Health: How your diet really can help you defy death

The role of nutrition in general healthcare has never been stronger.
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The Independent Culture
I AM lying on my back watching a pulsing river of bright red run between shadowy black banks. It could be a clip from a programme about volcanoes, but it is in fact my gravity-defying blood, flowing through an artery to my brain.

It is amazing. I have an inkling of the thrill that a pregnant woman feels, hooked up to the same ultrasound machine, watching new life kicking and stretching in her womb. In my case, however, the purpose of this procedure is to estimate my chances of dying of a heart attack in the next 10 years.

Even though I'm outwardly fit and healthy, it could happen. Alarmingly, about 50 per cent of heart attacks are unpredictable, without any of the obvious risk factors, such as smoking, being overweight or eating a particularly fatty diet. People can just keel over with no warning.

But what can you do? If you're convinced that your arteries look like the pipe in a water-softener advert, there's the option of a pretty unpleasant procedure known as an angiogram, which involves anaesthetics and pushing fine wires up your arteries. But most of us prefer not to know about that.

Now there's an alternative. I have been undergoing part of a health- care package that may revolutionise medical procedures. First of all, no needles are involved; just a hand-held scanner moving up and down over the carotid artery on the side of my neck. Then, if my arteries had been packed with plaque - they are in fact as clear as the M1 at 4am - I could have had it gradually swept away by changing my diet, rather than blasting it with drugs.

What makes this unusual is that I was in Harley Street, and the person who was working the scanner and discussing such dietary arcana as anti- oxidants and essential fatty acids was a regular physician - a senior registrar at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital - who admitted to having had a total of six to eight hours of nutrition classes throughout her entire medical training.

"The medical profession still isn't very hot on nutrition," said 29- year-old Dr Beverly Carey. "The philosophy is still that you wait until people get really ill, then you zap them with surgery and drugs."

However, Beverly, who has just had a baby and is glowing with health, together with her equally fit-looking husband, Dr Adam Carey, have become converted to the value of clinical nutrition, and recently opened the Natural Health Clinic.

Adam's conversion happened after his father had major surgery, following a stroke. "He wasn't recovering properly," he explained. "Normally after three months you're as good as you're going to get, but he could barely walk 400 yards. We thought there was nothing to lose by adding extra nutrients to his barrage of medication. Eight months on, he was covering three miles a day."

For Beverly, the conviction that conventional medicine is missing out on something important came with her pregnancy. "I ate well and got all the right nutrients, and I just sailed through it." So what, the sceptics could say. Adam's father might have been a bit slower at healing than normal, and Beverly's pregnancy could have been a doddle anyway. The point is that these are not isolated experiences.

"When we started looking at the literature we were amazed at how much good evidence there is for the effectiveness of nutritional medicine," she says. "For instance, time and again studies show that nutritional support for osteoporosis is effective, but these measures just haven't been assimilated into the mainstream."

And the data keeps coming in. A major study last year showed that large amounts - compared with the recommended daily intake - of vitamin E protects against heart attack. Another study showed that taking selenium regularly reduces the chances of developing cancer. The general public seem quite keen on this approach too. About 25 per cent of us regularly take extra vitamins or supplements, but in a pretty haphazard way.

"People take enormous care with their clothes, getting the right size and style," says Adam, "but when it comes to nutrition they often opt for a one-size-fits-all approach, and take a general supplement. We all have different nutritional needs at different times of our lives. Your basic metabolism, your age, how much stress you're under can all affect what is appropriate. A pregnant woman needs more iron, while someone approaching middle-age may need extra coenzyme Q 10 because production drops off as we get older."

At the clinic, after seeing a regular GP, you will have a consultation with a clinical nutritionist, who will draw up a plan that is right for you.

"Our aim is to integrate clinical nutrition with mainstream medicine." says Beverly. "A nutritionist should have the same sort of relationship with a GP as a midwife does with an obstetrician. Ultimately, what we are doing should all be available on the NHS."

Because of their medical background, the Careys have ensured that the clinic has access to a range of sophisticated tests. Besides the ultrasound, they can test your adrenal function and bone density and analyse blood and saliva. It is this combination of hi-tech diagnosis and low-tech, low-cost solutions that makes the clinic so interesting.

"You can lower cholesterol with drugs called statins," says Adam, "but it is very expensive. Giving statins to everyone in an area who could benefit would use up the entire health authority's drug budget. Eating properly won't cost the authority anything."

The Natural Health Clinic, 114 Harley Street, London W1. Phone/fax: 0171-224 5053

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