News Briefs – November 2008

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A simple cure for Crohn’s disease could become available soon, suggests a study published in the October 20, 2008 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory disorder that causes ulcerations in the small and large intestines.)

The breakthrough study builds on previous research by the same scientists that found that the digestive tracts of Crohn’s patients lack a group of bacteria, known as Clostridium leptum, that occur naturally in those without Crohn’s disease.

French scientists have discovered that patients who underwent bowel surgery for this condition were more likely to suffer a recurrence if their bodies only had low levels of a specific bacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii. Not only do these bugs fall into the bacteria group previously shown to be largely lacking in Crohn’s patients, but the study also proved that F. prausnitzii secrete chemicals that reduce inflammation. The study showed that when they are grown in a lab culture, the liquid in which they are grown has anti-inflammatory properties.

The researchers said that if ongoing animal trials prove successful, human patients could benefit soon from a probiotic treatment with F. prausnitzii.

Readers should not leap to the conclusion that Crohn’s is caused by a “simple” lack of this particular bacterium. Evidence increasingly shows that Crohn’s patients have genetic changes in the gene that is coded to recognize dangerous foreign bacteria and distinguish them from harmless bacteria. Also, research in 2006 suggested that Crohn’s patients have immune systems that are weakened in such a way that they fail to destroy certain bacteria. Previously, it was assumed that patients’ immune systems overreact to certain bacteria (which would’ve made Crohn’s an autoimmune disorder, in which the immune system attacks healthy cells).

Whether an infusion of F. prausnitzii would work by crowding out other bacteria, or would work by means of their own anti-inflammatory properties, is still speculation. But this work is promising. The possibility of swallowing a capsule every day to keep their disorder at bay should bring hope to many Crohn’s sufferers.

However, it’s too early to tell whether this will lead directly to a new treatment as other probiotics have produced good results in animal studies only to prove disappointing in clinical trials. We’ll keep you posted.


A McMaster University study of global eating patterns, reported in the October 21, 2008 issue of the journal Circulation, suggests common components of the typical Western diet – salt, fried foods and meat – increase the risk of heart attack risk by 35%. The research casts light on important implications for eating healthy within any diet.

In this epidemiological study of over 16,000 people with heart disease in 52 countries, the Canadian team found that world eating habits could be separated into 3 broad dietary patterns: Western, Oriental and a “prudent diet,” one high in fruits and vegetables. (Investigating overall eating patterns is more true to life than looking at intake of individual foods or nutrients.) Only the Western diet increased heart risk. The Oriental diet is also high in heart-risky components – such as the salt in soy and other sauces – but the effect may have been cancelled out by other healthful elements.

At first, this study seems to confirm what we already know: that the typical Western diet has been widely linked to heart disease because the high salt content in the diet can raise blood pressure and the wrong type of fat can clog blood vessels. But the new research is significant because it suggests that the same relationships between certain food elements and heart disease that are observed in Western countries also exist in other regions (and other eating patterns) of the world. As lead author Romania Iqbal said from Hamilton, “Thirty per cent of the risk of heart disease in a population could be related to poor diet.”

More important, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you live in Toronto or Tokyo or Timbuktu, or whether you prefer French, Italian, Asian or Caribbean foods. Within any cuisine type (even a Western diet) you may be able to reduce your risk of heart disease substantially by keeping your intake of fried, fatty and salty foods to a minimum, while increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables.

A diet enriched with tart cherries may reduce belly fat and benefit heart health, a new study has found.

Tart cherries contain high levels of antioxidants known to have heart health benefits and they have the potential to lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation, researchers suggest. The study also found that rats who consumed tart cherries had less fat deposits around their waist than rats that were fed a Western diet.

(Cherries are classified as either “sweet” or “tart.” Sweet cherries include Bing cherries, Lambert cherries, and Rainier cherries and are grown mainly in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Tart cherries include the Montmorency and Balaton varieties and are produced primarily in Michigan. Generally, tart cherries have been found to have higher concentrations of healthful phenolics and anthocyanins than sweet cherries.)

The study was published in the September, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.


Quercetin, the compound found in onions and apples, may boost the immune system and protect against ‘flu, according to results of a study with mice.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina and Clemson University also report that stressful exercise increased the mice’s susceptibility to ‘flu and other upper respiratory infections. But quercetin was found to negate these effects.

Exercising rats not supplied with quercetin proved to be 91% more at risk of getting the common ‘flu compared to those who did receive the flavonoid.

If the results can be reproduced in humans, we could see the flavonoid positioned for sports nutrition for helping endurance athletes, soldiers and others undergoing difficult training regimens, as well as people under psychological stress, said lead researcher Mark Davis in an interview with News Briefs.

The study is significant because it confirms tentative results from last year which reported that the quercetin could help reduce illnesses in people who have carried out extensive exercise. The findings are published in the October, 2008 issue of the American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.


Can St. John’s Wort help those with depression? Past studies have suggested it can but the evidence has been weak, with other research finding no benefit. But now, a Cochrane Systematic Review backs up previous research that showed the plant extract is effective in treating mild to moderate depressive disorders.

Researchers reviewed 29 previous studies, which together included 5,489 patients with symptoms of major depression. All trials employed the commonly used Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression to assess the severity of depression. In trials comparing St. John’s Wort to other remedies, not only were the plant extracts considered equally effective, but fewer patients dropped out of trials due to adverse effects.

Extracts of the plant Hypericum perforatum, commonly known as St. John’s Wort, have long been used in folk medicine to treat depression and sleep disorders. The plant produces a number of different substances that may have anti-depressive properties, but the whole extract is considered more effective.

(Readers with serious clinical depression should not self-medicate and should consult with their health practitioner.)


Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine, may prevent the development of “fatty liver disease,” which is associated with chronic excess alcohol consumption, according to a new study.

The trial, performed with mice, found that resveratrol may activate two molecules that play a role in cell signaling and the breakdown of fats in the liver: AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and sirtuin 1 (SIRT1). These molecules reportedly are inhibited by alcohol, leading to fat build-up and fatty liver. Interestingly, alcohol seemed to increase the beneficial fat-metabolism effect of resveratrol.

The results suggest alcoholics might avoid fatty liver disease by upping their intake of resveratrol-rich foods, such as peanuts, red grapes and mulberry fruit.

Research has linked other potential health benefits of wine to resveratrol, a powerful polyphenol found in red wine grapes. Lab testing proves its anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefit at high amounts, although evidence of its effectiveness in humans has been weak.

Resveratrol is produced by the plant to protect against fungus. It’s found in the vines, roots, seeds and stalks – but is concentrated in the skin. In red wine, the amount of resveratrol in a bottle varies between types of grapes and seasons, ranging between 0.2 and 5.8 mg per litre. But most dark red wines (merlot, cabernet, zinfandel, shiraz and pinot noir) contain resveratrol. Grape juice, however, is not as good a source. (Supplements are derived primarily from the Japanese knotweed.)

Researchers from the University of South Florida reported their findings in the Oct 2008 issue of the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.


Obesity increases inflammation: US researchers have found levels of white blood cells are highest in men who are overweight or unfit. White blood cells fight infection but high levels can indicate inflammation, linked to coronary heart disease. It suggests obesity is affecting internal body chemistry. Highest levels were found in overweight and unfit men; high levels also were found in those who were not overweight but were unfit. High physical fitness appeared to offset the effect of excess body weight. The study appears in the October, 2008 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Acupuncture for hot flashes? Research initially suggests that acupuncture works as well as the drug effexor, commonly used to combat hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms that can accompany breast cancer treatment. Also, the benefits of acupuncture last longer than the effects of effexor, without any side effects. The results of this small study were announced at the September 21-25 meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology in Boston.

Ginkgo for stroke? Working with mice, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have shown that daily doses of extract of ginkgo tree can reduce brain damage after an induced stroke, which may indicate benefit for those strongly at risk for stroke. The report, published in the October, 2008 edition of Stroke, lends support to previous suggestions that ginkgo biloba triggers events that neutralize free radicals known to cause cell death.

Bacteria benefit? US researchers reporting in the September 21, 2008 issue of Nature have shown that mice exposed to common stomach mycobacteria are protected against the development of type-1 diabetes. (A single molecule in the gut wall appears to be activated by waste material from the bacteria.) The findings support the “hygiene hypothesis”—the theory that a lack of exposure to parasites, bacteria and viruses in the developed world lead to diseases such as allergies, asthma and other disorders of the immune system. The results also suggest exposure to certain bacteria could help prevent type-1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the patient’s immune system attacks cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

Bottled water contaminants: Many bottled water brands contain contaminants often found in tap water. The lab testing, released October 15 by the activist group, Environmental Working Group, showed all brands met US government health standards. However, they contained small amounts of 38 chemicals including caffeine, acetaminophen, fertilizer, solvents, plastic and the radioactive strontium. Although these levels probably pose no health risk, bottled water is often marketed as a “healthier” alternative to “contaminated” tap.

Caffeine caution: In the September 20, 2008 edition of the journal Drug Alcohol Dependence, scientists called for label warnings on caffeinated energy drinks. The caffeine content varies over a 10-fold range, from 50 mg to 500 mg of caffeine. There is 35 mg of caffeine in a 12-ounce Coca-Cola and from 80 to 150 mg in a six-ounce coffee. The US legal limit of 71 mg per 12-ounce can of pop doesn’t apply because energy drinks are marketed as “dietary supplements.”

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