It’s the silent killer that many of us are exposed to every day. What can we do to stay well in a toxic world?
You can’t see it but pollution is all around us. It’s in the air we breathe and the environment we live and work in, and it’s responsible for 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK. In London, pollution is statistically the second biggest overall risk to health, being a greater threat than both alcohol and obesity. And it’s not just those in the capital who are suffering – a recent report found that the poor quality of air in Manchester is responsible for reducing the average life expectancy in the area by six months.
Pollution is linked to both the development of asthma and increasing the likelihood of an attack, so it’s no coincidence that central Manchester has the highest rate of emergency hospital admissions for asthma in England. The report authors estimated that ‘1.6 million life years’ will be lost over the next decade if things continue the way they are. The invisible emissions in the air, such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, increase our risk of stroke, cancer and heart disease. And with one study finding that over half of us live in places where the pollution is above the legal limit, it’s not something you can afford to ignore. Worryingly, last month, a new report found that children are exposed to 30 percent more air pollution than adults when they walk to school because they are shorter and therefore closer to exhaust fumes.
So what is being done about the problem? The government is under pressure to do more than it has already pledged – MPs are already calling for a ban on the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to be brought forward. But while we wait for action, here’s how you can lessen the risk the air outside may have on your health. “You can make a variety of lifestyle adjustments,” says MedicSpot GP, Dr Zubair Ahmed (medicspot.co.uk). “One way is to avoid outdoor activity when air pollution levels are high. The pollution in the air varies seasonally, daily and by time of day. For example, UV light from the sun activates chemical reactions that form ozone, leading to higher concentrations from late morning to early evening. It is this higher concentration of ozone that can cause many respiratory health issues. Therefore, you could try to avoid outdoor activity during this time to prevent personal health issues from pollution developing.” Not very helpful for those of us who, for whatever necessity, have to commute by bike or by foot through heavily polluted areas, but take comfort in this small mercy – last year a study found that pollution inside cars during rush hour was actually twice as bad as outside at the roadside.
“You could also try cleaning indoor air using portable or central air cleaning systems to reduce the concentrations of air pollutants inside your home,” says Zubair. “By improving the quality of indoor air, you can reduce the effect pollution has on your health. Additionally, you could spend more time indoors to avoid high levels of pollution outdoors.”
“As we are constantly exposed to pollution – in the air we breathe and the substances that come into contact with our skin – it is essential we maintain enough antioxidants to fight off harmful free radicals and toxins that damage our bodies,” says medical herbalist Katie Pande (herbalreality.com). “One of the primary ways to support our body’s antioxidant defence system is to consume plenty of plant foods – especially vegetables and fruit. As well as providing vitamin C, they are literally brimming with those allimportant polyphenols, as well as other types of antioxidants.
“Green tea contains catechins, which have demonstrated pretty impressive abilities to fight free radicals. A specific catechin called EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) is thought to have the most potent protective activity.”
To get the most out of your green tea, Katie advises you go for matcha. This is a high-quality powdered green tea used in Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies. It’s made from only the fresh leaf tips of the tea plant, which are shaded from the sun to increase the chlorophyll and nutrient content. A study carried out at the University of Colorado found that the content of the EGCG in a cup of matcha can be over 100 times greater than that found in a standard green tea.
“Eat plenty of purple, blue or dark red fruits and vegetables,” she continues. “Berries, including blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants are among the big hitters. Their colours indicate the presence of anthocyanin antioxidants – ‘cyan’ in the word anthocyanin means ‘red’. Then think of cherries, plums, red cabbage and purple carrots – all of these provide anthocyanins, too.
“Beetroots have a fantastic purplered colour. They are also high in antioxidants, but primarily a different type called betalains.”
Orange and yellow vegetables and fruits have a big role to play in fighting pollution, too. “Think: carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, peaches, apricots and papaya,” says Katie. “All of these are rich in carotenoids, another type of antioxidant. Green vegetables also contain carotenoids, as well as a wealth of other nutrients.
“One important thing to note about carotenoids is that they’re fat-soluble. That means they will only be absorbed efficiently when you consume them with fatty foods. So roasting your carrots or sweet potato in coconut oil, or tossing your greens with butter or ghee after steaming, is ideal.”
Swap your normal walk down a busy street for a longer, secluded route. In a recent study, participants in London were able to decrease their exposure during commuting by up to 90 percent by choosing different routes. Side streets with less traffic are your best bet.
Swap your car for the train. Pollution on trains is less concentrated than in cars. The air is also a lot less polluted in an overground train than an underground one.
Swap sides of the road. If you have to walk up or down a road with a hill, always walk on the side where the traffic is traveling downhill rather than uphill, as the engines will be producing less emissions.
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