Monday, 29 August 2016

More Research Links Bras and Breast Cancer

Every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes around, when "early detection" is promoted as the only way to protect yourself against breast cancer. Fortunately for many women, not wearing a bra may be one of the true best protections, according to two recent studies from Kenya and Brazil.

The link between wearing a bra and breast cancer is not new. The 1990s book Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras described research showing that women who did not wear bras had the same risk of breast cancer as men. The tighter a bra is, and the longer it is worn, increases breast cancer risk all the way up to a 100 times higher risk for women who wear bras 24/7. How could wearing a bra possibly be harmful, when all girls are taught to wear them (often against their will) from puberty? Bras may inhibit toxin removal by restricting the blood vessels and lymphatic system. More than 88% of breast drainage depends on the axillary lymph nodes. When disease-causing microbes invade the body, pro-inflammatory chemicals produced by the immune cells and the often toxic fragments of dead microbes must be cleared away, otherwise they are likely to cause more damage (how could the "liver and kidneys" argument used by skeptics possibly have any use there?).

Caution! Don't wear tight bras to bed.
In the Brazilian study, 152 women with breast cancer and 152 controls were interviewed about their bra usage and other factors thought to influence breast cancer risk. Breastfeeding, number of children, age at first period, menopause, family history and alcohol consumption had no significant relation to breast cancer risk. However, women who wore bras for more than 16 hours a day had a 2.79 times higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who wore bras for less than 8 hours a day. Women who wore bras with a higher "stretch percentage", that is, their bras had to stretch more to fit them, also had a higher risk. When stretch percentage was multiplied by time, a value of over 300 was linked with a 2.27 times higher risk of breast cancer compared to a value of less than 150. Wearing a bra to bed was seen in a much greater percentage of women with breast cancer, at a rate of 36% instead of 7%. Smoking was associated with a 78% greater risk of breast cancer, while hormone replacement therapy seemed to have a weak inverse risk in this study. While this was "just" an interview, the women involved were of a lower socio-economic class, and so would not own as many bras; bra-wearing habits do not tend to change much either.

The Kenyan study involved 684 women in total, more than double that of the Brazilian study. Intensity of bra use, diet, occupation, area of residency, hormonal contraceptive use and family history were all associated with breast cancer risk. Marital status had no sway over a woman's risk. It was stated that a quarter of the women didn't wear bras at all, or only for special occasions, while 10% of those with cancer wore their bras all day, including to bed. "I know this will raise some heat within cancer circles, but this is a competent epidemiological study which has yielded indisputable scientific data", said Professor Abinya, who led the study.

More research may be needed to draw definite conclusions, but the currently available studies certainly vindicate those who choose not to wear bras.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

European Study Favours Raw Milk

Whether or not raw milk is safe to drink has been a controversial issue for many years, particularly in countries with more nanny-state tendencies (why I'm "not allowed" to recommend it, apparently we're all small children here). However, a study published in early 2015 showed that babies given raw cow's milk instead of UHT formula actually had a reduced risk of common infections, such as colds and ear infections.

This study, known as the PASTURE study, followed 983 babies from five countries for the first year of their lives. They came from rural areas in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Finland. Even though most European societies discourage raw milk consumption, many farming families who can produce their own still drink it. The invention of refrigerators, plus the freshness, are most likely factors contributing to the lack of tuberculosis, listeriosis etc. seen in these families. Pasteurisation was invented in the 1860s, while refrigerators appropriate for home use were invented in the 1910s. Like human breast milk, however, cow's milk may contain beneficial constituents such as antibodies which assist the immune system.

In this study, parents were instructed to record what types of milk their babies consumed and the occurrence of infections from week 8 to week 53. There were very few "missing values" in the diaries given out, and as most infections are not reported to doctors, parents' reporting was more likely to be accurate. UHT milk was used as a control, with pasteurised milk, boiled fresh milk and raw milk all compared in terms of infection incidence. Raw milk was the most protective against infections, with a 29% reduced risk of rhinitis (runny nose); a 23% lower risk of respiratory infections; a 31% reduced risk of fever and an impressive 86% reduced risk of ear infections. Boiled, fresh farm milk was associated with a 22% and 35% lower risk of respiratory infections and fever respectively, similar to raw milk. However, there was only an 18% lower risk of rhinitis and a 46% reduced risk of ear infections. Compared to UHT milk, pasteurised milk only reduced the risk of fever, by 31%. Only raw milk was linked with a significantly lower level of an inflammatory marker known as high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP). Babies who were given raw milk had 34% lower levels of hsCRP, regardless of infection or how long they were breastfed. Higher levels of hsCRP are linked with increased risk of obesity, respiratory impairments such as asthma and blood lipid profiles that are associated with cardiovascular disease.

There were other factors that also affected the risk of infection in the babies studied. Having older siblings was associated with a higher risk of infections, especially ear infections where there was more than double the risk. Living on a farm was linked with a 11-25% lower risk of infections. Parental history of atopic conditions (e.g. eczema) was only associated with a 21% higher risk of rhinitis and a 12% higher risk of respiratory infections. Surprisingly (based on what many mothers are told), a Caesarean birth was not significantly associated with higher risk of any infection.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Four Uses for Geranium Oil

Making your own skincare products, and other products for use around the home, can be a fun way to be more self-sufficient or start a business, and is often an essential step towards reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals. One essential oil that you should consider for your recipes is the oil of rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), a plant with more than just a pretty face. Geranium essential oil is distilled from the leaves, not flowers, and with many similar properties to rose oil, can be a cheaper alternative.

One property of geranium essential oil may be the ability to help prevent allergic reactions. A preclinical study showed that geranium oil inhibited the degranulation of mast cells. Mast cells are a type of immune cell involved in the inflammatory allergic response, and degranulation is one of the steps in the allergic response. Citronellol, the main phytochemical in geranium oil, was also able to prevent mast cells from producing tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a) during exposure to antibodies. TNF-a is an inflammatory substance with often destructive effects. Another primary component of geranium essential oil is geraniol. While it cannot reduce TNF-a production according to one study, it was able to increase production of an anti-inflammatory substance known as interleukin-10.

Pretty P. graveolens. Source: Allgau
Geranium essential oil may also be able to reduce the pain seen in post-herpetic neuralgia. A clinical trial involving 30 patients showed that geranium oil was able to significantly reduce both spontaneous and evoked pain, an effect which was dependent on the dose. A dose-dependent effect means that the treatment is more likely to be responsible for the effect. While topical use of capsaicin (found in chillis) can take two weeks to relieve pain, geranium essential oil was able to do so in minutes. One of the patients in the study was almost bed-ridden because of the severity of her pain, but with continued use of geranium oil she was able to resume a normal life! A limitation of this study was that patients were only observed for an hour, as pain relief was still increasing after the 60-minute point. Some also found the oil irritating at higher concentrations, so be careful if you are sensitive.

Geranium oil may even be a useful ingredient in natural tick repellents, well, if one of the ticks in your area is Amblyomma americanum (the lone star tick). Certain components of P. graveolens essential oil were able to repel this species of tick up to a success rate of 90%! The most effective was 10-epi-gamma-Eudesmol, which was comparable to DEET when tested. However, it may be best to use geranium as a part of your tick repellent recipe, instead of replacing the other ingredients that already work for you.

Finally, geranium essential oil could even be used to control mites in the home, if the species Dermatophagoides farinae and D. pteronyssinus are common where you live. Interesting Latin fact: "Dermatophagoides" means something along the lines of "skin eater", but this would only be dead skin that's already fallen off you. The most effective components of geranium essential oil were geraniol and beta-citronellol; they were even more effective than DEET!
Overall, many essential oils such as geranium have many uses, it all depends on what is best for you and your home on an individual basis.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Paraplegics Learn to Walk With Technology

Even today, most people would tell you that once someone suffers a spinal cord injury, they won't walk again. Thankfully, the Walk Again Project has proven otherwise, with a new study published in Scientific Reports on the 11th of August. All eight patients, all with injuries over three years old, participating in the trial experienced neurological improvements.

How did they do it? Patients underwent a multi-phase rehabilitation program over 12 months, with total training time reaching 1,958 hours over all eight patients. The first stage took 178.5 hours on average, where they had to make a virtual reality set of legs walk and sleeves on their arms provided sensory feedback. This was repeated for another 30 hours while standing. Participants "passed" these stages when EEG readings could pick up that their brains remembered how to walk. Then the real walking began: first with a robotic exoskeleton and body weight support (BWS) on a treadmill (109 hours); then BWS on the ground (51 hours); then just the exoskeleton and a treadmill (143 hours); and finally just the exoskeleton (70 hours). A total of 581.5 hours.

VR headsets have improved too. Source: Minecraftpsyco
After months of training, sensory and motor improvements were found in all patients. On average, the Zone of Partial Preservation (ZPP), which is the spinal levels retaining some sensory function, improved by 5 levels. Some improvements, such as the ability to sense where their legs were and what they were doing, only began to appear after several months. Clinical improvement of motor function also took months to appear. All patients also improved in the Walking Index (WISCI). One went from a score of 0 to 6; another went from 1 to 5; another three improved from 1 to 6; two went from 6 to 9 and the last patient went from a score of 6 to 12. What does this mean? A score of 0 means no ability to walk; 1 means able to walk with parallel bars, braces and two people for under 10 metres; a score of 6 means the patient can walk a walker, braces and the help of one person for 10 metres; 9 means walking with a walker and braces for 10 metres and a score of 12 means the ability to walk with two crutches and braces. The reductions in improvements that most patients saw after taking a break for 30 days were quickly reversed.

Taking long breaks reversed some of the improvements, but could they ever be permanent? Other research on people learning to read Braille on weekdays showed that their brains' "maps" for the Braille-reading fingers initially grew during the week, but shrunk back to "normal" by Mondays. The "map" sizes on Monday didn't start to keep growth until six months, and then slowly improved over the next four months. In terms of hours of practice, it was 600 hours - two to three hours a day, five days a week for 10 months. This is similar to the paraplegic patients' training time, but walking may take longer to be permanently re-learned. Maybe home-based programs, so people with spinal injuries could train every day, would be best to prevent the setbacks caused by breaks. There are already exoskeletons available for purchase, with variety of products going up and costs going down; however suitability comes down to the individual's needs. In conclusion, there is hope, practical hope, for people suffering from spinal cord injuries, and it's happening now.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Michael Phelps is Right to Have Cupping Therapy

Michael Phelps and the purple dots on his back and shoulders have gotten a ton of media attention lately, but instead of the time-honoured practice of cupping gaining positive publicity, you get articles telling him not to do it. This is despite the fact that he is an adult who can make his own decisions, and the vast majority of reporters have no natural health (or any health) qualifications. So are the writers of the Atlanticton Post or whatever right, or does cupping have evidence to back it up?

Actually, there are studies that show cupping to be effective. One of these included 50 people with chronic neck pain, who received either cupping or no treatment for two weeks. Among those who received cupping, there was significant pain relief and improvement of the Short Form Health Survey scores for body pain. Another study that also involved 50 people with chronic neck pain compared cupping to standard medical treatment. Both resulted in equal, significant improvements in pain, functional disability and quality of life, so the only deciding factor is the all-important personal choice. Yet another trial, this time involving 40 people with neck pain caused by looking at video screens at work, randomised them into either cupping or use of a heating pad. Cupping was superior to heating pads in relieving pain and discomfort. In one trial comparing cupping, done at home, to muscle relaxation on 61 people with chronic neck pain, both significantly reduced pain. However, cupping was more effective in boosting wellbeing and improving pressure pain thresholds. Impressive considering that it was performed by family members, not Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners. One of the reasons why I studied naturopathy and not TCM was how precise you have to be with points and meridians.
Semi-relevant Tang Dynasty (8th century) painting.

Don't have neck pain, but suffer from back pain instead? An uncontrolled (but still valid, life isn't controlled) trial of 21 people with lower back pain had cupping therapy in an attempt to treat their condition. On average, they saw significant improvement in pain pressure threshold, as well as pain while doing a straight leg raising test and testing lumbar flexion range of motion.

What about osteoarthritis? Symptom relief was more pronounced in the cupping group when one trial tested it against no treatment in patients with knee osteoarthritis. In a second study, cupping showed more benefit than taking acetaminophen at a dose of 650mg, three times a day. These benefits were especially superior in relief of pain, swelling, stiffness and disability.

As for meta-analyses of trials, one looked at seven randomised trials of cupping in the treatment of pain. Six of the seven showed significant (related to the treatment) positive effect, including two for lower back pain and two for brachialgia. Brachialgia is pain in the arm commonly caused by a pinched or compressed nerve. The researchers concluded that cupping was found to be effective compared to conventional treatment. Another review on research into cupping also found that it is an effective treatment. The authors proposed that some of the benefit is caused by improved blood and lymph flow, immune system activation and nerve stimulation. So all of this research in fact validates the therapy choices of some athletes; cupping is not a silly trend.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Container Gardening for Organic Food

Previously, I wrote about how even going organic for a week can be an effective detox, and later posted an infographic of the most and least pesticide-contaminated foods. A cost-effective way to at least partially change to an organic diet is by growing your own food, but how can we grow food in containers, if land is not available?

Carrots need anywhere from 9-18 inches depth.
Because there isn't unlimited space, root depth and plant spacing are important considerations. Carrots and radishes can be planted as little as 2 inches (5cm) apart, while beets, onions and peas can be 3 inches (7.5cm) apart and spinach and beans can be 5 inches apart. Leafy lettuce, Swiss chard and potatoes can be planted 6 inches apart. Others, such as broccoli, eggplant, cherry tomatoes and cabbage, need 12 inches (1 foot, 30cm) between them. As for root depth, beets, leafy lettuce, onions, radish, spinach and Swiss chard need 9-12 inches of depth. Broccoli and cabbage need 12-14 inches; cherry tomatoes, eggplant and peas need 14-16 inches of depth. Beans, cucumbers and potatoes require much greater depths, of 16-18 inches. Outdoor containers should be at least 8-12 inches in diameter because smaller pots dry out much easier (really bad in a hot, dry climate such as most of Australia), but they could do fine in part shade. Leafy plants can be okay in partial shade, fruit-bearing plants need at least six hours - this includes eggplant, chilli and squash. Colour of containers should also never be ignored. Light colours reflect heat, dark containers absorb more heat, and thick wood is the best insulator (e.g. all the log houses in the Swiss alps). The tiny, hairlike feeder roots can be fried in the summer heat, or anytime heat in many parts of the world. Without feeder roots, the plant will wilt and die even if you're watering the soil.

In dry countries such as Australia, water is almost always a concern. Plants with similar water needs should be grouped together. Organic matter in soil, mulch and water crystals can slow water loss, and self-watering pots can also stop water from drying out. Water should be considered even before planting; watering the day before planting as well as planting early in the morning are both advisable. It is best to water plants, even shallow-rooted herbs, thoroughly on an occasional basis than it is to sprinkle them every day. Watering in the morning can both keep them going all day while preventing fungus from growing overnight. Additionally, trees should be kept within 3 metres of height and width, with compact, thicker growth. Drought-tolerant fruits, which require less water, include figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes and mulberries. Vegetables that are productive for their water use are tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, eggplants, capsicum (bell pepper), zucchini and pumpkins. Herbs with low water requirements include rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender and oregano.

While it takes some learning and often creativity, you can grow some of your own food! Whether you are a doomsday prepper or just want to save a little bit of money, it is worthwhile. Why let corporations make it increasingly harder for you to afford fresh food?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Spinach May Fight Macular Degeneration

Many of us remember (or still watch!) the old Popeye cartoons where the title character would instantly gain much greater physical strength by eating a can of spinach. But did you know that it could also build the strength of the macular pigment, a shield against vision loss?

Source: Robert Lynch
Macular degeneration is a common age-related complaint, partly because the macula in the centre of our eyes can easily become damaged by prolonged bright light exposure, or looking directly at strong light sources such as the sun, without protection. As we rely on our eyes for so many things, including driving, any threat to our vision is rightfully a great concern. The risk of this damage, however, can be reduced by increasing the amount of yellow pigment that shields the macula primarily from “blue” light. This blue light is the dominant type of light emitted by computers and many TVs, and is one part of sunlight. The yellow pigment that protects the macula from blue light is made of three carotenoids: lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin. Zeaxanthin is 75%of the pigment in the central area of the macula, while lutein makes up two-thirds of the macular pigment towards the edges. This pigment can wear down with age, possibly due to poorer digestion, or from poor dietary intake of these three carotenoids. The thickness of this pigment is measured as Macular Pigment Optical Density, and is scored from 0 to 1. Less than 0.21 is considered to be “low”, 0.22-0.44 is medium, and 0.45-1 is “high”, and the healthiest range. A thicker pigmentation can not only protect against macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness, but also prevent photosensitivity, help us see at night and improve vision in natural environments. 

So in theory, carotenoids may protect against blindness, but what about in practice? In a Japanese study (Ozawa et al. 2016), 11 healthy non-smokers had their macular thickness and vision (as visual acuity) tested, then were instructed to eat 75 grams of frozen spinach, containing 10mg of lutein, every day for two months. At both one and two months, visual acuity and macular pigment density were significantly increased, and higher blood levels of lutein helped to confirm the relationship. Despite appearances, spinach is a source of yellow carotenoids, but the green chlorophyll overpowers the yellow pigmentation. Additionally, a study testing the effect of kale extract on 20 patients with macular degeneration also found a significant increase in pigment density. After stopping the extract, macular pigment density dropped, showing the importance of regularly eating these foods. Like the previous study the amount of lutein in this extract was also 10mg, and was accompanied by 3mg of zeaxanthin. Meso-zeaxanthin may strengthen the effects of lutein and zeaxanthin, with a trial involving patients with early age-related macular degeneration (AMD) showing greater improvements in pigment density and contrast sensitivity, and continuing improvement in the second and third year of supplementation. No supplemented patients progressed to AMD. As for prevention, a meta-analysis of research on carotenoid consumption and AMD found a 26% reduced risk of AMD in those consuming the highest levels of carotenoids compared to those with the lowest intake. Overall, the yellow carotenoids have an increasing amount of evidence behind their effects on vision preservation, though increasing dietary intake should be the first line of action. If you are looking to increase your intake of the yellow carotenoids, spinach, kale, broccoli, green peas and collard and turnip greens are the richest sources.