Help your stem cells help you with tips from Dr. William Li

renew illustration woman balancing diet
llustration by Asia Pietrzyk
| Credit: llustration by Asia Pietrzyk

Good news: Our stem cells work to rebuild our bodies from the inside out every day. Bad news: Unhealthy habits can stunt the regeneration process. Rach's friend Dr. William Li tells you how to support your system and feel better (and younger!) this season.

If you thought regeneration was only possible for starfish and salamanders, think again. "While we can't grow back arms and tails, humans do regenerate throughout our lives," says Dr. William Li, a Harvard-trained physician and author of the New York Times bestselling Eat to Beat Disease. "Our stem cells are continuously replenishing and renewing our organs to keep them in good working order." It's a kind of cellular cleaning: New, young stem cells replace old, spent ones to keep your head full of hair, your gut lining functional, and your brain working well. "Every year your body creates a 'new you,' even as you get older," Li says. 

A lot of factors can help or hurt your body's ability to keep itself vibrant. "Physical inactivity, excessive drinking, consuming too much fat and salt, and stress all interfere," Li says. "After a long winter and an even longer year of pandemic stress, now's a good time to pump up your body's ability to regenerate."

First Step: Get Moving

"One of the best ways to stimulate regeneration is by exercising regularly," Li says. Physical activity mobilizes stem cells to stream out of your bone marrow and travel to organs to perform repairs. "Set a goal for yourself to take a 30-minute walk every day come rain or shine," Li says, or commit to some other form of movement you enjoy.

Next: Focus on Your Diet

"The food you consume can be a boon or bust for stem cells," Li says. In fact, studies have shown that people with high blood sugar have fewer stem cells in circulation. Artificial sugars, salt, and saturated fats all harm stem cells, so limit sugary drinks, processed foods, and red meat. And, sorry, alcohol is toxic to the cells. Eat foods that jump-start your cells, like healthy fats, fish, and plant-based foods. (See below for Dr. Li's suggestions.)

Finally: Address Your Mindset

"High stress levels damage stem cells, including the ones that regenerate your immune system," Li says. Diet, sleep, and exercise all help us de-stress, but Li's biggest piece of advice is to embrace a positive attitude. "Think of last year's pandemic as a forest fire. In the aftermath of a fire come green shoots that bring the forest back to life," he says. Find your own green shoot in 2021, something new to focus on. Reconnect with old friends, find a new hobby, or join a book club. "The mental state of starting will give you something to work on and look forward to."

"Thanks to stem cells, every year your body creates a 'new you,' even as you get older." —Dr. Li

illustration of Dr. William Li
Credit: Illustration by Alessandra Olanow

Dr. Li’s Favorite Regeneration-Boosting Foods

1. Dark Chocolate

The flavanols in cacao increase the number of stem cells in circulation, improving cardiovascular health.

2. Dried Fruits

Apricots, prunes, and other dried fruits contain a natural chemical called chlorogenic acid, which keeps stem cells healthy.

3. Tea

Replace your second cup of coffee with a cup of green or black tea to help boost the number of stem cells in circulation.

4. Red Wine

Grape skins help increase stem cell counts, so a glass of red will do you good. But remember, alcohol hurts them, so stick to one!

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.