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December 12, 2018

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You really are what you eat: The healing power of food

Medical Nutrition Therapy

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says: “Health professionals agree that nutrition services are one of the first treatments that individuals should receive to improve conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.” MNT includes diagnostic and counseling services to manage disease, provided by a registered dietitian nutritionist often working as part of a medical team. The counseling component is about setting priorities, establishing goals and creating a custom plan that acknowledges and drives the patient’s responsibility for self-care. One-on-one sessions are the first step, determining medical and nutrition history, body composition and lifestyle. Once a plan is in place for meal planning and exercise, progress is monitored. A variety of insurance plans, including Medicare, cover MNT necessitated by certain conditions. One local provider, The Food Connection, offers plans to address anemia, diabetes, food allergies, heart health, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, GI disorders, kidney disorders and thyroid dysfunction. Prices for consults listed on the website range from $45 for 30 minutes to $375 for five one-hour sessions.


Based on the idea that the body has the ability to heal itself, homeopathy is another form of alternative medicine. The idea behind it is similar to that of a vaccine, in that homeopathic practitioners believe that if a substance causes a symptom in a healthy individual, prescribing a very small amount of the same substance may cure the illness. A homeopathic practitioner or homeopath prescribes mainly plant and mineral-based pills or liquid solutions. Research within the medical community has found some homeopathic remedies to be effective.

Complementary Medicine

Alternative medicine used in conjunction with conventional medicine. This integrative approach is gaining traction among Western practitioners because there is evidence to support the efficacy of some therapies.

Orthomolecular Medicine

Also known as “mega-dose” therapy, because it involves large doses of certain nutrients, this alternative therapy focuses on the individual nutritional needs of the patient and uses diet, vitamins and supplements to restore and maintain the correct nutritional balance. The treatment has been met with harsh criticism from the traditional medical community, which argues that simple vitamins cannot possibly treat complex diseases.

Whatever decisions you make regarding your health and treatment choices, the most important one is to do your due diligence. Research the treatment. Research your doctor’s credentials and expertise related to that treatment. Gather information from reputable sources, and ask as many questions as you need until you get answers that satisfy.

It seems the original gangster of medicine was onto something when he said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” In fact, Hippocrates’ famous quote has become something of a movement. From ancient herbal remedies and superfoods to trendy raw and Paleo diets, more people are turning to what they consume not only to stay healthy, but also to eliminate illness. Some believe so strongly in natural cures that they’ve completely abandoned traditional medicine. But is this wise?

It wasn’t long ago that the words “alternative” and “complementary” were scoffed at by physicians and patients who believed such treatments had no place in the empirical world of modern medicine. That’s changing, mainly due to scientific research supporting beliefs that some herbs and natural therapies do have particular curative effects. And social research shows that in spite of significant spending on care, Americans still have significant issues with health.

An independent study by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund recently compared health care in 13 high-income countries, and the United States beat the second biggest spender, France, by almost 50 percent. We sink more than $3 trillion a year into the effort, yet we rank 43rd in the world for life expectancy. Americans live about 79 years, a decade less than citizens of No. 1-ranked Monaco. And the prevalence of prescription drug use and chronic conditions is high compared with other wealthy nations.

With more than a third of U.S. adults classified as obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers are causing preventable deaths.

While genetics once were cited as the main contributing factor, it’s now widely accepted that diet plays a significant role in prevention. But what about food as a cure? The jury is still out, with many practitioners of Western medicine warning that those opting for alternative remedies to cure chronic illnesses are putting their lives at risk. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who believe all ailments can be treated naturally and holistically, and that Western medicine does more harm than good.

For those who favor blending the methodologies, Henderson-based oncologist Anthony Nguyen says it’s vital they feel they can have open dialogue with their doctors. Too often, patients undergoing traditional treatments also seek out complementary ones but don’t inform their doctors for fear of judgment. It’s dangerous, Nguyen warns, because unchecked combinations could lead to a medical emergency.

He mentions a patient who was extremely tired after a course of brain radiation. He pointed her to a Mayo Clinic study that found ginseng root helps decrease fatigue in cancer patients. But the root also has blood-thinning properties and, if taken in excess, could be very dangerous to someone already on blood thinners.

“So if a patient says, ‘I’m going to take ginseng, but I don’t want to upset my very judgmental, old-fashioned oncologist by telling him,’ they may be putting themselves at risk … they could have a brain bleed,” Nguyen said. “You don’t have to prescribe or accept your patient’s alternative therapy choices, but your patient should feel comfortable disclosing them so that you can see if there may be any harmful interactions.”

Nguyen doesn’t prescribe such alternatives, but he will discuss them with patients. And while he warns against snake-oil salesmen pushing fraudulent goods and get-rich-quick fads, he says he’s not dismissive of natural treatments for two reasons: They are part of his Vietnamese culture, and science says some of them work.

Revered cancer treatment center Memorial Sloan Kettering created a database dedicated to the efficacy of herbs and other complementary therapies, with information useful both to patients and practitioners. Nguyen values and often references the site.

Such acceptance, and the prescription of data-driven natural remedies by members of the mainstream medical community, are key to integrative medicine, a relatively new approach focused not just on treating disease but on the full range of influences that may affect health. It combines conventional medicine with treatments such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, meditation and biofeedback. Some argue it offers the best of both worlds.

The field has grown steadily since a 1993 landmark study by the National Institute of Medicine that found 1 in 3 Americans had used an alternative therapy, often under the medical radar. A 2011 report from the American Hospital Association found more than 42 percent of responding hospitals offered at least one complementary/alternative therapy. In 2005, it was 26 percent.

Dr. Carla Mariano, past-president of the American Holistic Nurses Association and a leader in shaping holistic nursing education, has said: “Consumers and even insurers are seeking out and expecting health care professionals who can focus on the whole person and incorporate an array of conventional and holistic therapies to enhance healing and cultivate wellness.”

Natural edibles known for healing power

Açai Berry


This branch of alternative medicine is rooted in the theory that diseases can be prevented and treated without the use of drugs, by utilizing such techniques as exercise, diet and massage. A naturopathic doctor, or N.D., is a primary doctor who specializes in natural medicine. A licensed naturopathic doctor attends a four-year graduate-level naturopathic school, and is educated in the same basic sciences as an M.D. But naturopaths also study holistic, nontoxic approaches to therapy with an emphasis on disease prevention and optimizing wellness.

Alternative Medicine

Used in place of conventional treatments, and considered by the medical profession to be unorthodox. Reflexology, acupuncture and herbalism are a few examples.

Fruit from palm trees native to the rainforests of South America

• Benefits: Fiber, heart-healthy fats and more antioxidants than cranberries or blueberries

• Overview: Laboratory studies suggest açai may reduce cholesterol, prevent heart and blood vessel diseases and disable leukemia cells, though human studies must confirm these outcomes. People undergoing chemotherapy should not consume the berries, as their antioxidant effects may interfere with the actions of some chemotherapy drugs.

Aloe Vera

A tropical succulent cultivated for agricultural and medicinal uses

• Benefits: Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal and anesthetic properties

• Overview: Famed for its topical ability to soothe burns and chronically irritated skin, aloe also is being studied for medicinal value when ingested. Initial trials show the juice may be successful in lowering blood glucose levels in diabetics, though in the realm of cancer treatment, several patients died after trial aloe injections.

Blue-Green Algae

Cyanobacteria that bloom in water

• Benefits: Packed with protein and vitamins

• Overview: This superfood appears to reduce fatigue, and lab studies show that an extract from a variety called spirulina can prevent the doubling of HIV, herpes simplex and influenza viruses, though it’s not known if these effects would manifest in humans. Other studies show spirulina can protect lab animals from genetic mutations caused by chemicals and radiation. Care should be taken to ensure supplements are certified as free of microcystin contamination, since it can cause renal failure and neurotoxicity.

Broccoli Sprouts

Young broccoli plants

• Benefits: Sprouts generally have high levels of nutrients and enzymes, and broccoli sprouts are rich in antioxidants

• Overview: In limited human studies, the sprouts show an ability to eliminate environmental toxins and protect against oxidative damage and bacterial infection. In the 1990s, Johns Hopkins scientists found that the concentration of sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts helped mobilize the body’s natural cancer-fighting mechanisms, and in 2014, they found it shows promise in treating autism.


Enzymes found in pineapple stems

• Benefits: Aids digestion and prevents clotting

• Overview: Bromelain can promote digestion and nutrient absorption in patients with digestive-tract cancers. In lab experiments, it combated blood clotting and inflammation. It increases antibiotic absorption and, when applied topically, helps to remove dead and damaged tissue from burns. Patients taking blood thinners should avoid it, as it may raise the risk of bruising and bleeding.


A flowering plant often seen as a pesky weed or a simple salad green

• Benefits: High in vitamins and minerals; antimicrobial; promotes urination

• Overview: According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, dandelion is mainly used as a diuretic — helping rid the body of excess fluid — which can help with liver and gallbladder problems. Lab studies show that dandelion can kill some microbes, and although not tested in humans, it has anticancer properties demonstrated in colon and pancreatic cancers and leukemia and melanoma cells. It can, however, increase the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer cells.


An herbal tea containing burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm and rhubarb

• Benefits: Antioxidant and cytotoxic (toxic to specific cells) properties

• Overview: Developed by Canadian nurse Rene Caisse in the 1920s, Essiac has long been promoted as an alternative cancer treatment. Despite the lack of supporting evidence, reports that more than 40 Essiac-like products are sold in North America, Europe and Australia. While lab studies showed it prevented the growth of prostate cancer cells, it conversely stimulated growth of breast cancer cells. People with kidney or liver problems should avoid it, as should those undergoing chemotherapy.


Seeds from a flowering plant in the mint family

• Benefits: High in fiber and essential fatty acids

• Overview: Studies on humans show chia seeds may help regulate blood sugar, and chia oil shows anticancer effects in lab analysis, though purported weight-loss benefits haven’t been demonstrated. The only warning is this: Never consume the seeds dry, as they can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water.


A bulbous plant in the onion family

• Benefits: Antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal properties

• Overview: Legend has it this breath killer wards off vampires, but the medical fraternity agrees it also can keep some diseases at bay. In addition to preventing blood clots and decreasing blood pressure, garlic may help protect against some cancers, possibly by decreasing tumor growth and stimulating the immune system. Because of its compounds that prevent blood clots, garlic should be avoided a week or two before surgery.


Root of a Chinese plant seen most often as a cooking spice

• Benefits: Fights indigestion and inflammation

• Overview: Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis appear to respond positively to ginger, though more research is needed. Several trials support its use as a cure for short-term treatment of nausea and vomiting, and its stimulation of the flow of saliva reduces gas and calms the stomach and intestines. Patients with gallstones should avoid ginger supplements, as they may contribute to the problem if taken in excess.


An exotic fruit with many names, including soursop, guanabana, custard apple and Brazilian paw paw

• Benefits: Packed with vitamins and acetogenins (compounds capable of preventing abnormal cell production)

• Overview: Lab studies show anticancer effects from this fruit, as well as the ability to vanquish some viruses, bacteria and parasites, but human studies have not been conducted. Substances derived from graviola also have been shown to damage nerve cells and cause neurological side effects similar to Parkinson’s disease. It should be avoided by people taking blood pressure and kidney medications, those with liver or kidney disease or low platelet count, and those having nuclear imaging.

Green Tea

Tea made from virgin Camellia sinensis leaves

• Benefits: Antioxidant and energy-boosting properties

• Overview: Chinese studies suggest that high intake could protect against colon and stomach cancers, and studies in the U.S. show a reduction in the risk of developing high blood pressure with regular consumption. The caffeinated form may stimulate the nervous system, prevent bacteria from attaching to teeth and allow for greater energy expenditure during exercise. Green tea should not be given to infants, as it can interfere with iron metabolism, resulting in anemia.


An herb native to the high elevations of the Andes Mountains

• Benefits: Rich in amino acids, phytonutrients, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals

• Overview: Native to Peru, this root is credited with reversing infertility in Peruvian women. There have been no clinical trials to support this use, but other trials show it can increase sexual desire and sperm count, though it also may improve sexual dysfunction caused by menopause or use of antidepressants. Although unverified, some side effects associated with maca include altered menstrual cycles, moodiness, cramps, gastritis and insomnia.


Root of a plant in the ginger family seen most often as a cooking spice

• Benefits: Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties

• Overview: Famous in Indian cuisine, turmeric demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities in lab studies, particularly in colon, stomach and skin cancers. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology suggested turmeric extracts had promise in preventing heart attacks among bypass patients. Tests on lab rats showed it prevented the development of kidney damage from toxins and stimulated the flow of bile from the gastrointestinal tract. Recent experiments find it may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs used in treating breast cancer.

Are there benefits to a raw-food diet?

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Lu V., left, and Rod O. own Go Raw cafe and Go Vegan.

In 2001, Rod O.’s doctor wrote him a prescription to lower his cholesterol. Desperate to get his levels down, the former Bellagio banquet server and his friend, Lu V., immediately had it filled.

“We got home, turned on the TV, and the first thing we saw was a commercial for that particular drug,” Lu said. “The laundry list of side effects was so atrocious, we just took the full bottle and threw it in the trash.”

Instead, Rod decided to go raw. The diet is whole, plant-based food not heated above 117 degrees, so as not to kill enzymes packed with nutrition.

“The next time Rod went to the doctor he said, ‘Wow, this drug really is doing great for you. Your cholesterol levels are significantly lower than they were last time,’ ” Lu recalled. “And Rod said, ‘Hey Doc, I never took the drugs. I changed my diet.’ ”

A year later, Rod and Lu partnered to open their first restaurant in Las Vegas, Go Raw. Then in the fall of 2003, the second location opened in Henderson, and in September of 2015, they started Go Vegan, to cater to those who wanted cooked plant-based options.

Like the commercial for the cholesterol meds Rod’s doctor prescribed, Lu quips that switching to a whole plant-based diet also comes with a laundry list of possible side effects. But these include more energy, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and reversed aging. “We see it often, people who change their diet and begin to heal,” Lu said. “Then they go back to their doctors and get a clean bill of health.”

What qualifies as raw food? Uncooked and often organic foods that have not been heated above a certain temperature. The maximum temperature varies given different versions of the diet, from 92 to 117 degrees (a well-done steak is 177 degrees).

Why is cooking seen as a downside? Proponents of the raw food movement believe that the process of cooking strips nutrition and introduces toxins that cause disease, though studies have shown that carcinogens tied to cooking methods such as frying or grilling likely play a small in role the development of cancer. Also, natural foods have an innate toxin load.

What is the 80/10/10 diet? Retired chiropractor Douglas Graham’s 80/10/10 model exploded in 2014, asserting that 80 percent of a raw diet should come from carbohydrates (mostly fruit), 10 percent from plant-based proteins and 10 percent from fats. Graham has a huge following that includes a handful of professional athletes and celebrities, and he claims his diet protects and can cure the body of such diseases as cancer, Crohn’s, diabetes, colitis and chronic fatigue syndrome. But there’s no scientific evidence, and 80/10/10 has attracted criticism from nutritionists, doctors and even fellow plant-based advocates for being dangerously high in sugar (a known carcinogen) and low in fat, thus hindering absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Scorpion venom: A personal story of an extremely unconventional treatment

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Cesar Ibarra poses with his daughter Veronica Fernandez and her husband Esteban Fernandez outside his doctor's office in Henderson Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Ibarra was diagnosed with cancer and chose not to go through chemo, but instead started taking scorpion venom, a cancer treatment used in Cuba.

Choosing to make dietary changes rather than take traditional medication for high cholesterol or blood pressure can have its benefits for certain individuals. Some doctors may even recommend it, depending on your numbers. But if you’re diagnosed with cancer and told you don’t have long to live, chances are you won’t forego your oncologist’s recommendations. Yet that is exactly what Cesar Ibarra did.

When Ibarra found out in January that he had acute myeloid leukemia (a very deadly form of the disease), he was expected to live just three months. But the 74-year-old Las Vegan chose not to undergo the chemotherapy treatment his oncologist strongly recommended. Instead, he tried scorpion venom.

“I didn’t want to be in a hospital all the time, weak from chemotherapy, so my son-in-law, who was a doctor in Cuba, recommended the venom,” Ibarra said. “I was surprised, and a bit hesitant at first, but I decided to start little by little.”

No chemo, just five drops of the venom under his tongue each morning and another five each night. Weekly blood tests and visits every three weeks to his oncologist show Ibarra’s white blood cell count has stabilized — unheard of with leukemia, a blood cancer. He has surpassed the survival rate for his diagnosis, and his doctor has no idea why.

But Ibarra’s daughter, Veronica Fernandez, is not surprised. “My husband’s friend’s wife was terminally ill with stomach cancer,” Fernandez said. “She was already in hospice, down to 96 pounds and had been given just 72 hours to live, so she had nothing to lose by trying scorpion venom. Now she is out of hospice and back at work.”

Science doesn’t support the efficacy of scorpion venom to treat cancer, but Fernandez isn’t worried about the science. All that matters is that her dad is alive.

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