News Briefs – October 2009

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Showers Spray Harmful Bacteria

A disturbing study reported in the Sept. 15, 2009 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the showers people enjoy everyday are actually spraying them with bacteria.

his news should not necessarily strike fear in those with normal immune systems, but such microbes could be a problem for those suffering from cystic fibrosis, AIDS, people undergoing cancer treatment, or those who have had a recent organ transplant. Researchers at the University of Colorado tested 45 showers in five different states as part of a larger study of the microbiology of air and water in homes, schools and public facilities. They found about 30% of the devices harboured significant levels of the dangerous bacteria. The team reported that some of the bacteria and related pathogens were grouping together in slimy “biofilms” that stuck to the inside of showerheads at more than 100 times the “background” levels of municipal water.

“If you are getting a face full of water when you first turn your shower on, that means you are probably getting a particularly high load…which may not be too healthy,” said Norman R. Pace, lead author.

Your best bet is an all-metal showerhead but even these can play host to bacteria. The researchers say that the microbes return even after being cleaned with bleach. Baths do not splash microbes into the air like showers, which spray them into breathable aerosol form. The bacteria that the researchers were finding are Mycobacterium avium, which have been linked to lung disease in some people. The same research team has found M. avium in soap scum on vinyl shower curtains.

Folic Acid Helps Prevent Peripheral Artery Disease

Aching, tired legs? Rashes and numbness on your extremities? It may be peripheral artery disease or PAD. A new study published in the September 2009 issue of the British Journal of Surgery reports that 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily for 16 weeks can result in significant improvement in blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and improve blood flow in people who have peripheral artery disease (PAD).

PAD occurs when the blood vessels in the legs become narrowed or blocked by plaque, a condition that can lead to serious disease and death. According to the study’s authors, folic acid is so effective because it significantly reduces levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. To reduce that risk, some experts have suggested the use of B vitamins, including folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. (Some food items already contain added folic acid as a way of getting this B vitamin to pregnant women to help prevent birth defects.) To learn more about PAD, visit:

Unhealthy Habits Alter Memory, Thinking

If you’re having trouble remembering where you left your keys or recalling a word, mull over the number of times and how many years you’ve continued unhealthy behaviours.

Previous research has linked declining thinking and memory skills with unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, abstaining completely from alcohol (versus moderate drinking), not getting enough physical activity, and not eating enough fruits and vegetables daily.

In a new study, Severine Sabia, PhD, and colleagues found that the more often each of the 5,123 adult participants reported these behaviours, the greater their “risk of cognitive deficit,” Sabia told News Briefs in an email. Over a 17-year period, adult men and women who accumulated the most – versus the least – number of unhealthy behaviours were nearly three times more likely to show poor thinking skills – and about two times more likely to have declining memory. Sabia’s team reported their research in the September 2009 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Herbal Contraceptive for Men?

An herbal remedy called gossypol has attracted much interest as a male contraceptive pill. In laboratory studies, gossypol has been shown to damage sperm and interfere with their mobility. In animals, gossypol has numerous effects that reduce the production of sperm.

These results led to several studies in China involving thousands of men, which showed that sperm counts were reduced after about two months of taking gossypol. One of the problems found with gossypol is that up to 50% of the men taking it do not recover fertility. Some studies have followed men for up to four-and-a-half years after they stopped taking gossypol and many have remained infertile. The reasons for this are uncertain, but may have to do with permanent damage to the tissues producing sperm.

Gossypol is found in the roots, seeds and stems of the cotton plant. This natural insecticide causes infertility in insects that feed on cotton plants. With further study, this could be the next big thing – for men.

Study Results on Whole Flaxseed

Adding whole flaxseed to your diet may help lower your cholesterol levels. The findings, reported in the September 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, link daily intake of an average of 430 mg of whole flaxseed with reductions in total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Flaxseed is seen as a heart-healthy food as it contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, fibre, digestion-aiding compounds called lignans as well as alpha linolenic acid, which is linked to heart health. However, individual studies on flaxseed’s impact on blood cholesterol levels have yielded mixed results. Now the reason may be clear: studies have not looked separately at the effects of whole flaxseed versus flaxseed oil. Further studies will be needed.

E-Acupuncture Treats Ovarian Cysts

Acupuncture and exercise can relieve polycystic ovary syndrome, a common condition among women, according to a recent study at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Nearly 10% of women of reproductive age have polycystic ovary syndrome, which involves a large number of small cysts on the ovaries that cause a disturbance in the production of hormones and an increase in the secretion of the male sex hormone. This means that many women with the condition do not ovulate normally, and the syndrome may lead to infertility. These women also run an increased risk of becoming obese, developing Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

“We do not know for certain what causes the condition, despite it being so common,” said Elisabet Stener Victorin, who led the research. “We have seen that women with the syndrome often have high activity in that part of the nervous system that we cannot consciously control, known as the sympathetic nervous system. This may be an important underlying factor in the syndrome.”

One group with the syndrome received electro acupuncture regularly for four months, a method in which needles are stimulated with a weak, low-frequency electric current. Women in a second group were provided with heart rate monitors and instructed to exercise at least three times a week. A control group was informed about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet,  but was given no other specific instructions.

The study showed that activity in the sympathetic nervous system was lower in the women who received acupuncture and in those who took regular exercise than it was in the control group. However, the acupuncture treatment brought further benefits.
“Those who received acupuncture found that their menstruation became more normal,” Stener-Victorin said. “And their levels of testosterone became significantly lower, which is closely connected with the decreased activity in the sympathetic nervous system of women.”

News Notes

• Depression affects cancer survival: Depression can damage a cancer patient’s chances of survival, a review of research on nearly 10,000 patients suggests. A University of British Columbia team said the finding emphasized the need to screen cancer patients carefully for signs of psychological distress.
• Halawi Dates good for arteries: Dates are very sweet, but they don’t raise blood sugar levels and do help protect against the clogging of arteries (atherosclerosis), according to new research at the Rambam Medical Center and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, that will soon be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Dates improve cholesterol profiles and suppress the oxygenization of cholesterol. Halawi dates were slightly better at protecting against atherosclerosis than the Medjool, though both are beneficial.
• Psyllium Best treatment for IBS: A soluble fibre supplement should be the first line of attack in treating irritable bowel syndrome, experts say. Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands compared adding bran, a soluble supplement called psyllium (10 gm per day of either), or a dummy supplement to sufferers’ diets. They found psyllium was the most effective, warning that bran may even worsen the symptoms of the condition, the Aug. 27, 2009 edition of the British Medical Journal reported. As many as one in 10 people is estimated to have the condition. It is characterized by abdominal pain and an irregular bowel habit.
• Smoking linked to breast cancer: Smoking just 100 cigarettes may substantially increase a woman’s odds of developing breast cancer, researchers report in the September / October 2009 issue of the journal Breast Cancer. The study concludes that the sooner a woman quits, the lower her risk. Previous studies have linked regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding postmenopausal obesity as lifestyle changes that can reduce women’s odds of developing breast cancer.
• Healing Requires Oxygen: People who start nicotine replacement therapy at least four weeks before surgery can halve their risk of poor wound healing. This is the finding of the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). “It is not easy to quit smoking just before an operation, but people who smoke are more likely to have complications after surgery than people who do not smoke,” says Peter Sawicki, PhD, the Institute’s director. “Anesthetics and surgery put a strain on the body’s oxygen supply as it is. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that is available in the blood even more, making it more difficult for wounds to heal – a process which requires oxygen.”
• Popping with polyphenols: Popcorn, and even some popular breakfast cereals, contains “surprisingly large” amounts of polyphenols, according to an Aug. 19, 2009 presentation in Washington by scientists at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Whole grain snacks, such as popcorn and some cereals, have been touted for their fibre content – but this is the first study that shows they contain high levels of polyphenols – antioxidants that offer a range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases. (Editor’s Note: Commercially raised corn contains significant levels of pesticides, specifically Atrazine. According to an article in the Townsend Letter for Doctors, “Atrazine is the most widely used pesticide in the United States. It is a chlorinated triazine herbicide used to control certain weeds in crops, particularly corn. In spite of its wide use in North America, atrazine has been banned in most western European countries, with France announcing a ban in 2001 due to atrazine leaching into drinking water and the consequent risks to human health.” Atrazine is also widely used in Ontario corn farming. So, if you’re going to eat corn, make it organic.)
• Sleep and memory: Getting adequate sleep may reduce mistakes in memory, according to a first-of-its-kind study led by a cognitive neuroscientist at Michigan State University. The findings, which appear in the September 2009 issue of the journal Learning & Memory, have practical implications for everyone who commonly makes mistakes because of muddled recall.
• Mental problems more common than thought? The prevalence of anxiety, depression and substance dependency may be twice as high as the mental health community has been led to believe. It depends on how one goes about measuring. Previous studies asked patients to recall their history with depression, anxiety and substance dependence whereas new, long-term tracking studies are showing that people under-report these problems. On the one hand, it could be argued that the diagnostic standards have been set too low if so many people can be considered mentally ill. On the other hand, perhaps these findings argue for more and better mental health care because the disorders are more common than anyone had realized.
• Low self esteem packs on pounds? Your low self-esteem makes you fat rather than your fat lowering your self-esteem, suggests a study in the September 2009 issue of the journal BMC Medicine. Children with a lower self-esteem, those who felt less in control of their lives and  who often worried were more likely to gain weight over the next 20 years, the results showed. Professor David Collier, who led the research, said in an e-mail interview: “What’s novel about this study is that obesity has been regarded as a medical metabolic disorder – but what we’ve found is that emotional problems are a risk factor for obesity. This is not about people with deep psychological problems – all the anxiety and low self-esteem were within the normal range.”
• Street noise = blood pressure? People living near noisy city roads are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure, says a controversial Swedish report published in the September 2009 issue of Environmental Health journal. The findings are worrying since high blood pressure increases the chances of heart disease and stroke. The study has been criticized because the sample size was too small, which the study team admitted to be true, and because other key causes of high blood pressure were not examined, such as diet and smoking. They found that, at above 60 decibels, the risk of high blood pressure rose by more than 25 per cent. Above 64 decibels the risk rose by more than 90%. Until further work is done, this research should be seen as an association between noise and blood pressure, not necessarily as a cause-and-effect.
• Infections double dementia: Infections that occur outside the brain – such as in the chest, intestines, urinary tract or stomach – may speed memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients, UK researchers say. In a study of 222 elderly people with AD, they found that getting infections in places outside the brain could actually double memory loss. The Southampton University researchers think this leads to higher levels of an inflammatory protein called tumour necrosis factor (TNF) in the blood, which in turn may cause inflammation of brain cells. They say better care to prevent infections is very important. Colds and minor wounds may or may not have the same effect as stronger infections, but more work is required. The study was published in the Sept. 8, 2009 edition of the journal Neurology.
• Pest or supplement? A vine that has overgrown almost 10 million acres in the southeastern U.S. may sprout into a dietary supplement. Scientists in Alabama and Iowa are reporting the very first evidence that root extracts from kudzu show promise as a dietary supplement for metabolic syndrome.
• Paraffin wax pollutes indoor air: Burning candles made from paraffin wax – the most common kind used to infuse rooms with romantic ambience, warmth, light, and fragrance – is an unrecognized source of exposure to indoor air pollution, including the known human carcinogens, scientists reported in August at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington. Levels build up in closed rooms, but ventilation can reduce them, they indicated. Candles made from beeswax or soy, although more expensive, are much healthier.
• Nettle leaf versus allergies? Nettle leaf extract may inhibit receptors and enzymes known to play a key part in generating symptoms of allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. An article detailing the research was published in a recent issue of Phythotherapy. The research is suspect, however, because the scientists conducting the study were in the employ of Herbal Science, the company that manufactures this particular extract, which was not tested by any other study groups.
• Low carb damages arteries: Those who are losing pounds by following a low-carb diet may be developing atherosclerosis, says research published in the Aug. 24, 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Low-carb slimming diets may clog arteries and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, the study suggests. Diets based on eating lots of meat, fish and cheese, while restricting carbohydrates, have surged in popularity again in recent years. But Harvard University’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the U.S. found that such habits caused artery damage in tests on mice. The researchers agreed a balanced diet was the best option.
• Turmeric vs. Alzheimer’s: Researchers have found that active substances in “optimized,” high-strength turmeric extracts inhibit accumulation and release of amyloid – a protein fragment considered a prime cause of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). It is important to note that ordinary turmeric does not have the potency of this experimental extract. An article detailing the study, titled “Optimized Turmeric Extracts Have Potent Anti-Amyloidogenic Effects,” will be published in the December 2009 issue of Current Alzheimer’s Research.

Health Notes

• Can carrots improve vision? No, that’s a myth. Carrots are indeed rich in vitamin A, which is important for maintaining eye health. But eating large quantities of carrots or other foods containing vitamin A will not give you 20/20 vision if you don’t already have it. In fact, too much vitamin A can be harmful to your health. A well-balanced diet that includes carrots can protect your eyesight – but it won’t make it any better.
• Can chocolate cause acne? Contrary to popular belief, there is no link between eating chocolate and acne breakouts. Several scientific studies have disproved this common myth.
• 71 That’s how many calories you’ll lose by just talking on the phone for one hour. Spending an equal amount of time making love – one full hour of sex – will burn just 22 calories more, or a total of 93 calories. Standing in line doing nothing for an hour will pare 85 calories. Want to burn off a whopping 286 calories? Take showers until you’ve racked up 60 minutes.

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