not that much. Again, go to the lab, look at what’s in there, look at human samples and human trials, then look at big populations and see. A study of 5000 women is pretty convincing. You would think that if it’s dangerous you would see it right there.
Then there was a meta-analysis of 14 different studies of women with breast cancer and studying the effects of soy. In every single case of these 14 clinical trials, the intake of soy was associated with better survival and in no case was the intake of soy associated with more mortality. I think that’s a case closed kind of thing.
[01:20:51] Ashley James: Do you know, in those studies, did they choose non-GMO soy or organic soy, or did they differentiate what kind of soy they were using?
[01:21:02] Dr. William Li: That’s a good question. In those big studies, they haven’t really differentiated those. Some of these studies were coming out of Asia, some of them were coming out of Europe. The big concern about GMO—the debate, the controversy about GMO—is something that’s really worthwhile studying. I’ll tell you something interesting that came out recently that I discovered about GMO and about organic. A lot of concepts of GMO being worse and organic being better are all based on the principles that they should be better or should be worse. The real question is how would you actually know? You’d have to do human studies, which some of which are underway right now, so we have to wait and see what those research studies show.
So far, what I would say is that for GMO, it’s very, very difficult to avoid GMO anything because the seeds are out there, butterflies and bees take them everywhere. Even if you think something is not GMO, it may wind up being that the pollination has contaminated a non-GMO with GMOs. That the seeds that they started them with weren’t that way—really, really difficult studies. The other thing that I got surprised with was organic. I mean organic supposedly better, and of course, nobody wants pesticides in their foods.
Recently, there was a paper study published showing that strawberries that are grown in an organic fashion, meaning without pesticides, actually have more healthful properties in the berry. That’s the reason is that when you don’t have pesticides used to grow the strawberries, bugs eat the strawberry leaves. That’s the whole point of pesticides to keep the pests away, but when insects eat at the leaves of the plant, the plant views it as a wound to the plant and it responds by actually healing itself. Part of the wound healing response is to put more bioactive stuff into the fruit. You actually get a more powerful fruit when it’s actually eaten, attacked by an insect.
[01:23:39] Ashley James: Interesting.
[01:23:40] Dr. William Li: Really interesting stuff, right?
[01:23:42] Ashley James: Also, when you’re eating food that isn’t sterile and been harmed by these chemicals, when you’re eating food like strawberries that have been grown in the most organic fashion—let’s say in your own backyard—when we eat the strawberry, we’re consuming bacteria that live on the strawberry. That bacteria helps our body to digest and assimilate the nutrients from that strawberry. I think that it’s really good to eat a variety of raw and cooked foods, if you can tolerate it. Some people with digestive problems can’t, but if you can eat a variety of fresh raw foods because it helps us to invite those good bacteria that are specific to those foods that help us to assimilate the nutrients.
My biggest concern is glyphosate, which is Roundup. It’s known as a chelator. I’ve had a few people on the show about it. Dr. Stephanie Seneff has talked about how it binds to heavy metals and it releases the heavy metals when pH changes in the body like blood to urine or blood to the cerebral spinal fluid, and that they find that it deposits heavy metals into the tissue in the body. We want to avoid Roundup or glyphosate as much as possible. I also had Jeffrey Smith on the show who’s a producer of documentaries around GMO. He brought up a really interesting study. It’s been a few years since I interviewed him so I don’t remember the exact title of it. In Canada, they studied women and found that Bt toxin—that they actually had gut bacteria. They stopped eating GMO but that their gut bacteria, the DNA of their gut bacteria, had been hijacked by the Bt corn. They believe that the DNA, the genetically modified DNA of the corn then attacks and hijacks our gut biome. The gut biome was producing Bt toxin.
We’re playing with the DNA of the foods we’re eating. We have to wonder about the effects it will have on our cells but also the effects it will have on the microbiome, which, as you pointed out, is so important. I totally agree with you. We can never be 100% sure if the soy we’re eating is non-GMO. If we could buy organic, hopefully, there’s no glyphosate in it. Very interesting what you’ve pointed out that consuming healthy amounts of soy can help to prevent cancer but also people with cancer benefit from it as well.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman talks about the importance of eating even just a cup of mushrooms a day and something like maybe half a cup or a cup of onions a day, raw or cooked, can increase the ability to prevent vasculature growing to new cancer. Like you said, if you eat food that you like I love mushrooms and onions, so I make sure I eat them every day. If we can pick foods that we like that we enjoy that also nutrify the body, then go for it. Eat lots of variety of those healthy fruits and vegetables.
I definitely want to make sure listeners get your book, Eat to Beat Disease. Your website is drwilliamli.com. Of course, the links to everything that Dr. Li does is going to be in the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehealth.com. Do you do telemedicine? Do you work with people? What are the other ways that listeners can follow you, learn from you, and work with you?
[01:27:40] Dr. William Li: One of the best ways is actually to sign up on my website at drwilliamli.com. Actually, I’m going to be unrolling a new program where I’m actually able to give out the breaking news information, news you can use, tips on how you can actually live a better lifestyle. One of the things that you can get, definitely just by signing up, is a free shopping list. Because I’ve taken the 200 foods from my book, and I’ve broken them down into, generally, the order that you might encounter them when you actually go into a grocery store. These days, you don’t want to waste any time in the grocery store. You want to get in there and get out like a SWAT team.
The more you can actually take a look at what the healthy stuff is—mark it off, check it out, make a list, get it in your head, make a beeline for the parts that you want to get, and then get out of dodge that’s something that I really feel like a healthy food shopping list can be useful for. That’s how I encourage people to do it. I’m also on social @drwilliamli. Please follow along, like, and spread the word because this is something so important in the COVID era. This virus has been a big wake-up call for the entire human species that our health is no longer about juicing, jogging, and yoga. It’s about how we take care of ourselves every single day, and we make decisions when we eat that can really help make the difference between whether we can resist disease and whether we might succumb to it.
[01:29:26] Ashley James: If everyone did a little bit of juicing, jogging, and yoga I think this world would be a better place. Thank you so much for coming on the show. My last question for you is I know you already eat a very healthy diet and you focus on a healthy lifestyle because you see the science behind it in preventing disease, what did you change in your diet and lifestyle in the last few months? What did you encourage your family, your close loved ones to do because of the COVID pandemic.
[01:30:00] Dr. William Li: I’ll tell you, one of the things that I really wanted to make sure that we’re doing is getting enough vitamin C and vitamin D. Those are micronutrients that are found in many different types of foods like citrus or mushrooms that if you’re deficient in, your immune system is more likely to fail to detect viruses. I wanted to make sure that, at least for me, I’m actually getting up to snuff at the baseline. Then some of the other foods that I started eating that really can enhance our community are things like I mentioned pomegranate juice. I started to have more tomatoes, which are a great source of vitamin C. I started really making sure I was eating tree nuts like pecans, which I really love, olive oil, blueberries, and blackberries are really great.
Actually, one of the things that I did is I actually did a little public service announcement on YouTube called 10 Things You Should Eat Right Now To Beat COVID-19 and put it out there. Immediately, it started to go viral because people were just looking for information of what I would do to actually eat and what I’ve done, so I put that out there—10 things that you can eat to be COVID-19 on YouTube, subscribe. Those are how I changed my life. I’m happy to continue to let people know what new things I’m actually doing as well.
[01:31:31] Ashley James: Awesome. Thank you, Dr. William Li. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show. You are welcome back anytime you want to come and teach and share. We’d love to have you back.
[01:31:40] Dr. William Li: Thank you, Ashley. It’s a real pleasure to be with you.
[01:31:43] Ashley James: I hope you enjoyed today’s interview with Dr. Li. Please share it with those you care about. Let’s get this information out to help as many people as possible to learn true health. Come join the Facebook group. Search Learn True Health on Facebook or go to learntruehealth.com/group and join the Facebook group. It’s a wonderfully supportive community. We’re all in this together to learn what we can do to tweak our diet, our lifestyle, supplements whatever we can do to just switch it over to build the body into a place that develops health instead of disease. We can heal the body. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. Even if you’ve been told you’re going to have this for the rest of your life, I have met so many people, myself included, who have reversed diseases and illnesses that they were told by doctors they’d always have for the rest of their life.
So don’t give up hope. Instead, dive in, listen to more episodes of the Learn True Health podcast, and come join the Facebook group. There is hope. As long as you’re living and breathing, as long as you have a pulse, your body can heal itself. You can do many things to support your body’s ability to heal itself. I’m so happy that you’re here to learn how you can optimize your health through every meal, through every breath. There are so many things you can do mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and energetically. That’s exactly what this podcast is here to help you with.
So please, dive in, keep listening. Make sure that you share this episode and share the podcast with those you love so we can help as many people as possible. Come join the Facebook group so that you can keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep growing. Thank you so much for being a listener. Thank you so much for sharing. Have yourself a fantastic rest of your day.