Health News Briefs – April 2008

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Healthy News BriefsGinkgo Protects Memory

Taking the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba may delay the onset of cognitive impairment in elderly adults, according to a three-year Oregon study posted, ahead of print publication, on the website of the journal Neurology.

During research on more than 100 people aged 85 and older who had no memory problems, half took ginkgo biloba extract three times a day and half took a placebo. Over the course of the study, 14 of those who took the placebo developed memory problems, but only 7 of those who took the ginkgo extract did. When the researchers took into account whether people followed directions in taking the study pills, they found that people who reliably took ginkgo had a 68% lower risk of developing memory problems.

Although newly published, this study may sound familiar to many readers. That’s because, in the past, many studies had linked ginkgo with benefits for those with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia. In fact, one Italian study published in the European Journal of Neurology in 2006 concluded that ginkgo biloba works just as well as the prescription drug Aricept (donepezil) in treating mild or moderate Alzheimer’s.

The recent Neurology study also showed a higher incidence of hemorrhagic (or “bleeding”) strokes and “mini-strokes” in ginkgo users. Seven people (14 per cent) taking ginkgo had strokes, while none of those taking placebo did. This result confirms some previous studies that had suggested that ginkgo might increase bleeding risk in some people. Never take ginkgo biloba if you are on any kind of anticoagulant drugs or have any kind of bleeding disorder. Consult with your health practitioner.

Vegan Diet Lowers Heart Attack Risk

Rheumatoid arthritis patients have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke resulting from their increased levels of inflammation. But a new study suggests that they may be able lower that risk by adhering to a gluten-free vegan diet.

Research published in the March 2008 issue of the journal Arthritis Research and Therapy, found that those following a vegan diet had lower levels of LDL. (LDL is the “bad” cholesterol, higher levels of which are a factor in heart problems.)

Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm placed 38 volunteers on a 12-month vegan diet, in which protein accounted for 10 per cent of calories, carbohydrate 60 per cent and fat 30 per cent. It included nuts, sunflower seeds, fruit and vegetables, millet and corn. Sesame milk provided a daily source of calcium. A further 28 volunteers followed a healthy non-vegan diet for the same period, with approximately the same proportions of protein, carbohydrate and fat.

Those on the gluten-free vegan diet showed a decrease in total and LDL cholesterol (and lowered their body mass index or BMI). The researchers pointed to a previously documented “large body of evidence” suggesting that these cholesterol changes were beneficial when it came to preventing blockage of the arteries and cardiovascular disease. Those on the non-vegan diet exhibited no significant changes in cholesterol. (Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley, kamut, spelt and oats.)

Although the findings are not considered conclusive, and although some fish oil (i.e., oil of non-vegetarian source) has been found to be protective against heart disease, the study confirms previous research finding that vegetarians have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. For instance, in a study published in a 1983 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that 26 per cent of meat-eaters studied suffered from high blood pressure, compared to only 2% of vegetarians.

Another study, published in the journal Stroke, found that people who ate a typical meat-based diet had a 58% higher risk of stroke than did those who controlled their intake of meat and junk food.

Diets Omega-Deficient

A study published in the March 2008 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition presented new research from the Child and Family Research Institute showing that the typical North American diet – generally heavy on meat and light on fish – is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

Previous research also found these essential fatty acids to be lacking in the average diet but this new study concluded that the deficiency poses a risk to infant neurological development. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fats found in some fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel as well in fish oil supplements.

Omega Heart Benefits Confirmed

The omega-3 oil found in oily fish or capsules can reduce cardiovascular risk by 19 to 45 per cent, according to a review of major scientific studies, published in the March 2008 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.  The analysis authors recommended 1,000 mg (1 gram) of omega-3 daily for those with diagnosed heart disease and 500 mg (half a gram) a day for those without any cardiovascular issues.

Lifestyle Affects Metabolic Syndrome

A clinical study (recently completed at the University of Colorado Denver but which will not be published until later this year) has found that lifestyle change can improve metabolic syndrome. The lifestyle changes included a low-glycemic diet, supplements (“Mega-Oxidants” blend of 30 vitamins and other antioxidants and “Chelated Minerals” formula of essential minerals), and exercise.

The study confirms previous research suggesting that simple changes to lifestyle can alter metabolic syndrome and reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. For example, an earlier study conducted by the same group (USANA Health Sciences Inc.) in 2005 included 25 clinical subjects. The new clinical study involved 60 people and the health effects of lifestyle modification were seen by the study group as being dramatic.

Metabolic syndrome is a pre-diabetic state that involves multiple symptoms including central obesity, insulin resistance, elevated blood lipids, high blood glucose levels and high blood pressure.

The Glycemic Index ranks carbohydrates from zero to 100, according to the degree to which they raise glucose levels in the blood (compared to glucose or white bread). Those foods effecting the least increase in blood sugar (and insulin) are seen as healthier choices. A lower glycemic index ranking suggests slower rates of digestion and absorption of the sugars and starches in the foods. The concept was invented by David J. Jenkins, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Toronto, in 1981.

Full information about the glycemic index is available at: www.glycemicindex.com

Chinese Medicine Eases Eczema

A Chinese herbal medicine consisting of five raw herbs may ease eczema symptoms, a new study suggests. Researchers found the treatment reduced the need for conventional medicines and improved the quality of life for young patients with atopic eczema, the most common type of the disease, which affects one in 10 children. The condition can persist into adulthood. Patients who took the medicine reported that their quality of life improved by a third, while those who took the placebo reported no improvement. Further analysis revealed that patients who took the herbal remedy showed lower blood levels of four proteins thought to have inflammatory effects linked with eczema. (The immune system reaction is the cause of eczema’s symptoms.)

The study of 85 patients by the Chinese University of Hong Kong was published in the March 2008 issue of the British Journal of Dermatology. The specific herbs used in the concoction include: Flos lonicerae (Japanese honeysuckle), Herba menthae (peppermint), Cortex moutan (root bark of peony tree), Atractylodes rhizome (underground stem of the atractylodes herb), and Cortex phellodendri (Amur cork-tree bark).

Eczema is a group of inflammatory skin disorders that make the skin dry, itchy, flaky, red and sore. In more severe forms, the skin can become broken and weep or bleed.

Vitamin D Cuts Diabetes-1 Risk

Giving young children vitamin D supplements may reduce their risk of developing type-1 diabetes later in life by 30%, according to a UK study. Confirming previous research, the new study pooled data from five separate studies and was reported in the March 2008 issue of the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Studies previously found that type-1 diabetes is more common in northern countries where exposure to sunlight (which enables the body to manufacture vitamin D) is lower. For instance, a child in Finland is 400 times more likely to develop the disease than a child in Venezuela. Separate research has linked low levels of Vitamin D and sunlight to other autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that all Canadians supplement with Vitamin D during winter months.

Alcohol ‘Quickly’ Cuts Heart Risk

Middle-aged non-drinkers can quickly reduce their risk of heart disease by 38 per cent by introducing one drink a day for women or 1-2 drinks a day for men, according to a new study. The study, which appeared in the March 2008 issue of the American Medical Journal, echoes extensive prior research suggesting a link between moderate drinking and both lower levels of heart disease and higher levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol.

The latest study is noteworthy because it found that the benefits may be experienced very quickly for previous non-drinkers who introduce an occasional drink. Also, the study involved 7,500 people over four years.

The benefit was greatest for new wine drinkers. However, the scientists stressed that the effect comes from, say, one drink per day of the week—not seven drinks on a Saturday night.

Also, women who consume more than the guideline amount are 50 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer. Other health risks for women who binge drink include liver disease and ruptured bladders.

NEWSNOTES:

  • Vitamin D & flu: The Public Health Agency of Canada will study whether Vitamin D could fight influenza. To start, the agency has contracted scientists at McMaster University and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto to conduct a pilot study of 200 senior citizens this flu season. Depending on results, there may be a larger project later.
  • Vitamin E & lung cancer: Taking high doses (400 mg) of Vitamin E supplements every day for a long term might up the risk of lung cancer by 28 per cent, suggests a study in the March 2008 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The risk for smokers was more pronounced. This study needs to be confirmed by further work because extensive past studies show strong heart-protection benefits—in small doses—from Vitamin E. Also, to a lesser extent, past studies have linked small Vitamin E doses with protection against cancer and dementia. However, this study is newsworthy because it links negatively to lung cancer and because of its extremely large size and duration—77,721 people were studied over a 10-year term.
  • Restaurant lemon slices loaded with bacteria: A study in the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health found that two out of every three lemon slices served with water or other drinks in a restaurant or bar is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria—including fecal bacteria. This suggests that many in the restaurant industry are failing to properly wash their hands after using the toilet, resulting in fecal matter finding its way into your beverage. It also suggests that a restaurant lemon slice could be risky for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. The study author wrote that it “could also be worthwhile to study contamination on other beverage garnishes, such as olives, limes, celery, and cherries.”
  • Improves memory in elderly: A new placebo-controlled, double-blind study involving 101 seniors aged 60-85 found that 150 mg of pycnogenol (French maritime pine bark extract) improved numerical, cognitive and spatial memory within three months. Previous research found the same but the new study at Swinburne University in Australia also tested for a blood marker known as F2-isoprostanes, which develops from the oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids. The levels of these oxidants were reduced by pycnogenol, suggesting it improves memory by antioxidant action. Presented in early March at the Oxygen Club of California 2008 World Congress on Oxidants and Antioxidants in Biology, the study was accepted for publication later this year by the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
  • Folate protects sperm: Research published in the March 2008 edition of the journal Human Reproduction examined sperm samples from 89 healthy, non-smoking men of all ages and questioned them about their daily total intake of zinc, folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta-carotene in both food and supplements. The study found that men who took folic acid supplements, or who ate folate-rich foods such as leafy greens, had fewer abnormal sperm. (Other research suggests there could be a greater risk of some cancers, however, related to ingesting excessive folate on a long term basis.)
  • Acupuncture improves pregnancy rates: A review of seven clinical trials of acupuncture given with embryo transfer in women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) suggests that acupuncture may improve rates of pregnancy. There were 1,366 women involved. The study results, which are seen as preliminary, showed that 10 women undergoing IVF would need to be treated with acupuncture to bring about one additional pregnancy. The British Medical Journal published the study online in February 2008.
  • A healthier cheese? Researchers in Nepal and Canada report that yak cheese contains higher levels of heart-healthy fats than Canadian cheddar cheese from dairy cattle, and may be healthier. Yak cheese only recently became available in select gourmet food stores in Canada and the US. Studies have suggested that certain types of dairy-derived fatty acids, particularly conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), may help fight heart disease, cancer and diabetes. CLA in yak cheese was found to be 4 times higher than in Canadian cheddar cheese. The study appears in the March 2008 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

HEALTHNOTES:

What top diet is heart-healthy? Ever wonder what popular diet is best for your heart? Or the heart-riskiest?

Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine put people on one of the three top diet plans—the Atkins diet, the Ornish diet or the South Beach diet—and tested the effect on their LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels. Here’s a summary of the results.

The Atkins diet raised bad cholesterol levels by 16 points and developed atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries” in a single month. This suggests the Atkins diet poses a serious heart health risk. The South Beach diet, however, lowered bad cholesterol readings by 10 points. But the Ornish diet slashed bad cholesterol levels by a substantial 25 points, suggesting a substantial reduction in the risk of heart disease. Those on the South Beach and Ornish diets also experienced a greater flexibility in their arteries, essentially the opposite of what occurs with atherosclerosis.

The Atkins diet is quite low in carbohydrates and very high in proteins and fats, including saturated fats. The South Beach diet is low in specifically those simple carbs that are high on the glycemic scale; and low as well in specifically those fats that are saturated or trans fats. The Ornish diet recommends a low-fat, vegetarian diet limiting overall calories from fat to an extremely low 10 per cent of total calories. (The Ornish plan suggests fish oil capsules as well.)

What’s the ‘in’ colour this year? Black seems to be the most fashionable colour for food this year. Produce in this colour—such as mission figs, grapes, plums, blackberries, eggplant and even deeply hued corn—is full of anthocyanins. These pigments can prevent heart disease and cancer-causing inflammation. The nutrients can even slow the growth of colon cancer cells, suggests new research from Ohio State University.

Editor’s Note: If you want to impress your friends at parties, tell them that the hottest new black food is ground black sesame seeds, a paste used in Chinese Medicine to treat kidney yin deficiency (symptoms of which are hot flashes, sore knees and back, and ringing in the ears). Black sesame seed paste is available in some health food stores.

Michael Downey is a columnist with Vitality Magazine, contributing his News Briefs column every month.

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