News Briefs – December 2008

COPPER KILLS SUPER-BUGS

A UK study has found that copper fittings – copper door handles, toilet seats, door push plates, taps and light switches – rapidly kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, succeeding where other infection control measures failed.

Regular cleaning with strong disinfectants has limited effect on deadly bacteria such as the super-bugs MSRA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and C. difficile, which resist the strongest antibiotics. However, in a 10-week trial at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, fixtures and fittings were replaced by copper versions and test swabs were taken twice daily. The copper fixtures harboured 95 per cent fewer common bugs and super-bugs than traditional steel surfaces. Copper surfaces were almost germ-free, even after busy days on a medical ward where these items are touched frequently by numerous people

How do copper surfaces kill germs? Copper ions separate on contact with bacteria. It is believed the metal ions “suffocate” germs, preventing them from breathing. Also, copper ions can stop bacteria from feeding and may destroy their DNA. Lab tests confirm that copper kills the deadly MRSA and C. difficile superbugs and other dangerous germs, including the flu virus and the E. coli food-poisoning bug. (Copper is a common constituent in medicines including antiseptic and antifungal creams.)

Although it is usually thought to be an expensive metal, the price of copper actually is similar to the cost of stainless steel, according to the researchers. Hospitals, nursing homes and even homes could benefit from the copper’s ability to wipe out dangerous bugs.

If copper surfaces kill bacteria so effectively, would it be wise to add copper to your diet in the form of copper supplements? No, that would be a mistake. Although copper is an essential nutrient, only a trace amount is needed by the body. Higher amounts can be risky and most people get far too much copper already.

The copper-fixture study was announced at a US conference on antibiotics in November. Although the number of cases of MRSA and C difficile is falling, the two bugs still claim thousands of lives a year.

GREEN TEA COMPOUND: SLOWS DIABETES?

A compound found in green tea could slow, or even prevent, the development of type 1 diabetes, suggests new US research on mice described in Life Sciences on October 24, 2008. (Green tea contains several antioxidants that have been shown in rodent studies to curb inflammation, prevent cell death and possibly even ward off cancer.)

In the current study, a team at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta tested the effects of green tea’s predominate antioxidant – known as EGCG – in laboratory mice with type 1 diabetes.

EGCG dramatically slowed the development of type 1 diabetes in the rodents. At 16 weeks, 25 per cent of the mice given the green tea compound had developed diabetes, compared to 67 per cent of the mice given plain water. At 22 weeks, 45 per cent of the EGCG group had diabetes, compared to 78 per cent of the control group.

The same study found that EGCG slowed the rapid cell division that occurs in the skin of psoriasis patients and in the salivary glands in patients with Sjogren’s syndrome.

The significance of the current study lies in its support of earlier research showing EGCG’s impact on helping prevent autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, researchers conclude.

B VITAMINS: CONTROVERSIAL CANCER LINK

A study in the November 5, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found no anti-cancer benefit among women after seven and a half years of supplementation with specific B vitamins, a finding that was reported widely in the mainstream media. However, a closer look at the observations suggests another viewpoint – that the B vitamins may offer some cancer protection, not for women generally, but for women over age 65 specifically.

The study conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School followed over 5,400 women who had high blood pressure or high cholesterol and were at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The subjects’ average age was 63.

Researchers examined the effects of taking a daily supplement containing folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12. There was no significant difference in cancers developed during the seven and a half years of supplementation and the researchers concluded that B vitamins do not appear to offer protection against overall, invasive or breast cancers.

News Briefs checked the observational data. If the experiences of women over 65 were isolated from the younger subjects, there was a reduction of 25% in the risk of developing any type of cancer and a 38% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer – but only for this older group.

Is it biologically possible that vitamins could provide anti-cancer benefit for elderly women but not for others? Yes, because vitamin B absorption – most especially B12 – is reduced in the elderly and their requirements for these B vitamins is increased. The study dosages tested were: 2.5 mg of folic acid; 50 mg of B6; and 1 mg of B12, taken in combination.

(Incidence rates of cancer are high in elderly persons. Other studies have found that people who have diets high in folic acid lower their risk of developing cancer. The current study is significant because it suggests no anti-cancer benefit from B supplementation for women, although it may suggest the need for further study on the potential protection afforded elderly women. Men were not included in the study and no conclusions can be drawn about the anti-cancer benefits of B supplements for men.)

  • New anti-cancer tomato? Given as a supplement, a newly developed tomato has been shown to fight cancer and to extend substantially the lifespan of cancer-prone mice. The study was reported in the October 2008 issue of Nature Biotechnology. The new tomato strain contains very large and unprecedented amounts of anthocyanin – an antioxidant found in blackberries and cranberries – which is why it is dark purple in colour, instead of red. (Anthocyanin has been shown to slow colon cancer, as well as protect against cardiovascular and age-related diseases, boost eyesight and help prevent obesity and diabetes.) Scientists are hopeful that – but admit there is still no proof that – purple tomatoes will reduce cancer risk in humans. Human trials are planned. Two genes from the snap dragon flower were spliced into a normal tomato plant, to create the new strain.
  • Eating speed key to obesity: Fast-eating men are 84 per cent more likely to be overweight and fast-eating women are over twice as likely to be overweight, concludes a study in the October 22, 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal. The same effect was seen in men who regularly eat until feeling completely full.
  • Heart-vitamin E link questioned: New studies aren’t always easy to swallow. Some studies have shown some cardiovascular benefit from vitamin C and E supplements; others have not. But no team has ever conducted what is known as a large, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, scientific cohort study – until now. The first such study was reported in the November 12, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The large study included 15,000 men, aged 50 and over, and found that vitamins C and E do not prevent heart disease. (In fact, there was an increase in hemorrhagic stroke among those taking vitamin E.) Participants were administered 500 mg of vitamin C every day and 400 IU of vitamin E every second day for 10 years. One industry spokesperson suggested the 500 mg vitamin C dosage should have been 700 mg or greater because some studies have shown a benefit at that dosage; and another said he hopes the result spurs further research.
  • Light drinking in pregnancy “no risk”: Standard advice has been to avoid all alcohol during pregnancy because heavy drinking can cause babies to be born with “fetal alcohol syndrome,” involving serious physical and behavioural problems. But a study, published in October 30, 2008 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology found children born to light drinkers were less likely to have conduct, cognitive or emotional problems, or to be hyperactive, than those whose mothers had abstained. Light drinking was defined as no more than two drinks per week. The study does not necessarily show a cause-and-effect relationship because light drinking mothers may have other characteristics in common that affect their children’s development. The researchers suggested that, although further study is required, pregnancy abstinence policies could be relaxed a little. The study details are available online at:https://ije.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/dyn230v1

NEWSNOTES

  • Peanuts: New research casts doubt on government health recommendations that infants and new mothers avoid eating peanuts to prevent development of food allergy. The study was published in the November, 2008 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. It shows that children who avoided peanut in infancy and early childhood – under age two – were 10 times as likely to develop peanut allergy as those who were exposed to peanut during infancy.
  • Melamine fears spread: The serious health risks of melamine – the plastic found earlier this year in Chinese pet food products – now may have spread to virtually any foods worldwide that involve animal or fish feed. Melamine was found first in dog food (resulting in the deaths of thousands of dogs in the United States); and later found in baby formula in China (causing 54,000 infant hospitalizations and four deaths); in chocolate, yogurt and eggs; and in food fed to Canadian farmed fish. But now, Chinese authorities are admitting that the use of the industrial chemical melamine as a filler in animal feed – which is exported abroad – is a widespread practice.
  • Waist fat predicts early death: Carrying extra fat around your middle is a “powerful indicator” of an increased risk of early death, even if your overall weight is normal, and even if your body’s BMI (Body Measurement Index) is in the healthy range. This is the conclusion of a very large, 10-year, European study reported in the November 13, 2008 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. This link has been reported before but the massive study – 360,000 subjects measured – gives scientists a more accurate reading. Each extra 5 cm. (2in.) raised the chance of early death by between 13%  and 17%. For people with the largest love handles, the risk of early death was as much as double. Abdominal fat is much riskier than fat reserves on other parts of the body.
  • Probiotics: Probiotics could be used to protect critically ill patients from developing pneumonia, according to a Swedish study reported in the November 6, 2008 edition of the online journal Critical Care. Mechanical ventilation greatly increases the risk of pneumonia, requiring use of antiseptics to kill pneumonia-causing bacteria. Some patients are allergic to the antiseptics. But the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus plantarum 299, applied to the mouth lining, worked as well as antiseptics in reducing the pneumonia-causing bacteria in the mouths and throats of ventilated patients. This probiotic is normally present in saliva and in fermented products such as pickles, sauerkraut, Korean kimchi and sourdough. More study is needed.
  • Osteoporosis drugs linked to heart risk: A review of previous studies found that atrial fibrillation – an erratic heartbeat that can lead to heart attacks and stroke – may be linked to bisphosphonates in medications such as Fosamax and Boniva commonly prescribed to rebuild thinning bones. Although the prevalence of the condition was not significantly greater among those taking these drugs compared to those taking placebo, there was a 68% greater risk of hospitalization or death from the condition among the drug-taking group. The study review was issued by a team at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on November 1, 2008.
  • Veggies make cancer drugs more effective: A study published online October 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found chemotherapy drugs work better in the presence of apigenin, a substance found in fruits and vegetables.
  • Does yogurt prevent bladder cancer? Yogurt may reduce bladder cancer risks by up to 40 per cent according to a new study published in the October, 2008 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Those who consumed two yogurt pots or yogurt mini drinks a day were less likely to develop bladder cancer than those that ate no or little yogurt.
  • Virus hotspots in the home: Stop worrying about catching colds or the flu from breathing the air exhaled by the sick – these viruses don’t fly through the air anyway. The risk is in touching objects in the home. TV remote controls, bathroom taps and refrigerator doors are hotspots for the common cold virus, according to research from the University of Virginia, announced at a US infectious diseases conference on October 30. Hardy rhinoviruses – the cause of the common cold – survive up to two days after being touched by a carrier, the swab tests showed.
  • COOL in US but not in Canada: US retailers have six months to start labelling all unprocessed foods with their “country of origin,” according to new COOL regulations (country of origin legislation). For the first time, American consumers wishing to avoid foods from say, China, will be able to see at a glance from which country the product originated. Even bulk bins will require signage and the cost to retailers is expected to be significant. Canada does not yet require COOL labeling.

HEALTH NOTES

  • Germ-killing cleaner: Cold and flu season has arrived again. And assuming you don’t plan to replace light switches, taps, door knobs and other often-touched fixtures with copper versions – now shown to eliminate naturally, virtually all germs present, including the strongest bacteria known – any time soon, here’s an effective, all-purpose, bacteria-killing cleaner you can use on household surfaces. And it’s cheap. Fill one spray bottle with vinegar and another bottle with 3 per cent hydrogen peroxide; don’t mix them into one bottle. First spray (either) one; then spray the other. (If it’s too wet, you can wipe off the excess.) Most germs will die instantly and the risk of catching the flu, colds and other diseases will be reduced greatly.
  • Vitamin D season is here: Winter’s here and Canadians won’t be seeing much sun for many months. And their vitamin D levels will drop as a result. The benefits of higher levels of vitamin D are well documented and the Canadian Cancer Society – which doesn’t recommend any other dietary supplements – advises that Canadians take 1000 IU of vitamin D a day during the winter months. (Ed note: I take at least 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day.)
  • Brown eggs: Are they more nutritious than white? Contrary to myth, eggshell colour has nothing to do with the quality, flavour, nutrition, cooking or shell thickness of an egg. Eggshell colour depends upon the breed of the hen. “White-shelled eggs are produced by hens with white feathers and white ear lobes,” according to the Egg Nutrition Council. “Brown-shelled eggs are produced by hens with red feathers and red ear lobes. There’s no difference in taste or nutrition content.”

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

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