Health News Briefs – July/August 2012Michael Downey July 1, 2012
FAT-FIGHTING EFFECTS OF BLACK PEPPER REVEALED
A study has finally explained the long-known ability of black pepper, and the component known as piperine that gives it its characteristic taste, to block the formation of new fat cells, and help promote healthy weight. (Previous studies had shown that piperine reduces fat levels in the bloodstream and has other beneficial health effects. Black pepper and the black pepper plant have been used for centuries in traditional Eastern medicine to treat gastrointestinal distress, pain, inflammation and other disorders. However, scientists have known little about how piperine works at the molecular level.)
The scientists used lab studies and computer models to learn that piperine interferes with the activity of genes that control the formation of new fat cells. In this way, piperine may also set off a metabolic chain reaction that helps keep fat in check in other ways. This finding may lead to wider use of piperine or black-pepper extracts in fighting obesity and related diseases. Published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, this study is online at http://bit.ly/IFzSFp without cost.
DID YOU KNOW…?
Vitamin D3 is significantly better than vitamin D2 at raising blood levels of the active form of vitamin D, reports a study in the June 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
OMEGA-3 FOODS MAY REDUCE RISK OF ALZHEIMER’S
Scientists have linked eating foods containing omega-3 fatty acids with lower blood levels of amyloid beta, a protein strongly related to Alzheimer’s disease and memory problems. (The plaques and tangles that are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients are actually clumps of this amyloid beta. While amyloid serves positive functions in the body, the amyloid mechanisms are out of control in a person with Alzheimer’s disease, and their levels are very high.)
The study investigated beta-carotene, vitamin D, vitamin B12, vitamin E, omega-6, saturated fatty acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 was the only nutrient that showed an association with lower amyloid levels. A 2010 study showed a 40% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease among those who ate more foods with high levels of omega-3, although the reason was not clear; this new study suggests higher omega-3 levels reduce levels of the protein involved in the disease process. Good sources of omega-3 include fish, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and supplements. This study was released online May 2, 2012, but will not appear until a future issue of the journal Neurology. It is accessible online at http://bit.ly/J1eHYT with access fee or subscription.
EXPOSURE TO DAYLIGHT HELPS PREVENT SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS
Scientists have finally explained the extreme differences among different countries in terms of the number of cases of myopia, also called short-sightedness; and that difference is the degree of regular exposure to daylight and the sun. (Up to 90% of students in East Asia – in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea – have myopia, but only 2 to 3% of students in Africa.) The cause was not genetics, nutrition, or time spent reading or working on a computer; only increased time spent indoors was directly related to myopia, with East Asian students commonly spending their entire day inside school. The vitamin D in sunlight was not a factor either. Daylight itself was found to stimulate release of dopamine, a chemical known as a neurotransmitter. Higher levels of dopamine help to prevent the eyeball from growing to be elongated, which is what causes the distorted focus of myopia. The scientists reported that children spending about 2 to 3 hours outdoors each day were “probably reasonably safe.” This study was published in the May 5, 2012 issue of The Lancet. It can be accessed online at http://bit.ly/JJgGUQ with payment of an access fee or a journal subscription.
NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENT SHOWS PROMISE AGAINST AMD BLINDNESS
Uncontrolled case studies have tentatively shown that a non-prescription nutraceutical medicine, used by the researchers as a last resort in serious cases of age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, may be able to restore vision to patients facing permanent loss of sight. (AMD is a disorder in which abnormal blood vessels grow inside the visual center, or macula, of the eyes.) AMD patients undergoing standard drug injections cannot risk their progress by switching to an alternative treatment; also, some supplements such as resveratrol, can interfere with certain medicines. However, in a few cases of patients over 75 for whom drug injections had not proved effective, researchers administered an experimental oral supplement. This branded formulation contains trans resveratrol, vitamin D, quercetin, rice bran phytate, and ferulic acid. This product may beneficially switch numerous genes off or on, notably the sirtuin 1 DNA repair “survival” gene, which is an effect that mimics calorie restriction diets. This was not a scientific study, because there was no placebo control. But improvements were seen in 16 out of 17 patients, and vision was restored to one patient within 5 days. Three of these cases were detailed in a presentation in Fort Lauderdale on May 6, 2012, at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. The researchers warned that AMD patients should consult a health practitioner before taking this supplement or changing their prescribed therapy. The study has not been published or posted, but a brief abstract is available at http://bit.ly/K5c6Sm.
BLUEBERRIES SPEED MUSCLE REPAIR AFTER STRESS OF EXERCISE
Researchers have concluded that consumption of blueberries hastened repair of the normal minor damage incurred during strenuous exercise. Subjects were given blueberry smoothies before, during, and for two days after the exercise strength tests designed to strain the thigh muscle of one leg. Blood samples were taken to monitor the leg’s recovery. Several weeks later, the exercise was repeated on the other leg, but a smoothie without blueberries, and therefore with different polyphenol content, was consumed instead. The blood samples showed that the blueberry smoothie, although possessing the same total antioxidant content as the control smoothie, produced a higher level of antioxidant defense in the blood. This was associated with improved rate of recovery. Scientists stressed that the product was whole blueberries, not a supplement; and speculated that anthocyanin content caused this result. This research was financed in part by the New Zealand government, but blueberry producers were not involved in any way. This study was released online May 7, 2012 by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. It is available online now as a provisional full-text version at http://bit.ly/IVjJFp without cost.
EATING TOO FAST LINKED TO TWICE THE RISK OF DIABETES
A study has found that people who eat fast are 2.5 times more likely to have diabetes than those who take their time eating. It is important to note that this link does not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers also found that those with diabetes were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and a much lower level of education. The findings were presented May 9, 2012 at the joint International Congress of Endocrinology and European Congress of Endocrinology in Florence, Italy. It has not yet been published or web-posted. To lower the risk of diabetes, there are steps that can be taken, which are outlined at the website of the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at http://1.usa.gov/LKOGSL
DID YOU KNOW…?
Taking prenatal vitamin supplements early in pregnancy is associated with a lower risk of miscarriage, according to a study from the University of North Carolina.
ONE IN SIX CANCERS CAUSED BY INFECTIONS
Researchers have concluded that two million cases of cancer per year worldwide, or one sixth of all cancer cases, are caused by infections of viruses, bacteria, and parasites; and that the infection-triggered cancers are one of the largest and most preventable cancer groups. The study examined statistics for 27 cancers in 184 countries. It was found that, of the 7.5 million cancer deaths annually, 1.5 million of those deaths occurred as a result of a cancer triggered by infection. Many of those infections were estimated to have been preventable or treatable. This means that, although cancer is generally considered a major non-communicable disease, a sizable proportion of cancers are in fact, infectious. Most infection-related cancers were cervical, gastric, or liver cancer. In women, cervical cancer accounted for half of all cancers; in men, gastric and liver cancer accounted for 80% of cancers. The scientists suggested that greater adherence to public health measures intended to prevent the spread of infections could have a substantial effect on the future burden of cancer internationally. Examples of cancer-causing infections include helicobacter pylori, hepatitis B (HBV), hepatitis C (HCV), and human papillomaviruses. This study will be published in a future issue of the journal, The Lancet Oncology. However, it is accessible online now at http://bit.ly/LMB1dZ with subscription or access fee.
DID YOU KNOW…?
A recent study in Diabetes Care found that a greater variety of fruits and vegetables was linked to a much greater reduction in the risk of diabetes than a higher number of servings.
NUTRITION BAR FORMULATION LOWERS RISK OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
Scientists have found that twice-daily consumption of a specially formulated nutrition bar results in improved biological factors linked to protection against cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and oxidative stress, within two weeks. The nutrition bar was developed by prominent biochemist Bruce Ames and a team at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture. The goal was to produce a nutrient-dense food to promote optimum health among those with imperfect diets. It has a specific, defined composition that is low in calories, and high in fruit, fiber, vitamins, minerals, polyphenolics, beta-glucan, and the omega-3 fat, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Consumption over two weeks increased levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and decreased levels of homocysteine, changes associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. Regular consumption also increased levels of glutathione, associated with greater antioxidant capacity. Two other bars were developed to improve insulin resistance, inflammation, and LDL (bad) cholesterol. The team hopes to combine all three bars into one. This study will appear in the August 2012 issue of FASEB, the experimental biology journal. However, it is available online now at http://bit.ly/KNfOvB with subscription or fee.
VITAMIN K2 MAY UNDO EFFECTS OF PARKINSON’S
Scientists have shown that vitamin K2 can revitalize the mitochondria within cells, which might prove effective in undoing the effects of a genetic deficiency that leads to Parkinson’s disease. (Mitochondria are the energy-producing units within cells. In Parkinson’s patients, certain genetic mutations disrupt the activity of mitochondria and the transport of electrons. As a result, the mitochondria no longer produce sufficient intracellular energy, causing cells in certain parts of the brain to die off. This disrupts communication among neurons, causing Parkinson symptoms.)
When researchers bred fruit flies to have the same genetic defects as Parkinson’s patients, the flies developed defective mitochondria, which generated insufficient energy to allow them to fly. When these flies were given vitamin K2, electron transport in their mitochondria improved; mitochondrial energy production was restored; and their ability to fly improved. This shows that vitamin K2 restores defective mitochondria; and defective mitochondria are the direct cause of Parkinson’s symptoms. Vitamin K2 is found in meat, eggs, dairy, and supplements. This study was released on May 12, 2012. It will appear in a future issue of the journal Science, but is accessible online now at http://bit.ly/KazvxU with subscription or access fee.
SHORT-TERM RELIEF FROM AIR POLLUTION BOOSTS HEART HEALTH
Scientists have found that airborne pollution is linked to mechanisms for cardiovascular disease, and that even a short-term reduction in exposure to air pollution, lasting only a couple of months, results in measurable improvements in cardiovascular health. The Chinese government shut down factories and traffic during the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics to meet its commitment to reduce its massive pollution levels to qualify to host the international games. Nonsmoking, disease-free subjects were assessed twice before the July 20 shutdown, twice again during the shutdown, and another two times after the September 17 resumption of normal pollution-generating activities. The researchers measured changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and biomarkers for systemic inflammation and blood coagulation. During the brief period of reduced air pollution, blood coagulation factors were reduced as well as blood pressure, and these cardiovascular disease factors increased again very shortly after the return to normal pollution levels.
This study was released May 16, 2012 by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The full study can be read online at http://bit.ly/MilwKW
TIMING OF MEALS OFFERS NATURAL PROTECTION AGAINST DIABETES
A study has found that an extended daily fasting period, keeping all eating within the normal overall mealtime range, overrides a high-fat diet and prevents obesity, diabetes and liver disease. In other words, extending the normal period of time between the first and last meal of the day appears to be the prime underlying reason for metabolic changes that cause a high-fat diet to produce high levels of blood sugar, elevated cholesterol, liver damage, and weight gain, regardless of calorie intake or fat intake. Surprisingly, high consumption of fat or calories did not negatively affect blood glucose or weight so long as eating was strictly confined to an eight-hour period of the day, with zero consumption during the extended daily fasting period between the last meal and the first. The study showed that the body makes and stores glucose and fat throughout the period between first and last meal, but halts production and storage during the fasting period, regardless of overall fat or calories consumed. This implies that low-fat and low-calorie diets may have far less beneficial impact on health than previously believed; it suggests that it is, instead, the total number of consecutive hours of fasting during each day that lowers metabolic risks for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. After many hours without eating, the liver turns on enzymes that shut down sugar production, convert cholesterol to bile acids, burn fat, reduce fat accumulation in the liver, down-regulate inflammation, improve motor coordination, promote nutrient homeostasis, repair damaged cells, activate gene signaling pathways, and build new DNA. Spreading intake of the same number of calories over a longer portion of the day, or snacking after the last meal of the day, may yet prove to be the prime cause for the current epidemics of obesity and metabolic syndrome, as well as cardiovascular disease and liver steatosis. This study was published in the June 6, 2012 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism. It can now be accessed online at http://bit.ly/JUqoD5 with subscription or fee.
CHILDHOOD ETS RISKS PERSIST WELL INTO ADULTHOOD
Scientists have discovered that the already known health risks to children exposed to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) result in greater prevalence of respiratory problems, chronic lung deficits, asthma, wheeze, chronic bronchitis, cough, and chronic cough that persists well beyond childhood and throughout adulthood, and that these effects occur regardless of whether these children later take up smoking themselves. Chronic bronchitis is a significant risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) development in late life; the researchers concluded that children who enter adulthood with bronchitis as a result of early-life exposure to ETS, have greater odds of acquiring COPD as seniors. Researchers have warned of the health risks of passive smoke, especially among children of smoking parents; but this is the first study to prove these risks can last a lifetime. Future studies are needed to determine possible synergistic effects of personal smoking and exposure to parental smoking on the risk of COPD mortality in middle to late adult life. This study was presented on May 20, 2012 at the international conference of the American Thoracic Society in San Francisco.
SOLVENTS AT WORK TIED TO COGNITIVE PROBLEMS IN LESS-EDUCATED
A study has found that occupational exposure to solvents is associated with reduced thinking skills later in life among those who have less than a full high school education. The study involved 4,134 people who worked at the French national gas and electric company, most of whom worked there for their entire career. Lifetime exposure to four solvents was assessed: chlorinated solvents, petroleum solvents, benzene, and non-benzene aromatic solvents. Only 16% of those with higher education had cognitive impairment, compared to 32% of those who did not complete high school, even if they had the same amount of exposure to solvents. Compared to higher-educated people, those with lower education levels showed a 14% greater chance of cognitive problems from long-term exposure to chlorinated and petroleum products; a 24% greater chance of impairment from benzene; and a 36% greater chance of cognitive problems from exposure to non-benzene aromatic solvents. It is possible that education builds greater cognitive reserve to function despite damage. This study was published in the May 29, 2012 issue of the journal, Neurology.
LOW DIETARY VITAMIN D LINKED TO STROKE
An epidemiological study has concluded that for men, an overall lower vitamin D intake from food sources is an independent risk factor for having a stroke or a thromboembolic stroke over a 34-year period. (Vitamin D deficiency has been reported in limited studies to increase cardiovascular disease risk, especially the risk of stroke. Further study has been needed.) The association between low dietary levels of vitamin D and stroke was found in Japanese-American men aged 45 to 68 years. Compared to those in the quarter of the population with the highest food intake of vitamin D, men in the lowest quarter showed a 22% greater risk of having a stroke over the 34-year follow-up and a 27% higher chance of having a thromboembolic stroke. No association was found between food-sourced vitamin D intake and hemorrhagic strokes. Further study is required to assess whether vitamin D supplements would help prevent strokes; also, studies are needed on women. This study was posted online May 24, 2012, at the website of the journal Stroke. It is available online at http://bit.ly/L1wyAo now with fee or subscription.
NEW DATABASE REVEALS FOODS MOST PRONE TO FOOD FRAUD
Scientists have compiled and released the first known public database combining reports on food fraud that employed specialized analytical detection methods, and it highlights the most fraud-prone ingredients in the food supply. (Food fraud pertains to those items that are deliberately mislabeled, or have been adulterated with other ingredients, for economic gain.) Based on a review of records from scholarly medical journals, the top seven adulterated ingredients in the database include orange juice, coffee, and apple juice, and the most commonly adulterated foods are olive oil, milk, honey, and saffron. The most potentially dangerous issues with food fraud included spices that had been diluted with lead chromate and lead tetraoxide; substitution of Chinese star anise with toxic Japanese star anise; and melamine adulteration of high protein content foods, including pet foods. The high-tech analytical techniques included high-performance liquid chromatography, and infrared spectroscopy. The research compiles journal studies from 1980 to 2010. This complete report is now accessible online at http://bit.ly/I2laHu with subscription to the Journal of Food Science or payment of an access fee.
• Combined with diet and lifestyle changes, red yeast rice supplements can lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol by 20%, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
• Weight training helps retain muscles in older people, but by a surprising mechanism. It may rejuvenate muscle blood flow, suggests a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
• As many as one in 10 people are estimated to have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is characterized by abdominal pain.
• Elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease who get infections in places outside the brain may double their degree of memory loss, reports the journal Neurology.