New Briefs – February 2009

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A natural compound that comes from grains, nuts and beans may be a successful alternative medical treatment for an array of conditions, from depression to cancer, experts suggest. (The human body needs a small amount of inositol, a member of the B vitamin family, for its cells to function properly.)
On January 11, Elie Klein, a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, told CTV News that a number of medical doctors send their patients to natural health food stores for inositol to treat a variety of conditions. This has never been acknowledged before publicly. “There is certainly growing interest in it,” Klein said.
Toronto psychotherapist Dr. Harold Pupko prescribes it to his patients to treat their anxiety and depression. “There will be less chatter or less noise in your head in terms of repetitive types of negative thoughts, anxious thoughts,” Pupko said.
Although inositol is relatively unknown among the public, studies have shown it to be effective at reducing the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks.
In Vancouver, researchers have just completed a preliminary study that suggests inositol may help prevent lung cancer. For their study, the researchers gave former smokers 18 grams of inositol per day. The ex-smokers had what is called severe dysplasia, or high-grade pre-cancerous changes in their bronchial tubes. After one to three months on inositol, the patients had fewer pre-cancerous growths in their lungs. As well, the compound appears to cause few side effects, even at high doses.
“So this is one agent that seems to have a very potent effect in terms of regressing pre-existing, pre-cancerous cells in the bronchial tube,” Dr. Stephen Lam of the B.C. Cancer Agency told CTV News and confirmed to Vitality in an e-mail interview. “That is why we are quite excited about it.” Lam and his team plan to conduct more studies into the benefits of inositol on lung cancer.
There are also ongoing studies evaluating inositol’s ability to treat infertility, lower cholesterol, and normalize insulin levels. “I don’t think it deserves to be a secret,” Pupko said. “I think it should be public knowledge.”
So do we.

A study has linked high blood levels of vitamin C with lower blood pressure in young women. The study involved almost 250 women. They entered the trial when they were 8 to 11 years old, and over a 10-year period, their plasma levels of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and blood pressure were monitored. Both their systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings were found to be inversely associated with ascorbic acid levels.
Previous research had already linked high plasma levels of vitamin C with lower blood pressure among middle-age and older adults. The study appeared in the December 17, 2009 edition of Nutrition Journal.

Cuts in air pollution in U.S. cities over recent decades have added an average of five months of life to their inhabitants, research suggests.
The January 22, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that matched air pollution and life expectancy statistics from 51 (U.S.) cities between 1980 and 2000. Scientists found people living 2.72 years longer by 2000 – 15 per cent of which they attributed to falls in pollution. Earlier studies have found poor air quality can worsen lung and heart disease.
Fine particles can travel deeply into the lungs, and have been linked with the worsening of asthma and heart disease. The researchers found that in those cities with the biggest shift from polluted to clean air, this had yielded an average of 10 more months lifespan to its residents.

A study published in the January 7, 2009 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute claims that antioxidant vitamins C, E and beta carotene have no effect in preventing cancer. The study, conducted by Jennifer Lin and colleagues at Harvard Medical School, tracked 7,600 women over an eight-year period. The women either suffered from heart disease or were at high risk, 80 per cent of the study group was overweight or obese, and the average age at the time the study began was 60 years.
Critics of the study – a secondary analysis of data originally intended to measure the link between antioxidants and heart disease – criticized both the methodology and the outcome, warning that consumers may get faulty information about vitamins and health.
“We think the study was clearly designed to fail,” said Gretchen DeBeau, executive director of the American Association for Health Freedom, an alternative medicine advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., in an interview with Vitality magazine in January.
“They used vitamins well below the therapeutic dose for health benefits, and conducted the study on a sick subset of the population. I don’t know if they had ulterior motives, but I’m concerned about folks getting the wrong message. In conjunction with a healthy lifestyle and diet, antioxidants really do help prevent cancer, and their benefits are countless.”
A more measured response came from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization representing the dietary supplements industry. “These are nutrients, not drugs,” said Andrew Shao, CRN’s vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs. “They have real but subtle effects over a very long period of time, and they’re one set of tools among many you incorporate to avoid disease. You can’t wait until you’re 60 and expect that they will prevent cancer.”
There is clinical precedent for the selection of dose, he said, but it’s impossible to know the ideal dose for a given population. “The results of this trial may not be representative of the general population,” Shao said. “Unfortunately, the message taken away from black-and-white press coverage is that these things don’t work. In fact, they’ve been shown to be beneficial in a number of areas.”
The study’s primary focus, on the link between antioxidants and heart disease, was published last year. It also found no evidence of antioxidant benefits. “The first study also seemed designed to fail,” DeBeau said. “We noted in our press release that it was funded by big pharma.”

A Cochrane review of 29 trials involving 5,489 patients found St. John’s Wort superior to placebo in patients with major depression and “similarly as effective as other antidepressants,” but with fewer side effects. (The review, which included 18 studies comparing the hypericum extract to placebo and 17 studies comparing the extract to other synthetic antidepressants, focused on double-blind and randomized trials on adults with major depression.)
Several years ago, two American studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found St. John’s Wort to be ineffective at treating major depression.
“These (JAMA-published) studies are included in the meta-analysis,” said study lead Klaus Linde, MD, from the Center for Complementary Medicine in Munich, Germany. “Also, in the area of standard (synthetic) antidepressants, one in three trials finds no difference versus placebo, so negative results are not uncommon. Taking all the available trials together, however, the evidence has been and still is in favour of the hypothesis that the tested hypericum extracts (St. John’s Wort) are effective.”
The study said that depressive disorders, characterized by depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities, are the largest source of non-fatal disease burden in the world, accounting for 12 per cent of human years lived with a disability.
Depressive disorders affect 121 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The review said that broader studies with more subjects tend to produce less favourable results, whereas smaller, specific studies, such as those in Germany where the herbal extract is prescribed by physicians for depression, show more favourable results. In Germany, adequately dosed hypericum extracts are licensed as drugs, not as supplements.
“The studies do not take into account lifestyle considerations, but investigate hypericum extracts as one would a drug,” Linde said in an e-mail interview in January. “The daily extract dose should be between 500 and 1200 mg, but the quality and composition of extracts can vary.”
The study said that patients suffering from depressive symptoms who wish to use a St. John’s Wort product should consult a health professional. Because St. John’s Wort products may vary greatly, the results of this review apply only to the preparations tested in the studies included, and possibly to extracts with similar characteristics.

It is well known that moderate drinking can have positive health benefits — for instance, a couple of glasses of red wine a day can be good for the heart. But if you’re a senior in good health, light to moderate consumption of alcohol may also help prevent the development of physical disability.
That’s the conclusion of a January 2009 UCLA study, available in the online edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology, which found that light to moderate drinking among these seniors reduced their odds of developing physical problems that would prevent them from performing common tasks such as walking, dressing and grooming.
“If you start out in good health, alcohol consumption at light to moderate levels can be beneficial,” said lead study author Dr. Arun Karlamangla, an associate professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in an e-mail interview. “But if you don’t start out healthy, alcohol will not give you a benefit.”
The researchers based their study on data from three waves of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’s Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (1982–84, 1987 and 1992). The sample, which included 4,276 people split evenly between male and female, was about 92 per cent white, with a mean age of 60.4 years.
Drinkers were classified as light to moderate if they consumed less than 15 drinks per week and less than five drinks per drinking day (less than four per day for women). Heavy drinkers were those who consumed 15 or more drinks per week or five or more per drinking day (four or more for women). Abstainers were those who drank fewer than 12 alcoholic beverages the previous year.
Having a physical disability means having trouble performing, or being unable to perform, routine tasks such as dressing and grooming, personal hygiene, arising, eating, walking, gripping, reaching, and doing daily errands and chores. Participants were asked if they experienced no difficulty, some difficulty, and much difficulty or were unable to do these activities at all when alone and without the use of aids.
No one had any disabilities at the outset, but 7 per cent died and 15 per cent became disabled over five years. The researchers found that light to moderate drinkers in good health had a lower risk for developing new disabilities, compared with both abstainers and heavy drinkers.
Light to moderate drinkers had a 17.7 per cent chance of becoming disabled or dying in five years, compared with 26.7 per cent for abstainers and 21.4 per cent for heavy drinkers. Among survivors, the risk for new disability was 12.5 per cent for light to moderate drinkers, compared with 20 per cent for abstainers and 15.6 per cent for heavy drinkers.
“Light to moderate alcohol consumption appears to have disability prevention benefits only in men and women in relatively good health,” the researchers wrote. “It is possible that those who report poor health have progressed too far on the pathway to disability to accrue benefits from alcohol consumption and that alcohol consumption may even be deleterious for them.”

News Notes
Third–hand smoke? Even if you choose to smoke outside of your home, or only smoke in your home when your children are not there, you’re still exposing them to toxins, says new research. The study demonstrates that tobacco smoke contamination lingers even after a cigarette is extinguished, a phenomenon the researchers called “third-hand” smoke. The study appears in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics.

Broccoli prevention of cancer unraveled: Scientists in the UC Santa Barbara laboratories of Leslie Wilson, professor of biochemistry and pharmacology, and Mary Ann Jordan, adjunct professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, have shown how the healing power of cruciferous vegetables – cabbage, broccoli, and others in that family – works at the cellular level. How these veggies affect health has been a mystery until now. Their research is published in the December 2009 issue of the journal Carcinogenesis.

Lobbying dollars: A study of what industries have spent the most on lobbying the U.S. political system for favourable legislation (or to prevent legislation) shows that the highest-spending industry is… the pharmaceuticals and health products industry. Following that are: insurance, electrical utilities and computers/Internet, and others. The study was presented in December 2008.

Green Tea: Catechin consumption – a substance in green tea – enhances exercise-induced abdominal fat loss in overweight and obese adults, suggests a new study on the Journal of Nutrition’s website.
Low-carb controls blood sugar best: In a six-month comparison of low-carb diets, one that encourages eating carbohydrates with the lowest-possible rating on the glycemic index leads to greater improvement in blood sugar control, according to a recent Duke University Medical Center study.

Health Notes
71. That’s how many calories you’ll lose by just talking on the phone for one hour. Spending an equal amount of time making love – one full hour of sex – will burn just 22 calories more, or a total of 93 calories. Standing in line doing nothing for an hour will pare 85 calories. Want to burn off a whopping 286 calories? Take showers until you’ve racked up 60 minutes.

Chocolate and Acne Myth: Eating too much chocolate can cause acne. Truth: Contrary to popular belief, there is no link between eating chocolate and acne breakouts. Several scientific studies have disproved this common myth.

Carrots for the Eyes Myth: Carrots can improve your vision. Truth: Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which is important for maintaining eye health. But eating large quantities of carrots or other foods containing vitamin A will not give you 20/20 vision if you don’t already have it. In fact, too much vitamin A can be harmful to your health. A well-balanced diet that includes carrots can protect your eyesight – but it won’t make it any better.

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