The Food Revolution Summit is an annual online event hosted by the father and son team, John and Ocean Robbins. The eight day summit consists of three interviews each day with renowned physicians and experts in the health, wellness, and sustainability space.
Dr. William Li is a renowned doctor, scientist, and angiogenesis expert, and the New York Times best-selling author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. His groundbreaking work has impacted more than 70 diseases including cancer, diabetes, blindness, heart disease, and obesity. Dr. Li’s wildly popular TED Talk “Can we eat to starve cancer?” has been seen by more than 11 million people. He founded the “Eat to Beat” initiative, which is a community of 50,000 people passionate about using diet to fight cancer, improve immunity, and prevent chronic diseases.
Here’s part of John’s interview with Dr. Li.
COVID-19: Not Just a Respiratory Disease
John Robbins: You’ve been very involved in the last year in COVID-19 research. So, it was soon after the WHO declared the pandemic, which was in March 2020, that we began to see a highly unusual pattern of disease. COVID-19 patients had problems, not only in their lungs, which was what we would have expected for a respiratory virus, which was what we then assumed this novel coronavirus to be, patients were also having serious problems in their brains, their hearts, their livers, their kidneys, even their toes. They were losing their sense of taste and smell. They had issues with blood clots.
Will, was this one of the first clues that suggested to you that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease, but is also a disease that damages our blood vessels, and that in fact, many of the serious health problems caused by COVID-19 are due to the damage it causes to our circulatory system?
Doctor William Li: Yeah. Just like everyone else on this planet, I had assumed that it would be a respiratory infection. So that was my assumption going into this. And so when I locked down along with everyone else I started to observe the same patterns that you just described, that this respiratory infection was causing things that you don’t see normally in a simple respiratory virus, but in following the brain, the heart, the lungs, I mean, lots of different organs. And because my work at the Angiogenesis Foundation has always been about looking at common denominators of disease. And blood vessels being one of them, I began to speculate that maybe blood vessels were involved because that was the thing that linked the brain, the heart, the toes, the kidneys, all the things that we began seeing.
I realized as a medical scientist that the only way we could actually get on top of this pandemic is for us to really understand it. And the reason that frontline workers were struggling so hard was that there was almost no knowledge back in the spring of 2020, about how this disease works. So I jumped in. I was able to, as a researcher, get autopsy tissue of people who died of COVID-19 and helped to organize a group in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States. And we literally dove into the tissue to understand what was going on.
And we started with the lungs and we did see a lung infection. But the thing that was astounding to me was we saw for the very first time, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 invading and infecting blood vessels. And that confirmed my suspicion that COVID-19 is a vascular disease.
And suddenly the things that we didn’t understand, the blood clots, the strokes, the COVID toe, the kidney damage, all of a sudden started to make some sense. And it was the first layers of the onion being peeled back. And so we published this as a lead article in the New England Journal of Medicine in May. And that opened the gateways to beginning to walk down the path to understanding what this disease was all about.
John Robbins: Well, you mentioned it being a vascular disease. We each have in our bodies a 60,000 mile network of blood vessels that brings oxygen and nutrients to feed every cell and every organ in our body. And we each have endothelial cells that coat the inside wall of every artery and every vein
and every capillary in the human body. Will, if the novel coronavirus is wrecking a special kind of havoc on the endothelial cells, does this help explain why COVID complications can appear anywhere in the body?
Doctor William Li: Absolutely. And, in fact, after we started looking in the lungs and found vascular damage in the lungs, which is the first place after you inhale the coronavirus, the damage is going to take place. What we did is we went to the brain, the heart, the lymph nodes, the kidney, liver, and even testicles, and we found organ to organ, the same type of vascular damage.
And that’s what we saw happening after COVID infection in the brain and the heart and the lungs, everywhere we looked. And we’re seeing this vascular damage is not just in acute COVID, we’ve also now confirmed that this is also happening in people who have recovered from their disease. So
they’re COVID survivors. But, some of these people wind up having some significant long-term effects of COVID symptoms that we’re now beginning to explain by having this persistent damage at the circulation level, what I call the long tail of COVID.
John Robbins: When you mention the long tail of COVID I’m thinking about how very early in the pandemic, when we were first encountering a virus that no human body had ever experienced before, and we knew almost nothing about it, you were one of the people, one of the few scientists then who were raising questions about what happens to people after the virus is cleared, or almost totally cleared from their body, after they have apparently recovered. And you said something then that I find today to be remarkably prescient, you said, and this is a quote, “We don’t know yet what the long-term damages that may occur and may persist in the vascular endothelium. If it turns out that there was
widespread systemic damage to endothelial cells, then that could persist much longer than the actual infectious component of the virus.”
Will, now a year later, facilities are opening all over the country to care for the growing number of Americans who suffer from COVID-19 symptoms many months after their diagnosis. And for the people whose COVID-19 symptoms linger for months, the effects can be devastating. In some cases, there is
a relentless, self amplifying cycle of inflammation throughout the entire body. This is obviously a very serious problem. But I just want to say that what you said more than a year ago now seems remarkably prophetic. And what I want to ask you is, is there anything we can do to protect and to repair our
vascular systems? I mean, are there ways we could use food, for example, to help protect endothelial cells, to prevent blood vessels from breaking down in the first place?
How to Use Food to Protect Your Blood Vessels
Doctor William Li: Such a great question. And, you know, what I would tell you as a vascular biologist, so my area of research specialty focus is on blood vessels, but I’m also an internal medicine doctor, and I’m trained to look at young and old men and women healthy and sick. And I’ve always been
focusing on how to make sure we maintain vascular health.
Before we talk about COVID and long-term COVID, let’s talk a little bit about heart health, right?
Because essentially, the number one killer around the world is cardiovascular disease. And what happens there is you have the damage to the endothelium that doesn’t occur in short order, like with COVID, but occurs over many years. And we’ve always thought about it as cholesterol buildup, but what’s really happening, John, is that the lining, the endothelial lining has been compromised. And so blood doesn’t quite flow quite so easily. And you get blood clots.
And whether you’re talking about a heart attack or stroke, or some of the other organ complications we’re seeing in COVID, this idea of vascular protection has been paramount long before this pandemic took place. So what are some of the things that we can do not just to lower cholesterol like that is a worthy goal, lowering your lipids. I mean, so many people take statins, but, you know, I think there’s a dietary approach to lowering cholesterol. But what we’re really trying to do is not just lower the bad guys who want to protect the good guys and get those into fuel yourselves, a lining to be healthy.
So here’s what we can do with food. And this is really remarkable. Plant-based diets comprised of fruits and vegetables, but especially vegetables of various sorts that contain fiber, contain phytonutrients are well-known to protect the vascular endothelium. And so when you talk about sulforaphane being found
in broccoli or in kale, those sulforaphanes actually help to boost the activity, boost the strength of the blood vessels and protect those blood vessels and make your cells healthier.
When you’re talking about fruits like apples, which contain quercetin, but not just the flesh of the apple, but the peel of the apple as well, which contains another bioactive, natural chemical called ursolic acid. These are mother nature’s kind of farmacy with an F that actually helps to keep our vascular
endothelial cells healthy.
Another one that does this, by the way, is a substance called hydroxytyrosol.8 Hydroxytyrosol is actually found in the flesh of the olive. And although olive oil is indeed a healthier oil than many other choices, it turns out that the hydroxytyrosol is soluble in water, not oil. So it’s mostly found in the fruit of the olive and when you press olive oil, most of the hydroxytyrosol is thrown away in the flesh of the olive.
So all these things kind of converge into thinking about plant-based foods, Mediterranean cuisine comes to mind as a vascular healthy cuisine, but also Asian diets. It’s really about the patterns of eating that would actually help protect our blood vessels.
John Robbins: You know, when you mentioned broccoli sprouts and sulforaphane, we grow broccoli sprouts in our kitchen and we eat them everyday, primarily because of their stunningly high levels of
Will, is there research now showing that eating broccoli sprouts strengthens the immune system’s ability to fight viruses, including COVID-19?
Broccoli Sprouts and COVID-19
Doctor William Li: So what’s amazing is the work that’s been done specifically with broccoli and broccoli sprouts, there was a study out of the University of Florida, in Gainesville, where they were looking at young people during flu season.9 So this is before the pandemic and they wanted to ask, whether or not food could enhance the body’s natural response, immune system’s natural response to a vaccine, right?
So one of the things that we do know is that vaccines don’t work evenly in every single person.
Some people respond really well. Some people don’t respond so well. So this research study I was mentioning, took young and healthy people and gave everybody a flu vaccine, but they gave half of people a flu vaccine plus a shake made with broccoli sprouts. How many, how much broccoli sprouts?
About two handfuls worth. A couple of cups of broccoli sprouts, you put it into a blender, it turns into a smoothie, not very easy to drink. The other side, they give a placebo, so no broccoli sprouts at all.
And what they found later, and they gave everybody the flu vaccine, what they found later is that the young people who received the vaccine plus broccoli sprouts had a 22-fold amplification of their immune system’s response to the vaccine, 22 times, and with natural killer cells, other immune cells, which is really remarkable to me, as sort of being able to raise your shields in an absolutely stunning way.
And when they actually looked for the virus in the patients themselves, they swabbed their nose. They found zero, no evidence of virus in the people who drank broccoli sprouts and had a shake. And they found some virus still present in the nose of people who got the vaccine, but no broccoli sprouts.
So this just goes to show that foods can actually combine well with medicines. And it’s really clear to me that food has a real potential. And sulforaphane is found in broccoli and broccoli sprouts of which the sprouts have 100 times more than the grown-up adult broccoli, are one of these areas that almost certainly are going to help.
Mushrooms and COVID-19
John Robbins: You mentioned the people in China who seem to be less likely to get COVID-19 were people who, it turned out, were drinking more tea, green or black. You have included green tea in a list that you wrote titled, 10 Things to Eat Right Now to Fight Back Against COVID-19. I’d like to talk to you about that list. First on the list is mushrooms. Well, what is it about mushrooms that make them helpful in the fight against COVID-19?
Doctor William Li: So, first of all, mushrooms are one of my personal favorite foods. I love them. I call them treasures from the forest. I love all kinds of mushrooms, white button mushrooms, chanterelles, porcinis, shiitake, enoki. I mean, you name it. There isn’t a mushroom that I’ve met that I haven’t loved.
Easy to cook, delicious. They are packed with other good sources of fiber. The soluble fiber is called beta-D-glucan, and it feeds our microbiome, activates our immune system, and mushrooms contain another thing that activates our immune system, which is vitamin D.
All the good stuff in the mushroom is found not only in the cap, which is what we all eat, but also in the stem. And so this is one ingredient that I wanted everybody to know about, fresher, dried, lowly, white button mushroom, or fancy mushroom, it doesn’t really matter.
John Robbins: You mentioned the stem. I remember in an earlier conversation that you and I had. I remember you saying that the stem actually has more of some of the beneficial compounds than the cap, and yet the stems are of course fibrous and not as palatable. What we do with the stems is we boil
them and make stock out of them. Is it, do you see that being a reasonable approach, Will?
Doctor William Li: Absolutely brilliant way of actually using the stems. I mean, many cultures and many recipes will call for mushrooms and you just cut up the stems and throw them in and saute them or whatever you’re going to do with them. Making stock is a brilliant way of actually using mushroom stems. And you can also put the stems into a blender and make a mushroom soup out of it as well. So if you want to consume a stock or actually a mushroom soup and there’s so many ways to actually use mushroom stems, I highly encourage it.
One of the things that we can do for our planet by the way is not to waste food. And this example of we’re giving about mushrooms and stems is that is just another example where when mother nature gifts us with a food, like a mushroom that is beneficial to our health, usually it’s not just one part that’s
good for us, usually there’s multiple parts, and we’re finding this with broccoli florets, the tree tops, and the stems, the stems also are rich with good stuff, carrots, the taproot, the orange part is really great for us, but the greens, for carrots are also packed with vascular health promoting materials as well.
I think that there’s also an opportunity for us, not only to save ourselves, but to save our planet, do something good for yourself and do something good for the earth as well.
This is part of an excerpt of an interview John had with Dr. Li.
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Effects of mushroom-derived beta-glucan-rich polysaccharide extracts on nitric oxide production by bone marrow-derived macrophages and nuclear factor-kappaB transactivation in Caco-2 reporter cells: can effects be explained by structure? – PubMed (nih.gov)