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6 superfoods to supercharge your health

Reading time: 7 minutes

Switch on your body’s longevity genes with these powerful functional foods, says medical anthropologist, author and Four Winds Society founder Alberto Villoldo

While in Mexico as a keynote speaker at a conference on science and consciousness, without warning I found I couldn’t walk 100 feet without collapsing in exhaustion. Friends chalked it up to my crazy travel schedule, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

A few days before the trip, I had gone for a complete battery of tests with medical specialists in Miami. I got my results in Mexico; the news wasn’t good.

Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa and South America, I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of deadly parasites and a host of toxic bacteria.

My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites. The doctors advised me to get my name on a liver transplant list. Maybe my heart would recover, but where was I going to find a healthy brain?

With the help of two friends, neurologist Dr David Perlmutter and functional medicine expert Dr Mark Hyman, I created a comprehensive plan to heal my body—essentially a plant-based diet that’s nutrient dense, high in fats, and supported by superfoods and brain nutrients.

Today, I’m fully recovered. More accurately, I’m beyond recovered. I’m a new person. My mind is functioning at a higher level than it has in decades. My brain is upgraded, and so is my heart. And I have a new liver—not a transplant, but my own liver, fully regenerated. I was able to grow a new body.

The secret was in the medicinal plants from the Amazon, where I traveled to start my healing journey.

I found that the plants most treasured by shamans in the rainforest can help you to grow a new body by turning on the longevity genes inside every cell, detoxifying the brain and switching on the natural production of pluripotent stem cells. They work by upregulating nuclear factor erythroid factor 2–related factor 2 (Nrf2), the body’s master regulator of aging and detoxification, to create health.

In the Amazon, these plants include cat’s claw and a dozen species of shihuahuaco. But there are plants much closer to home that are powerful activators of Nrf2 as well. You can find them at your local food store.

Here are the superfoods that were central to my healing journey and are now at the core of my Grow a New Body program, which I offer at my retreats to clients looking to turn their health around.

  1. Cruciferous vegetables

The holy grail of the superfoods is the family of cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. High in fiber and antioxidants as well as phytonutrients, cruciferous vegetables activate the Nrf2 protein inside cells and turn on the SIRT-1 longevity genes.

Nrf2 can protect every organ in the body and every kind of tissue against cancer, heart disease, dementia and autoimmune disease. It’s one of the most important cellular defense systems, designed to eliminate free radicals and oxidative stress produced by toxins and carcinogens. (A free radical is a molecule that has lost an electron, making it unstable. It will try to steal an electron from another molecule.)

The Nrf2 protein is normally bound to the cell membrane until it is activated by stress, caloric restriction or certain plants, including garlic, broccoli, turmeric and other superfoods. Newly freed from the membrane, it enters the cell nucleus and sets to work, switching on the production of antioxidants, detoxifiers and anti-inflammatory agents.

Researchers have found that Nrf2 might be the master regulator of the aging process. Scientists at the University of Texas claim that “Nrf2-signaling . . . [activates] more than 200 genes that are crucial in the metabolism of drugs and toxins, protection against oxidative stress and inflammation, as well as playing an integral role in stability of proteins and in the removal of damaged proteins via proteasomal degradation [breaking down damaged or unneeded proteins] or autophagy [reusing old or damaged cell components].”1

The following are the most powerful plant activators of Nrf2 and regulators of the aging process.

Broccoli. Rich in calcium, selenium and zinc, broccoli is also high in sulforaphane, the star of the Nrf2 activators. Sulforaphane has anticancer properties and ups the expression of the longevity genes inside cells.

I love to sprout broccoli seeds. The three-day-old sprouts contain up to 100 times higher concentrations of glucoraphanin, a precursor of sulforaphane, than the broccoli florets.

Cauliflower. High in fiber and packed with nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin K and folate, cauliflower is often used in Indian curries and roasted with the spice turmeric. It’s usually white, but there are also purple, green and orange varieties.

Cabbage and brussels sprouts. Both are loaded with nutrients. In fact, cabbage was used in ancient Greece and Rome to remedy myriad illnesses. Brussels sprouts are rich in folate and vitamins A and C, but if undercooked, they have a bitter taste that makes them the least favorite vegetables in the cruciferous family. Grilled or baked, they are very tasty.

Bok choy. Also known as pak choi or white cabbage, this vegetable is a staple of Asian cooking. Nutrient-dense bok choy contains a whopping 28 phytochemicals,2 including one found to prevent ovarian cancer.3

It’s high in vitamins A, C and K and in folate. Bok choy is also a good source of calcium, as unlike spinach it’s low in oxalate, a substance that binds to calcium and makes it unavailable to the body.

Kale. Packed with fiber and phytonutrients, kale is a good source of vitamins C and K as well as beta-carotene, calcium and magnesium. I have kale every morning in my green juice. The bluer the color, the more nutritious it is.

Collard greens. The phytonutrient content of collard greens is off the charts. They may be the most effective of the cruciferous vegetables at reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Mustard greens. Phytonutrient superstars, mustard greens are second only to brussels sprouts in cancer prevention. They can be red as well as green and have a peppery taste like arugula (rocket). For maximum nutritional benefit, chop the greens, then let them sit for five minutes before cooking.

  1. Turmeric

A key ingredient in curry, this spice derived from the root of the Curcuma longa plant is important for detoxification and brain repair. It is an extremely powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antifungal and antimicrobial.

Turmeric’s health benefits are optimized when it’s cooked, but it can also be taken as a supplement with black pepper. Curcumin, a key component in turmeric, switches on the SIRT-1 longevity genes and upregulates Nrf2.

  1. Nuts

Nuts are excellent sources of healthy, plant-based fats. Oils from coconuts, walnuts and almonds are concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids and confer a long list of health benefits, from reducing inflammation to lifting depression.

Walnuts are especially rich in phytonutrients, but other varieties also have significant talents:

  • Almonds are high in fiber.
  • Brazil nuts contain selenium, a cancer fighter. Two Brazil nuts will give you all the selenium you need for the day.
  • Cashews are rich in iron, zinc and magnesium, a brain booster.
  • Pecans help prevent plaque from forming in the arteries.
  • Macadamia nuts contain the most monounsaturated (good) fat of any nut.

Peanuts—technically legumes, not nuts—are packed with nutrients, but it’s best to avoid them. Many people are sensitive to peanuts, and full-blown peanut allergies are common and can be fatal.

  1. Seeds

Like nuts, seeds are a good source of healthy fats. Here are just a few super seeds to include:

  • Flaxseeds are high in omega-3s.
  • Hemp seeds, with 10 essential amino acids, are an excellent protein source, and they contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in an ideal ratio.
  • Sesame seeds are high in calcium and other minerals.
  • Sunflower seeds promote healthy digestion.
  • Pumpkin seeds contain estrogen-regulating lignans and aid digestion by regulating the passage of food from the stomach to the small intestine.

To get the most nutritional value out of nuts and seeds, be sure to buy unroasted, organic ones and store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh and prevent mold.

  1. Avocados

Avocados contain healthy monounsaturated fats including oleic acid, which lowers the risk of breast cancer and increases nutrient absorption in the gut.

They’re a good source of lutein, a carotenoid that prevents macular degeneration, and of folate, a B vitamin that prevents heart disease and strokes.

High in fiber with a low glycemic index, avocados help regulate blood sugar. They’re also a good source of the antioxidant glutathione, and when paired with spinach or tomatoes, which are high in alpha-lipoic acid, pack a one-two punch that protects cell health.

  1. Berries

Blueberries are phytonutrient rock stars containing pterostilbene, an Nrf2 activator that lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and protects against cancer and dementia. Known for their antioxidant properties, blueberries are also rich in iron, selenium and zinc. If you can find the wild variety, grab them: their nutrient value is even higher. I favor the frozen ones that are picked at the height of ripeness.

Goji berries. Also known as wolfberries, goji berries have been touted for centuries as the key to long life and are a staple of Chinese medicine. They contain two to four times the antioxidant properties of blueberries as well as all the essential amino acids, making them a whole protein source, like meat. Generally, you can eat goji berries raw, brewed in a tea or cooked in soup for medicinal purposes, but you can also use goji berry extract.

Too much of a good thing

When it comes to Nrf2 activators, you can eat the whole plant as much as you like. But if you’re using a plant extract like sulforaphane, found in broccoli but also available in supplements, there is a dose-dependent effect.

This means a little bit will help you, but a large amount will shut down the beneficial effects. This effect is known as hormesis (from the Greek for “turning on”). It occurs with all Nrf2 activators.

After a few days of turning on the Nrf2 response with broccoli extract or curcumin from turmeric, the body will saturate and turn detoxification off, making you sick with your own waste.

Adapted from Grow a New Body: How Spirit and Power Plant Nutrients Can Transform Your Health, by Alberto Villoldo (Hay House, 2023)

 

References
 
  1. Integr Comp Biol, 2010; 50(5): 829–43
  2. J Agric Food Chem, 2007; 55(20): 8251–60
  3. Nutr Cancer, 2009; 61(4): 554–63
JAN24
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