Life Extension Magazine®

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Author Interview

Dr. William W. Li, author of Eat to Beat Disease, explains how a healthy diet can be used as medicine.

By William W. Li, MD.

In his new book, Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, William W. Li, M.D. focuses on how food can be used as medicine to prevent and even treat disease.

Dr. Li’s interest in preventing and curing disease began with his work on angiogenesis, or the creation of new blood vessels.

Early in his career, he studied how angiogenesis helps cancer thrive by supplying it with nourishing blood. Before long, he and other researchers realized that angiogenesis isn’t just a factor in cancer.

In fact, angiogenesis is a player in a huge range of diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and more. Controlling blood vessel formation, therefore, might prevent many diseases.

This thinking led Dr. Li to look at the underlying causes of disease—and how to treat or eliminate them by having people activate their body’s own health defense systems.

Dr. Li is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is well known for his TED Talk, “Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” which has garnered more than 11 million views to-date. Dr. Li has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show,” CNN and NPR, and has published articles in journals including the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet.

In this exclusive Life Extension® interview, Dr. Li discusses the five major defense systems humans rely on to prevent disease and how a healthy diet can support each one.


What you need to know

Dr. William W. Li has garnered an illustrious reputation for his research, cable appearances and his TED Talk which has hit over 11 million views. He is the author of the new book Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. Find out more inside this article.

Woman recieving a swab

LE: In your book, you’ve identified five “defense systems” that help protect people from birth until old age. What are they and how do they work?

Dr. Li: When I teach about diet and health, I use the analogy that the body is like a medieval fortress, protected by a host of clever defenses that heal the body from within. The five defense systems I’m referring to are angiogenesis, regeneration, the microbiome, DNA protection, and immunity.

LE: We write a lot about how nutrients can support these systems in Life Extension Magazine®. Let’s take them one by one. First, angiogenesis—how does it support health?

Dr. Li: Inside you, there are about 60,000 miles of blood vessels whose job it is to deliver oxygen and nutrients to cells. Angiogenesis is the process of creating new blood vessels. If you’ve ever scraped your knee badly enough to bleed and form a scab, and if that scab was pulled off too early, you have seen angiogenesis unfolding before your eyes. In the area under the scab, which is bright red and glistening, thousands of new blood vessels were growing in the wound to restore the injured tissue. Their growth is stimulated by angiogenic growth factors that are released as soon as the injured tissue begins to bleed. These angiogenic growth factors stimulate blood vesssels to start sprouting and forming tubes. The new tubes become capillaries and eventually new vessels.

The angiogenesis defense system constantly senses where and when more vessels are needed to keep organs healthy and functioning, so control over angiogenesis needs to be perfect to optimize health. Unfortunately, over the course of a lifetime, many factors can derail this defense and encourage many diseases. In cancer, for example, some cancers release huge amounts of the same growth factors involved in wound healing. Once the blood vessels sprout into the small cluster of cancer cells, a tumor can grow exponentially. Other diseases encouraged by improper angiogenesis include inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune diseases, age-related macular degenaration, psoriasis, and even obesity.

extracting from an orange

LE: Let’s talk about regeneration. What is it?

Dr. Li: Regeneration is the process by which old, worn out tissues are naturally replenished by new tissues. This is crucial to grow and maintain your organs. Regeneration relies on stem cells, which are immature, pluripotent cells that can form any organ in the body. We know they are vital during fetal formation, but they also play a critical role throughout adult life, quietly regenerating most organs as we age. Besides aging, stem cells are also vulnerable to common factors that assault our bodies throughout life, including tobacco smoke, alcohol, air pollution, high blood cholesterol, and others.

LE: Next up is the microbiome. We hear a lot about how probiotics can help support a healthy microbiome, or gut flora. Can you explain how the microbiome is a critical element in protecting against disease?

Dr. Li: In this age of ever-expanding identities, here’s a new one. You are no longer simply human—you’re a “holobiont.” Technically, this means you are an organism that functions as an assemblage of multiple species that are mutually beneficial. In this case, that means your body is actually a highly complex ecosystem that includes 39 trillion bacteria, teeming inside and on your body’s surface. Most of these are beneficial bacteria that form a complex biological system, or microbiome, that interacts with your cells and organs in many ways. Some gut bacteria, like Lactobaccillus, have hormonal functions and can even produce brain neurotransmitters that influence mood. Others release metabolites that protect us from diabetes, while still others control the growth of abdominal fat, reduce stress and anxiety, influence angiogenesis, and support sexual fitness and social behavior. Today, the microbiome is recognized as one of the most exciting and revolutionary areas in medical research, and microbiome diversity is an important hallmark of health.

Image of fruit in a bowl

LE: The fourth defense system you write about is DNA defense. How does this one work?

Dr. Li: Your DNA is the source code that keeps you alive and healthy. Unfortunately, DNA is quite fragile. Every day, your DNA sustains more than 10,000 naturally occurring, damaging events. This ranges from breaks in the strand that occur as a matter of chance, side effects from destructive processes like inflammation, or the result of toxic chemicals we breathe in, eat, or absorb. Whatever way it happens, each error has the potential to derail our DNA and wreak havoc on our health.

LE: So, how can eating a healthful diet support our DNA?

Dr. Li: Antioxidants are desirable substances that neutralize free radicals and protect your cells. Many foods contain bioactive chemicals with antioxidant properties. For example, vitamin C, found in citrus or kiwi, is a popular vitamin with antioxidant properties. But protecting your DNA with antioxidants from food is only one part of protecting your genetic code. Other foods can trigger additional protective health defenses that are naturally hardwired in our DNA. These foods switch certain genes “on” or “off.”

LE: The last defense you mention is our immune system, which seems closely related to many of the concepts we’ve already discussed. Can you explain why a healthy immune system is so critical?

Dr. Li: A strong immune system not only helps you avoid the common cold, it can also protect you against cancer. Our immune system is one of the best-known health-defense systems. It fights off bacteria and viruses, and prevents us from getting sick. But if your immune system is weakened and unable to do its job, you are vulnerable. Today, we’re learning to harness the incredible power of the immune system to help defeat diseases like cancer with immunotherapy. New research is showing that food, too, can powerfully influence our immune defenses.

LE: Do you have any pointers to help people put all this together?

Dr. Li: Every single day, you are making choices that can tilt the odds in your favor for living longer and better, without illness. My approach isn’t based on elimination, restriction, or deprivation, but rather, it is based on eating the foods you like best. In my book, I’ve developed something called the 5x5x5 framework that will help you eat to beat disease. In simple terms, it’s a strategy to support the five health-defense systems by eating up to five times a day and incorporating a minimum of five health-supporting foods into the meals and snacks you already eat. This is not a weight-loss plan and it’s not a prescription. It’s an adaptable framework to whatever diet plan you’re currently following, or it works if you don’t follow a plan at all.

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Adapted from Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself by William W. Li, M.D. Copyright © 2019 by William W. Li, MD. Used by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.