Healthy Aging

Protecting Yourself from the Damaging Effects of Air Pollution

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How to keep your cells healthy in the face of particulate matter pollution in the air

The more populated our world becomes, the more the by-products of development, consumerism, and transportation become an issue. Many of the effects are obvious: we can’t avoid seeing supermarkets popping up where there once were trees, new shiny apartments where there used to be convenience stores, and commutes that are twice as long when we go to work.

Air pollution is a major issue that remains “unseen”, making it easy to neglect. Yet medical providers and the general public alike are aware of the increase in conditions related to air pollution, including allergies and asthma,[1],[2],[3],[4] heart disease, diabetes, autoimmunity, and even early aging.[5],[6],[7],[8]

When it comes to air pollution, smaller size particles (less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers, known as PM2.5) penetrate more deeply into the lungs, thereby causing oxidative stress and pro-inflammatory effects.[9],[10] Ultrafine particulates that are smaller than 100 nanometers (PM0.1) are potentially even more problematic because they are able to travel from the lungs into the circulation, making them far more toxic and immunogenic than their larger counterparts.[11],[12] And the problem does not stop there, as other than particulate matter, other air pollutants include carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO(2)), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone (O(3)), heavy metals such as mercury, and endotoxin from mold cell walls.[13]

Exposure to fine or ultrafine air pollution particles also alters the blood-brain barrier integrity and generates oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and an autoimmune response directed at the tissues and cells in the brain.

After passing into the bloodstream, the ultrafine PM0.1 particles can then penetrate the cells, induce cellular swelling, and damage the mitochondria (the energy-producing organelles within human cells).[14],[15],[16] Glutathione, an important antioxidant in the cells, is used in the body’s efforts to remove the damaging particles and balance the oxidative stress induced by this damage. Over time, however, the body’s glutathione levels run low, and the damage roars on.

Exposure to fine or ultrafine air pollution particles also alters the blood-brain barrier integrity and generates oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and an autoimmune response directed at the tissues and cells in the brain. [17],[18] This has even been seen in children and young adults, and is characterized by accumulation of amyloid-beta and alpha-synuclein in the brain, proteins associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.[19]

Additionally, air pollution exposure increases blood pressure and capillary permeability (the “leakiness” of blood vessels).[20] Exacerbations in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease as well as relapses in patients with multiple sclerosis have been associated with air pollution, likely due to some of these mechanisms.[21],[22]

What can we do to protect our cells and the brain?

As discussed in the previous article pertaining to air pollution, dietary supplements that increase nuclear factor erythroid 2 (NF-E2)-related factor (Nrf2) may be of benefit in enhancing glutathione production to help combat the effects of air pollution. Substances that induce Nrf2 include gingko biloba, green tea polyphenols, and lipoic acid.[23],[24],[25] These natural products may be of particular benefit to the elderly population, as even without exposure to excessive air pollution, the ability of the body to upregulate Nrf2 and the body’s glutathione levels both decline with age.[26],[27]

In many cases, the cellular damage caused by particulate matter exceeds the body’s ability to generate the level of antioxidants and other components that are necessary for mitochondrial, cellular, and membrane repair.

In many cases, the cellular damage caused by particulate matter exceeds the body’s ability to generate the level of antioxidants and other components that are necessary for mitochondrial, cellular, and membrane repair. Because intracellular glutathione is depleted with exposure to air pollution, explicit strategies for increasing cellular glutathione levels should be considered. Many substances – such as some of the other antioxidants, selenium, and N-acetylcysteine – can support glutathione production, but the most direct means is by supplementing glutathione directly through acetyl-glutathione or via liposomal delivery, both of which have been shown to significantly raise intracellular glutathione.[28],[29]

Supporting mitochondrial function and repair

Substances targeting mitochondrial function and repair are of utmost value, because the mitochondria are the focal point of damage associated with the ultrafine particles. Nutrients such as coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), lipoic acid, tocotrienols, acetyl-L-carnitine, and resveratrol, act to decrease mitochondrial oxidative damage and support cellular repair pathways.[30],[31],[32],[33] CoQ10, lipoic acid, resveratrol, and tocotrienols each play a role in calming neuroinflammation, and reduce activation of the immune system responders in the brain.[34],[35] Many of these supplemental nutrients have also been studied in neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis, each of which can be further compromised by air pollution.[36],[37],[38]

Nutrients such as coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), lipoic acid, tocotrienols, acetyl-L-carnitine, and resveratrol, act to decrease mitochondrial oxidative damage and support cellular repair pathways.

Supporting cellular membrane repair

The ongoing maintenance and repair of cellular membranes is also critical.[39],[40] The damage to cell membranes caused by air pollution is not temporary. It persists, waxing and waning with exposures and other events such as infection, in which more oxidative stress is generated.[41] Membrane lipid replacement (MLR) is a strategy to support the body’s need for the phospholipids necessary to repair cellular membranes.

Ideally, MLR is accomplished with a blend of phospholipids including phosphatidylcholine (PC), phosphatidylinositol (PI), phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), phosphatidylserine (PS), and phosphatidylgycerol (PG), as each of these is abundant in cellular membranes.[42] PC is the most prominent, comprising approximately 50% of cellular membrane lipids. When lipids such as these are taken in a supplement format, bound to an antioxidant carrier, they can be absorbed intact and are better able to reach their target tissues without degradation.[43],[44]

In addition to the phospholipids that are essential for cellular membranes, substances such as vitamin E (particularly tocotrienols) and essential fatty acids also support membrane health and function.

In addition to the phospholipids that are essential for cellular membranes, substances such as vitamin E (particularly tocotrienols) and essential fatty acids also support membrane health and function. Vitamin E, a lipid-soluble vitamin and antioxidant, is one of the body’s main defences against oxidation of the cellular (lipid) membranes as it limits the waterfall effect that occurs with lipid peroxidation.[45] Essential fatty acids simultaneously have an anti-inflammatory effect and support membrane health and fluidity.[46],[47]

Summary

The most important step in preventing health problems is to stop them before they occur – namely by limiting our exposure to particulate matter. Targeted nutritional support including fat-soluble antioxidants and glutathione, necessary components for cellular membrane repair, and essential fatty acids also can help to protect our cells from this often-progressive damage.

 

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