News Briefs – December 2009

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Vitamin D Alleviates Multiple Sclerosis

Australian scientists have found that vitamin D may slow the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). Previously, figures had shown that people living in Tasmania – the state furthest from the equator which gets the least amount of sunlight – are seven times more likely to develop MS than Queenslanders, residents of a northern state of Australia that is closer to the equator and gets a substantial amount of sun. These figures had suggested a possible causal link between a lack of sunlight exposure (and the vitamin D it produces in contact with human skin) and the disease.

Now, researchers at the Menzies Institute have found that taking more vitamin D may also reduce symptoms of the disease or moderate its progression. They presented their paper on November 18 at a national scientific conference for medical research in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The autoimmune disease, MS, affects the central nervous system and occurs more often in regions furthest from the equator.

In Canada, it is impossible to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin D – considered important by heart and cancer agencies for cancer and heart disease prevention – without supplementation during the long winter.

Niacin Has ‘Clear Superiority Over Statin’

A specially-designed form of the B vitamin niacin has been shown to be more effective at reducing arterial plaque buildup, a sign of heart disease, than the statin drug against which it was compared. The study found that a special, extended-release formulation of niacin, which is called Niaspan (made by Abbott), was more effective than the Merck & Co. Inc. statin drug, ezetimibe (also known as Zetia). The time-release niacin raised HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, while ezetimibe lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. However, examination after 14 months indicated that the drug-caused LDL reduction only prevented further arterial buildup, whereas the niacin-caused HDL increase caused an actual reduction in arterial buildup.

The researchers declared the “clear superiority of niacin over ezetimibe,” in this study of 208 people (all of whom were already on other statins before and during the clinical test) and ended the research early. The study will be published in a future issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, but was posted on the NEJM website on Nov. 15, 2009, ahead of print publication.

Yoga Promotes Healthy Heart

Heart rate variability, a sign of a healthy heart, has been shown to be higher in yoga practitioners than in non-practitioners. The ongoing variation of heart rate is known as heart rate variability (HRV), which refers to the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. In healthy individuals the HRV is high, whereas cardiac abnormalities lead to a low HRV. The research team examined the HRVs of 42 non-practitioners of yoga and 42 who were experienced practitioners. The new study will be published in a future issue of the International Journal of Medical Engineering and Informatics, but was released online ahead of print, on Nov. 9, 2009.

But yoga may help with more than heartbeat variability – it may also reduce pain medication needed for back pain. In a separate study, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston Medical Center found that yoga may be more effective than standard treatment for reducing chronic low back pain in minority populations. Participants were divided into a yoga group and a group that pursued standard treatment (including doctors and pain drugs). The yoga group participated in 12 weekly 75-minute classes that included postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Home practice for 30 minutes daily was strongly encouraged. This second study appears in the November issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

Is Fish healthy? Depends On How You Cook It

You’ll get more heart-healthy benefits from omega-3 fatty acids if you eat baked or boiled fish – instead of fried, dried or salted fish – according to a new study. Men who consumed the most omega-3 fatty acids – about 3.3 grams per day – had a 23% lower risk of cardiac death than those who ate only 0.8 grams per day. Women didn’t show the same degree of benefit unless they also consumed greater amounts of tofu or shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) along with fish. (Fish oil supplements are contaminant-free and contain consistent amounts of omega-3.) This study, which looked at 185,000 men and women over a 12-year period, was presented on November 17 at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) annual meeting in Orlando.

Tai Chi Reduces Arthritic Knee Pain

Researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine have determined that patients over 65 years old with osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee who engage in regular Tai Chi exercise improve physical function and experience less pain. Tai Chi (Chuan) is a traditional style of Chinese martial arts that features slow, rhythmic movements to induce mental relaxation and enhance balance, strength, flexibility and self-efficacy.

The research was conducted on 40 Boston-area residents with an average age of 65 and with OA in the knee. Twenty were selected at random and asked to perform the following one-hour routine twice weekly for 12 weeks: 10 minute self-massage (and review of Tai Chi principles); 30 minutes of Tai Chi movement; 10 minutes of breathing technique; and 10 minutes of relaxation. At the end of the 12-week period, patients practising Tai Chi exhibited a significant decrease in knee pain compared with those in the control group.

The elderly population is most at risk for developing knee OA, which results in pain, functional limitations or disabilities and a reduced quality of life. A recent Centers for Disease Control report explains that half of American adults may develop symptoms of OA in at least one knee by age 85. Physical components of Tai Chi are consistent with current exercise recommendations for OA, which include range of motion, flexibility, muscle conditioning and aerobic workout. Researchers believe the mental feature of Tai Chi addresses negative effects of chronic pain by promoting psychological well-being, life satisfaction and perceptions of health. Full findings of the study are published in the November 2009 issue of Arthritis Care & Research.

Metabolic Syndrome? ‘Moderate-Fat’ Diet is Better

A moderate-fat diet may work better to protect against heart disease than a low-fat regimen for people suffering from metabolic syndrome, suggests new research. (Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions – including a reduced ability to process sugar – that puts people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. To be diagnosed, you must have three of the following: belly fat, high triglycerides, low ‘good’ cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure.)

Despite public perception, since 2000 the American Heart Association (AHA) has not been recommending a low-fat diet, but rather one that is low in saturated fats and trans fatty acids, not low in total fat. The new study, presented November 16 at the AHA’s annual meeting in Florida, confirmed that approach – at least for those who have metabolic syndrome. The researchers found that, although the moderate-fat group didn’t drop triglycerides, inflammation, and other risk factors as much as the low-fat group, the reduction in risk was still positive and allowed metabolic syndrome sufferers to cut their carbohydrate intake – which helps them control their all-important blood sugar levels.

So with a moderate-fat diet, one can: 1) reduce heart disease risk substantially (not as much as on a low-fat diet but substantially); and 2) metabolic syndrome sufferers can also reduce their carb intake (because some calories are made up in “moderate fat”), which fights their syndrome.

Caffeine Disrupts Sleep – Even When You Sleep

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant to counteract sleepiness, yet it has detrimental effects on the sleep of night-shift workers who must slumber during the day, just as their biological clock sends a strong wake-up signal, according to a study at University of Montreal. One key finding: The older you get, the more affected your sleep will be by caffeine.

Coffee itself was not tested, just caffeine, which is a psychoactive stimulant drug. Caffeine pills were used for the experiment. Another conclusion: Lack of sleep was not the only problem. Caffeine caused disruptions in sleep efficiency, sleep duration, slow-wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep. So, suggests the study team, people may have a continuous sleep, wake up tired and still not realize they haven’t had a good sleep due to caffeine. But do you know where you’re getting your caffeine – and in what amounts?

Caffeine is normally found in various products in differing amounts. The amounts of caffeine (in mg) for key sources are: Jolt Cola, 280 per can (695 ml); Starbuck’s coffee, 240 per tall (12 U.S. fluid ounce); extra strength caffeine pill, 200 per tablet; drip coffee, 115-175 per cup (207 ml); percolated coffee, 80-135 per cup (207 ml); espresso coffee, 100 per serving (44-60 ml); regular caffeine pill, 100 per tablet; Red Bull, 80 per can (250 ml); Excedrin tablet, 65; Mountain Dew, 54.5 per can (355 ml); black tea, 50 per cup (177 ml); Coke Classic, 34 per can (355 ml); dark chocolate, 31 per bar (43 gm); green tea, 30 per cup (177 ml); milk chocolate, 10 per bar (43 gm); decaffeinated coffee, 5-15 per cup (207 ml). The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other institutions, is detailed in the November 2009 issue of the journal Sleep Medicine.

Can Green Tea Combat Cancer?

Green tea extract (GTE) has shown some initial promise as a cancer prevention agent for oral cancer in patients with a pre-malignant condition known as oral leukoplakia, according to researchers at The University of Texas. Other studies of polyphenol-rich green tea as an anti-cancer agent have had mixed results. But this study, although far from conclusive because of its small size, is important because it is the first to examine green tea as a chemo-preventive agent in this high-risk patient population.

Following three months of high GTE intake, some clinical benefit was noted for more than half of the patients, and oral tissue biopsies showed some evidence of an anti-angiogenesis mechanism – meaning the extract may have helped prevent the pre-cancer cells from tricking the body into growing new blood vessels in their area to promote their own growth and expansion.

Annoying side effects, including insomnia and nervousness, were noted among the group taking the highest dosage, but no serious toxicity was found. It is important to note that the amount of GTE taken by subjects would be equivalent – in terms of actual tea  – to about eight cups, taken three times a day, or 24 cups a day. Note too, that the firm that makes the GTE that was tested also funded the study. This research was released online on Nov. 5, 2009, ahead of publication in Cancer Prevention Research.

Does Flu Vaccine Pose A Health Risk?

A Canadian doctor is raising concerns that all inoculations, such as the H1N1 flu vaccine, pose a major health risk. The theory of Andrew Moulden, PhD, holds that the injection of even parts of non-living viruses – which is the only viral material that the flu vaccine actually contains – prompts a “non-specific, hyper-stimulation” of the immune system, which in turn causes chronic health disorders. All vaccines, Moulden claims, cause mini-strokes, resultant brain damage, and neurological problems. The same damage is caused by the diseases themselves, from polio to measles, because of the same immune hyper-stimulation, he writes. Vaccines simply take away the intense risk of serious damage to a small group of disease sufferers, and instead convert it to less serious damage for the entire vaccinated population, asserts Moulden. Find his website is at:


· Meditation may lower stress, blood pressure: Blood pressure fell among 298 college students who spent about 20 minutes at least once a day to reach the “restful alertness” state of Transcendental Meditation, a new study suggests. The research, reported in the December 2009 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, found meditating students also had “reduced psychological distress, anxiety, and depression.”

· Poor nutrition linked to functional abilities in elderly: A study released online on Nov. 17, 2009, ahead of printing in an upcoming issue of Nutrition Journal, suggests that hospitalized elderly patients who receive poor nutrition are also the patients most likely to have reduced functional capacity. Roughly a third of the 240 men and women studied were deemed to have adequate nutrition; another third were at risk of malnutrition; and the last third, approximately, were malnourished. It was this last group that had the greatest problems with daily functioning.

· Strength training may help lung patients: People with chronic lung disease, such as emphysema or bronchitis, can strengthen their arms and legs with resistance training. This strength may help them – despite their breathing problems – perform everyday tasks more easily, a new review of 18 studies confirms. The study appeared in the November 2009 issue of the journal Chest.

· Fruits and vegetables reduce heart risk, death risk: Seniors who eat three or more servings of vegetables daily have a 30% lower risk of dying from heart disease, and a 15% lower risk of dying from any cause, than those who eat fewer than three servings of vegetables a day. That’s the conclusion of a study of almost 5,000 seniors in Philadelphia. This is especially the case if the person has good cognitive functioning. The new study was presented on November 18 at the AHA’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.

· Tylenol linked to asthma: An analysis of 19 studies provides additional evidence of increased asthma risk in children and adults given acetaminophen. The drug lowers levels of an antioxidant called glutathione found in lung tissue. However, this is likely only one factor in the rise in asthma prevalence seen in recent years. The analysis appears in the November 2009 issue of the journal Chest.

· Surgery errors persist: Each day in the U.S., there are five to 10 incorrect surgical procedures performed, some with devastating effects, according to a new study published in the November 2009 issue of the Archives of Surgery. Typical problems are surgery performed on the wrong site or wrong side of the body; using an incorrect procedure; or using a procedure on the wrong patient. In addition, there were a number of “close calls,” where a problem was recognized before the procedure was done, often as a result of new safeguard procedures. To keep perspective, adverse events occurred once in every 18,000 procedures. Half the mistakes took place in the operating room where ophthalmology surgeries led the pack on errors and orthopedic surgeries came second.


 · Myth: Feed a cold, starve a fever. Truth: This old saying popularized by Mark Twain actually has no merit. When you’re sick, whether you have a cold or a fever or both, you need the same liquids and nutrients you needed when you were well or you’ll never get better. Don’t feel like eating solids? Then opt for liquid nutrition such as tomato juice, protein drinks or soup.

What’s the most popular drink on Earth?

Bet you were tempted to say soft drinks, weren’t you? We were tempted to say beer. But no, the most popular drink in the world, by far, is plain old water. But be careful about forcing down way too much water because you heard somewhere you need a couple of litres a day – which is another myth. Let thirst be your guide. Many people have died or entered a coma after drinking too much water. It can lead to a condition known as water intoxication and to a related problem resulting from the dilution of sodium in the body, hyponatremia. It’s as if your body cells drown in water and they can virtually burst. By the way, after water, tea is the second most popular beverage worldwide. Recent studies have shown that more of tea’s beneficial polyphenols are absorbed when vitamin C and/or fruit sugar is present – such as you’ll find in the classic slice of lemon with tea.

Common cold… common myths

Myth: Colds and flu are most contagious before symptoms appear.

Truth: Colds and flu spread most easily when symptoms are at their worst. That’s because these infections are commonly passed through coughed-up or sneezed-out droplets containing the virus, or via hand-to-hand contact. The risk persists as long as the symptoms do.

Myth: You shouldn’t kiss a baby or anyone when you have a cold

Truth: A peck on the lips probably won’t hurt, says Neil Schachter, MD, author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu. Unlike a sneeze or a cough, which brings forth viral-rich fluids from deep in your airways, the saliva hanging out in your mouth harbours very little cold virus. So it’s surprisingly hard to pass the illness through kissing, even repeated kissing. The best way to keep your baby and your friends from catching your cold is to wash your hands.

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