News Briefs – May 2006

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VITAMIN C MAY BE REASSESSED FOR CANCER

Mega-doses of vitamin C — regularly suggested and repeatedly dismissed as an alternative therapy for people with cancer — could be a plausible treatment after all, according to a study published March 28, 2006 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

Researchers found three documented cases of patients with advanced cancers having unusually long survival times after receiving high doses of vitamin C intravenously. Obviously, three cases do not constitute a full study but they were confirmed by pathologists at the National Cancer Institute who didn’t know that the vitamin had been used as a treatment, says the study write-up.

These cases are not proof that the vitamin can be used as a treatment for cancer, but the reports suggest high doses of intravenous vitamin C should be reassessed as a cancer treatment, say the researchers, led by Sebastian Padayatty of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Chemist Linus Pauling advocated massive doses of vitamin C for preventing colds and treating cancer. But trials conducted at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic on oral vitamin C and cancer failed to show any benefit.

Mainstream scientists have mostly discarded the vitamin as a potential cancer treatment. However, recent lab experiments have found that high concentrations are toxic to some cancer cells — but not to healthy cells.

Padayatty and the other researchers said the maximum oral dose of vitamin C — 18 grams per day — results in concentrations in the body far too low to be toxic to cancer cells. Ingesting more than 18 grams a day results in less C being absorbed into the body.

However, when large doses of 50 to 100 grams of the vitamin are given directly into the blood, vitamin C concentration in the body is 14 times higher than the toxic concentration found in the lab.

For detailed information, read more about this work at: www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/174/7/937.

GRAPE SEED FOR BLOOD PRESSURE?

If you are among the 40 per cent of Canadian adults suffering from metabolic syndrome, you may want to consider adding grape seed extract to your diet to help lower your blood pressure. Or at least that’s the encouraging conclusion from cardiovascular researchers at University of California at Davis, who have just completed the first human clinical trial to study the benefits of grape seed extract on patients with high blood pressure.

The one month study was conducted on 24 male and female patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of factors that add up to high risk for heart disease — including elevated blood pressure, excess abdominal body weight, high blood cholesterol fats and high blood sugar.

The patients were divided into three groups of eight. The first group received a placebo while the second and third groups received 150 mgs and 300 mgs, respectively, of a new and unique patent-pending grape seed extract developed and made by Polyphenolics, a division of Constellation Wine US. All participants’ blood pressure was automatically measured and recorded for 12 hours after ingestion.

Participants in the two groups receiving grape seed extract experienced an equal degree of reduced blood pressure. The average drop in systolic pressure was 12 mm. The average drop in diastolic pressure was 8 mm. The group taking the 300 mg of grape seed extract also had reduced serum LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. Generally, the higher a test subject’s initial LDL level was, the greater the drop by the end of the study. The grape seed extract has no known side effects.

The UC Davis research team is currently embarked on a second placebo-controlled human clinical study of grape seed extract, looking at its benefits for pre-hypertension patients with systolic pressure of 120-139, and diastolic blood pressure of 80-89. Three previous studies in animal models by this team have indicated that grape seed extract may also prevent atherosclerosis.

IS TOO LITTLE SALT BAD FOR YOU?

A new study into the effects of salt intake suggests that people who eat less salt than is recommended by the UK and US government guidelines are 37 per cent more likely to die from cardiovascular causes than those who ate more salt than guideline level.

Hillel Cohen, PhD, and colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York — including Michael Alderman, PhD, the president of the International Society of Hypertension — completed the follow-up study from data pulled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys in the US.

Doctors, nutritionists and governments have long encouraged salt reduction because excess salt intake has been linked with high blood pressure and heart disease. Processed and snack foods are particularly high in salt with some containing an entire day’s recommended limit of 6 grams. Some experts suggest that processed foods contribute about 75 per cent of salt intake.

But the scientists behind the new study claim that there is no concrete proof that lower salt diets protect against death from heart and artery disease. They admit that their findings fall short of proving that, inversely, restricting sodium is bad for your health but Cohen believes the findings should raise questions over the need for blanket salt restriction advice.

It is increasingly evident that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to diet, says Cohen. “This was an observational study, and not a clinical trial, so we can’t really conclude from our findings that low-sodium intakes are harmful. But our study certainly doesn’t support the idea of a universal prescription for lower salt intake.”

Cohen theorizes that low-sodium diets raise the kidney’s levels of renin, a protein involved with increasing blood pressure when sodium levels are low.

The results, published in the American Journal of Medicine, were presented by Cohen at a medical convention in San Francisco, on April 5.

Bottom line? Excess salt is a bad idea. But if you hear that salt should necessarily be eliminated from the diet, take that advice with, um, a grain of salt.

SARS PREPARED TORONTO FOR BIRD FLU

Toronto’s deadly brush with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus three years ago has uniquely prepared the city for the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, health officials say.

Drawing on lessons from the 2003 outbreak of SARS, city and provincial experts promise new screening measures, emergency plans to treat patients from home and tough laws detailing what health workers must do.

Rules still under government debate could ban travel, fix prices and order health-care professionals to provide necessary services in the event of a pandemic.

“I think what puts us ahead of folks who haven’t dealt with SARS is that it really has made the potential pandemic more real. We at least have a framework for what we might see with pandemic flu,” says Susan Poutanen, MD, who was the key author of the first two scientific papers on SARS, published in The New England Journal of Medicine during the outbreak.

Toronto was the only city outside Asia where people died of SARS. The disease infected 375 people in the city and killed 44, prompting a scathing public inquiry and angry lawsuits. A public inquiry previously blamed a “broken” public health care system in its interim report, calling it “unprepared, fragmented, poorly led … inadequately resourced.”

And it could be only a matter of time before Toronto has to cope with bird flu too, as the H5N1 avian influenza virus spreads out of Asia to infect birds in Europe and Africa. Experts agree it will one day reach North America too.

The virus does not easily infect humans — it has killed just over 100 people in three years — but scientists fear it could suddenly mutate into a pandemic strain that could kill tens of millions within weeks.

Ontario’s influenza plan aims to free up overwhelmed hospitals by providing telephone and Internet home care to less vulnerable patients.

Late in 2005, the provincial government proposed legislation that would broaden its power to ban travel and order health workers to provide services if a pandemic struck. But Ontario’s Bill 56, which is still being debated, has drawn criticism from doctors who fear they will be jailed or fined if they refuse to work.

NUTRIENT PRESERVES LUNG FUNCTION

People with high blood levels of the nutrient beta-carotene may have better lung function as they age, new research suggests.

What’s more, the study found, both beta-carotene and vitamin E might offer some lung protection to heavy smokers.

Beta-carotene is an antioxidant compound that gives foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe their orange and yellow coloring; the nutrient is also found in some greens, like spinach and broccoli.

The new study, published in the April 2006 issue of the medical journal Thorax, included 1,194 adults ages 20 to 44. It suggests that non-smokers and smokers alike should get plenty of fruits and vegetables in their diets, say the study researchers, who work in Paris at the French national health institute INSERM.

That doesn’t mean, however, that smokers can avoid the consequences of the habit by eating well or popping vitamins. It’s always best to quit smoking, according to study author Armelle Guenegou, PhD, given the risks of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Smoking generates excess levels of potentially cell-damaging substances called oxygen free radicals—molecules that antioxidants like vitamin E and beta-carotene are designed to neutralize.

The researchers stressed that beta-carotene is not the sole player in lung or overall health. So it’s important to get a mix of antioxidants and other nutrients from plant foods, they suggested.

For more details, refer to the study summary at: thorax.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/abstract/61/4/320.

OIL MAY HELP ADHD

Supplements of omega-3 and omega-6 fish oils could improve the behaviour and attention span of teens with moderate to severe Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), say UK researchers.

A supplement provided by Equazen Nutraceuticals was derived from high-EPA marine fish oil and virgin evening primrose oil (GLA). The formulation contained eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenioc acid (DHA), GLA and vitamin E. The 20 volunteers took six capsules per day, equal to 500 mg of EPA.

After three months of supplementation with omega-rich oil blend, the test subjects’ inattentiveness fell from an average of 94 at the start of the trial to a mere 17 per cent at the end. Similar results were observed for impulsivity, with an initial rating of 89 per cent falling to 28 per cent after supplementation.

The study will be published in an upcoming book series titled Nutrition and Health. According to lead researcher Madeleine Portwood, PhD. However, the small study size means that the results will need to be confirmed in further, larger studies.

How can fish oil affect ADHD? No one is sure. But the mechanism behind the supplement’s effect seems to be specific to the type of omega oil. EPA might function by increasing blood flow in the body. It is also suggested to affect hormones and the immune system, both of which have a direct effect on brain function.

DHA, on the other hand, might boost a type of brain membrane — known as an ion channel — making it easier to transmit electrical signals.

This is not the first report of improvements in behaviour due to fish oil supplements. The work follows similar improvements due to omega-3 supplements for children aged 18 to 30 months, also reported by Portwood and colleagues.

Portwood also told Vitality that further research using fish oils is due to be published in the future. One study involves the use of the supplements on the food intolerance of 80 autistic children, a group linked to increased incidence of food intolerance, as well as the results of the largest mainstream fish oil supplementation trial of 270 children.

Coincidentally, in an unrelated study published in April in Trends in Neuroscience, fish oil was found to be potentially effective against degenerative eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa.

Equazen Nutraceuticals is located in London, England and their website can be found at: www.equazen.com .

CAN SPICES TREAT SOME CANCERS?

Ginger can kill ovarian cancer cells while the compound that makes peppers hot can shrink pancreatic tumors, researchers told a conference of the American Association for Cancer Research on April 5.

The study on ginger was done using cells in a lab dish, which is a long way from finding that it works in actual cancer patients, but it is the first step to testing the idea. A second study found that capsaicin, which makes chili peppers hot, fed to mice caused apoptosis — or programmed cell death — in pancreatic cancer cells.

These studies add to a growing body of evidence that at least some popular spices might slow or prevent the growth of cancer. For example, previous studies have shown that turmeric, the yellow spice used widely in Indian cooking, may help stop the spread of lung and breast cancer in mice. However, scientists point out that many compounds shown to stop cancer in mice are not nearly as effective in human cancer patients.

SEVERE DIET DRAMATICALLY SLOWS AGING

Severely restricting calories may do more than lower weight. It appears to slow the aging process.

Previous studies going back decades have consistently reported that calorie-restricted (CR) diets could prolong the lives of rodents and other species, including man’s closest cousins, primates. It was believed near-starvation diets would produce the same effect of retarded aging in humans and some epidemiological research seemed to confirm this. But until now, no studies have been undertaken to investigate the effects of CR diets on markers of human aging.

The new study found weight loss with CR diets but also, changes in certain human indicators of aging.

The April 4, 2006 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association outlines the details of the study. The participants were randomly assigned to eat one of four diets. The control group ate regular amounts. The second group was on a calorie restriction (CR) diet — which means calorie intake reduced by 25 per cent of normal. The third group used a moderate CR diet combined with exercise — calorie intake reduced by 12.5 per cent and energy expenditure increased by 12.5 per cent. The fourth group ate a very low-calorie diet (VLC) — just 890 calories per day until 15 per cent weight loss and then, a weight maintenance diet.

After six months, the control group had a measured weight loss of about 1 per cent. Both the CR and the CR-with-exercise groups lost about 10 per cent during the trial. The very-low-calorie (VLC) group lost on average 14 per cent.

But other factors than weight loss were measured. Prolonged calorie restriction produced a reversal in two of the three biomarkers of longevity — core body temperature and fasting insulin levels. It also showed a reduction in DNA fragmentation, indicating less DNA damage. The scientists described this as a substantial reduction in aging rate, and after only 6 months at that.

· Culprit behind ‘sick building syndrome’ found? In a study of more than 4,000 UK government employees, researchers found that high job demands and perceptions of poor support were more closely related to sick-building symptoms than were the physical conditions of the workplace. In other words, it might not be the office — it might be the stress, says the report in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

· Prayer flunks healing test: In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications. The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Heart Journal.

· Through the lips and over the gums: The antioxidant components in red wine polyphenols may have anti-inflammatory effects that could help keep gums healthy and strong. The research, by Quebec’s Université Laval, was presented to the American Association for Dental Research March 10.

· Race-specific vitamins? The GenSpec brand of dietary supplements, proclaimed to be the “first genetically specific product line,” aims distinct one-a-day products at blacks, whites and Hispanics and at men and women within each group. Some experts called the launch “less science and more marketing,” although different races have different disease and dietary risks. For more info, visit www.4genspec.com/.

· Vegetable protein: Consumption of vegetable protein lowers blood pressure, according to an epidemiological study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Differences in blood pressure were not noticed with animal protein or with overall protein intake.

· Fibre cuts heart risk: A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that people who eat a diet high in fibre have significantly lower levels of a protein — called C-reactive protein — associated with inflammation, diabetes and heart disease.

· Alcohol may not be beneficial, after all: Although light drinking has long been found to help lower heart disease risk, researchers have now said such studies are flawed. Abstainers were never asked why they didn’t drink; but many teetotalers had quit due to serious health problems. The drinking groups were therefore, healthier only by comparison to some seriously ill persons. Writing in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, the researchers stressed any future studies should be designed to take into account a person’s reason for not drinking.

· Passive smoke linked to diabetes: A large 15-year study of over 4,572 people reported in the April 2006 issue of the British Medical Journal suggests that passive smoking increases the risk of developing diabetes, as does first-hand smoking. Surprisingly, those who inhaled second-hand smoke had a slightly higher risk than active smokers.

· Vitamin D and cancer: Raising the RDA of vitamin D from 400 iu to 1500 iu could cut cancer deaths by 30 per cent, says a Harvard School of Public Health study. Correct levels of D are linked with reduced cancer risk. Vitamin D-rich foods significantly raised vitamin D levels but supplements had only a slight effect; this is consistent with the common use of the less active vitamin D2 in multivitamins, say the researchers. A separate study in the April 2006 issue of Diabetes Care found that diabetes risk can be reduced by higher vitamin D and calcium intake — particularly from supplements.

· Aspartame cleared: A huge research work has cleared the sugar-free sweetener aspartame of any link with cancer. Zero increased was detected in even large amounts of ingested aspartame. The new study, by the National Cancer Institute, is considered highly scientific. It was performed by reputable researchers independent of any funding or ties to any industry groups. Studies suggesting a cancer link were all done on a small number of rats; but the new study was conducted on humans and involved an incredible number of test subjects: 340,045 men and 226,945 women — 566,990 people in total.

· Pregnant? Avoid high-protein diets. High protein, low carbohydrate diets should be avoided during pregnancy, new research suggests. They can lead to permanently high levels of stress in the offspring. The UK study was presented at the European Congress of Endocrinology in Glasgow on April 4.

· Brain training takes Japan by storm: Many elderly people in Japan have joined a new craze: brain training. Based on the theory that mental exercises help retard age-related mental and memory decline, many now take ten minutes out of their day to do simple arithmetic and other quizzes or video games. Japanese bookshops now have separate sections for workbooks with the exercises. In Japan, Nintendo has sold 3.3 million of its “Brain Training for Adults” in one year; Rubik’s Cube sales increased 500 percent in Japan last year.

· Vitamin B and breast cancer: A study has concluded that folate and vitamin B12 may be a factor in curbing breast cancer, especially among postmenopausal women. The Mexican research appeared in the March 30th edition of the journal, Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention.

Interesting facts and myths

The epidemic that never was

Myth? Over recent decades, the incidence of cancer in North America has escalated to epidemic proportions.

Fact: Overall observed cancer incidence rates dropped on average 0.5 percent per year from 1991 to 2001. Death rates from all cancers combined fell 1.1 percent per year from 1993 to 2001. According to the latest report from the Canadian government, age-adjusted cancer incidence peaked in 1988 for men and has plummeted over 13 per cent since. Incidence has indeed gone up among women but you can lay almost all the blame on increased smoking. Yes, cancer is now our greatest killer, but only because we in the West live long enough to get it and because heart disease deaths have been reduced to the point where they have fallen below cancer deaths. Cancer can strike at any age, but is overwhelming a disease of the old.

Toilet seat risk?

Myth? You can pick up a sexually transmitted disease (STD) from using a public toilet seat.

Fact: Hard surfaces such as toilet seats are not conducive to STDs. They call them “sexually” transmitted for a reason.

Vitamin E in a capsule

Many people cannot name the foods that contain substantial amounts of vitamin E. For the record, the E-richest foods include: vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables, peanut butter and fortified cereals. Wheat germ oil is packed with vitamin E. There are eight different types of vitamin E and alpha-tocopherol (α-tocopherol) is the name of the most active form in humans. Vitamin E in supplement form is usually sold as alpha-tocopheryl acetate, a form that protects its ability to function as an antioxidant. The name of the synthetic form is prefixed with “D, L” while the natural form is prefixed with “D”. The synthetic form is only half as active as the natural form. Deficiency of this vitamin is extremely rare and occurs mainly in people who have an inability to digest fat. It is believed that vitamin E powerfully counteracts the effects of oxidation on the body’s cells.

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

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