Friday, 20 January 2017

Does Drumming Improve Parkinson's Disease Symptoms?

You probably only know of Parkinson's disease as a shambling, unstoppable monster slowly destroying the health of family or friends if you're unlucky, or celebrities like Michael J Fox if your fortunes are better. So it sounds unbelievable that something as...not-medical...as drumming could improve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, right? Actually, that's what a new study is suggesting, as interest in natural alternatives continues to grow because of the frequent failures and toxicities of pharmaceutical drugs.

A djembe.
The study, published in mid-2016, involved 10 patients assigned to twice-weekly West African drumming classes, and 10 matched controls who also had Parkinson's disease. Both groups completed the Parkinson's Disease Questionnaire (PDQ-39), the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) and motor and cognitive tests by someone who didn't know which patient was assigned to what group. After the first six weeks of the twelve-week study, drummers had significantly improved PDQ-39 scores, with an average improvement of 5.8 points. The drummers also improved their walking ability, but this was not seen as "significant". The "P-value", which measures the likelihood that the intervention had an effect on the patients' health, was 0.069; "statistically significant" improvements need a P-value of less than 0.05. However, a value of 0.069 still means that there was a 93.1% chance that the drumming was responsible for the improvements to their health! Considering that they have nothing to lose by drumming, it may be considered as good enough by many. The PDQ-39 test asks 39 questions to do with physical abilities such as walking and writing, as well as a few on mental state and social life. As drumming could easily reduce scores by 5-6 points by solely improving the mental state and social factors, it is also important to see the improvements in walking.

But...why drumming? It turns out that drumming has extremely ancient origins, for several reasons. Even certain species of insects, some of the first animals to live on land, use drumming for communication. In some cases, antennal drumming can even alter the development of larvae, determining whether they end up as workers or reproductive females! It is theorised that drumming, by its rhythmic vibration/sound, could affect epigenetic expression. Studies on humans have also found other health benefits. In one trial, both older and younger drummers showed a drop in stress and anxiety from taking djembe lessons, and in the older participants systolic blood pressure dropped. In another, active participation in music, whether it be singing, dancing or drumming, resulted in a higher pain tolerance through increased endorphin levels. Simply listening to music had no effect. Others have found some quite shocking improvements with drumming lessons. Huntington's disease is a genetic neurodegenerative disorder considered to be fatal and irreversible. However, two months of drumming lessons caused improvements in executive function and improvements to white matter structure, especially in the tissue that connects both hemispheres of the brain. Drumming could also boost immunity: a trial on 111 people found that it increased DHEA-cortisol ratios and improved immune cell activity. Despite being a fun hobby and not a medical intervention, drumming has actually been shown to improve multiple aspects of physical and mental health, though more research should be done to determine any specific benefits from specific styles, frequencies or rhythms.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Could Chillies Help You Live Longer?

We all want to live longer, healthier lives, and the issue of longevity has gained prominence in recent years as a wide variety of antiaging interventions is being researched - from down-to-earth lifestyle changes to unusual therapies involving blood products and gene editing. One of the more "normal" studies to recently be published is a new population-based study examining the effect that chilli consumption may have on mortality rates.

Chicken chilli momos (Bangalore). Source: Vikramdewangan22889
Until now, there has been no large study in the West around to support the benefits of spices on overall health, with China publishing the first. Now, the USA has caught up, finding that consumption of hot red chilli peppers can reduce all-cause mortality rates in adults by 13%. For this study, data from the NHANES III cohort was analysed, with a total of 16,179 participants involved. People who were most likely to eat red chilli were younger, male, white or Mexican-American, married, more likely to smoke or consume alcohol and ate more vegetables and meats on average. They also had lower income, less education and lower HDL levels. Being younger and eating more vegetables has positive effects on mortality; smoking, alcohol (in large amounts), lower income and lower HDL ("good" cholesterol) has negative effects. After adjusting for factors that could skew the findings on chilli consumption, it was found that eating the spice reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 13% over the average follow-up time of almost 19 years. This was mainly caused by a reduction in deaths caused by heart disease and stroke.

The mechanism of action is not totally clear, but it is thought that activation of the TRP channels by capsaicin (the substance that gives chilli its heat) is largely responsible. TRP channel activation results in anti-obesity cellular processes and modulation of blood flow to the heart. Capsaicin also has an antimicrobial effect, possibly reducing levels of excessive gut bacteria. Chilli also contains vitamin C, B vitamins and carotenoids, which have their own health benefits. Research on mice has found that TRP channels, such as the capsaicin-sensitive TRPV, can have positive effects on recovery after ischaemia and preconditioning protection against heart ischaemia.

These results help to verify the larger Chinese study. Researchers in China looked at the data on health and diet of over 487,000 participants, with an average follow-up time of seven years. Over these seven years, the death rate for those who ate dishes containing chilli once or twice a week was 10% lower than for those who ate chilli less than weekly. People who ate chilli three or more times a week had a 14% lower risk of dying. The protective effect was also more pronounced for participants who drank alcohol. Specific causes of death that chilli was most protective against were ischaemic heart disease, respiratory diseases and cancers, with fresh chilli being superior to dried chilli. Overall, if you aren't currently a fan of chilli or the cultural cuisines that feature spicy dishes, it could be worthwhile to start exploring them. SBS Food has recipes from many, if not most, cultures around the world, from Moroccan to Singaporean and South American cuisine.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

What is Chair Yoga?

Many people are eager to begin exercise in order to improve their fitness, but unfortunately some of us have a very difficult time finding something that will help us at our level of limitation. This includes many people suffering from osteoarthritis, one of the most common types of arthritis in older people. Osteoarthritis is the degradation of the cartilage in large joints, typically the hips and knees, and also leads to pain, swelling and stiffness. Unfortunately, the most common treatment for this disease is pharmaceutical drugs to relieve pain and inflammation, which do not always address the root cause and are frequently toxic. They also do not address the negative effects on strength, flexibility and balance which may contribute to falling in older people.

Yoga is one of the most accepted natural alternatives to these drugs, which may improve pain and joint functioning. But not everyone is able to, or feels comfortable with, regular forms of yoga which require standing. This is where chair yoga comes in. Chair yoga uses modified poses to accommodate the participant's need to either sit or stand while holding the chair, thus preventing falling or the fear of doing so.

What about the research? A recently published study aimed to test the effect of chair yoga on 131 older adults with lower-extremity osteoarthritis, comparing it to a health education program. Both of these interventions ran twice weekly for 8 weeks. Chair yoga significantly reduced pain, walking speed and fatigue compared to the health education program, but the effects wore off once people stopped practicing it. Scores on the WOMAC Physical Function test and balance also improved. For example, balance scores improved from just over 31 to almost 35 on the Berg balance score within 4 weeks, then rose by a tiny amount to 35 and stabilised. These results were almost seen as statistically significant (an over 95% chance of being caused by the treatment). Pain scores improved more rapidly at first and then stabilised, while changes to fatigue scores varied in speed over time. Teachers of chair yoga describe it as making the health benefits of yoga accessible to everyone, and some students can progress towards less dependence on using the chair for seating or balance support. Overall, if you suffer from a chronic illness that prevents you from doing traditional yoga, but you are able to perform it with the help of a chair, it's worth trying.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Don't Use Splenda for Weight Loss

Many people who want to lose weight, for the new year or for other reasons, switch sugar for artificial sweeteners to reduce energy consumption. However, many also do not know of the multitude of research papers uncovering the harmful effects of these sweeteners. Recently there has been a new addition to this multitude, a new study examining the effects of Splenda (sucralose) on the thyroid function and metabolism of mammals.

All of this may be a big surprise to those new to the world of natural health. Advertisements frequently pressure parents to use artificial sweeteners in cooking to keep their children healthy, and often depict scenes such as mothers baking while holding a young child. But it looks increasingly likely that the reality is that these sweeteners actually promote weight gain, rather than prevent it!

Sucralose. Source: Rob Hooft
In this new study, 105 Sprague-Dawley rats were divided into three groups: one without sugar, one with 10 grams of sucrose and a third with enough sucralose to create the same level of sweetness as the second diet. All of these had the same energy content. While sugar stimulates thyroid hormone production, the diet containing sucralose led to a suppression of thyroid peroxidase (TPO), T4 and T3 production. Sucralose seemed to interfere with normal pituitary-thyroid axis function, as it did not only reduce TPO but also TSH - thyroid stimulating hormone. While overall levels of T4 and T3 decreased, levels of the free hormones increased, in an attempt to counteract the effects of sucralose. This means that you may not notice the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners right away, even when they are damaging your body, because of the regulatory mechanisms that keep the blood normal and healthy. Sucralose also increased appetite and weight gain, exactly what people are trying to avoid by consuming artificial sweeteners! Part of this is because the thyroid hormones help with keeping the metabolic fires burning, too little leads to a slower metabolism and therefore weight gain. On the other hand, those with hyperthyroidism suffer from weight loss if untreated, but do not damage yourself with artificial sweeteners if your thyroid is overactive! To make things even worse, it was also found that sucralose negatively affected gut bacteria and its epithelial border function. This may lead to poor digestion or inflammation.

While skeptics would try to invalidate this study because rats were used instead of humans, the authors stated that it has already been demonstrated that T4 levels in rodents are a valid indication of thyroid function in humans. There is also the fact that poisoning humans is completely unethical. And if you do want human studies, one on 17 obese people showed that sucralose consumption negatively affects blood glucose and insulin levels. Therefore, long-term consumption may contribute to diabetes or insulin resistance, and this on top of any effects on thyroid function could be disastrous to your health. Overall, it's best to just reduce added sugar consumption, and eat fruit or small amounts of honey or stevia instead of toxic chemicals.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

More Evidence Supporting Aluminum-Alzheimer's Link

Today, too many pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cleaning products and even baby products contain aluminium, which has been claimed for many years to contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. Until now, however, scientists have not had strong evidence to back this up, but Professor Exley has since uncovered new evidence against exposing ourselves to the element. In a 2014 press release, he said:

Nothing is worth this.
"At some point in time the accumulation of aluminium in the brain will achieve a toxic threshold and a specific neurone or area of the brain will stop coping with the presence of aluminium and will start reacting to its presence. If the same neurone or brain tissue is also suffering other insults, or another on-going degenerative condition, then the additional response to aluminium will exacerbate these effects. In this way aluminium may cause a particular condition to be more aggressive and perhaps to have an earlier onset - such occurrences have already been shown in Alzheimer’s disease related to environmental and occupational exposure to aluminium.” 

He also explained that the aluminium content in the brains of people who died with or of Alzheimer's disease has been found to be much higher than age-matched controls. Even higher levels have been found in people who developed Alzheimer's disease at earlier ages. This may be a combination of higher exposure and a greater tendency to accumulate aluminium than those who do not develop the disease.

In his most recent study, published in 2016, the aluminium content of the brains of 12 people who were diagnosed with familial Alzheimer's disease was finally measured. The concentrations of aluminium were found to be extremely high, with 5 of the 12 individuals showing an excess of 10 micrograms per gram of dry weight! The concentrations were higher than all previous measurements of brain aluminium, except cases of aluminium-induced encephalopathy. In contrast, a study of 60 human brains found an average concentration of only one microgram per gram of dry weight; more than two is considered a concern. He also mentions that other reports of exposure to aluminium now allow the conclusion that this element's contribution to Alzheimer's disease is inevitable under certain conditions. It was concluded that the genetic predispositions to Alzheimer's disease may actually promote the accumulation of more aluminium than in those without these genes.

Fortunately, you can both minimise your exposure to aluminium, as well as detoxify yourself from past exposure. One study with 20 people found that when compared with urine, levels of aluminium in sweat were three times higher, meaning that saunas or vigorous exercise could help to remove it and other unwanted metals. This is safer than chelation, which can also pull out beneficial minerals from the body. Overall, it's essential to your health and the wellbeing of those close to you to avoid aluminium, even if it means becoming one of those annoying hippies or "crunchy" people.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Fit Tai Chi Into Your New Year's Resolutions

Many of us have been making a list of New Year's resolutions, with "losing weight" and "exercising more" being two of the most common. But what if you can't keep up with the usual sports or gym classes because of aging or other health conditions? Fortunately - just in time for the new year - an Australian natural health magazine has put out an antiaging special issue which discusses how tai chi may be the right exercise for you.

Source: Pagodashophouse
Tai chi is based on some forms of Chinese martial arts, and may be over a thousand years old. Besides being an ancient tradition, research from multiple countries has suggested that tai chi can prevent falls, restore balance and increase bone density, all problems that come with aging. For example, a study found that older practitioners of tai chi, who had an average of seven years experience, had the same balance skills as younger volunteers. This wasn't during normal conditions, but instead volunteers were asked to rotate their whole heads and bodies for one minute, which is meant to impair balance. Other research has shown that tai chi fans have superior balance to age-matched controls, with less body sway, greater confidence and faster reaction times when asked to shift their body weight. Because of all of these findings in favour of tai chi for older adults, the editor of Age and Aging stated, "Perhaps the time has come to encourage tai chi more widely in the older population in general and in our patients at risk of falls in particular."

Perhaps, with the tragic death of Carrie Fisher on our minds, you are interested in improving your cardiovascular health in order to avoid the same fate. Recent research published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggested that tai chi can help those who practice it regularly improve muscle strength and cardiovascular health. Volunteers were found to have both stronger knee muscles and better elasticity of the arteries. The average large and small artery compliance both significantly increased, by 26.2% and 17.9% respectively. As the Natural Health Magazine special stated, tai chi holds a particularly high potential for the health of Australian women, as heart disease is currently the number one killer.

If you do decide to begin practising tai chi, it is important to not just settle for any program, as some have no evidence supporting them and there are a lot of sham products on the market. Among the styles most likely to be effective are the Sun, Yang and Wu forms. Slower, gentle styles are recommended for building bone density and strength, while faster varieties are better for cardiovascular health. The Sun style is characterised by higher stances and is best for improving strength, preventing falls and managing arthritis and osteoporosis. Yang has many lower stances, and a lot of upper body movement; it is considered to be beneficial for heart health. Wu is characterised by soft circular movements and was described in the NHM article as getting one woman out of a neck brace.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Vitamin C and Exercise May Share the Same Benefits

We sometimes find that beneficial foods, lifestyle interventions and medicinal herbs share the same mechanisms of action. Now it seems that this is also the case for exercise and vitamin C, as they have been found to share one of the same pathways for protecting cardiovascular health. While this doesn't mean you can swap exercise for supplements, it could mean that using both together is best.

As a high-risk group for cardiovascular diseases, overweight and obese people are strongly urged to exercise regularly, although more than half ignore this advice. For those who do, however, one of the benefits is a reduction in a protein known as endothelin-1 (ET-1). This constricts the small blood vessels, making it harder to deliver oxygen and nutrients, as well as clear out toxins, in every tissue, including the heart, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Recently, Colorado researchers revealed their findings that 500mg of time-released vitamin C reduced ET-1 just as much as walking for exercise. Of course, this does not mean you can use vitamin C to get out of exercising, as it has many other benefits to muscle and bone health, among other parts of the body (and we are designed for physical activity!). However, this does build on the research of Linus Pauling, who hypothesised that our usually low intake of vitamin C (he recommended 10-12 grams) is behind the epidemic of cardiovascular disease.

Other research has also shown a protective effect of vitamin C against cardiovascular issues. An earlier case-control study (100 cases, 198 controls) aiming to see if vitamin C and other nutrients could protect against heart attacks found that, compared to the lowest quartile for vitamin C intake, those in the highest had an 80% lower risk of heart attack! Vitamin E and fibre both reduced heart attack risk by 70%. Vitamin C may also protect against repeat cardiovascular events. In a study of 800 people who already had heart attacks, those given vitamin C supplementation suffered a collective total of 55 events, compared to 75 in the placebo group. High doses of vitamin C can have fast-acting effects too. When healthy male volunteers were given 2000mg of vitamin C, arterial stiffness was reduced by almost 10% within hours! This may have been because it protected nitric oxide against oxidation. With these studies and more showing the benefits of vitamin C, why not combine vitamin C-rich foods and exercise for the best results?