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Protein and Healing
The third in a three-part series on:
Protein and Aging.

Kathryn Alexander D.Th.D

On any healing diet we are looking to create minimal burden on the system, and to deliver a plentiful supply of nutrients and living enzymes in order to restore the functional capacity of the body. Convalescent diets, through the ages, have abided by these principles, where highly nutritious and digestible vegetables, broths, soups and gruels have been the mainstay of treatment. High protein has never been a consideration of a healing diet; protein is difficult to digest, it not only taxes the digestive system but also depletes digestive enzyme activity, and it creates a tremendous toxic burden on the system. Dr. Gerson found that it was impossible to detoxify and rebuild the body on a diet that incorporated protein in excess of body requirements. His healing diet is high in the easily digestible carbohydrate foods and obeys all the rules of the traditional healing diet.

Nowadays we are seeing patients with very impaired digestive systems and it is very tempting to start removing foods, such as carbohydrates, that appear to aggravate the digestion. The mainstay of any healing therapy has to be to restore the digestive system, before the patient can truly recover. Removing carbohydrates while increasing dietary protein may resolve the symptoms of bloating and flatulence at gut level, but the overall condition will continue to deteriorate and manifest at a more chronic level further down the path.

Protein and its toxic burden

Protein, when eaten in excess to requirements, creates tremendous acidity within the system and places a high metabolic burden on both the liver and kidneys. Although excess protein can be broken down and used for fuel, it is a laborious process for the liver, drawing on zinc and B6 reserves, and the two end-products, urea and sulphuric acid, are poisons which have to be eliminated by the kidneys. As we have seen, these metabolic acids are eliminated by the kidneys in exchange for sodium (which we are trying to eliminate), so the higher your protein intake, the higher your sodium re-loading.

Protein as a diuretic

Urea is not only a poison, but also a diuretic. This means that a high protein diet leaches water and nutrients from the body. Calcium is particularly vulnerable as the kidneys have a most prominent role in overall calcium balance and retention. "Urinary excretion of calcium falls when dietary protein is reduced and rises when it is increased. The calcium loss is usually greater than any increased absorption on moderate and high protein intakes. This phenomenon helps to explain how people in developing countries have no more osteoporosis - possibly less than in Europe and North America, despite lower calcium intakes." (Davidson, S., Passmore, R.; Brock, J.F.; Truswell, A.S.: Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 1979 pp95-96).

Protein, Dehydration and the Aging Process

The stress that a high protein diet creates on the body will ultimately accelerate the aging process. A healing diet must aim to reverse or slow down the degenerative process. Degeneration and aging go hand-in-hand, and as we know this process can be accelerated or reversed by the type of diet we consume. If we introduce the concept of dehydration into this framework, we can see that all three factors are synonymous. With aging, we gradually lose the capacity for hydration; in other words, our bodies lose their affinity for water. Our skin wrinkles; our joints lose their lubrication and stiffen; our mucous membranes dry and become prone to inflammation/ulceration; our bones become more brittle; our spinal discs, which separate and cushion the vertebrae, lose their sponginess and flatten, leading to backache; our digestion becomes impaired as we lose the quantity of digestive juices required for adequate digestion; and the inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, become more prevalent. The list is endless, but each complaint shares a common denominator, dehydration. And with that dehydration comes a hardening which ultimately leads to a loss of functional capacity.

This process of dehydration is very much accelerated by the type of diet we eat. A diet high in refined foods, saturated fat and protein along with increased tea, coffee and alcohol consumption, will encourage dehydration. We have two aspects to consider; the simple diuretic action of protein, tea, coffee and alcohol, and the more chronic condition, where the body has lost its capacity to "hold" water, or its natural affinity for water, which is determined by the integrity of the hydrating structures of body tissues. This integrity is governed by the dietary amounts of complex carbohydrates and essential fatty acids.

We can see that over the last fifty years, nutritional deficiencies aside, the Western diet has swung in favour of the high protein, refined carbohydrate and saturated fat diet, while our consumption of whole cereals and legumes has dramatically declined. Parallel to this we are witnessing a rise in chronic disease in ever younger age-groups.

Hydration and the role of soluble fibre

Hydration, contrary to popular belief, is not dependent upon the amount of water you drink but the body's capacity to hold it. Drinking water, on its own, will be to little avail. When you drink a volume of water, it is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream where it raises the blood volume and dilutes the blood. The kidneys respond by appropriately increasing urinary excretion to return the blood pressure and concentration values to normal.

It is the type of soluble fibre in the diet that determines your overall hydration. Soluble fibre, such as the pectins, gels and starches found in plant food, have physical properties that attract water. For example, a young, growing plant has a good hydration capacity due to the presence of pectin, a polysaccharide which attracts and binds water by virtue of its electrical forces. As the plant ages, the levels of pectin decrease and the lignin levels increase, which leads to the lack of flexibility and brittleness in the woody twig. Pectin acts as a gel. Similar gels are seen in the cactus family, notably in aloe, and in various herbs, which act as mucilages and demulcents through their capacity to attract water. These products, when taken medicinally, have the capacity to re-hydrate, sooth and heal affected tissues.

Similarly, our bodies are made up of structured polysaccharides known collectively as connective tissue, which gives the body shape and form. These tissues range from fluid (blood, lymph), to semi-solid (bone marrow, spleen, liver, muscles, ligaments, tendons), to solid (cartilage and bone). The capacity of each structure to hydrate is determined by the physical properties of its matrix. The body fluids, such as the blood, lymph and synovial fluids, obviously have a greater hydration capacity than the bones. So some structural networks can trap more water than others. If you imagine a three-dimensional string vest, where all the holes are filled with water, and now imagine a tightly woven fabric with very few spaces, you will be able to appreciate the difference between a well hydrated and a less hydrated structure.

When we digest these soluble fibres from complex carbohydrates (mainly through bacterial action in the colon), they are converted to sugar acids and amino-acid sugars (such as glucosamine), which form the structural polysaccharide templates for the different connective tissues found throughout the body. They confer the same water-loving properties in the body as they do in the plant, and it is through these foods that we restore our hydration capacity. The sugar acid found in pectin, D-galacturonic acid, is readily converted by the body to D-glucuronic acid, a principle component of all connective tissue. Glucosamine, a component of synovial fluid in joints, can also be converted from its parent, glucose, by the body. The body is capable of all the sugar interconversions, providing that there is sufficient unrefined dietary carbohydrate intake. Our connective tissue contains 95% polysaccharide and only 5% protein, and therefore the carbohydrate component of the diet will reflect our hydration capacity

These sugar complexes are also incorporated into the cell membrane as glycoproteins which have important immunostimulant properties. In particular the pectins, the beta glucans (found in oats and other cereal grains) and the glucomannans (found in aloe vera gel) have been found to have a specific function in "turning on" the cellular immune response leading to increased immune activity and subsequent healing.

How "dry" am I?

When we assess our past diet, it is easy to see just how "drying" it has been when the balance hasn't favoured foods and beverages that encourage hydration. And if we look at the Yin/Yang concept of Chinese philosophy, it is easy to see how "dry" we have become. Yin and yang = water and fire, respectively. When the water is deficient, the fire burns out of control. This gives rise to the hot, inflammatory or "itis" diseases, such as arthritis, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, bronchitis, and includes allergies, auto-immune diseases, ulcers, burning digestion, hot flushes, along with an accelerated aging/dehydration pattern.

Some people, after a period of dehydration, may become "water-logged". This is not over-hydration, but incorrect hydration and occurs further down the line when the tissues are losing their integrity, and intra-cellular potassium levels have become vulnerable.

Many authors state that the easiest way to re-hydrate the body is to drink salt water, and advocate at least 2 teaspoons of salt daily. Sodium chloride has a high affinity for water, it attracts and binds a great deal of water which leads to an increase in the volume of body fluids. However, the water is drawn to the sodium and not to the connective tissues. Furthermore, it can dehydrate the connective tissues by pulling water from their surfaces to accommodate the amount of sodium. This is a deeper form of dehydration. Perhaps the best example of this is seen in soil salinity. When the degree of salt in the soil exceeds 1.5%, it not only prevents the uptake of water by the plant, but also causes water to move out of the plant.

Correct hydration refers to a structured and finite binding of water governed by the electrical forces of the connective tissues and forces determined by the ionized potassium status within the cell. These electrical fields hold the water in structured layers where it becomes impossible to over-hydrate. Symptoms of water-logging within the body usually manifests at a critical point of degeneration, where sodium and water start to enter the cells, which then swell giving rise to fluid retention and oedemas. Once sodium has entered the cell, the cell is unable to oxidize or produce energy, and will slip into a fermentative phase. A high protein diet will obviously exacerbate this picture.

How do I re-hydrate?

The Hydrating Carbohydrates

Vegetables and Juicing
Protein intake must be reduced in favour of the carbohydrate foods. Vegetables, in their fresh, raw state are the most hydrating of all the food groups. Living foods, which are replete with enzyme systems and nutrients, have strong electrical fields, which not only attract the digestive fluids and enzymes in the process of digestion, but once digested, confer these hydrating qualities to the living tissues within the system.

Unfortunately, the digestive system can become impaired early on in the degenerative process and some patients may have difficulty in digesting raw foods. The juicing of vegetables then becomes the preferred option. This is an ideal way to deliver an abundance of nutrients and living enzymes to an impaired digestive system. Purée-ing raw vegetables will not achieve the same results, as the digestion will still have to "fight" with the fibre before it will release its nutrients. Cooked vegetables, although they have lost many of their colloidal (water-attracting) properties, are more easily digestible than raw, and will still deliver a good supply of nutrients to the system. They should be cooked at low temperatures and in their own juice. The waterless method of cooking is ideal for this.

The process of re-hydration can be speeded up by increasing the amount of mixed apple and vegetable juices. They not only deliver potassium to the cell, but are also rich in pectin (apples) and high in other nutrients. For re-hydrating purposes, the drinking of vegetable juices is preferable to water. Water is not only devoid of nutrients, but a high intake will deplete the body's mineral status through its stimulus on urinary excretion.

Cereal grains and legumes
You diet should contain some cereal grains and legumes which are very rich in soluble fibre. The capacity of a food to swell when soaked or cooked in water, and the glutenous or starchy, viscous fluids which arise following their cooking, is indicative of their high content of soluble fibre. Gruel, made from porridge, is an example of the high amount of soluble fibre found in oats. Gruel is one of the most nourishing and easily digested foods for the convalescent. It is invaluable for those suffering acidity and inflammation in the digestive tract and should form part of the dietary regime for people with these complaints. Never rinse your brown rice or legumes after cooking as you will be discarding many of their soluble fibres. It should be noted that many people find the protein part of the gluten molecule difficult to digest and they may need to avoid cereal grains such wheat, oats, barley and rye. However, unless there is a gluten-intolerance, such as in coeliac disease, most patients can tolerate gruel.

Gels and Broths
Gels and broths made from the simmering of bones (organic), form the basis of many traditional convalescent diets. Gelatin, released from the bones during the stock-making process, has a strong re-hydrating capacity and will build strength into bones, cartilage and nails. The unique property of gelatin is that it does not lose any of its colloidal properties upon cooking, it remains hydrophilic (water-loving) even after re-heating! It is very easy to digest and nutrient-rich. The adding whey or vinegar to the stock during its preparation enhances the nutrient content by drawing out minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium from the bones into the stock. The whey or vinegar will also assist its digestibility by breaking down the gelatin carbohydrate chains, and releasing the nutrients. Broths have always been indicated for people suffering from chronic disorders. I often recommend using a de-fatted stock as the basis for soups, vegetable stews and as the cooking medium for cereal grains.

The Hydrating Oils

The Essential Fatty Acids
Fats and oils do not mix with water, they are hydrophobic; but some oils are more water-friendly than others. The type of dietary fats you eat will determine the type of fats that form the cell membrane. A cell membrane that is predominantly composed of saturated fats and cholesterol will be rigid and biologically inert (polyunsaturated fats that are processed and heated behave as saturated fats); it will not attract oxygen, and the transport of nutrients, in and out of the cell, will become compromised. Additionally, a membrane that is coated with cholesterol cannot respond to hormones or other such signals from the body which is why, with this pattern of accelerated dehydration, we start seeing the onset of hormonal problems and diabetes (insulin resistance at cell membrane).

The essential fatty acids found in unrefined foods, however, are biologically active. By virtue of their electronic fields, they attract oxygen and are more water-soluble than other fats. Unrefined, cold-pressed flaxseed oil is one of the best sources of these fatty acids. These fatty acids, at the cell membrane, can inhibit a local inflammatory and/or allergic response. The hydrating role of the essential fatty acids fits so neatly with the Yin and Yang philosophy. As the cell membrane hardens and dehydrates, so the incidence of inflammatory disorders, allergies and asthma increases. The very oils that are required to moderate or inhibit these destructive responses are absent from the diet and hence the cell membrane. During the healing process, it is best to remove all the fats and oils, other than flaxseed oil, from the diet for a prolonged period of time while you rebuild new cells, which are composed of the correct balance of essential fatty acids.

What you digest today, are your cells of tomorrow - which is why restoration and healing is such a long process. There are no short answers, but with a prolonged adherence to a highly nutritious way of eating, the principles of which have sustained the human race for thousands of years, you will gradually reap the benefits and rewards of that health brings. Beware of dietary protocols that promote the high protein diet. Protein, taken in excess to requirements, will increase the metabolic burden, inhibit detoxification by promoting the retention of sodium, erode the mineral status, and by virtue of all the above, will accelerate the dehydration and aging process.

My book "Get a Life" offers a more detailed insight into some of the issues raised in this article. Order on-line now.
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