Interview with DR. BRUCE AMES

Dr. Bruce Ames


Andrew W. Saul Interviews



Bruce Ames, PhD, is 78 years young (2006) and he is quite certain that good nutrition has kept him that way. Dr. Ames, Professor in the Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, has research interests that seem to closely coincide with those of this Newsletter’s regular readers. “Inadequate intakes of vitamins and minerals (less than 50% of the RDA) are very common,” says his UC Berkley webpage, adding that “inadequate intake of folate, B12, or B6 leads to chromosome breaks” just as if radiation caused those breaks. ( ) In addition to emphasizing the dangers of zinc deficiencies in men, and iron deficiencies in women, Dr. Ames is an advocate of supplemental alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine, and supports the use of high therapeutic doses of B-vitamins.


Dr. Ames is also a senior scientist on the staff of Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, with over 500 publications to his name. The very often-quoted, and very busy professor kindly agreed to this special interview conducted by Doctor Yourself publisher Andrew Saul, which is presented below in edited form.


DOCTOR YOURSELF NEWS: Dr. Ames, I am especially interested your thoughts on our often-overlooked need for nutrients. How bad is the Standard American Diet?


Dr. BRUCE AMES: When you drink a soft drink, you get 10 teaspoons of sugar and no vitamins. Obesity is an epidemic. A third of the children coming into Children’s Hospital where I work now are clinically obese. The problem is worse in the poorer populations, chiefly Black and Hispanic. Obese people are at the bottom of the heap for micronutrients because they are eating this lousy diet. And, obese people are inflamed. The gut has all that food fuel, and a lack of micronutrients, which encourages the bad bacteria, the clostridium and others that overwhelm and give you inflammation, and then the bad bacteria start leaking through.”


DY NEWS: New government-sponsored food recommendations call for nine or ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Yet there seems to be trouble getting people to eat five. What's wrong?


AMES: There has been the least success with the poor. It all depends on thinking long-term. The problem is getting people to eat good diets. It is a struggle. So, I recommend taking a multivitamin as insurance. Everybody in the world should take a daily multivitamin. Many nutritionists don’t like that. But you need both good diet and nutritional insurance. My interest is preventive medicine.


DY NEWS: Government-sponsored nutrient levels, such as the RDA and DRI, have been widely criticized as being too low. What specific changes in these recommended levels would you support?


AMES: People are not even getting the current RDAs. I think some of the recommended levels might go up a bit, especially the B-vitamins, when we start to learn more about long-term damage.


DY NEWS: What are some of the major health problems caused by micronutrient deficiency?


AMES: Deficiency causes so much harm. For example, folic acid deficiency breaks chromosomes. If you do not have enough micronutrients, you are aging yourself fast. Whatever micronutrient group you look at, some group is low in it. A quarter of menstruating women are getting less than half the RDA of iron. Half of the poor used to take in less than half the RDA of folate, before folate fortification of flour in the U.S.. I think the first priority is getting the poor and obese up to the


RDA for the vitamins and minerals. And the cost of supplements? They are really cheap.


DY NEWS: What aspects of high-dose nutrient therapy show most promise, in your opinion?


AMES: There are diseases that are curable by high B-vitamins. We’ve found 50 different genetic diseases where some doctor had shown that you can reverse the disease by feeding a high dose of B-vitamin. A high dose of a B-vitamin does raise the corresponding coenzyme level, as we have found.


DY NEWS: And as for B-vitamin safety?


AMES: You can take 50 times the RDA of most B-vitamins, though I don’t recommend that, they are safe. I may need more of a B-vitamin than you do. Roger J. Williams and Linus Pauling had the idea but never really showed that you could raise coenzyme levels, which I think is the mechanism of the effect.


DY NEWS: What quantities of supplemental nutrients do you personally take daily?

AMES: I take a multivitamin every day. Also, they do not have enough calcium or magnesium, so I take extra. I also eat a good diet.


DY NEWS: What public health improvements might result from all Americans taking nutritional supplements?


AMES: Particularly if you could get the poor to do it, you would see a considerable decrease in medical bills, and an increase in health and life expectancy. You’d get less degenerative disease of all sorts.


DY NEWS: Years ago, I showed my college classes some video footage of you being interviewed on national television. You were speaking about what really causes cancer.


AMES: People think cancer is due to some external toxin. But in fact, most of the cancers are due to the lousy diets people are eating, or their smoking. Smoking depletes all your vitamin C. It also depletes a number of other micronutrients.


DY NEWS: So would you say that, rather than focus on very small amounts of toxic chemicals, we should look at the fact that we are malnourished?


AMES: Right.


DY NEWS: And that is probably what is really causing cancer?

That’s my guess, yes. If you scare people about a thousand hypothetical minor risks, nobody knows what is important anymore.


DY NEWS: A well-publicized 1998 study was presented to the public as a claim that vitamin C is harmful to DNA. Your thoughts, please?


AMES: That was a lousy experiment. I know that paper. The epidemiology was not good, and the science wasn’t good. It was way over-hyped.


DY NEWS: Do you take extra vitamin C?


AMES: When I get a cold, or when I feel one coming on, I suck 500 mg vitamin C pills frequently. When your white blood cells are fighting, they need a little help.


DY NEWS: So a sick body needs more vitamin C?


AMES: Yes, as inflammation uses it up.


DY NEWS: What about vitamin C as a treatment for cancer?


AMES: The Cameron-Pauling studies claimed to cure cancer. Moertel at the Mayo Clinic “repeated” the study and said they did not see any effect, but they gave the vitamin orally. The Cameron-Pauling study injected the vitamin C, and that makes a big difference. You can get really high blood levels of vitamin C when you inject it, and when you feed it you can’t get it that high. High doses will kill tumor cells preferentially. I think there is going to be a new interest in using vitamin C against cancer.


DY NEWS: A recent meta-analysis more than suggests that high doses of vitamin E are actually harmful. Your comments?


AMES: I think all that was exaggerated a bit. There are a lot of things wrong with some of those negative vitamin E analyses. It is best to take the natural vitamin E, with gamma tocopherol, as well as the d-alpha tocopherol. A mixed natural vitamin E, 200-400 IU per day, is a good idea. An excellent website is the Linus Pauling Institute. ( ) They have very good people running a very good site discussing each of the micronutrients.


DY NEWS: How long have you been at UC Berkeley?


AMES: Since 1968; 37 years.


DY NEWS: How many graduate students do you supervise?


AMES: Currently one, plus a dozen postdoc’s and a couple of physicians.”


DY NEWS: Would you please comment on the Juvenon company

( ) and your interest in its products?


AMES: I founded Juvenon; all my stock is in a non-profit foundation and Juvenon profits fund clinical trials. I get no money from Juvenon at all. We demonstrated wonders for decayed mitochondria in old rats, and for cognition and energy level in the rats. There has been one successful clinical trial so far in people, and hopefully more to come. The two mitochondrial biochemicals in the product are acety-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid.


DY NEWS: Should there be RDA/DRI's for alpha-lipoic acid, and acetyl-L-carnitine? If so, in what amounts?


AMES: There is not enough data in humans. However, I take 400 mg alpha-lipoic acid, 1,000 acetyl-L-carnitine daily.”


DY NEWS: What advice would you most like to offer to our readers?


AMES: You mean about diet? I’d say, “Your Mom knew.” Try and eat a good diet: lots of fruits and vegetables, less meat and more fish. Keep the meat within bounds. I try to never eat meat more than once a day, or even every day. Eat lots of whole grains, not so much refined, well, anything!. Avoid the cookies and white bread. Drink water instead of sugary soft drinks. Get some exercise. Get some sunshine. Your Mom knew all these things.


DY NEWS: What about vitamin D?


AMES: People who are dark skinned, or even many Caucasians, should take a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is going to turn out to be a very big thing for dark-skinned people. I think they are going to eventually increase the amount of vitamin D in a multivitamin. There’s now only 400 IU, and that’s not enough. You need at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D. The RDA should definitely be increased. You’d get 20,000 IU if you were out in the sun.


DY NEWS: So if you were asked by the RDA or DRI committee, what would you recommend for a daily intake vitamin D?


AMES: In the range of 3,000 IU per day for an adult. Certainly a minimum of 1,000 IU per day, for all ages. Eventually people will realize it, and they will raise the recommended level, but it is just taking a long time.


DY NEWS: If you had a personal motto, what would it be?


AMES: “Do what you are enthusiastic about.”


DY NEWS: You are clearly enthusiastic about nutrition research. What drew you into it in the beginning?


AMES: I was interested in cancer prevention. I recognized that the chromosome breaks due to folate deficiency were important. Zinc deficiency damages mitochondria, which are the “power plants” of your cells. So does B-6 deficiency, pantothenic acid deficiency, and biotin deficiency. When you are getting low levels, you are pouring oxygen radicals out; you’re battering up your DNA, and you are aging more quickly. The price the cell pays for being short of micronutrients is DNA damage, which leads to cancer in the future, and ages you faster. When you make human cells slightly deficient in either a vitamin or a mineral, I think you’re going to get DNA damage. A lot of the degenerative diseases of aging are being tied to mitochondrial decay. I think better diet and supplementation would result in less neurodegenerative disease, less cancer, less Alzheimer’s, less Parkinson’s, less diabetes.


DY NEWS: This being the Doctor Yourself Newsletter, what are your thoughts on the shortcomings of modern medicine?


AMES: There’s nothing wrong with doctors; it’s just that they have no training in nutrition and they’re not very interested in prevention. So you get a disease and they try to give you a pill.


DY NEWS: Do you have any plans for retirement?


AMES: None. I enjoy my work. I have no interest in retiring and playing golf. I was born without a sports gene. The most fun is just doing science.



Recommended for Further Reading:

Increasing Longevity by Tuning-up Metabolism. [B.N. Ames (2005) EMBO Reports, 6: S20-4] (1)


Heme deficiency may be a factor in the mitochondrial and neuronal decay of aging. [H. Atamna, D.W. Killilea, A.N. Killilea, and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A, 99: 14807-14812] (2)


Iron deficiency and iron excess damage mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA in rats. [P.W. Walter, M.D. Knutson, A. Paler-Martinez, S. Lee, Y. Xu, F.E. Viteri, and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 99: 2264-2269] (3)


Low intracellular zinc induces oxidative DNA damage, disrupts p53, NFkB, and AP1 DNA-binding, and affects DNA repair in a rat glioma cell line. [E. Ho and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 99: 16770-16775] (4)


High-dose vitamins stimulate variant enzymes with decreased coenzyme-binding affinity (increased Km): relevance to genetic disease and polymorphisms. [B.N. Ames, I. Elson-Schwab, and E.A. Silver (2002) Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 75: 616-658] (5)


Feeding acetyl-L-carnitine and lipoic acid to old rats significantly improves metabolic function while decreasing oxidative stress. [T.M. Hagen, J. Liu, J. Lykkesfeldt, C.M. Wehr, R.T. Ingersoll, V. Vinarsky, J.C. Bartholomew, and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 99: 1870-1875] (6)


Memory loss in old rats is associated with brain mitochondrial decay and RNA/DNA oxidation: partial reversal by feeding acetyl-L-carnitine and/or R-a-lipoic acid. [J. Liu, E. Head, A.M. Gharib, W. Yuan, R.T. Ingersoll, T.M. Hagen, C.W. Cotman, and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 99: 2356-2361] (7)


Age-associated mitochondrial oxidative decay: improvement of carnitine acetyltransferase substrate binding affinity and activity in brain by feeding old rats acetyl-L-carnitine and/or R-a-lipoic acid. [J. Liu, D. Killilea, and B.N. Ames (2002) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 99: 1876-1881] (8)


Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Interview and comments copyright 2006 and prior years by Andrew W. Saul.


Andrew W. Saul


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