Choosing Serenity in a Hostile World

Here’s a recent letter to the editor from a reader regarding my Spirit of Health column.

Dear Editor,

There is a serious error in your Nov/Dec ’04 issue in the article entitled “Can You Too, Live To Be 122?” Dr. Glaser implies that readers should eat plenty of Brazil nuts because they contain the antioxidant selenium. Actually, Brazil nuts are naturally radioactive, and if you hold a Geiger counter sensor near a Brazil nut then you can probably get a significant reading of radioactivity. The U.S. government does not ban the sale of Brazil nuts because it does not expect that the average person would eat too many of them. So, you should advise your readers that eating too many Brazil nuts will definitely shorten a person’s lifespan, not increase longevity.

Yours truly,
Edward S. Craig
Online submission

It is important to look deeply into this question because many, if not most, readers of Spirit of Change I have met are into a healthy, natural lifestyle involving whole foods. They may assume that they can make an intelligent selection of unprocessed ingredients, avoiding all the additives, trans and saturated fats, pesticides, preservatives and sugars found in cans and boxes and not worry that those natural foods could actually cause cancer. Sure, a Starbucks Venti Mocha Coconut Frappuccino with its 710 calories and 19 grams of saturated fat or a McGriddle with its 450 to 550 calories and a gram of salt are obvious lousy choices, but Brazil nuts?

Bertholletia excelsa grows elsewhere besides Brazil. Its nuts are actually sections of its fruit, like wedges of an orange. Since the 1930’s, they have been known to have large traces of barium, and since Turner’s report in 1958, also radium. The tree’s ability to concentrate large amounts of these rare trace elements in the leaves, nuts and cork, including selenium, is not due to high levels of these elements found in the soils where it grows, but due to its extensive root system.

The amount of exposure a person will receive is between 0.075-3.6 pCi/g of nutmeat or about 33% of the amount of the ambient radiation of the environment. “What!?” you may ask, “does this mean we get radiation just sitting in our homes?” You bet, and a lot more than you would think. Here are the principle sources in mrem per year, a measure of radiation dose over a certain period of time, adjusted for the intensity of the source:

Radon gas, from the decay of naturally occurring uranium in the soil and rocks: 200 mrem

Cosmic rays from the sun and outer space: 50 mrem in my native mile-high Denver; elsewhere, on average, only 28.

Terrestrial sources besides radon in the rocks, soil, and the foundation and tiles of your home: up to 3000 mrem in parts of Brazil and India; in the US, on average, only 28.

Your own body and the people around you, especially from carbon-14 and potassium-40, a radioactive isotope in the intracellular fluid: 28 mrem.

Other food sources, especially bananas and foods with lots of blood pressure lowering potassium-40: 40 mrem.

Dental x-rays: 1mrem; chest x-ray: 6; CAT scan: 110.

Consumer products like porcelain, smoke detectors, average 10 mrem; dentures:1 mrem.

Watching TV: 1 mrem; fallout from nuclear tests, Chernobyl etc.: 3 mrem.

So, we get 375-400 mrem just going about our lives, even without getting a barium enema (405 mrem). The radiation risk measured by mrems is also a function of exposure, and it turns out that while Brazil nuts have 1000 times the radium of most other foods, it is not retained by the body (Gabay and Sax, 1969). There are also a number of common food items that that are more radioactive than the nuts, including bananas, apricots, South African beets, cabbage, and beans, Hungarian lettuce and mushrooms, in fact up to four times as much in two pounds as you will get from just three pounds of nuts. (Doctors for Disaster Preparedness Newsletter, 1986) On the other hand, in the name of cancer prevention and rejuvenation, it may actually be useful to have an adequate level of fickle antioxidant trace minerals like selenium, which may be more biologically available as a nut than a supplement.

But radiation is a highly charged word in many senses. There are people who don’t advocate radiation in any form, and may be feeling uncomfortable after reading the above inventory of the ambient radiation of their own living room. These people will never be convinced that radiation is not something inherently malevolent. It is only natural. X-rays were discovered in 1895 and the first lawsuit for injury was filed in 1899. The long-term consequences of radiation were underestimated for decades, even by its own discoverers. Marie Curie died of leukemia, almost certainly a result of her radiation exposure, and Wilhelm Roentgen of intestinal cancer.

Mark Twain once said, “I’ve seen a heap of trouble in my life and most of it never came to pass.” We go about our lives bombarded by a collective fear of just about anything we can’t see. I do not want to make light of the many ways we are destroying the purity of our environment pushing the toxins we create under the rug, but marketers and the media thrive on our readiness to read and buy just about anything to make us feel safer: antiseptic tissues, antiseptic countertops and Lysol are like peashooters considering the 78 million bacteria per square inch in a dishrag, but they somehow make us feel better about how we go about our lives. There is also no good evidence that electromagnetic waves from power lines, CRT screens, cell phones, and fluorescent lights have harmful effects, but that doesn’t stop well-intentioned people from continuing to sow hysteria about the danger, sometimes the same people who sell healing magnetic insoles and mattresses.

Shankara, the great eighth century exponent of Vedanta, in his commentaries on the Upanishads, compares the illusion of not recognizing the underlying unity in the cosmos to the illusion of seeing a length of rope and mistaking it for a snake. Seeing ourselves as separate, individual, vulnerable bodies within a hostile universe is the core illusion leading to unwarranted fear. In the Vedantic understanding, tat tvam asi, you are that cosmos. The fear of the snake disappears when we see it is just a rope. Unwarranted fear similarly disappears when we see the world as a quantum physicist: the parts are simply expressions of an underlying unified field, which is the Self.

When our nervous systems begin to cognize the world in this bigger perspective, we naturally start to rely on knowledge that has its basis in pure knowingness, the foundation for our subjective means of gaining knowledge. Modern scientists have an understandable horror of subjective means of gaining knowledge, staking their beliefs and their very living on using objective or scientific means of gaining knowledge. Yet, objective modalities of knowing are also subject to distortions, sometimes in even the most direct of observations, like the sun coming up in the sky and going around the Earth.

This week the latest revision of the Federal Dietary Guidelines has essentially endorsed the ancient yogic and Ayurvedic approach to diet consisting of large amounts of fruits and vegetables, moderate amounts of whole grains and dairy, and the use of meat in judicious amounts. The ancient physicians did not have access to the large epidemiological studies available to the scientific panel at the Department of Agriculture, nor did they likely attempt to do any serious experimentation. They were, however, acute observers of nature, surmising the properties and therapeutic values of plants, minerals and other natural substances with surprising accuracy. They coupled this keen power of observation and discrimination with the ability to gain knowledge subjectively on the finest level of feeling, a quality they cultivated with their practice of meditation.

Some may call this intuition. Doctors call it clinical judgment, a subjective feeling that something about the situation is either fishy or fine, an art different from the science garnered in medical school and that can only be cultured with attention and time. Human mothers, and especially grandmothers, often have a special knack for culturing this quality with respect to nourishing and caring for a child’s tender physiology. Yet a human mother is not nearly as astounding as a bird or other animal in the wild, who does not acquire this ability, but carries it in her DNA.

The news is full of reports of the hard evidence of yesterday overturned by today’s latest findings. The public, unfortunately, is becoming cynical about science as an authority in whom to trust their health. Good health is about good genes, good luck and good choices. Consciously developing the ability to make good choices based on some common sense and a subjective, intuitive knowingness may be as wise and certainly less stressful than relying on the latest objective findings. And enjoy some Brazil nuts in good

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.