News Briefs – December 2006Michael Downey December 1, 2006
AIR FRESHENERS POSE ASTHMA RISK
A recent study by the US National Institutes of Health looked at 11 chemical compounds given off by household products such as air fresheners, toilet deodorizers and mothballs and found no connection with health problems—with one notable exception: a gas known as 1,4-dichlorobenzene or 1,4-DCB that may be linked to lung problems.
The research compared lung function of each of 953 adults with the individual’s blood levels for each of the 11 household chemicals, which are found in the blood of 96 per cent of Americans. The 10 per cent of people with the highest levels of 1,4-DCB did 4 per cent worse in a test of lung function than the 10 per cent with the lowest blood level, according to a team at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
The scientists stressed that this is a “modest reduction” in lung function but did warn that this degree of breathing loss could be serious for those who suffer from asthma or other lung problems. Also, it’s important to realize that lowered lung function is considered a risk factor for other problems, such as heart disease, stroke and lung cancer; in fact, reduced lung function is considered a risk factor for dying from any other cause.
Ever smelled mothballs? Then you know what 1,4-DCB smells like. It is found most often in room deodorizers, urinal and toilet bowl cakes and, yes, mothballs.
A previous study, in 2005, found that the risk of asthma in children aged 6 months to 3 years goes up as their home exposure to 1,4-DCB increases. In some homes and public washrooms, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control has detected 1,4-DCB levels that exceed the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “minimal risk limit” for long-term exposure.
If you have lung problems or just want to limit your exposure, use fewer products containing 1,4-DCB. But that may not do the trick. A 1987 study by the EPA found 1,4-DCB in the air of 80 per cent of US homes surveyed—despite the fact that only a third of these homes used products containing the chemical. How the chemical is so pervasive in the absence of products containing it is not clear. Still, something to keep in mind now that windows generally stay closed for winter. The new findings appear in the August 2006 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
GREEN TEA APPROVED — AS A DRUG
In the first week of November, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did something remarkable: for the first time in more than half a century, it approved an herbal preparation as a prescription drug.
The botanical—or herbal—drug is a special extract of green tea and it is now approved in the US as a topical, or external, treatment of genital warts. In 1962, the US introduced a new regulation that requires new drugs to be proven not only safe, but effective before being marketed. The proprietary green tea extract product—called Veregen for registration purposes but possibly to be sold under a different name—is the first herbal to be approved under that regulation.
Polyphenon E is a commercially protected mixture of phytochemicals produced form a partially purified water extract of green tea leaves. Green tea, brewed from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is one of the most popular beverages outside North America. Unlike leaves used for black or oolong teas, leaves used to prepare green tea do not undergo a fermentation process. For that reason, green tea retains higher levels of highly antioxidant polyphenol compounds known as catechins.
The drug was developed by a German firm, MediGene, and will be sold in the US—by prescription only—by Bradley Pharmaceuticals of Fairfield, New Jersey. It is not a cure but adds another treatment for genital warts.
This may be a landmark. The FDA has tacitly recognized that a complex herbal product can be treated—not as a food or a dietary supplement—but as an approved prescription medicine. And it is not an alternative medicine product but instead, a mainstream drug.
RESVERATROL PROMOTES LONGEVITY
Huge amounts of a red wine extract—resveratrol—seemed to help obese mice eat a high-fat diet and still live a long, healthy and active life. Experts are calling the new study by Harvard Medical School and the US National Institutes of Aging “landmark research.” The big question is: can it work the same magic in humans?
The study is so promising that the aging institute is strongly considering a repeat of the same experiment with rhesus monkeys—coming the closest to humans—after successful resveratrol experiments on yeast, worms, fruit flies and now mice. The mice received the rodent equivalent of a chocolate cream pie for every meal and still had fewer diseases and the organs of very young mice and most are still alive long after they should’ve died.
Resveratrol works by spurring activity and re-growth in cells’ mitochondria. And if tests show the same result for humans, you sure won’t want to get your resveratrol from wine: you’d have to drink over 100 bottles of wine a day to get the amount given to the rejuvenated mice. Special large-dose resveratrol tablets would be required to equal those dosages. The study is published in the November 2006 issue of the journal Nature.
MAGNESIUM CONTROLS BLOOD SUGAR
A new study has thrown more support behind magnesium as a way to help control blood sugar.
Past research has shown that nutrition interventions, including calcium, whole grains and low-fat dairy, help control blood sugar. And magnesium has been found in one previous study to lower the risk of diabetes and in another, to help with metabolic syndrome.
To test magnesium’s effect on diabetes risk, researchers examined food records of more than 41,000 participants in the Black Women’s Health Study without a history of diabetes and followed up for 8 years.
They found that those with the highest intake of magnesium—more than 244 mg per day—had a 35 per cent decreased risk of developing diabetes compared to those with the lowest intake—less than 115 mg per day. The study was published in October 2006 issue of the journal, Diabetes Care.
CHINESE PLANT STUDIED FOR ALZHEIMER’S
Clinical trials have begun in the US—on a plant used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)—to see if it could provide help in treating Alzheimer’s patients. Chinese club moss is already sold in health food stores as a nutritional supplement but it will now be the focus of a University of North Carolina study.
The study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is federally funded and is part of a wider program of research into natural and alternative medicine. Patients participating in the trial are given a placebo or a dose of huperzine A, an alkaloid derived from the plant. The dosage is much higher than that provided by supplements in health food stores. The clinical investigators will test the cognitive responses of the patients in a special test. Results from the investigation have yet to be announced.
In answer to Vitality’s question, Georg Dönges, manager of public relations for MediGene AG, said, “Veregen has no approval in Canada and currently there are no plans to file an application.”
(It has been one hundred years since Alzheimer’s was first identified by German neurologist Alois Alzheimer, who described the case of his patient Auguste D, a woman who developed dementia in her 50s and died in 1906.)
In past studies, lifestyle changes have shown hope in maintaining mental health in the elderly: following the Mediterranean diet, consuming spices like turmeric and drinking green tea. In China, Chinese club moss is used to treat cognitive disorders.
MILK ALLERGY IN BABIES ‘MISSED’
Cow’s milk allergy in babies is being missed by doctors, a survey suggests.
Nearly 80 per cent of the 500 British doctors polled by a formula milk manufacturer thought their colleagues confused milk allergy symptoms with other conditions. Experts say the problem lies in the symptoms being both vague and common—including skin rashes and diarrhea.
The poll also found many of the doctors did not know the best treatment. Without treatment food allergies can be distressing and even deadly. Left untreated, infants with food allergies can fail to thrive and grow, have developmental problems and can develop severe shock and even die. Babies who are allergic to cow’s milk can be given special low-allergy or hypoallergenic milk, such as an amino-acid based formula.
Many of the doctors questioned, however, said they would advise a soy-based formula—something that experts say is highly inadvisable: soy contains high levels of compounds called phytoestrogens that mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen and which could pose a risk to the long-term fertility of infants. There is also a risk that babies who are allergic to cow’s milk will also be allergic to soy milk, and sheep and goat’s milk. (Ed note: In my experience, goat milk is far less likely to produce an allergic reaction than cow or soymilk.)
The researchers say cow milk protein allergy is a very common problem. Ironically, they point out that many babies whose parents suspect have an allergy turn out not to have one.
The poll was carried out by Act Against Allergy, an initiative set up to increase awareness of milk allergy, by SHS International Ltd, which produces its own versions of formula milk. The UN’s World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed for the first two years of their lives if possible.
GRAPE SEED MAY STOP CANCER
Chemicals found in grape seeds inhibit growth of colorectal tumours in both cell cultures and in mice, according to a study in the October 18, 2006 issue of Clinical Cancer Research. Scientists found a 44 per cent reduction of advanced colorectal tumours.
They also uncovered, for the first time, the mechanism by which grape seed extract works to suppress cancer growth. The authors found that the extract increases availability of a critical protein—called Cip1/p21—that effectively freezes the cell cycle inside tumours; it can even push a cancer cell to self destruct.
“With these results, we are not suggesting that people run out and buy and use grape seed extract. That could be dangerous since so little is known about doses and side effects,” said Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, speaking to Vitality from his office in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. “The value of this preclinical study is that it shows grape seed extract can attack cancer, and how it works, but much more investigation will be needed before these chemicals can be tested as a human cancer treatment and preventive.”
The skin and seeds of grapes are a rich source of proanthocyanidins, a class of antioxidant flavonoids that remove harmful free oxygen radicals from cells. Grape juice and red wine are known for their heart healthy effects, especially in lowering levels of blood cholesterol; and because grape seeds contain higher concentrations of these chemicals, they are widely marketed as a dietary supplement.
• Chemicals Cause Brain Damage: A report in the medical journal Lancet identifies over 200 industrial chemicals—including metals, solvents and pesticides—which have potential to damage the brain. Studies have shown low-level exposure to some of these compounds can lead to neurobehavioral defects in children, according to the US and Danish team behind the report.
• Soft drink-cancer link: People who drink large quantities of carbonated drinks or who add sugar to coffee or tea run a higher risk of developing cancer of the pancreas, according to new Swedish research. The link was small but statistically significant. The study appeared in the November 2006 issue of published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
• Anti-obesity agent? The omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid or DHA suppresses the development of fat cells in vitro, and could lead to reductions in body fat, US researchers have reported. The study was published in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Nutrition.
• Pregnant women—still not enough folic acid: A recent study in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Nutrition found that 36 per cent of pregnant women and 32 per cent of lactating women do not get their recommended intake of folic acid—despite government public education efforts. Folate reduces neural tube defects. The recommended intake is 600 micrograms per day for pregnant women and 500 micrograms per day for lactating women. An unrelated study on mice found that folic acid may help reduce the risk of colon tumours.
• Want to live past 85? A study in the November 15, 2006 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association has surveyed 5,820 men to determine the factors that most affect healthy longevity. The nine factors that most interfere with living to a healthy 85 or more include: Body Mass Index of 25; high blood glucose levels; high triglycerides; high blood pressure; being unable to squeeze 86 pounds of pressure with a handheld device; smoking; three or more alcoholic drinks daily; not graduating high school; and being unmarried.
• Alzheimer’s: Researchers observed positive effects in a small group of patients with very mild Alzheimer’s Disease who were given omega-3 fatty acids for 12 months. The study appeared in the October 2006 issue of the Archives of Neurology.
• Red meat risk: Eating just one-and-a-half servings of red meat a day may double the risk of breast cancer risk in young women, compared to just three servings a week, according to new research reported in the November 2006 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. Previous studies looking at red meat and breast cancer have been inconclusive. Over 90,000 women were involved in the new study.
• Omega-3 ice cream: On November 21, NutriOne Corp. announced field trials in both Vancouver and Montreal for its new “Ice Cream with Omega-3”. When contacted by Vitality, Ian Morrice, president of the American firm, described the coming product as “high in omegas and low in cholesterol and free of trans-fats, with half the fat of existing premium ice cream… guilt free.” He added, “You can consume it to your heart’s content.” When it hits the market in 2007, keep in mind that “half the fat of existing premium ice cream” is not the same as half the fat of regular; that it’s still made from dairy, which some people avoid; and that if you overdo it, your heart’s health may not be all that “content.”
• Vitamin E may protect smokers: A large study suggests vitamin E may lower the risk of death from cancer and heart disease in middle-aged men who smoke, contradicting the findings of some previous studies on the subject. The research, conducted on 29,092 Finnish males, was detailed in the November 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
• Happy people are healthy people: People who are happy, lively and calm or exhibit other positive emotions are less likely to catch colds and report fewer symptoms of the illness when they are under the weather. The new finding held true regardless of personality traits such as optimism, extraversion and self-esteem. A person’s age, race, gender, education and body mass also did not make a difference. The study appears in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine’s November 2006 issue. Meanwhile, another study in the November 2006 issue of the American Journal of Medicine found that a long-term moderate exercise program can reduce the risk of colds for older women.
• Vegetables better than fruit: According to research reported in the October 24, 2006 issue of the journal Neurology, elderly people who reported eating at least 2.8 servings of vegetables a day saw their rate of memory loss and other mental decline slow by 40 per cent over six years, compared to people who ate less than one serving a day. But the same benefit was not seen with higher consumption of fruit.
Not all fast foods are the same
Quick quiz: Which has more calories: a McDonald’s large chocolate milkshake—or four hamburgers? Yup. It’s the milkshake. And get this: Two jelly donuts at Dunkin’ Donuts furnish have fewer calories than the chain’s bagel with cream cheese, strawberry banana smoothie or banana walnut muffin. The point? Don’t assume you know what’s higher in either saturated fat or calories. Ask or check it out. Of course, menu labeling would help.
Is tea’s health hype valid?
Tea lovers may be surprised to learn their beverage of choice lowers blood pressure. Drinking just a half-cup of green or oolong tea per day reduces a person’s risk of high blood pressure by almost 50 per cent, suggests one study. People who drink at least two and a half cups per day reduce their risk even more. Risk is reduced even if tea drinkers have known risk factors for high blood pressure, such as high sodium intake.
Latex gloves have become much more common over the past 15 years and with them, there has been an increase in allergic reactions to latex. What’s that got to do with your health? For some reason, individuals who are allergic to latex—and who constitute about one in five people—also show allergic reactions to the same foods, including banana, avocado, shellfish, fish, kiwi and several other fruits and vegetables. Before you blame food handlers, be aware that the gloves they wear are not latex but various types of plastic. You can tell latex gloves by their light beige colour; plastic gloves are white to clear.