Health & Welfare: Bruises, Vegetables, and Life Extension


What does a black-and-blue bruise on your leg have to do with the greenness of a package of frozen Brussels sprouts? And what do either of these have to do with life extension? Plenty!

When you open up that package of frozen vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, you are immediately struck by the almost unnaturally green color. But that color is not painted on. It is real. The reason the sprouts have not turned a drab brownish-green color, as they do naturally, is that they have been bathed in an EDTA solution before packaging. EDTA is a commonly used food additive, a chelating agent that removes heavy metals (such as copper and iron) from the surface of green vegetables.

Chelate comes from the Greek word for "claw"; chelating agents chemically capture and bind many metal ions. Copper and iron in the leaves catalyze (stimulate) the production of free radicals during the oxidation of many of the plant's constituents as it ages after harvesting. These free radicals are what normally make green vegetable matter wilt (by damaging the cell walls) and turn brown after death. In fact, the lovely colors leaves turn in the fall come about partly as a result of free radical reactions. First, the chlorophyll in the leaves is destroyed by free radicals. The leaves are then beautifully colored by the carotenoids (such as yellow beta carotene in carrots) they contain. Finally, the carotenoids themselves are destroyed by free radicals, and the leaves turn brown.

Free radicals are highly chemically reactive entities with an unpaired electron, which are created in the bodies of animals and plants while they are alive and even after they die. Because these free radicals are required for many necessary biochemical reactions, both plant and animal organisms have developed an array of protective enzymes (including superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, and catalase) and antioxidant nutrients (including vitamins A, B-1, B-5, B-6, C, E, the amino acid cysteine, and the minerals zinc and selenium) to protect themselves against free radical damage. When these radicals get out of control, they can do serious damage to cellular fats, proteins, DNA, and RNA, causing cell death or even cancer. Free radicals are a major mechanism of damage that causes our own aging.

But back to the Brussels sprouts for a moment. What is the relation of the browning of the sprouts to your bruise? The copper and iron that catalyze free radical production in the sprouts do the same in crushing injuries that cause blood (which contains lots of iron and copper) to leak into the tissues from broken capillaries. Those black, blue, and yellow colors in a bruise are created by the uncontrolled chemical attack of free radicals on substances in the tissue. Chelating agents—which bind, inactivate, and remove these heavy metals from an injury—can greatly reduce the damage and speed healing.

Spinal cord injuries, far more serious than mere bruises, have been successfully treated with D-penicillamine, a powerful chelating agent. It is possible to dramatically reduce the degree of paraplegia that would ordinarily result from an experimental spinal cord injury in cats by prompt injection of D-penicillamine. By chelating the heavy metals in the injured area, the D-penicillamine inhibits the development of a free radical chain reaction that can literally destroy the spinal cord tissue by converting the highly polyunsaturated lipids (fats and oils) there into organic peroxides, generating more free radicals in a chain reaction. Without chelation of the iron and copper leaking from the hemolyzing (breaking down) red blood cells that have escaped from broken capillaries, free radical activity in the crushed area increases by more than 100,000 times within four hours! D-penicillamine has also been used in the successful treatment of some cases of severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Caution: D-penicillamine chelation therapy should be done only by a physician experienced in this type of therapy. (A different compound, L-penicillamine, is a very dangerous substance and can be lethal.)

Chelation has been tried successfully for extending the life span of experimental animals. Sincock and his coworkers treated microscopic organisms (the rotifer Mytilina brevispina) by immersing them briefly in solutions of one of the chelating agents sodium citrate, sodium tartrate, EDTA, and EGTA. Their lives were extended by all the treatments—up to 75.9 percent with EGTA. The treated rotifers did not accumulate nearly as much calcium with age as the untreated rotifers did.

Chelating agents are now being used to treat people for a number of conditions. In heavy metals poisoning, such as lead intoxication, the combination of EDTA and vitamin C has been found particularly effective, especially in removing lead from the brain, where it does the most harm. Vitamin C alone helps prevent the buildup of heavy metals by helping to keep them in solution in the blood, where they can be eliminated via the urine.

Some good results have been obtained with EDTA chelation therapy for atherosclerosis in cases where there are abnormally high plasma lipids. Plasma lipid levels were lowered to normal or near normal in some patients who had elevated levels. Plasma levels returned to their original levels after EDTA therapy was stopped but fell again when it was reinitiated. In atherosclerosis patients with normal plasma lipid levels, there was little or no plaque reduction with EDTA.

Recently, a chelated form of copper, copper salicylate, has been found very effective in interacting with superoxide free radicals, thereby preventing much of their damaging effects to synovial fluids and joint membranes in some types of arthritis (for example, rheumatoid arthritis). The antiinflammatory effects of aspirin work in a similar way by inhibiting the synthesis of inflammatory prostaglandins that are formed via a free radical route. These copper salicylates work much like the natural antisuperoxide-free radical enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) and are sometimes called artificial superoxide dismutases.

Since the SOD-like copper salicylate chelate is not FDA-approved yet, you can't purchase it at your drugstore. Fortunately, you can easily make it in the convenience and privacy of your own stomach. Any drug store will sell you 350-milligram sodium salicylate tablets without a prescription. Any health food and many drug stores have chelated copper nutritional supplements. These usually contain 2.5 milligrams of copper bound by a relatively weak chelator such as glycine or gluconic acid. Many arthritis sufferers have obtained relief by taking one tablet of each four times a day; the copper salicylate chelate promptly forms in your stomach.

Our bodies contain a number of natural chelating agents—several special metal-binding proteins, citric acid, gluconic acid, and the amino acid glycine, for example—to help control the quantities and availabilities of trace heavy metals in our blood required for certain metabolic reactions. Sometimes these natural control systems break down, resulting in illness. For example, some schizophrenics have excessive levels of copper in their blood. They can sometimes be treated by chelation. However, since all trace metals are removed by chelation, it is necessary to add some of these back. Only an experienced physician should administer treatments using powerful unselective chelating agents such as EDTA and D-penicillamine. Copper salicylate and nutrient chelating agents such as citric and gluconic acids, on the other hand, can be self administered.

A list of scientific literature on this topic is available through REASON. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and ask for H&W references, February.

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw are consulting scientists, authors, and TV personalities. Copyright © by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw.