News Briefs – March 2007

FOLIC ACID: BENEFIT MAY DEPEND ON B12

The effects of increased folic acid intake among the elderly may be a double-edged sword – with either benefits or harm, depending on the person’s vitamin B12 levels, says a new study.

“In this study of older Americans in the age of folic acid fortification, we found direct associations between high serum folate and both anemia and cognitive impairment in subjects with low vitamin B12 status,” wrote lead author Martha Morris, PhD, from Tufts University’s (big breath here) Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. “Among subjects with normal vitamin B12 status, on the other hand, high serum folate was associated with protection from cognitive impairment.”

The results, published in the January 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have important implications for mandatory folic acid fortification worldwide.

Maternal consumption of folate, or its synthetic form folic acid, is strongly proven to reduce risk of neural tube defect (NTD) in the early states of pregnancy. Fortification of certain food groups with folic acid has been mandatory in North America since 1998, and the number of pregnancies affected by NTD has fallen by 26 per cent.

Low vitamin B12 status alone was significantly associated with an increase in anemia (170%) and cognitive impairment (150%). Surprisingly, subjects with low B12 and high serum folate levels had even higher associations with anemia (210%) and cognitive impairment (160%), compared to those with normal B12 levels. In people with normal B12 levels, high serum folate levels were associated with a 60% decrease in cognitive impairment, compared to those with normal folate levels.

In an accompanying editorial, David Smith from the University of Oxford wrote that, assuming future studies confirm the results, the findings have immediate implications for folic acid fortification. He notes that the 4% of the study population that fell into the low B12, high folate group would, if extrapolated to the general US population, be equivalent to about 1.8 million seniors at risk of both anemia and enhanced cognitive impairment.

Smith asked the question whether it is ethical to put more than 1000 elderly persons at risk of poorer health in order to save one child from NTD and hinted at solutions: “Should the issue of fortifying food with vitamin B-12 be reopened in those countries that have already fortified certain foods with folic acid? Should supplements containing folic acid be combined with high doses of vitamin B-12 to ensure an optimal balance of the 2 vitamins?” Maybe so.

(Ed note: This study points to the belief long held by health professionals that B vitamins are best absorbed and utilized when taken in combination with all the other B vitamins, including folate (B9). So choose a B-complex, rather than single Bs, when shopping for supplements.)

ANTI-CANCER FOOD?

A regular intake of watercress may protect against DNA damage in blood cells – an important trigger in cancer development – by 23 per cent, suggests new research in published in the February 2007 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The dietary trial was done by researchers from the University of Ulster, using 60 healthy men and women aged 33 on average. They ate a bowlful of watercress every day for eight weeks. Blood triglyceride levels were also cut by about 10%, while blood levels of the antioxidants lutein and beta-carotene rose by 100% and 33%, respectively.

PROBIOTICS HELP WITH ASTHMA

Oral treatment with live probiotic bacteria may help alleviate allergic asthmatic response, according to a new study by Canadian researchers at McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare. The results appeared in the January 2007 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine. The study investigated the effect of two probiotics, Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus salivarius, on allergic airway inflammation in mice. Oral treatment with live L. reuteri weakened immune system response – which, in turn, weakened the immune-produced inflammation of the airways that causes serious breathing difficulties in asthmatics. The bacteria L. salivarius did not work; only L. reuteri worked to relieve asthmatic symptoms and only when the bacteria were live. For some reason, dead bacteria did not have any effect.

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

We hate to bring up an uncomfortable subject. But do you want to avoid toxic chemicals – and be politically correct – when you’re six feet under? Would you rather spend eternity surrounded by mowed lawns and headstones – or a forest?

Known as a green or natural burial, firms in Ontario are now seeking a way of combining an eco-friendly interment with land conservation. Your burial can help create a forest, according to Mike Salisbury, a Guelph city councilor and founder of the southern Ontario green burial company, Natural Burial Cooperative. If you’re buried where roots grow through your bones, he says, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do—give back in the end. The idea could, well, take root.

You wouldn’t be buried so much as replanted.

A few groups are trying to found Canada’s first natural burial cemetery. Green Living Ventures wants some of the federal land in Downsview for such a site. The Memorial Society of BC is looking at two possible sites out west. And Natural Burial is looking at three possible places near Toronto. Four green cemeteries have been founded in the US.

Aside from the (literally) back-to-nature aspect, green burials mean no toxic embalming chemicals such as formaldehyde, which may soon be banned by the European Union. Also, trees aren’t chopped down to make your casket. Although some green burials involve locally harvested wood, many simply use biodegradable cardboard or wicker. And there’s a cost saving: one New York State natural burial site charges $500 (US) for the plot, with another $450 to open and close it.

Compare that to the average of about $2500 for a traditional casket and about $2000 to $5000 for a conventional burial plot. And then there’s the headstone. Cremation costs only about $500 less and it uses fossil fuels; it also releases mercury and other toxic materials into the atmosphere.

For info more information visit https://naturalburialassoc.ca/. Also,  check out the Natural Burial Cooperative’s site at: https://www.naturalburial.ca/. For a short video on the concept of natural burials, surf to: https://www.forestofmemories.org/research/video/film/groovy /greensprings.htm.

BEE STING THERAPY BUZZING IN CHINA

You’ve heard of Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM – but did you know that bee venom is just one of an exhaustive TCM catalogue of ancient folk remedies involving bugs, herbs, animal parts and massage? And while TCM is losing its popularity in China, people are still swarming to bee sting therapy, says a Reuters report on China.

A folk remedy for treating arthritis, back pain and rheumatism for 3,000 years in China, practitioners say that such pinpointed bee stings can repair damaged cells, stave off bacteria and ease inflammation. The therapy is cheaper than the increasingly popular Western medicine now invading China, and is even used to prevent limb loss due to gangrene.

Doctors at Xizhihe hospital believe bee venom can even cure liver ailments, diabetes and cancers. They admit, however, that they do not really know how it works.

“Our knowledge has increased over the years,” said Xu Xiaowang, Xizhihe hospital director. “But there are still large areas that are unknown to us all. There are too many unanswered questions,” Xu said. Western-trained doctors dismiss the treatment as unscientific and dangerous.

WOMEN’S DESKS LOOK CLEANER BUT…

If you’re a woman, chances are your workspace has more germs than your male co-workers’ workplaces, a new research report shows. And the average office desktop has 400 times more bacteria than the average office toilet seat. University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba conducted the $40,000 study. Women’s desks typically looked cleaner. But the knickknacks are more abundant, says Gerba; and cosmetics and hand lotions make prime germ-transfer agents.

Makeup cases also make for fine germ homes, along with phones, purses and desk drawers. The biggest bacteria pool for men? Their wallets, containing bacteria kept warm in a back pocket. In an e-mail interview with News Briefs, Gerba said using a hand sanitizer and wiping a disinfectant on office surfaces helps, with 25% fewer bacteria found on surfaces that were regularly disinfected.

VITAMIN D ‘DRUG’

Exposure to Vitamin D from sunlight is known to improve the prognosis of certain cancers but the potential for serious side effects do not allow for the extremely massive dosages that might prove helpful to cancer patients in advanced stages. But that is changing.

A US company, Novacea, has produced a pill that delivers a highly concentrated and very large dose of vitamin D – but without running the risk of side-effects from an overdose. Because it is specially engineered, the pill is considered a drug, not a dietary supplement.

The January 2007 issue of Chemistry and Industry magazine reports that if clinical trials of the “drug” Asentar (DN-101) are successful, the side-effect-free form of vitamin D could be available by 2009. It would be given to patients in the advanced stages of cancer. Professor Nick James, a cancer expert at the University of Birmingham in UK, said it has produced impressive results in preliminary trials. Patients lived for an average of an extra nine months longer than those taking the chemotherapy drug, taxotere, alone. James said, “On average, patients in the advanced stage of the disease survive about 18 months, so an extension of nine months would be very significant in my view.”

Asentar provides levels of vitamin D that are 50 to 100 times higher than normal but without the potential for serious harm that accompanies dosages this massive. Further trials will be needed to make sure previous studies on the vitamin D drug can be repeated and that the pill is safe and effective.

Vitamin D is known to play a key role in the regulation of several tissues, including the prostate and breast. But cancer cells lose the ability to respond in the normal way to vitamin D, and carry on dividing in an uncontrolled fashion. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men.

NEWLY EMERGING SUPER-FOOD IS—APPLES?

An apple a day keeps the doctor away: That may have been your mother’s advice but with their relatively low levels of vitamin C, apples have fallen from favour for many people. They’re viewed by nutritionists and consumers alike as, well, boring; media reports hype blueberries, kiwi, goji berries and various other exotic fruits. But now, as scientists continue to investigate the antioxidant power of various fruits and vegetables, apples are returning to the spotlight with a vengeance.

A medium apple averages about 6 milligrams of vitamin C—insignificant really. However, fruits and vegetables also provide flavonoids, a large group of compounds that are all antioxidants. Scientists have now calculated the antioxidant power of that apple is equal to more than 1,500 milligrams of vitamin C. The vast majority of an apple’s antioxidants come from flavonoids.

Antioxidants are key elements in preventing cancer, because they stabilize highly reactive free radicals that can otherwise damage our DNA and begin the process of cancer development. Antioxidants are also considered a key step in heart health because they protect blood vessels.

Apples also contain pectin, a soluble fibre that helps lower blood cholesterol. Higher blood cholesterol is associated with a greater incidence of heart disease. In the Women’s Health Study of about 40,000 U.S. women, researchers analyzed apple consumption and heart health. After controlling for other fruits along with vegetables, fiber and other nutrients, the study found that women who ate at least one apple a day developed 22 per cent less heart disease than women who ate no apples.

Laboratory studies show that concentrated apple compounds can reduce growth and reproduction of colon and lung cancer cells. Among more than 77,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, daily apple consumption was linked to 37 per cent lower risk of lung cancer, after controlling for smoking and other risk factors. Results of a study from Finland showed that highest flavonoid consumption, of which apples were an important part, was linked with a 20 per cent lower risk of cancer overall and a 46 per cent lower risk of lung cancer.

Apples are also high in a type of fibre that causes a “full” sensation, despite the fact that they are low in calories. Also, prolonged storage of fruits and vegetables often means loss of nutritional value—but apples retain virtually all of their flavonoid content for five to six months in cold storage. Processing, however, does lower the amount of flavonoid, so apples themselves contain more antioxidants than apple juice or applesauce.

An apple a day? Yes, it’s back in vogue.

NEWS NOTES

Supplements reduce fractures: Very active young women who took higher-than-recommended doses of calcium and vitamin D supplements for eight weeks had fewer stress fractures than women who were given dummy pills, a study of Naval recruits showed. The study, funded by the US Department of Defense, was presented February 14 at the Orthopaedic Research Society’s annual meeting in San Diego.

Flavonoid fights infection: Quercetin – a flavonoid antioxidant found in plants such as apples, onions and broccoli – may help reduce illness and maintain mental performance in physically-stressed test subjects, according to new research from Appalachian State University. Niacin and vitamin C were added to the quercetin. The research was presented at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine on February 9 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Plastic water bottle risk? The longer a bottle of water sits on a store shelf or in a household pantry, the higher the dose of antimony the person who drinks it will receive, according to new experiments at the University of Heidelberg Institute of Environmental Geochemistry (Germany). Study results were published January 24 on the website of Environmental Studies and Technology Online. Antimony, a potentially toxic trace element, was found in 15 brands of Canadian bottled water and 48 European brands – in concentrations more than 100 times the average level of antimony in pristine ground water.

Supplement beats diabetic drug – by 19,000 per cent: Here’s a scoop. News Briefs has learned of a new pycnogenol study conducted at the University of Wurzburg Germany – that will later be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. The research reveals that the French maritime pine tree extract known as pycnogenol delays the uptake of glucose from a meal 190 times more than prescription medications, preventing the typical high-glucose peak in the blood stream after a meal. According to Petra Högger, PhD, lead researcher, the study revealed that the pine bark is more potent for suppressing carbohydrate absorption in diabetes than synthetic prescriptions.

Prescription drug deaths: Unintentional deaths due to drug poisoning – primarily with prescription drugs – increased by 68 percent between 1999 and 2004, and is second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of death from unintentional injury in the US, investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. In February, scientists with the CDC in Atlanta summarized the most current data from the National Vital Statistics System regarding accidental poisoning deaths in the CDC’s publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Olive oil may help prevent ulcers: Polyphenols found in olive oil – a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet– may prevent infection by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, the believed cause of gastritis and peptic ulcers. The new research by researchers from the Spanish Institute de la Grasa and the University Hospital of Valme report that, under their simulated in vitro conditions, the polyphenol-rich extra virgin olive oil exerted anti-bacterial effects against eight strains of H. pylori, three of which were said to be resistant to antibiotics. “These results open the possibility of considering extra virgin olive oil a chemo-protective agent for peptic ulcer or gastric cancer,” wrote lead author Concepcion Romero in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Creams that kill: People using large amounts of skin-numbing creams and lotions—often in conjunction with cosmetic procedures—are at risk of irregular heartbeats, seizures and even death, US health officials warned on February 6. The Food and Drug Administration, citing two deaths, said such topical anesthetics can be applied in amounts so large that a lethal dose of the chemicals can enter the bloodstream.

Canada’s new food guide launched: Health Minister Tony Clement launched the new 2007 version of Canada’s Food Guide—“Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide”—on February 5. For the first time, Canadians can find detailed information on the amount and types of food recommended for their age and gender. The new Food Guide encourages Canadians to focus on vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and to include milk, meat and their alternatives, and to limit foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. Health Canada is also now recommending a vitamin D supplement for Canadians over the age of 50. For more information, visit https://www.healthcanada.gc.ca/foodguide.

More garlic studies: In a few studies over the past several months, garlic and onion—and allicin supplements—have been again shown to offer anti-cancer benefits. Among more than 35,000 women in Iowa, participants who ate one clove of garlic a week had a 32 per cent lower colon cancer risk than those who ate garlic once a month or less. In a less scientific and less conclusive study of 521,000 Europeans, about one tablespoon of chopped onion or three cloves of garlic eaten daily was linked six-and-a-half years later with a 30 per cent lower chance of cancer developing in the lowest part of the stomach. In another study, people who used the most onion or garlic—about a half-cup of chopped onion daily and a self-assessed “high” garlic consumption—were from 10 to 88 per cent less likely to have various types of cancer than those who said they used little or none.

Magnesium for bone health: According to research published in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, a team randomized 44 girls aged 8 to 14, with intakes of the mineral that were below 220 mg a day, to take 300 mg of magnesium daily for one year or a placebo. The girls given magnesium showed significantly greater bone mineral content in the hip than those who took placebo.

Diabetes prevention: A review of 15 clinical studies of people with diabetes, published in Diabetes Technology and Therapeutics, confirms that chromium picolinate is effective in improving blood sugar control and normalizing lipid levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

Vitamin supplier pulls multi: The Vitamin Shoppe, a US manufacturer that also sells into Canada, confirmed at the end of January, that it has voluntarily removed “Especially for Women” multivitamin product from store shelves and its internet sales site. This stems from allegations by a major testing lab, ConsumerLabs, that there are trace quantities of lead in excess of California labeling requirements in the product. A multivitamin sold by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) was also removed from the market at the same time, also due to quality problems discovered in ConsumerLabs’ independent studies.

Antidepressants weaken bones: The most popular pills for depression might substantially raise the risk for bone breaks in older people, a drawback that should be considered when the drugs are prescribed, Canadian researchers have announced. People aged 50 and older who took antidepressants, including Zoloft, Prozac and other top-sellers, faced double the risk of broken bones during five years of follow-up, compared with those who didn’t use these drugs, according to scientists at McGill University. The pills might have a direct effect on bone cells. The study appears in the January 2007 issue of the journal, Archives of Internal Medicine.

Calcium for cholesterol: Research published in the January 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, overweight or obese women who took calcium and vitamin D supplements while on a 15-week diet showed greater drops in LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increases in HDL or “good” cholesterol.

• How do I know if I have ‘leaky gut—and what is it anyway?
First, what is a leaky gut? The cells that line the intestinal wall form a barrier that is one-cell thick. Each cell is in contact with the cell next to it to form tight junctions, or connections, between each other. These tight junctions constitute a barrier between what’s within the gut and what’s inside the body or the systemic circulation. Under normal, healthy conditions, this barrier provides limited access for molecules in the gut to enter the systemic circulation unless the molecules are absorbed through a cell. Without a tight junction barrier, however, all types of molecules are able to go around the cells and enter the systemic circulation. When this happens, someone is said to have abnormal intestinal permeability—or a “leaky gut.”

Many things, from alcohol to aspirin to radiation to stress, can induce abnormal intestinal permeability. Many diseases and conditions have been shown, at least in part, to be caused by or result in increased permeability. These include migraine headaches, food allergies, ulcerative colitis, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis. Poor nutrient intake or absorption may also cause a leaky gut because the cells that line the intestine may be more susceptible to leakiness if they are not well-nourished.

If you are worried you may have this condition, some laboratory tests can measure permeability of certain areas of the gut. While there is no one foolproof way to diagnose a leaky gut, the best way to see is to work with a health-care provider who is well-acquainted with the condition and the testing.

• What was average lifespan 100 years ago?

What did people die of a century ago? The five leading causes of death were: (1) pneumonia and influenza; (2) tuberculosis; (3) diarrhea; (4) heart disease; and (5) stroke. More than 95 per cent of all births took place at home. Ninety percent of all doctors had no college or university education; they attended so-called medical schools in lieu of college; most of the medical schools were condemned in the press and by the government as being “substandard.” Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo. The tallest structure in the world? The Eiffel Tower. And the average life expectancy was 47 years.

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

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