Life Extension Magazine June 2011
Optimize Your Internal Defenses Against Radiation Exposure
By Foster Stevens
At the time of this writing, three nuclear reactors in Japan were crippled, releasing radioactive particles into the air, sea, and groundwater. A potential medical crisis has been generated—one that Life Extension® members were warned about long ago.1,2
Just days after the devastating tsunami struck Japan’s nuclear reactors—suppliers of the radioprotective compound potassium iodide had no inventory left.3
The reason potassium iodide needs to be available for a nuclear emergency is that the most carcinogenic of the radioactive isotopes of iodine (iodine-131) can destroy thyroid tissue and cause cancer. If potassium iodide is taken in time, it saturates the thyroid gland with iodine so the radioactive iodine cannot easily enter.
Potassium iodide is the most important primary intervention to protect against thyroid cancer. It has long been approved by the FDA for this purpose.4
Based on our warnings dating back to 2002, most of our members had already stocked up and were prepared in case of emergency.
Not everyone heeded our prior advice. Had there been a nuclear emergency in the United States, those without immediate access to potassium iodide could have been exposed to lethal amounts of radioactive iodine.
Radioactive particles damage far more than the thyroid gland, as leukemia and other cancers are elevated in those exposed to radiation. We know that radiation inflicts free radical damage to our cells. Fortunately, supportive data reveals many of the nutrients already taken by Life Extension members may optimize one’s defenses against radiation exposure.
What Are the Real Risks Americans Face from Japan?
In the May 2002 issue of Life Extension Magazine®, we published an article titled “Vindication for Linus Pauling.”5
This article (re-published with this month’s issue), described a belated report from our Federal government whereby they admitted that above-ground nuclear testing that took place between 1951 and 1962 directly caused at least 15,000 cancer deaths in the United States.6,7
If it were not for Linus Pauling, above-ground nuclear testing would have continued, killing thousands more Americans from what the Federal government initially claimed was “harmless” radioactive ash.5,7,8
At the time that Linus Pauling was warning about the lethal dangers of radioactive fallout, our Federal government was devising ways to have him (and others) incarcerated on pretenses that they were enemies of the state.
But it was not only above-ground testing in the United States that was causing these cancers. Above-ground nuclear testing in the former Soviet Union and on Pacific Islands used by the US and its allies was also generating radioactive particles that reached the United States.7,9,10
We know today that small amounts of radiation from the crippled Japanese reactors are being detected in the United States.11,12 Government officials state there is no danger. The track record of our government when it comes to recognizing the long-term consequences of radiation exposure, however, is quite dismal.
Since most Life Extension members recognize the dangers that free radicals pose to healthy tissues, they are already obtaining some degree of protection by taking nutrients that boost natural protection against radiation.
In the event that radiation levels in the United States spike, it would appear prudent to increase one’s ingestion of the specific nutrients that are described in this article.
A Bacterium That Thrives Inside Nuclear Reactors!
Most people think radiation is toxic to all living organisms.
Not so with a bacterium called D. radiodurans,13 whose ultra-high levels of antioxidants superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase enable it to thrive inside nuclear reactors.14
Radiation acutely kills by inflicting free radical damage to life-sustaining cells. Due to its naturally high antioxidant status, D. radiodurans can withstand a radiation dose that is 3,000 times greater than what would kill a human.15,16
Delicate cellular structures are oxidized in the presence of high levels of radiation.17 Intriguing data suggests that maintaining high levels of antioxidants confers at least partial protection against radiation-induced free radicals.18
So while it is important to have potassium iodide on hand to protect the thyroid gland in case of a nuclear emergency,19 maintaining high cellular antioxidant levels could add an additional layer of protection to cells throughout the body.20,21
This article first explains how potassium iodide protects the thyroid gland and then more importantly, describes the specific antioxidants and other nutrients that have demonstrated radiation-protective effects in peer-reviewed published studies.
Potassium Iodide: First Line Defense
Thyroid cancer is the most common malignancy caused by exposure to materials released from damaged nuclear power plants.22 Reactor accidents release a number of radioactive elements, the most common of which is called iodine-131.22,23 Radioactive iodine is readily absorbed into the body primarily by inhalation of contaminated air and also by ingestion of contaminated vegetation, dairy, and meat. It is rapidly taken up into the thyroid gland.24 In the thyroid, ionizing radiation given off by the isotope damages DNA and causes cancer.
You can block absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland by taking a 130 mg dose of potassium iodide not later than 2 hours after possible inhalation or ingestion of radioactive iodine. (Note that 130 mg is the adult dosage. The dose for children ages 3-18 years old is 65 mg; the dose for children 1 month-3 years is 32 mg, and the dose for infants up to 1 month old is 16 mg.)23-26
The thyroid gland absorbs all forms of iodine equally; supplying the body with optimal amounts of iodine in the form of potassium iodide prevents radioactive iodine from reaching vulnerable thyroid tissue in appreciable amounts. A dose of potassium iodide taken appropriately can reduce the risk of thyroid cancer by a factor of 3 and is the single most effective means of preventing thyroid cancer following a nuclear disaster.23,24
Keep potassium iodide tablets readily available in your home, office, and any vehicle—there is not yet sufficient supply nor production capacity to obtain them during an actual event. (Despite the Congressional legislation mandating it be available, only the state of Vermont has implemented a program for distributing potassium iodide to its citizens living within 10 miles of the state’s nuclear facilities.)27
Potassium iodide, however, should not be taken on a regular basis as general protection. There are other nutrients, however, that have been shown to confer a multitargeted radioprotective benefit. They may help to maximize your body’s ability to withstand the effects of ionizing radiation, the source of free radical damage that ultimately leads to radiation-induced cancer.28-34
Polyphenols are versatile molecules found in plants. They act across a range of biomolecular pathways in the body, including favorable modification of gene expression that protects tissues from ionizing radiation.35,36
Resveratrol, quercetin, and green tea polyphenols rank among the best-studied and most potent radioprotectants in this class. Resveratrol is both a radioprotector in healthy tissue and also has antitumor activity.37,38 In animal models, resveratrol has been shown to protect chromosomes from radiation-induced damage.39 Its antioxidant properties prevent radiation toxicity to animal liver and small intestines, two tissues most immediately sensitive to radiation’s ill effects.40
Quercetin and its related compounds protect lipids and proteins from otherwise-lethal doses of gamma radiation, again largely through their antioxidant properties.41 Quercetin and other polyphenols not only provide chromosomal radioprotection, but also shield mitochondrial DNA from radiation-induced oxidant damage.42 Quercetin also ameliorates biochemical changes in human white blood cells following radiation exposure.43
The polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), derived from green tea, also protects animals from whole-body radiation, blocking lipid oxidation and prolonging life span.44 Green tea extracts can protect rapidly reproducing cells in the intestine and hair follicles from the damaging effects of radiation therapy, a form of radiation exposure far more intense than typical computed tomography (CT) doses—and one that more closely resembles the immediate effects of exposure to a nuclear plant disaster.45,46
Soybeans contain a wealth of health-promoting substances, among them several with remarkable radioprotective effects. Genistein, an isoflavone, can protect mice from ionizing radiation injury after a single dose.51 One mechanism is its protection against radiation-induced lipid peroxidation, which when unchecked disrupts cell membranes and structures.52 Genistein also stimulates production of red and white blood cells following whole-body radiation, again after as little as a single dose.53,54 (Blood stem cells in bone marrow are among the most vulnerable to radiation’s deadly effects.) Because of its powerful induction of cytokines that stimulate new blood cell formation, genistein is under intensive study as a way to protect military and civilian personnel against a potential nuclear threat.55
Soybeans also contain a radioprotective enzyme inhibitor known as the Bowman-Birk inhibitor (BBI).56 BBI activates genes involved in DNA repair, making it among the most valuable compounds for preventing or mitigating the effects of radiation toxicity.57,58 BBI also stabilizes enzymes that would otherwise produce radiation-induced arrest of skin cell growth.59 Remarkably, BBI enhances survival of healthy cells, but not diseased cells, following radiation exposure.60,61 BBI survives processing in commercial soybean products (e.g., soy milk, soybean concentrate, and soy protein isolates), making it a highly accessible radioprotectant.62,63
Curcumin and Other Plant Extracts
Compelling scientific evidence suggests that many plant extracts have valuable gene expression-modifying effects that are relevant in protecting our bodies from radiation exposure.
Curcumin, derived from the curry spice turmeric, exerts powerful radioprotective effects as a result of its antioxidant and detoxifying characteristics.64 Curcumin supplements reduce DNA damage and tumor formation in rats; they reduce both DNA damage and lipid peroxidation in cultured human white blood cells.65,66 Curcumin has “dual action.” Its antioxidant effects protect normal tissue from radiation. But it also upregulates genes responsible for cell death in cancers, enhancing tumor destruction by radiation.67 The result is increased survival in animals exposed to high-dose radiation.68
Together, garlic and ginger also afford significant radioprotection. Garlic’s high sulfur content supports natural antioxidant systems.69 Garlic extracts protect red blood cells from radiation damage by a glutathione-related mechanism.70 In mice, garlic extracts have been shown to prevent radiation damage to chromosomes in vulnerable bone marrow cells.71 Via a discrete physiological mechanism, garlic extracts downregulate X-ray-mediated increases in the inflammatory nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kB) system.72 Ginger extracts boost glutathione activity and reduce lipid peroxidation by a separate and complementary mechanism.73 These extracts directly scavenge a host of free oxygen and nitrogen radicals immediately following their formation by radiation.74-76
Lab studies show that extracts of ginkgo biloba reduce the effects of clastogenic factors—external materials (including plutonium and other radioactive substances) that fragment or delete DNA and inflict chromosomal damage, leading to mutation and cancer proliferation.77,78 This effect is so powerful that it proved useful in treating workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant long after their exposure.79 More recently, ginkgo extracts proved to protect animals’ organs from direct radiation-induced damage.80 Ginkgo also protected humans from cell damage following radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroid Grave’s disease.81
Ginseng is another plant important in traditional medicine that confers substantive radioprotective effects.82,83 A variety of ginseng extracts have been shown to protect against radiation-induced DNA damage.84-86 It protects hair follicles and other rapidly reproducing (but healthy) tissues from damage by radiation.87,88 Its antioxidant effects have resulted in protection of a variety of radiation-sensitive tissues, including cells in bone marrow, spleen, and testicles.82,89 Ginseng’s immunomodulatory effects make it especially useful in defending our bodies against the ravages of radiation injury.90 A North American ginseng extract was recently found to protect human white blood cells from DNA damage even up to 90 minutes following radiation exposure.91 That makes it of great interest to defense and national security researchers—and to the general public in an era of concern about nuclear plant safety.91
Silymarin, an active compound found in milk thistle, is well known for its ability to protect liver cells from alcohol and various chemical toxins. Less well known is its power to protect liver tissue from radiation damage as well.92,93 It reduces DNA damage and extends survival in animals exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.94 Silymarin’s free radical-scavenging and direct antioxidant effects are credited with producing these results.95
N-acetyl cysteine or NAC is a sulfur-containing compound that supports natural intracellular antioxidant systems, particularly glutathione, rendering it an effective radioprotective agent.96 NAC minimizes liver damage from radiation in mouse models, reducing oxidative damage and resultant DNA damage—both before and after radiation exposure.97,98 By a separate underlying mechanism of action, NAC stimulates release of cytokines known to protect bone marrow against radiation injury.99 NAC also protects bone marrow cells from radiation, largely by preventing DNA damage.100,101 A multi-compound mixture including vitamins C and E plus NAC significantly increased 30-day survival of mice exposed to a potentially lethal dose of X-rays.102 Remarkably, the effect was the same whether the supplement was given before or after the exposure.
Like NAC, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a powerful compound essential for maintaining cellular levels of glutathione.103,104 Enzymes vital for DNA repair (and hence cancer protection) can’t function properly in the absence of methyl donors such as SAMe.105 In early 2010 we learned that ionizing radiation suppresses SAMe levels in animal models.106 Increasing the animals’ SAMe levels, on the other hand, minimized DNA damage from ionizing radiation.106
The “ACE” vitamins (A, C, and E) offer proven antioxidant protection as a result of their molecular structures. High intakes of these vitamins and other antioxidants have been shown to protect airline pilots from radiation-induced chromosomal damage,107 an occupational hazard for those who work at high altitudes. ACE supplements have been proposed as “space foods” to protect astronauts from high radiation levels.108
Beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, was first used clinically in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident as a first-line treatment for children from the region. Supplementation reduced the amount of radiation-induced oxidized lipids.109 More controlled animal studies showed that vitamin A could reverse radiation-induced gene expression abnormalities that could lead to cancer.110-112 Other studies show that vitamin A ameliorates other radiation effects and enhances death of cancerous cells.113 Still other studies reveal that vitamin A can actually prevent radiation-induced death of healthy cells.114
Vitamin C, together with natural antioxidant systems such as glutathione, helps protect DNA and chromosomes from oxidative damage.115-117 Vitamin C also inhibits radiation-induced death of human blood cells through modulation of protective gene expression.118 Remarkably, vitamin C can counteract radiation-induced “long-lived radicals” (LLRs) that destabilize chromosomes and induce cancerous mutations.119 The ability to counter both classical radicals and LLRs may be vital in preventing genetic damage from radiation.119
Like vitamin C, vitamin E quenches free radicals once they form, reducing their toxicity, an effect vital in radioprotection.28 Importantly, vitamin E enhances the growth-inhibiting effect of radiation on cancer tissue while simultaneously protecting normal cells.120 Animal studies show that vitamin E significantly protects mice from dying after exposure to otherwise lethal levels of gamma rays.121 Intriguingly, this effect is the result of modulation of cytokines; it is accompanied by valuable increases in new blood cell formation suppressed by radiation.121,122
A remarkable study among X-ray technicians reveals just how powerful antioxidant vitamins can be. Radiology technicians are nominally protected by elaborate shielding, but they’re still exposed to unnaturally high levels of radiation over the course of a lifetime. As a result, they tend to have higher levels of tissue oxidation. But when a group of techs was supplemented with vitamins C (500 mg) and E (150 mg) daily for 15 weeks, their markers of tissue oxidation plummeted, and their levels of natural antioxidants (such as glutathione and glutathione peroxidase in red blood cells) rose significantly.123
Lipoic acid is often referred to as the “universal antioxidant” because it quenches free radicals in both aqueous and lipid-soluble environments, such as cellular membranes.124 Lipoic acid exists in two mirror-image forms: R-lipoic acid and S-lipoic acid. While most commercially available products contain a 50:50 mixture of the two forms, only R-lipoic acid is produced by life processes and is thus likely to be the more potent of the two.125,126 Compelling evidence suggests that lipoic acid may offer important protection against the threats posed by various types of radiation exposures.
When used in combination with other antioxidants including selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E, N-acetyl cysteine, and coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid helped improve survival of mice following total-body irradiation. This study was particularly noteworthy because the antioxidant combination was effective even when administered 24 hours after a dose of radiation exposure that is often lethal.127
Lipoic acid shows benefits for supporting the immune health of individuals who were involved in the clean-up of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, even years after the event. Eleven to twelve years after the Chernobyl clean-up, study participants received 600 mg of lipoic acid daily for two months. Signs of general immune health improved, and white blood cells called neutrophils demonstrated an improved ability to ingest invading cells and cellular debris.128
Radiation therapy as a component of cancer treatment frequently causes adverse effects on skin health such as swelling and a sunburned appearance. When animal skin cells were incubated with lipoic acid, they experienced less cell injury, compared with skin cells that received radiation but no lipoic acid. These promising findings suggest that lipoic acid may have important applications in preserving skin health in individuals who must undergo cancer radiation therapy.129
Your body’s internal antioxidant defenses, including superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase all depend on trace minerals as cofactors for their function. Zinc and manganese are of particular importance for sustaining whole-body resistance to ionizing radiation. Zinc supplements have been shown to protect rats from oxidative damage to their red blood cells induced by radioactive iodine.130,131 And a zinc supplement protected bone marrow, but not tumor cells, from radiation-induced damage.132 Since mitochondria produce huge amounts of free radicals, they are especially susceptible to radiation damage. Both zinc and manganese provide powerful mitochondria-specific radioprotection in animal studies.133
Other Potent Radioprotective Nutrients
Most nutrients with powerful antioxidant activity can be expected to protect you against radiation exposure from medical tests and from temporary increases in radiation in the environment.134 In addition to those already examined, there’s good evidence for radioprotection by spirulina extracts, which protect bone marrow cells from DNA damage.135 Melatonin also protects dividing cells and circulating blood cells from chromosomal injury by radiation.136,137 Licorice extracts block DNA damage and protect cellular organelles from radiation.138 The Indian gooseberry (Emblica officianalis) increases survival time and reduces mortality of mice exposed to whole-body radiation.139 Effects include protection against lipid peroxidation and protection of rapidly-dividing cells in the intestine.140 Carnosic acid and other rosemary extracts protect against DNA damage through their antioxidant activity, both before and after radiation exposure.141
Potassium iodide is the single most important intervention to prevent lethal damage from radiation exposure. Life Extension® long ago warned the American public to keep supplies of potassium iodide on hand in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Not everyone heeded our warning.
As we predicted, the world’s leading potassium iodide makers failed to maintain adequate supplies and ran out amidst Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster. In addition to keeping adequate supplies of potassium iodide on hand for short-term radioprotection, there exists a broad array of scientifically-validated nutrients that may optimize your body’s natural defenses against radiation exposure.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at
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