Health News Briefs – March 2008

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Drinking 500 ml of beetroot juice a day can significantly reduce blood pressure, UK research suggests. The key beneficial ingredient appears to be nitrate, which is also found in green, leafy vegetables. The researchers found that in healthy volunteers blood pressure was reduced within an hour of drinking the juice. The study by the London School of Medicine and the Peninsula Medical School could suggest a low-cost and natural way to treat hypertension without drugs.

While it took less than an hour to note a reduction in blood pressure in the beetroot juice tests, the effect was more pronounced after three to four hours, and a degree of reduction continued to be observed for up to 24 hours, stated the report, which was published in the February 2008 issue of the journal Hypertension. (Nitrate in the juice is converted in the saliva, by bacteria on the tongue, into nitrite. This nitrite-containing saliva is swallowed and in the acidic environment of the stomach, is either converted into nitric oxide or re-enters the circulation as nitrite.) More than 25% of the world’s adults are considered to be hypertensive and it has been estimated that this figure will increase to 29% by 2025. High blood pressure causes around 50% of coronary heart disease and about 75% of strokes. More research is needed but the key question may be whether people with blood pressure problems are willing to drink beet juice in substantial quantities – about half a litre – every day.


A new study done with mice has discovered that supplements of lipoic acid can inhibit formation of arterial lesions, lower triglycerides and reduce blood vessel inflammation and weight gain – all key issues for addressing cardiovascular disease.

The results, observed in lab mice, cannot be directly extrapolated to humans at this point. But the researchers “strongly suggest that lipoic acid supplementation may be useful as an inexpensive but effective intervention strategy… reducing known risk factors for the development of atherosclerosis and other inflammatory vascular diseases in humans.”

The study found that lipoic acid supplements reduced atherosclerotic lesion formation in two types of mice that are widely used to study cardiovascular disease, by 55% and 40%, respectively. The supplements were also associated with almost 40% less body weight gain, and lower levels of triglycerides in very low-density lipoproteins.

The study by scientists at the Linus Pauling Institute and College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, and the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington, was reported in the January 2008 issue of Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Canada. Atherosclerosis, or what used to be called “hardening of the arteries,” is now seen as a chronic inflammatory disease that involves a process resulting in fat deposits in the arteries. This chronic process often begins during adolescence, can continue for a lifetime, and has been linked to obesity, poor diet, lack of exercise, diabetes, high blood pressure, genetic predisposition and other causes. The fatty deposits in arteries can ultimately trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Researchers now believe that high levels of alpha lipoic acid can be particularly useful in preventing this process by inhibiting the formation of the adhesion molecules. It can also lower triglycerides, another important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. ALA may also function as an antioxidant and help to normalize insulin signaling and glucose metabolism.

Alpha lipoic acid is a naturally occurring nutrient found at low levels in green leafy vegetables, potatoes and meats, especially organ meats such as kidney, heart or liver. The amounts used in this research would not be obtainable by any normal diet, researchers said, and for human consumption might equate to supplements of about 2,000 milligrams per day.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


Diets with high amounts of whole grains may help achieve significant weight loss and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a team of Penn State researchers at University Park and the College of Medicine. Abdominal weight loss was greater in those who consumed whole grains than in those who ate refined grains during the study period.

The whole grain group experienced a 38% decrease in C-reactive protein levels in their blood. (A high level of this inflammatory marker is thought to place patients at higher risk for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.)

Participants in the whole grain group also showed an increased intake of fiber and magnesium, both of which may prevent or delay the potential onset of diabetes.

The study’s findings are published in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


  • Probiotics: An Australian study, published in the February 2008 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concludes that probiotic supplements reduce the number and duration of infections suffered by long-distance runners during their intensive winter training program. Those taking Lactobacillus fermentum had less than half the illness days of those taking a placebo. Coincidentally, a study in the same month in The Lancet, found these “good bacteria” supplements can raise the risk of death in those with acute pancreatitis.
  • Antioxidants against cataracts: According to a large study published in the February 2008 issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology, researchers examined the antioxidant intake for 39,876 women, and determined that higher dietary intakes of lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamin E (from food and supplements) were associated with significantly decreased risk of cataracts.
  • Mercury in sushi: Recent laboratory tests by the New York Times found so much mercury in tuna sushi that two or three pieces a week at some restaurants could be a health hazard. Eight out of the 44 pieces of sushi purchased had mercury levels so high that the FDA could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. While the (US) FDA and EPA have warned children and pregnant women against consumption of canned tuna, fresh tuna was not included in the advisory. However, the tuna sushi in the sampling contained far more mercury than is typically found in canned tuna.
  • Meat and pop linked to diabetes: A study in the February 2008 issue of the journal Circulation found that drinking carbonated soft drinks increases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors such as excessive fat around your waist, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure, all of which can raise your risk of heart disease and diabetes. The study also implicated meat consumption and fried foods.
  • Test for organic foods developed: Organic foods are a $16 billion a year business and some are concerned that government standards and independent third-party verification may be insufficient to prevent fraud. But the Journal of Environmental Quality reported in January that Spanish scientists have developed a method of using “nitrogen isotopic discrimination” to determine if non-organic, synthetic fertilizers were used on plants. Since organic fertilizers have nitrogen isotopes that differ from synthetic fertilizers, it is possible to distinguish produce grown using the two different methods. It will be some time before the test is commercially available. The article is at:
  • Salt may cause childhood obesity: Salt-rich diets could be the key to why some children battle with obesity, suggests research reported in the March 2008 issue of the journal Hypertension. A study of data on 1,600 children found that children eating a salty diet tended to drink more, including more fattening, sugar-laced soft drinks. Halving the average salt intake of six grams a day could cut 250 calories a week from a child’s diet.
  • Planet Organic expands into US: Planet Organic – Canada’s largest natural foods retailer – announced February 4 that it would buy California-based New Leaf Community Markets for (US) $9.75 million. New Leaf reported 2007 revenue of $26.4 million.
  • Music after stroke: Listening to music in the early stages after a stroke can improve a patient’s recovery, suggests research in the March 2008 issue of the journal Brain. The researchers compared patients who listened to music for a couple of hours a day, with those who listened only to audio books or nothing at all. The music group showed better recovery of memory and attention skills and a more positive general frame of mind. The study was a small sampling and further research is needed.
  • Gout blamed on pop: Men who drink two or more sugared soft drinks a day have an 85 per cent higher risk of gout than those who drink less than one a month, according to US and Canadian researchers publishing in the February 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal. Gout (and soft drink consumption) has been increasing steadily in recent years. Gout causes painful, swollen joints, usually in the lower limbs, caused when uric acid crystallizes out of the blood and into joints.
  • Memory vitamin? Lack of folate, also called vitamin B-9, may triple the risk of developing dementia in old age, according to a study published in the February 5, 2008 issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. Even after other factors were taken into account – including age, disability, alcohol consumption, weight change – the “onset of dementia was significantly associated with an exaggerated decline in folate,” the researchers concluded. Folate and folic acid, another form of the compound, are essential for the creation of new cells in the body. The compound occurs naturally in leafy vegetables such as spinach, turnip greens, lettuces, dried beans and peas and in certain fruits.
  • Herb treats heart failure: In a review of 14 studies, researchers have found that the herbal supplement hawthorn extract is effective in treating symptoms of chronic heart failure. The extract was used in addition to standard treatments. The study appeared in the January 23, 2008 issue of the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. The supplement had no effect on life span but reduced symptoms in most cases.
  • Grapefruit fights hep C: According to a release appearing on, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have observed that a compound that naturally occurs in grapefruit and other citrus fruits – naringin – may be able to block the secretion of hepatitis C virus (HCV) from infected cells, a process required to maintain chronic infection.
  • Pot riskier than tobacco: Heavy marijuana users may be at greater risk of chronic lung disease – including cancer – compared to tobacco smokers, two new studies suggest. One study found a higher risk of lung cancer for those who smoked one joint a day compared with those who smoked 20 cigarettes a day over the same period. Another found bullous disease – a form of emphysema – occurs 20 years earlier in cannabis smokers. The studies appear in the February 2008 issue of the Respirology and the European Respiratory Journal. (A separate study in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found heavy cannabis smoking was responsible for more than one-third of the new cases of gum disease among the group by the age of 32.)
  • Sedentary lifestyle speeds aging: Leading an inactive lifestyle may make us genetically old before our time, a study suggests. A study of twins found those who were physically active during their leisure time appeared biologically younger than their sedentary siblings. The King’s College London study appears in the February 2008 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
  • ‘Nodding off’ a stroke risk: Regular unintentional daytime dozing may be an early warning sign of stroke in elderly people, say US researchers. For those who had a habit of nodding off, the risk of stroke was two to four times higher than for those who never fell asleep in the day, a study found. Daytime drowsiness may indicate insufficient sleep or sleep apnea – a condition where breathing stops for short periods during sleep. Previous research has shown that people who suffer from sleep apnea have an increased stroke risk.
  • Biofuels send organic meat prices soaring: Experts predict an explosion in organic material costs due to a tiny increase in production combined with a large jump in demand. But they say the real cost villain has to do with energy, specifically the amount of land given over to biofuels production. Yet according to a report published in the February 8, 2008 edition of Science, biofuels cause more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional fuels, a double whammy for organic farmers whose ethic is environmental stewardship.


We asked what we thought was an easy multiple-choice quiz question last month but none of the answers picked the right answer. So what gives your body the most energy: vitamins, protein, fats, sugars, grains or other carbohydrates? Energy comes only from calories and since vitamins hold no calories, you can rule them out. Sugars, grains and carbs hold 4 calories per gram and offer some energy. But fat furnishes 9 calories per gram and therefore, gives the body the most energy.

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Whole Foods Market, the world’s leading natural foods supermarket, announced February 16 that it will end the use of disposable plastic grocery bags at the checkouts in all of its 270 stores in the US, Canada, and the UK, with the goal of being plastic bag-free by Earth Day, April 22, 2008. The 150 million bags used annually by the chain will now be made of recycled paper. However, debate rages about whether this will be better for the environment.

Critics point out that producing a paper bag requires over four times the energy that it does to produce a plastic bag. Also, the majority of paper comes from tree pulp and the impact of the resulting deforestation is enormous. (In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone.)

In other words, paper bag production delivers a detrimental double-whammy as forests (major absorbers of greenhouse gases) are cut down, combined with the actual manufacturing process of the bags, which produces toxic greenhouse gases, acid rain, and water pollution.

Most people believe that paper in landfills breaks down faster than plastic. However, current research suggests that paper does not degrade at a substantially faster rate than plastic once it’s in a landfill. This is because virtually nothing degrades completely in modern landfills due to lack of water, light, oxygen and other factors necessary for successful bio-degradation.

(Ed note: Whole Foods Market’s aim to reduce plastic consumption is to be applauded, and we welcome their continuing efforts to make their bags more eco-friendly. Their recycled bag initiatives have kickstarted an important debate.)


Are you getting enough of this anti-cancer mineral?
Eating lots of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts – all high in magnesium – cuts the number of tumours caused by colon cancer by 34 per cent and rectal cancer by 55 per cent, according to a Swedish study. Magnesium helps regulate cell growth and without it, rectal and colon cancer cells may grow out of control. The optimum intake is 310 to 420 mg per day.

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