The Real ALS Challenge: How You Can be Proactive About this Tough Disease

Proactive Health

By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor Sam Shepard recently died at the age of 73. He died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Lou Gehrig was a Major League Baseball player born in 1903. He died in 1941 after a rough battle with ALS, and his name continues to bring awareness to this devastating disease.

What is ALS?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines ALS as “a rare group of neurological diseases that mainly involve the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. Voluntary muscles produce movements like chewing, walking, breathing and talking. The disease is progressive, meaning the symptoms get worse over time.” Currently, there is no cure for ALS.

This disease essentially causes you to lose control of your brain. If you do not have control of your brain, you do not have control of your body.

“Gradually all muscles under voluntary control are affected, and individuals may lose their strength and the ability to speak, eat, move, and even breathe,” reports the NIH. The NIH also says most people die of ALS due to respiratory failure, usually within 3-5 years from when their symptoms first appear. About 10 percent of people with ALS survive for 10 or more years.

How common is ALS?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that there are between 12,000 to 15,000 people in the United States with ALS, and every year doctors diagnose about 5,000 people. ALS is slightly more common in men than women, and most people find out that they have this diseases between 55 and 75 years of age.

There is familial ALS, meaning that two or more people in a family have the disease, so there is some evidence ALS is hereditary. Other suspected causes include environmental exposure, injury and diet.

Of course, to the extent that diet and environment may play a role in preventing ALS we can be more proactive about this disease.   

Oxidative stress is believed to be one of the possible causes of ALS. Put simply, oxidative stress is what happens when free radicals get out of control, increasing your risk for serious diseases. Free radicals can come from your body (via normal cellular metabolism) or external sources (pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, medication). Usually, they are effectively metabolized into more useful, or even harmless, chemicals. In a healthy body, there is a balance of antioxidants and free radicals. So free radicals themselves are not the problem; the problem is when the balance is disrupted, and the free radicals build up and damage other molecules.

Antioxidants help reduce the damage caused by free radicals.

A study, published by Wiley in Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, suggests that a diet rich in bright-colored fruits and vegetables may prevent or delay ALS. Natural foods that contain colorful carotenoids (plant pigments that give certain foods their red, orange and yellow hues) are a good dietary source of vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant.

The researchers examined more than one million people. The study reports, “[a] total of 1093 ALS cases were identified after excluding subjects with unlikely food consumption. The team found that a greater total carotenoid intake was linked to reduced risk of ALS. Individuals who consumed more carotenoids in their diets were more likely to exercise, have an advanced degree, have higher vitamin C consumption, and take vitamin C and E supplements. Furthermore, subjects with diets high in beta-carotene and lutein—found in dark green vegetables—had a lower risk of ALS.”

Interestingly, researchers did not find that lycopene, beta-cryptoxanthin and vitamin C reduced the risk of ALS.

Foods rich in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, dark, leafy greens (like kale), cantaloupe, watermelon and bell peppers.

There are also many essential minerals that may help diminish some of the damage caused by oxidative stress.

Some of these minerals with antioxidant properties include:

  • Copper. Copper functions as an antioxidant. Free copper is a positively charged entity that frequently “soaks up” electrons in the body. These loose electrons are also known as free radicals -- and free radicals are famously damaging, causing aging and poor healing and immunity. Copper rich foods include sunflower seeds, lentils, almonds, dark chocolate, beef liver and asparagus.
  • Zinc. A study of Ethiopian women with decreased zinc intake revealed that supplementing with 20 mg of zinc for 17 days led to a decrease in breaks in DNA. These effects are attributed to the role of zinc in reducing oxidative stress. Eat lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass fed beef, mushrooms, chickpeas, spinach and chicken to get more zinc in your daily diet.
  • Selenium. Most of what selenium does or changes in the body is through the action of selenoproteins. These are just what they sound like; proteins that have selenium in them. Selenium hops into amino acids, creating a special kind of amino acid that attracts oxidation-reduction (free-radical-removing) reactions readily. Foods high in selenium include Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, halibut, sardines and chicken.

How else can you be proactive?

  • Lay off the junk foods. Eating junk food may increase inflammation and oxidative stress.
  • Decrease toxin exposure. Xenoestrogens (chemicals that imitate estrogen), pesticides and heavy metals may increase oxidative stress.
  • Exercise in moderation. Although exercise is generally very healthy, excess, strenuous exercise can increase oxidative stress.
  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods. Antioxidants help keep free radicals in check. Antioxidants can be produced by your body or can be supplied through nutrition (foods and/or supplements).

Finally, it is always important to test the levels of nutrients such as selenium, copper, zinc, vitamins, etc., in order to ensure you have the proper amounts in your body. Too much may be just as bad as too little.  

There are so many diseases we have to be aware of, but there are also a lot of healthy foods we can be aware of too. And these healthy foods are some of the biggest weapons that may help prevent or fight these illnesses. We eat to live, and healthy food keeps us at our healthiest.  

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.  

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