Professor Jane Plant is one of the world’s leading geochemists, a renowned scientist who has spent her entire career studying the environment and its effect on health. Beginning in the 1970s, with her team, she identified links between livestock diseases and the land on which they lived as well as working in developing countries on diseases caused by selenium deficiency or arsenic poisoning. Then, after suffering from breast cancer five times and being told she had only months to live, she began to focus on the links between cancer and diet.
The connection she found saw her write several widely read books on the subject. But if diet and lifestyle were connected with cancer, were they also a factor in the stress, anxiety and depression inherent in modern life?
“One in six people in Britain suffers from severe depression or chronic anxiety at some time in their life,” says Professor Plant. She adds that anyone born after World War II is twice as likely to develop a mental illness as their parents. And because whole families are affected not just the sufferer, that means one family in three will be affected at some point.
It may seem quite a leap from Professor of Geochemistry at London’s Imperial College and being the Chief Scientist of the British Geological Survey to writing a book entitled ‘Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression’ with co-author and chartered psychologist Janet Stephenson.
But it is, says Professor Plant, a natural progression.
As well as being a geochemist, she is also a chartered engineer. “Stress is the applied force and strain is what that does to the body under stress. We have a nervous system which is brilliant if you are a caveman running away from an angry bear but not so great if in the 21stcentury your fight or flight reaction keeps switching on.”
She explains that the human brain has three sections: the stem, like a snake brain, which controls the autonomic nervous system and instinctive reaction; the limbic system, like a dog’s brain, which is the emotional part and overlaying these the cerebrum, which is the logical, analytical human brain. Anxiety and depression are centred in the stem and limbic system. “So Churchill was quite right when he talked about the ‘black dog of depression’,” she says.
Professor Plant is also concerned about the modern imperative for young women to be all things, to have a successful career, look like a model and have an enviable boyfriend. “They suffer from all the expectations put on them.
“They must look good in a way celebrated in the media. If you look at women of the 50s, Grace Kelly for example or Elizabeth Taylor, they were quite distinctive but now the women in the media spotlight all look the same: very slim with perfect noses, teeth and hair. I am sure there’s a lot of artifices but other women think they must look like that.”
Sadness and upset, says Professor Plant, are normal, whereas clinical depression means your physiology is disturbed. Just as a diabetic has an insulin imbalance, with depression a person may not have enough neurotransmitters.
“Organic food is so much better for you because it hasn’t got all those pesticides, a lot of which are designed to be neurotoxic and some of which are derived from nerve gas created by the Nazis.”
So if pesticides poison the brain and nervous system what else might affect us?
“A shortage of just one B Vitamin can make people appear psychotic. I take Brewers Yeast and, love it or hate it, Marmite is a great source of B vitamins although it has too much salt for some people, especially if they have high blood pressure,” says Professor Plant.
“If your moods are all over the place cut out refined carbohydrates like white sugar and white bread and switch to wholemeal and molasses. And the brain is 60% fat so avoid saturated fat and trans fats, which can affect the brain’s ability to send its electrochemical messages. Opt also for fish oils and vegetable oils like olive oil. If you are anxious don’t have too much caffeine. If you are depressed don’t have too much alcohol.
“And the brain registers time in different ways. If you are enjoying yourself time flies whereas when you are depressed time goes by really slowly so try to find something which engages you, even if only Sudoku. If you suddenly find your mood goes down keep a simple diary and you will see things that trigger it and be able to find a coping strategy.
“It helps if you understand your daily rhythm. If you wake up feeling depressed go for a walk. Study after study has shown exercise helps. If you feel depressed during the day to go and walk in a green space or by water, which is especially therapeutic.”
Professor Plant sends clients suffering from depression to “a brilliant Russian biochemist” for analytical urine tests and often discovers imbalances in neurotransmitters like adrenalin and chemical levels, which need to be redressed.
“It can be a question of telling people to stop doing what they are doing. Sometimes you discover something quite unexpected like when I sent a successful lawyer who was feeling very low for analysis and she had an amoebic infection. That’s what was sending messages to her brain and what do you know, she had recently been to India.”
But if these tests exist and, looking at a chart you can see imbalances at a glance, why don’t doctors use this service? Professor Plant smiles, “Far too few medical people know any chemistry,” she says regretfully. “A lot of doctors don’t know chemistry, particularly biochemistry.”
But understanding it herself Professor Plant became her own physician after having first a lumpectomy and then a mastectomy in 1987. Within five years the cancer was back “It came back another four times and I had four operations, 35 radiotherapy sessions and my ovaries irradiated to produce menopause. I had chemotherapy about five times to treat a huge lump in my neck and apparently other secondaries.
“I was on the then Bristol diet: yoghurt, cereals, nuts, vegetables. The animal protein was basically dairy. I had worked in China with my husband Peter and said to him, ‘Why don’t Chinese women get breast cancer, although they do when they come here?’ Peter said they didn’t eat dairy.”
That’s when Professor Plant made the connection. She says that dairy products contain a lot of steroid hormones and that over a period of time oestrogen levels in milk went up 30 times. Dairy also contains very small protein molecules that are growth factors and which can lock onto cancer cells and “keep telling them to grow.”
“And,” she says, “Cancer likes your body to be acid and having a lot of dairy, especially cheese and yoghurt, makes the body acid.” Eating these dairy products is less problematic for young people but especially so when women are approaching the menopause.
From being told “you have two months to live if you are lucky”, this eminent geochemist with a CBE for services to earth sciences, who sits on the All-Party Scientific Committee and is one of the Science Advisory Council to the New College of Medicine, set up to achieve patient-centred medicine, has been cancer-free for 18 years. “Well, 18 on August 13th.”
“It took me six years to work out I wasn’t going to die. I was going to give a lecture at Reading University, got off the train and thought, ‘I’m not going to die after all so I’d better write it up.’”
That turned into her writing a book putting together all the work other scientists had done. Entitled ‘Your Life in Your Hands’ it is now in its fourth edition and has been translated into 26 languages. There followed a cookbook “although I couldn’t cook for toffee I had a friend who could!” a book on prostate cancer, one on osteoporosis “because people thought they would get it if they gave up dairy, although of course they don’t”, ‘Eating for Better Health,’ the list goes on.
‘Beating Stress, Anxiety and Depression’ is her latest book published by Piatkus and one, which has created a great deal of interest.