Friday, 21 April 2017

Diet Drinks Are Not Healthy

For years now, "diet" soft drinks have been marketed as a healthy alternative to the traditional sugary beverages, particularly if you need to lose weight. In more recent times there has also been greater awareness of other harmful effects of sugar, whether or not you are overweight. But the health effects of quitting sugar also depend on what you replace it with, as a new study shows.

This new study, published in Stroke on the 20th of April, found that drinking one or more cans of diet soft drinks a day was linked with triple the risk of stroke and dementia, compared to those who did not drink them. Not a 50% increase, not double, but triple! While sugary drinks were not linked to stroke or dementia, it still does not mean they are a good choice. Part of this lack of association was because there were not enough people consuming sugary drinks, so no significant (probable causation) link could be found. Most people preferred "diet" versions. For this, researchers analysed data from people in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring cohort, comparing sugary and artificial sweetened beverage intake with incidence of stroke and dementia. A total of 2,888 participants older than 45 were included in the stroke cohort, and 1,484 people over 60 made up the dementia cohort. Everyone had completed food intake questionnaires on a regular basis from 1991 to 2001, and the researchers compared the beverage section to the incidence of stroke and dementia over the following ten years. After adjusting for sex, age, smoking, caloric intake, diet quality and physical activity, and education in the dementia cohort, they found the tripling of stroke and dementia risk. This helps to reduce a "correlation" effect, where people with overall healthier lifestyles would avoid artificial sweeteners, thus driving the apparent risk of them up. Consuming between 1 and 6 diet soft drinks a week was linked to higher risk of stroke, but not of dementia.

Another study by the same group of researchers on sugary drinks and cognitive decline was published in early March. This one showed a link between consumption of both sugary and artificially sweetened drinks and reduced brain volume. The sugary drinks included both soft drinks and fruit juice, and were also linked with worse episodic memory in the middle-aged adults. As the authors concluded, greater total intake of sugary drinks, soft drink consumption and fruit juice intake were all linked with signs of preclinical Alzheimer's disease. Compared to less than one, one or two sugary drinks a day was linked with a 0.55% lower brain volume, more than two was linked with a 0.68% lower volume. The best option is really to just drink water or tea, or unsweetened coffee (in moderation!) if you want the caffeine buzz. There are most likely hundreds of different tea blends from around the world that have a range of flavours and health benefits, so you would not be missing much.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Is Seven Hours of Sleep the Best?

Conventional wisdom says that we need to aim for eight hours of sleep every night in order to reap its full health benefits. But is sleeping for eight or more hours harmful, or a sign that your health needs improvement? More recent research points to the answer of "yes".

This is not based on a tiny pilot study of 30 people. One of the largest sleep studies, involving one million volunteers over a period of six years, found that the optimal sleep time for longevity is sex to seven hours on average. Dr Daniel Kripke and his colleagues also have plenty of backup, as thirty out of thirty studies validate his findings. According to Dr Kripke, sleeping for more than seven hours, or less than five and a half, is associated with a shorter life. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Dr Gregg Jacobs has also found that five and a half hours of sleep is enough for optimal health. He has a concept called "core sleep".

Source: ForestWander
In Dr Kripke's research, people who slept more than 8 hours a night were 12% more likely to die within the six-year study period than people who slept 6.5-7.5 hours per night. If they slept more than 8.5 hours, or less than 4 hours, this risk was 15% higher. The participants were aged between 30 and 102 years, so this applies to all age groups. However, medical conditions may have at least partially caused the link between sleeping too little or too much and earlier death. On the other hand, too much sleep may be a causative factor for suffering an earlier death, as it means less physical activity. Research on older women has found that sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer - even if they exercise regularly. Women who
spent 11 or more hours each day sitting down had a 12% higher risk of death, but lower levels of inactivity were not exempt from being harmful. Sitting for more than 6 or 8 hours a day is, as Dr JoAnn Manson says, not likely to be good for you. Fortunately, workplaces are beginning to adapt, with standing and treadmill desks as well as having nothing against you standing and stretching for a few minutes.

Maybe you sleep too much because you aren't getting "proper" sleep; in this case, there are simple things you can do to improve the quality and depth of sleep (which would also boost your motivation to exercise). One of these is "stimulus control", in other words, use the bedroom for sleeping and intimacy only. If you have been lying awake for more than half an hour in bed, leave the room and do something relaxing somewhere else. This was a main feature of Dr Jacob's Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia program. His research on this involved ten thousand participants with a 90% success rate, and 85-90% were able to reduce or cut out sleep medications. Positive thoughts surrounding sleep, such as "It is fine to allow sleep to happen within 30 minutes of going to bed", and "It is natural to awaken briefly during the night since sleep is polyphasic", can also help. These can help us to un-learn the unrealistic expectations that the eight-hour belief taught us about sleep, which only increase stress and reduce sleep quality even more. Using both sleep scheduling, where you go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day, and sleeping in a dark, uncluttered room, can help to reset our 24-hour rhythms of rest and activity. While the right quality and quantity of sleep are very important, there's nothing to worry about, as you can start today with improving sleep hygiene.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Cold and Flu Prevention, Part 2

Previously I wrote an article on natural ways to prevent and beat colds and the flu, which also benefit your immunity and health as a whole. But there are so many ways you can do this, and while they do depend on the individual, here are some additional basic and herbal interventions to keep you healthy, regardless of the season.

First, here are some very basic interventions that are recommended for even the most conventionally-minded. If you or someone you know has a cold, remember that it is contagious for about the same time as most people experience symptoms, for 2-7 days. Some viruses can be caught by inhalation, as they are suspended in the air when a person coughs or sneezes nearby. Sometimes you can catch a cold by direct contact, as some viruses can live for up to 3 hours on human skin. Also, while most people do touch their faces subconsciously, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth during or soon after being around others infected with colds. Washing your hands regularly, especially before eating, is very important to remember too (unfortunately, many don't).

Of course, there are many herbal remedies that could prevent and treat colds. One of these is Astragalus membranaceus, otherwise known as astraglaus or huang qi. It has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat immune deficiencies, as well as to increase vitality and stamina (most likely the reason for the "qi" part - qi means "life force). In a clinical study comparing echinacea, astragalus and licorice, astragalus had the strongest affects in stimulating immune cells. However, it is not typically recommended during acute infections, it is more of a prevention and maintenance herb (Phytotherapy Desk Reference, Thomson and Gennat).

Travelling to the West, Sambucus nigra, or elderberry, has also been used for centuries in treating colds and flu, as far back as 400 BC. Its purple-black fruit is rich in antioxidants, and researchers believe that it works by activating immune cells that engulf and destroy pathogens. The German Commission E, a high-level guide for the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines, recognises elderberry as an effective treatment to relieve colds. Use as an alternative to conventional cold medicines is therefore quite common in some regions.

Now for something that most of us are familiar with: Allium sativum, or garlic. When raw garlic is chewed or chopped, it releases a substance called allicin, which has demonstrated antiviral activity against the rhinovirus (the most common cold virus) and other pathogens. This is another herb that looks more useful for preventing colds, as opposed to treating them. In one clinical study, those who took a garlic supplement with allicin had their risk of catching a cold cut by 65%! Compared to placebo, the garlic supplement was also linked to 70% less cold symptoms, with the average duration 1.5 days instead of 5 days. Once again, you don't have to put up with sporadic weeks of misery and inconvenience, there are other ways, but seeing a qualified naturopath can determine what treatment plan is right for you.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

What? Niacin Prevents Cannibalism?

Weird news, or news that at least looks weird at first, is everywhere. Even in the world of natural health, if you know where to look. This round of weird news that I'm talking about comes out of the Universite de Strasbourg in France, where Tissier and colleagues uncovered some shocking behavior in wild hamsters, and a simple way to prevent it.

In the study, the researchers identified wild hamsters that were eating diets mostly made up of corn and only corn, and were exhibiting siblicide (killing siblings) and maternal infanticide (mothers killing their own children). The mother hamsters eating only corn would keep their young babies with their stashes of corn, and eat them too! This and siblicide were so frequent that only 5% of the babies whose mothers were fed corn survived. In those whose mothers had varied diets, 80% survived. However, they only had to supplement the corn-only diets with niacin (vitamin B3) to prevent the cannibalism. Just one vitamin!

Corn is fine in moderation, however.
Source: Sam Fentress (CC BY-SA: 2.0)
This research also raises the question of how our knowledge of nutrition may have shaped world events. Compulsory niacin fortification began around the same time as society began to change from "let's see how many people we can kill/conquer" to "let's rebuild" and more individualistic mentalities. Before this, niacin deficiency was common even in North America, as roller mill processing left out the alkali-soaking technique, previously employed by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, that enables niacin to be absorbed by our digestive systems. While they were far from anti-war hippies, extreme poverty and struggling for survival was a firmly-entrenched norm around the world until the 19th century. And even though the West is now seen as a paragon of wealth and freedom, niacin deficiency disease, known as pellagra, killed over 100,000 people every year in the southern USA until the vitamin was discovered and added to packaged food.

It also adds further weight to orthomolecular medicine, a concept that has been studied and practiced for decades. While this category of therapies, involving large doses of vitamins, is commonly known for high-dose vitamin C to treat infections, niacin can also be used in this way for a range of conditions. This may even include so-called "genetic" diseases. In fact, some researchers say that around 50 genetic diseases caused by defects in enzyme-producing genes could be treated by high doses of the enzyme's vitamin component, which would at least partially restore its production. Mental health issues may be some of the problems treatable by niacin too, as population studies have shown a link between high-corn (therefore, low niacin) diets and higher levels of violence. However, treating clinical mental health issues would require high-quality supplementation at therapeutic doses, and a qualified professional to prescribe it.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Digestive System May Influence Inflammaging

A key driver of the aging process is inflammation, which is why aging is now often known as "inflammaging". When you think about it, it makes sense, as aging is a process of progressive degeneration, and chronic inflammation is a vicious cycle of damage. Until recently, however, it wasn't exactly clear why and how this process comes about. But now, in a study published on the 12th of April, 2017, scientists explain that inflammaging may be caused by intestinal inflammation and dysbiosis.

It has already been well-established that inflammation drives aging in all animals, including the mice used in this study. Higher than average inflammation in the blood has been linked to lower life expectancy, poorer general health, reduced quality of life and a higher risk of chronic illness compared to the average person. Therefore, reducing inflammation could lead to living a longer, healthier, happier life. This is why the discovery of a causal connection between changes in intestinal bacteria and age-related inflammation is so important.
Yoghurt can be a source of probiotics. Source: Schwaebin.

The inflammatory mediator known as tumour necrosis-factor (TNF), which is produced by the immune system during times of infection, is responsible for much of the damage. Mice that couldn't produce TNF exhibited less age-related inflammation, less changes to intestinal bacteria and less intestinal permeability (known as "leaky gut" in many naturopathic circles). Reducing TNF led to a "younger" composition of bacteria, and transplanting the bacteria of younger mice into older mice also led to improvement in permeability. This could mean that there are two ways to fight this mechanism of inflammaging: reduce TNF, or change the composition of intestinal bacteria.

Let's look at changing the composition of bacteria, with probiotics. Using a model of the human intestinal tract, researchers looked at the effects of bacteria species commonly included in probiotics. Multiple species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium were compared by their ability to reduce TNF-alpha, the interleukins -4 and -1beta, as well as lipopolysaccharides, which are another type of inflammatory mediator. The species that produced the most dramatic reductions in TNF-alpha were L. plantarum, B. animalis, B. longum and B. longum subspecies infantis. These all reduced TNF-alpha by around two-thirds. B. longum and its infantis subspecies, like L. rhamnosus and B. bifidum, also had significant effects against lipopolysaccharides, which are linked to inflammatory illness. So probiotics may help fight inflammaging, but it is best to get a broad-spectrum product that includes the "best" strains from a qualified practitioner in order to ensure quality.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Cold and Flu Prevention This Winter

In the Southern hemisphere, it's that time of year again: autumn, which means cold and flu season! While television personalities have been vaccinated against the influenza virus on live broadcasts, if you're reading this you are most likely looking for a more natural, holistic approach, one that could strengthen your immune system as a whole.

Both natural prevention and treatment of colds and flu, particularly when you're trying to stop an early infection in its tracks, are quite similar to each other. This includes the most basic way to fight a cold, which is getting enough rest and staying hydrated. Rest provides the energy your immune system needs to fight infection, so the "soldier on" mentality can actually lower your defences and keep colds lingering around for longer. If you aren't sick, making sure that you are sleeping enough and appropriately managing stress can go a long way in preventing illness.

Of course, there are plenty of natural remedies that can provide much-needed assistance during respiratory infections. One of these is bromelain, a mix of enzymes found in pineapple stems. In a clinical trial, 85% of people with sinusitis who were taking the bromelain capsules showed total resolution of the inflammation in their nasal cavities. Bromelain is both an anti-inflammatory, meaning it can inhibit compounds that make cold symptoms worse, and can thin out nasal mucous. Enteric-coated capsules taken away from food are best, as they bypass the protein-digesting enzymes in the stomach - enzymes are proteins too, and so are not exempt from digestion.

Source: Claudius Tesch
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is less well-known than vitamin C, but is a powerful antioxidant and decongestant. It can reduce inflammation, thereby relieving the symptoms of a cold, and can also reduce viral replication, making it easier for the immune system to clear the infection. In conventional medicine, it is even administered to patients with cystic fibrosis to thin out excessive mucous.

One of the more well-known, although often controversial, cold remedies is vitamin C. In a 1999 study, researchers tracked the number of cold and flu symptoms among 463 young adults who made up a "control" group, and 252 others who made up the "test" group. If anyone in the control group reported symptoms, they were given pain relievers and decongestants. If anyone in the test group reported symptoms, they were treated with 1000mg of vitamin C every hour for the first six hours, and then 1000mg three times each day until the symptoms disappeared. Everyone in the test group received three doses of vitamin C at 1000mg every day regardless of whether or not they were sick. The test group reported 85% fewer cold and flu symptoms compared to the control group. Vitamin C can help to boost the production and function of our immune cells, thereby possibly reducing the severity and duration of colds.

Zinc is another immune-boosting micronutrient, but deficiency is unfortunately common even in wealthy countries. When administered within 24 hours of the onset of a cold, a high-quality zinc supplement may significantly reduce the severity and duration of the infection. It has been demonstrated in research to reduce the production of inflammatory substances by the body and to help prevent viral replication.

Overall, you don't have to rely on luck to stay healthy this winter, but for best results, visiting a qualified naturopath is advised to access high-quality supplements and receive a holistic, individualised treatment plan.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Some Cleaning Products May Be a Thyroid Cancer Risk

The chemical industry has a lot to answer for already, and to add to this, a new study shows that occupational exposure to common chemical disinfectants, sanitisers, sterilisers and deodorisers may increase the risk of developing thyroid cancer. Those who work with these chemicals have an estimated 65% higher risk of developing the disease compared to those who don't, according to Yale University researchers.

Brand irrelevant, for image purposes only. Source: Genuine500
This new research studied the risk of thyroid cancer in relation to workplace exposure to agricultural pesticides and biocides used as cleaning products. For this study, almost five hundred thyroid cancer patients were compared to almost five hundred "healthy" controls who were otherwise similar in factors such as age. Unlike some previous studies, there was no link between pesticide use and thyroid cancer. However, women who had worked in jobs that involved use of biocide cleaning products for at least one year had a 48% higher risk of thyroid cancer, while men had triple the risk after exposure. The risks were similar when the researchers only the papillary cancers or well-differentiated ones. Stronger risks were seen with the highest exposures, as well as smaller tumours. Jobs most related to use of these chemicals were building cleaners, and ironically, health aides and health care providers involved in diagnosing and treating patients.  While the exact mechanisms behind these chemicals' cancer-causing effects are not clear, they are most likely harmful because of effects on thyroid hormone production and function. For example, triclosan, widely used in home and workplace cleaning products, has been shown to reduce the levels of two thyroid hormones needed for metabolism and growth. Another chemical, a wood preservative known as pentachlorophenol, has also been found to lower thyroid hormone levels in rats.

Thankfully, action has already begun on some of these chemicals. In September 2016, the USA's Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule banning nineteen chemicals in over-the-counter, consumer antiseptic products. Manufacturers were not able to prove that these were safe, or more effective than plain, old-fashioned soap and water. Two of these were triclosan, the aforementioned thyroid hormone disrupter, and triclocarban. This ruling only affects those products that are meant to be used with water, and rinsed off after use, not products meant for use in a healthcare setting, or commercial hand sanitisers or wipes. One reason behind the ban is the hormone-disrupting effects of these chemicals. Three more chemicals have had their ruling deferred for another year, as manufacturers attempt to prove safety and efficacy. Unfortunately, as this only applies to consumer products, it does not provide any protection to those at risk of cancers caused by occupational exposure, but it could prevent disease in some people who would otherwise develop cancers or hormone problems from home use. While this is progress, it looks like more work needs to be done in order to prevent cancers and other diseases.