Air pollution is bad for you, and while most of us think in terms of coughing, wheezing, and watery eyes; the effects go way beyond this. In fact, exposure to high levels of air pollution are associated with significantly increased rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, dementia, and cancer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air pollution kills approximately 3 million people per year and is considered the greatest environmental risk to health.
While we may not know how air pollution does all its damage on the cellular and molecular levels, we are beginning to understand how it does some of its dirty work – and we’re finding ways to fight back!
A case in point is a new study just published by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. It showed that at least some of pollution’s harmful effects are the result of inflammation and oxidative stress induced by epigenetic changes made to genes involved in mitochondrial oxidative energy metabolism. (Epigenetics refers to the “turning on and off” of specific genes through the methylation process, and not the mutation, or changing, of the underlying DNA.)
Basically, they exposed ten healthy adults to three different levels of air quality for 2-hour stretches of time while also giving them sham or vitamin B supplementation. First, the subjects breathed clean air and received supplementation placebos. Next, they were exposed to “hazardous” levels of polluted air and again given supplementation placebos. Lastly, the subjects were instructed to breathe polluted air, but this time were given supplements containing three different B vitamins – folic acid, B6, and B12.
So, what did they find out? First, they confirmed that breathing polluted air increased epigenetic changes to the genes controlling mitochondrial oxidative energy metabolism. It seems that compromising mitochondrial function in this way leads to inflammation and oxidative stress. Second, they discovered that giving B vitamins was an effective way to prevent and, in fact, reverse this epigenetic damage.
What does this mean for you?
While it’s certainly true that most of us don’t live in areas with hazardously high levels of pollution, over 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where pollution exceeds the WHO’s recommended level for healthy air. We start from a base of bad quality – Southern California is no exception – and things get worse. If you get stuck in traffic on the freeway, if your office building (or your children’s’ school) backs up to a highway, if you fire up the grill this summer, or if you decide to visit cities in India, China, or Iran (just to name a few); you’re probably way over the limit of safe exposure.
What should you do?
While the best advice is to eat a healthy diet with lots of B vitamins – leafy green vegetables and beans are rich in folic acid, B6 can be found in fish, beef liver and starchy vegetables, and B12 is abundant in fish, meat, eggs and milk – sometimes this isn’t enough. To be on the safe side, especially if you have genetic issues with methylation – you may want to take a high-quality B vitamin supplement. Check with us to see which one suits your specific needs best.