News Briefs – June 2007

PRENATAL LINK TO IMMUNE DYSFUNCTION

Two researchers have conducted the first comprehensive review of the various later-life diseases that develop specifically in people who were exposed to environmental toxins or drugs either in the womb or as infants. Their finding? Most of the diseases among these people have two things in common: They involve an imbalanced immune system and exaggerated inflammatory reactions at the cellular level.

The diseases linked to prenatal toxicity include asthma, allergy, suppressed responses to vaccines, higher susceptibility to infections, childhood neurobehavioural conditions, autoimmunity, cancer, cerebral palsy, atherosclerosis, hypertension and male sterility.

Toxins that are known to cause developmental immune problems in fetuses and newborns, according to the researchers, include herbicides, pesticides, alcohol, heavy metals, maternal smoking, antibiotics, diesel exhaust, drugs of abuse, and PCBs.

Antidotes to development immunotoxicity, the researchers note, could come from a variety of sources, including herbal and fungal chemicals – from mushrooms to clover – which appear to have promise. Focusing on studies of herbal and fungal chemicals, the researchers scoured the scientific literature and found that some chemicals appear to be particularly promising when taken at appropriate doses. These include: Astragalus; Echinacea (purple coneflower); sang-hwang shiitake, reishi, maitake and snake butter mushrooms, black seed, Asian ginseng, milk vetch root, wild yam, Sophoro root and Greek clover. (All of these also are known by different names.)

The study was published in the journal Current Medicinal Chemistry.

YOGA MAY PREVENT DEPRESSION, ANXIETY

Researchers have found that practising yoga may elevate brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels – important inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain that help prevent depression and anxiety. The findings, which appear in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, suggest that the practice of yoga could be explored as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, disorders associated with low GABA levels. In fact, current pharmaceutical agents used for these emotional disorders are designed to boost GABA levels. The levels were found to be higher immediately after a yoga session.

“The development of an inexpensive, widely available intervention such as yoga that has no side effects but is effective in alleviating the symptoms of disorders associated with low GABA levels has clear public health advantage,” said senior study author Perry Renshaw, MD, PhD, in an interview with Vitality.

The research was supported in part by drug abuse and alcohol abuse organizations and was conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine and McLean Hospital.

In an unrelated study, Iyengar method of yoga seemed to have some boosting effect on the immune system as well as promoting a feeling of well-being. It was also suggested by the study that breast cancer survivors might benefit from this immune support. This Iyengar yoga research was reported at the American Physiological Society meeting in Washington, DC, on May 1.

MEDITERRANEAN DIET PROTECTS LUNGS

According to a new study from Harvard, a vegetable-and-fish-rich Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by 50 per cent.

The very large (epidemiological) study examined the relative risk of COPD among men consuming a Mediterr-anean-style diet, or a Western-style diet which is heavy in refined grains, cured and red meats, fries and desserts.

Writing in the May 2007 issue of the journal Thorax, lead author Raphaelle Varraso states that dietary patterns similar to the Mediterranean diet were associated with a significant decrease in COPD risk, while dietary patterns similar to the Western style were associated with a significant increase in newly diagnosed COPD.

The Mediterranean diet is high in cereals, wine, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains and especially high in vegetables, fish and olive oil. It has been linked to longer life, reduced heart disease risk and protection against some cancers.

The diet’s main nutritional components include beta-carotene, vitamin C, tocopherols, polyphenols and essential minerals. These antioxidants and polyphenols are believed to be responsible for the lung protection.

For detailed information about the study, visit: https://thorax.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/62/5/411.

PRE-BIRTH APPLES BENEFIT BABIES

Children of mothers who eat plenty of apples during pregnancy are less likely to develop asthma, new research suggests.

The University of Aberdeen project surveyed 2,000 mothers-to-be on their eating habits and looked at their children’s health over five years. Scientists found that those who ate four or more apples a week were half as likely to have an asthmatic child compared with those who ate one or fewer.

The researchers also found a link between eating more fish in pregnancy – and a lower chance of their child developing the allergic skin condition eczema. Women who ate one or more portions of any type of fish weekly during pregnancy had almost half the chance of having a child diagnosed with eczema within the first five years. The reasons for the apple and fish benefit are not clear. However, fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and apples are very rich in antioxidants.

The study was presented May 20 at the American Thoracic Society conference in San Francisco.

SUPPLEMENTS MAY SAVE BILLIONS OF HEALTH DOLLARS

The Dietary Supplement Education Alliance (DSEA) released updated research on May 4 on the potential impact a few select dietary supplements could have on health care costs if supplied to specific at-risk groups. The industry-related group claims their review suggests healthcare cost savings in the United States of over US$24 billion annually.

According to the group’s scientific literature review and economic analysis, the savings could be realized from the use of  calcium-vitamin D, folic acid, omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs), and lutein with zeaxanthin by select population groups in each case.

The biggest savings – US$16.1 billion – were seen in the estimate of how appropriate use of calcium with vitamin D by older adults for five years could avoid approximately 776,000 hospitalizations and nursing stays linked to hip fractures.

The five-year savings estimate for folic acid was US$1.4 billion – if just 11.3 million of the 44 million American women of childbearing age who don’t take the B vitamin started taking 400 micrograms a day, which could prevent 600 cases of neural tube defects. Use of omega-3 EFAs could save US$3.2 billion over five years by reducing hospitalizations linked to coronary heart disease, says the DSEA report. Also, the daily intake of 6 to 10 mg daily of lutein taken with zeaxanthin could save US$3.6 billion over five years by helping people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) avoid the transition to dependence.

The study and its claims should not be seen as necessarily unbiased; the DSEA is a group representing a number of dietary supplement manufacturers.

VEGETARIANISM REDUCES COLON RISK

According to new research presented at Digestive Disease Week 2007 on May 23, a vegetarian diet may have a significant impact on the gastrointestinal (GI) system, affecting the risk of certain GI diseases. Researchers looked at various groups and determined that a lower risk of colorectal cancer (CRC) is associated with lifelong vegetarianism. The study found a higher rate of CRC among males, the elderly,  and those who did not pursue a long-term vegetarian diet.

The study was conducted in India where vegetarianism throughout life is a common lifestyle among the wider population due to religious reasons. (This helps avoid the potential complication in other countries, that vegetarians are a distinct and different type of person who may also be pursuing other CRC-preventing lifestyles at the same time.)

Whether diet can prevent CRC has long been a matter of debate. The researchers were from Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Mumbai, India.

NEWS NOTES

Dietary link to Alzheimer’s? Vitality has learned of a planned study to investigate possible links between diet and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers at the Alzheimer’s Society suspect that fruit juice, red wine and oily fish have an impact on the incidence of mental illness, dementia and AD. They plan to analyze data from new and existing studies to see if a healthy “Mediterranean diet” could reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The analysis will begin soon and the first findings are expected to be available in July.

Is your pet’s food on the recall list? Since March, several announcements have been made about pet foods that have been recalled because they are sickening and killing dogs and cats. Contaminants in vegetable proteins imported from China and included in pet foods are the culprits. If you were wondering whether your pet’s chow has made the do-not-feed list, you can survey the entire list at this website:  https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/petfoodrecall/

Legal action against Enviga: The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on May 21, alleging that Coca-Cola and Nestlé are engaged in false and misleading advertising for their green-tea soft drink, Enviga. The carbonated green tea drink launched in late 2006, is advertised as a “sparkling green tea” with calcium and caffeine, “proven to invigorate your metabolism, helping you burn more calories”. A study published in the February 2007 issue of the journal Obesity found Enviga has a very small effect on increasing energy expenditure. CSPI wants the government to order Coca-Cola and Nestlé to stop promoting the soft drink as a “weight-loss product”.

Herb users not following label: Roughly two-thirds of adults using commonly consumed herbs (with the exception of echinacea) use them for health conditions for which they have not been found to be effective, according to a study published in the May 2007 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Some are even taking herbs for no particular reason. The authors recommended physicians ask patients about herb use during every clinical visit to better inform patients about potential benefits and harm.

– Acupuncture fights pregnancy back pain: Stretching exercises, special pillows, and acupuncture could help relieve back and pelvic pain that often occur during pregnancy, according to an updated review of eight previous pregnancy-intervention studies. The review looked at eight studies that examined the effect of adding pregnancy-specific strengthening exercises, water exercises, acupuncture and other pain-relief interventions to regular prenatal care. The studies involved 1,305 pregnant women from Sweden, Iran, Brazil, Thailand and Australia. The review appeared in the May 2007 issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates new health care research.

– Salt makes ulcers worse: Scientists have identified yet another risk from a high-salt diet. High concentrations of salt in the stomach appear to induce gene activity in the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori, making it more virulent and increasing the likelihood of an infected person developing a peptic ulcer or severe gastric disease. The Maryland study was presented May 22 at the 107th general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, held in Toronto.

– Add fish oil to your exercise routine: A combination of fish oil (omega-3) supplements and exercise led to reductions in fat mass by about 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds), as well as improving heart health markers, says a new Australian study in the May issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Weight loss was not seen with fish oil alone or with exercise alone—only in combination.

– Pycnogenol prolongs hearts of mice: A study to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Cardiovascular Toxicology reveals that pycnogenol, a natural bark extract from the French maritime pine tree, helps prevent the “wearing out” damage that high blood pressure causes to the heart. However, the study was done only on mice and may not translate well into humans.

– Green tea may protect bladder: Green tea components could be used to protect bladder cells from inflammation, according to a preliminary University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study presented at the annual meeting of the American Urological Association in Anaheim, California. Although the study was only done in culture, which is not strong evidence, the green tea components epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) and epicatechin gallate (ECG) protected normal and cancerous bladder cells from an agent (hydrogen peroxide) that usually damages or kills bladder cells. Bladder disease affects about a million Canadian men and women and can include incontinence or interstitial cystitis.

– Vitamin D protects against TB: A study of 131 people found the vitamin boosted the ability of the body to inhibit the growth of tuberculosis bacteria, suggesting vitamin D could be used to target at-risk patients. The study appeared in the May 2007 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

– Sleep apnea a diabetes risk: Sleep apnea is associated with a greatly increased incidence of pregnancy-induced diabetes and high blood pressure, according to a new study presented at the American Thoracic Society 2007 International Conference on May 22. Factoring out the overweight element—a key cause of sleep apnea—apnea itself caused a doubling of the incidence of gestational diabetes and a fourfold increase in the risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension. In obstructive sleep apnea, the upper airway narrows, or collapses, during sleep. The most effective treatment is an apparatus called a CPAP—which stands for continuous positive airway pressure.

– Memory enhancers are forgettable: You shouldn’t count on dietary supplements to help protect or improve your memory, despite the appealing claims on dozens of products, according to a nutritional science group. There’s no solid science indicating that any of the major ingredients in these pills actually work, according to a review in the May 2007 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, the consumer health newsletter published by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. You can read the entire (non-technical) report online at: https://cspinet.org/new/pdf/memory_pills.pdf. Included is a test so you can assess your memory. (More technical detail on the various memory supplements’ ingredients and the studies on each can be found at: https://www.cspinet.org:80/nah/brainteasers.html.)

– Men should limit multivitamins: Taking lots of multivitamins (more than seven a week) may increase the risk of deadly prostate cancer, says a study reported in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The findings, based on data on nearly 300,000 men (seen as a sound survey) indicated the risk of advanced prostate cancer is 32 per cent higher in men who take multivitamins more than once a day than in those who do not take them at all. Risk of fatal prostate cancer was almost double. The correlation was strongest for men who also took selenium, beta-carotene or zinc supplements. It is unclear why the excessive intake of multivitamins may increase the risk of certain types of prostate cancer.

Hot flashes mean…?

Myth: Hot flashes are a sign of menopause.

Truth: Well, they could be. But it is important women with hot flashes don’t let a physician dismiss them with a comment that it’s “just menopause”. Other symptoms of menopause should be present too or those hot flashes and night sweats may be something else: hyperthyroidism. The symptoms of an overactive thyroid—which can include flushing, sweating, heat intolerance, heart palpitations and sleeplessness—can easily be confused with those of menopause.

In hyperthyroidism, the thyroid produces excess amounts of thyroid hormone, thyroxine, which over-stimulates organs and speeds up many of the body’s functions. If left untreated, an overactive thyroid can cause a loss of bone mineral density, osteoporosis, irregular heartbeat and even stroke or heart failure.

In some cases, hot flashes and sweating can be an infectious disease such as tuberculosis, Lyme disease or AIDS. If you also feel sick, your doctor should suspect an infection.

Sweating along with a fever could also be caused by cancers such as leukemia or lymphomas.

Don’t make assumptions about hot flashes. See a physician. Ask hard questions.

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

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