Healthy News Briefs – February 2008

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Hundreds of medicinal and herbal supplement plants are at risk of extinction, threatening the discovery of future cures for disease, according to a report released in January 2008 by Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Over 50 per cent of all prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants. Many herbal supplements are collected from the wild as well. However, the report said both are at risk from over-collection and deforestation.

The study found that the cures for diseases as cancer and HIV may become “extinct before they are ever found”.

The key cause of extinction is over-harvesting from the wild, although other causes are accidental introduction of competing alien species, habitat degradation and disease.

Many people believe that all drugs can be synthesized from natural versions. Some are duplicated exactly; but some substances have proven too complicated in structure for a lab to replicate and are made from actual plants collected in the wild. These drugs could disappear along with many natural herbal supplements, due to simple over-harvesting.

The most widely used cancer drug Paclitaxel (taxol), for instance, is so complex that it has defied attempts to synthesize it and it is actually extracted from the bark of yew trees. Shockingly, it takes six trees to make a single dose. Yew trees have been decimated in clear-cut felling of trees worldwide and now face potential extinction.

The report pointed to 400 medicinal plants currently at risk.

One of these is Hou Po – the magnolia plant that contains the anti-cancer chemical, honkiol. It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for 5,000 years and may be effective against cardiovascular disease and dementia. Its very success, however, has decimated the plant and made it a threatened commodity, says the report.

It’s the same story with the fungus cordyceps, used in TCM to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Its over-collection now threatens its extinction. And the poison found in the autumn crocus is believed to have cured leukemia and is widely used to make sterile hybrid plants fertile again. But sales of its prized flower have led to horticultural over-harvest and the crocus is now under grave threat of disappearing.

Hoodia is under investigation as a tool in the fight against obesity but meanwhile, speculation and sales have resulted in over-harvesting, decimating hoodia populations worldwide.

Dependence on plant-based remedies is far greater among the rural poor in less developed countries, both as medicine and livelihood – and the impact of extinction would be severe in these regions, suggests the report.
The group, which represents botanic gardens across 120 countries, surveyed over 600 of its members as well as leading university experts. It hopes to mobilize botanic gardens internationally to help save plant diversity. The entire report is available online to Vitality readers at:


News Briefs has detected that scientific attitudes towards drinking water fluoridation now may be shifting away from long-standing support for the controversial practice.

(Fluoride has long been added to Toronto drinking water because of its reputation for preventing tooth decay but some biochemists suggest that it is not effective, unnecessary in the modern era of fluoride toothpastes, and may cause negative health and dental effects over time. The concentration of Toronto’s fluoride was reduced moderately about eight years ago, more as a precaution, after a change in attitude by prominent University of Toronto biochemist and head of preventive dentistry, Hardy Limeback, lobbying by local activist Janet Budgell, and articles written by the writer of News Briefs published in Vitality, other magazines and the Toronto Star.)

First, a three-year review by a (US) National Research Council committee looked at hundreds of studies and concluded that fluoride can subtly alter endocrine function, especially in the thyroid – the gland that produces hormones regulating growth and metabolism.

Second, various studies are accumulating, suggesting that ingesting fluoride, even in the minute quantities used in water, may raise the risk of health problems including dental fluorosis (opaque white or brown spots and pitted areas on teeth). A 16-year study in Iowa tracked 700 children in fluoridated communities and found that they were slightly more likely to have fluorosis – an excess buildup of fluoride in the body – than children in Iowa’s non-fluoridate regions.

Finally, and most significant, the editors for Scientific American surprised many by reporting in January, 2008, that “Some recent studies suggest that over-consumption of fluoride can raise the risks of disorders affecting teeth, bones, the brain and the thyroid gland.”

Fluoride is the most consumed drug in North America. Its effectiveness against dental decay, when used in drinking water, has never been proven. There is no accepted optimum dosage.

If you feel your children suffer from dental fluorosis, feel free to contact News Briefs for referral to a local dental fluorosis expert:


Supplementation with calcium may make older women susceptible to heart attacks, according to a study published in the January 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal. This finding contradicts prior studies suggesting calcium supplements (commonly prescribed to postmenopausal women for bone health) may prevent vascular disease by lowering levels of bad cholesterol in the blood.

It is suspected that calcium not directed to bone health may harden or “calcify” the walls of the arteries, raising the risk of vascular disease. The study author admitted the findings are not conclusive but said in an interview with News Briefs that, should other studies confirm these findings, the vascular risk may outweigh any beneficial effects of calcium on bone. For the time being, he suggested, supplementation should be weighed against an individual’s relative risk factors for bone loss versus vascular disease.

Although this study did not look at this aspect, putting calcium directly into bones without loading up the arteries, where it may do damage, may be possible with an increased intake of two vitamins associated with calcium metabolism by the bones: vitamin D – often added to calcium supplements – and vitamin K. In fact, a 2004 study in the Journal of Nutrition found higher levels of vitamin K2 lowered cardiovascular heart disease risk by 50 per cent.

(Ed note: This report underlines the fact that consumers should consult a nutritionist or orthomolecular physician before undertaking aggressive supplementation, due to the important cofactors needed for maximum benefit. Look for a feature on the correct protocols for calcium supplementation by expert Dr. Zoltan Rona in March Vitality.)


A lack of vitamin E – most often a sign of poor nutrition – has been linked to physical decline in older people, according to a study published in the January 23, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

(Vitamin E supplementation has been the topic of controversy over past years due to studies showing cardiovascular benefit and other larger studies suggesting heart health risk from supplementation.)

Researchers studied nutrition and physical function in 698 people aged 65 and older in Tuscany, Italy, conducting baseline examinations followed by three-year follow-up assessments, from 1998 to 2003. The scientists, led by Benedetta Bartali of the Yale University School of Medicine, measured levels of micronutrients in the blood, including vitamins B6, B12, D and E. Of these nutrients, the study team found that, with other factors taken into account, only low levels of vitamin E were significantly associated with physical decline. (For technically-minded readers, these low levels were below 1.1 micrograms per millilitre of blood, or less than 24.9 micromoles of blood.)

“Although the findings from this epidemiological study cannot establish causality [cause-and-effect], they provide a solid base that low concentration of vitamin E contributes to decline in physical function,” the study authors wrote. “Clinical trials may be warranted to determine whether optimal concentration of vitamin E reduces functional decline and the onset of disability in older persons.” A brief abstract of the study can be read online at:


It has long been controversial whether swallowing the billion bacteria found in yogurt or in a probiotic supplement can have any effect on the body – given that the digestive tract already contains hundreds of trillions of bacteria, or several hundred thousand times as many. But now, some scientists say they have evidence foods or capsules containing “friendly bacteria” do have a tangible effect on the body.

The January 2008 issue of the journal Molecular Systems Biology reports that mice fed probiotic drinks had different levels of key chemicals in their blood and urine. This suggests that key chemicals related to important metabolic processes were being affected.

The Imperial College London research – partly funded by food giant Nestle – also suggested ingestion of these friendly bacteria could change fat digestion. They found chemical clues in the mice that suggest the probiotics might, in some way, be helping break down bile acids more effectively. In theory, this might mean more fat passing undigested through the body and less fat being absorbed – although this study did not, in fact, prove this.

If, in fact, a few billion bacteria can alter the digestive landscape among hundreds of trillions of other bacteria, how could they do that? It is conceivable that some friendly bacteria have a stronger appetite for food and limit growth of “bad” bacteria, rather than simply crowding them out. Further study is needed. The study can be read online at:


Fish oil does protect against Alzheimer’s:
Often controversial in the past, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists have confirmed that fish oil is indeed a deterrent against Alzheimer’s and they have identified the reasons why. Greg Cole, professor of medicine and neurology and his colleagues report that the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in fish oil, increases the production of “LR11,” a protein found at reduced levels in Alzheimer’s patients and known to destroy the protein that forms the “plaques” associated with the disease.

Coffee warning: Pregnant women should consider avoiding caffeine, say researchers who found even moderate consumption in early pregnancy raises miscarriage risk. Some guidelines set an upper limit during pregnancy of 300mg—equal to four cups of coffee—a day. But in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a study found more than 200mg of caffeine a day doubled the risk compared to abstainers.

Ginger inhibits growth in ovarian cancer cells, according to a recent study published in the December 20, 2007 issue of the journal, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It may halt the growth of factors that cause a dormant case to become malignant. A study summary can be read at:

Canada recognizes aloe remedy:
Canadian Health authorities have recognized their aloe gel as a remedy for treating sunburn, minor burns and cuts and to assist in wound healing. A Natural Products Number (NPN) and permission to make label claims was granted after an application from the Danish company, Aloe Vera Group.

Fewer falls with vitamin D2?
A study published in the January 14, 2008 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that vitamin D2 and calcium supplementation—compared to calcium supplementation alone—appeared to lower the risk of sustaining a fall in those shown to be susceptible to falls. However, the association was low, at 19 per cent lowered risk, and may not speak to cause-and-effect. Further studies are needed to draw conclusions. A summary can be read online at:

Alcohol cuts heart risk:
A little alcohol combined with a healthy and active lifestyle may be the recipe for a longer life, concludes a 12,000-person study in the January, 2008 issue of the European Heart Journal. The combination can cut the risk of heart disease, found the Danish team. Being active was found to lower heart disease risk. So did moderate alcohol intake, defined as 1 to 14 drinks a week. But the risk was cut the most, by 50 per cent, if subjects were both active and moderate drinkers. A drink was defined as a half-pint of normal strength beer or a single shot of liquor; a medium-sized glass of wine is two units. (Coincidentally, a 13-year, 20,000-person study reported in the January, 2008 issue of the Public Library of Science Medicine found that—no matter how fat or poor you are—four changes can add 14 years to your life: exercise, moderate alcohol intake, consuming lots of fruits and vegetables and not smoking.)

Pink salmon face extinction:
A study in the December 14, 2007, issue of the journal Science offers compelling evidence that parasitic sea lice infestations promoted by salmon farms are driving nearby populations of wild pink salmon towards extinction. The decline has been so rapid that scientists expect a 99 per cent collapse of these populations within four years if no action is taken to move salmon farms from the path of the wild populations.

Herb may increase lifespan:
The herbal extract of a yellow-flowered mountain plant indigenous to the Arctic regions of Europe and Asia increased the lifespan of fruit fly populations, according to a University of California at Irvine study in the January 2008 issue of Rejuvenation Research. Flies fed a diet very rich in Rhodiola rosea, an herbal supplement long used for its purported stress-relief effects, lived on an average of 10 per cent longer. “This study does not present clinical evidence that Rhodiola can extend human life,” said study leader Mahtab Jafari, PhD. “But the finding… makes this herb a promising candidate for further anti-aging research and we are now investigating why this herb works to increase lifespan.” Sun Ten Inc. provided the herbs.

Nalgene water bottles a health risk:
Worries about the hormone-mimicking chemical bisphenol A (BPA) used in Nalgene plastic water containers have led Canadian retailer Mountain Equipment to remove Nalgene, along with other polycarbonate plastic containers, from store shelves. BPA can disrupt the hormonal system but scientists disagree on whether the low doses found in food and beverage containers can cause harm. The FDA and the plastics industry have argued BPA-based products do not pose a health risk. But an expert panel of researchers recently reported that the potential for BPA to affect human health is a concern and more research is needed. Many North Americans have higher levels of BPA than those found to cause harm in lab animals.

Tattoo safety questioned:
The US FDA has posted some general cautions about tattoo ink safety on its website, following numerous reports of bad reactions to tattoo inks even years after their application. Some people have encountered itchiness or inflamation around their tattoos whenever they’re out in the summer sun. Because these reactions may indicate a wider internal effect, the FDA has begun to study tattoo ink safety. The tatto information page is available at:


Test your health smarts

This should be an easy question. What gives your body the most energy: vitamins, protein, fats, sugars, grains or other carbohydrates? If you think you know, send your answer to us at and we’ll let you know if you’re right. Or simply check the next issue of News Briefs.

Think fast-food is bad? Get this.

A survey by Men’s Health magazine of the fare at major sit-down restaurant chains has revealed something these chains probably don’t want you to know: the health-destroying menu items at most fast-food outlets is actually better for you than the average entrée at most sit-down restaurant chains. The average entrée at a sit-down restaurant contains 867 calories, compared with 522 calories in the average fast-food entrée. And that’s before appetizers, sides or desserts—selections that can easily double your total calorie intake.

The absolute “Worst Food in America,” according to the report? An order of Outback Steakhouse’s “Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch Dressing.” It comes in at a whopping 2,900 calories—more than most people consume in an entire day—and 182 gm of fat. Feel better about your own diet now?

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