Saturday, 16 September 2017

How Zinc Could Fight Age-Related Immune Decline

Many people sadly lose their elderly loved ones during the flu season. While it is still a tragedy regardless of age, we're taught to believe that it cannot be prevented and they couldn't have lived at least another few years. Fortunately, conventional wisdom is not necessarily wisdom, as there are ways to fight age-related immune decline.

One of these ways is right under our noses - literally, for users of certain sunscreens. It is not an exotic herbal remedy yet to be discovered, it is the mineral zinc. Zinc is required by the body for thousands of biological functions, but deficiency in the elderly is very common. This contributes to immunosenescence, meaning age-related immune decline, leading to an increase in infections and inflammation as the number of immune cells and their functioning falls.

An expensive source of zinc. Source: Guido (CC: 2.0).
What does zinc do for the immune system? Research has found that it can restore the abilities of killer cells to destroy virally-infected and cancerous cells; improve the immune response of white blood cells in older adults and increase survival rates in older mice. Clinical trials have shown a benefit of high-dose supplementation, with a 45mg daily dose reducing the incidence of all infections in the elderly adults in one study. Another using 80mg daily doses yielded the impressive result of a 27% reduction in mortality over 6.5 years! Zinc must never be taken at doses beyond 90mg a day, however, as this has damaging effects.

Food sources of zinc include beef chuck roast, baked beans, chicken and cashews, containing 7, 2.9, 2.4 and 1.6mg per serving respectively. Elderly people are likely to need supplementation, up to a total of 80mg each day according to Life Extension. But would supplementation just be treating symptoms of another, greater cause? If left alone, people experience a decline in stomach acid production as they age, which is very important for zinc absorption (among other things). This leads to poor digestion in general, greater vulnerability to digestive tract infections and loss of appetite. Many older people are taking antacids for heartburn, which worsens the problem and is not the best way to treat reflux (many say the best way is to boost levels of stomach acid and enzymes - see a qualified naturopath). To manage poor stomach acid and enzyme production, treatment options include supplementation with betaine hydrochloride; digestive enzymes or bitter herbs like gentian.

Friday, 15 September 2017

How EFT May Help with PTSD

Mental illnesses such as PTSD cause tremendous suffering and loss of life for millions of people around the world. They are often difficult to treat, with a laundry list of side effects caused by conventional therapies, and to make things even worse there is often a stigma surrounding mental illnesses. But what if there was a natural way to relieve them, that didn't come with side effects and could be used by anyone?

This can be avoided in at least some cases.
There is a way, among others: emotional freedom technique, also known as EFT, tapping or "emotional acupuncture". EFT combines the elements of exposure and cognitive therapies, which have been established in the West for many years, with tapping on acupressure points. In this study, 16 veterans with clinical PTSD experienced a 53% reduction in their symptoms after ten hour-long sessions, and there were significant differences in the expression of six genes. Follow-ups found that participants maintained these gains. In a meta-analysis of seven trials mentioned by the study, EFT resulted in strong treatment effects against PTSD again. Then, in a trial of 764 active duty service members, EFT produced significant reductions in PTSD, depression and anxiety.

So why isn't EFT more widely used? There seems to be a poor level of understanding, with many people thinking there is no way that "simply" tapping on points and talking about your issues could work. However, there has been research conducted on the mechanisms behind EFT. Two studies using EEG testing, one on car crash survivors and one on claustrophobic people, found a regulation of the frequencies associated with fear. In another, fMRI testing found that acupuncture can downregulate the amygdala and limbic system's responses to fear. A triple-blinded controlled trial compared the effects of EFT on psychological symptoms to its effects on cortisol, the main stress hormone. Overall psychological symptoms dropped by more than twice as much in the EFT group, compared to a supportive interview or no treatment. There was also almost twice the drop in cortisol levels among those who received EFT. On top of all of this, EFT has demonstrated effects on the expression of genes controlling the stress response, inflammation and immunity.

If we want total and disability-free life expectancy to continue rising, it may be time to give EFT the recognition it deserves. High levels of perceived and chronic stress has been found to increase oxidative stress and the shortening of telomeres, which are protective caps on chromosomes that allow them to keep dividing. Keeping telomeres long is one way that we can fight aging and live longer. However, women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter to the equivalent of aging ten years, compared with women the same age who report low stress. Just because EFT doesn't look like serious therapy to everyone, doesn't mean that it can't add years to our lives and save millions of dollars in healthcare costs.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

How Diet May Help With Endometriosis

Endometriosis is an unfortunately common condition where the tissue which makes up the uterine lining (the endometrium) grows in other areas of the body, usually in the pelvic area. The severity of its symptoms, which may include pelvic pain, period pain or infertility, can be anything from mostly silent to constantly debilitating. Conventional treatment includes surgery to remove inappropriate tissue (also the only way to diagnose it), pain relievers and hormonal medications, but these are not without their side effects. Thankfully, there are natural methods that may help to prevent endometriosis if you are at risk, or reduce the severity of its signs and symptoms, such as changes to your diet.

Source: Gunawan Kartapranata
We all need fat in our diets, but one way of reducing the risk of endometriosis, or possibly reducing its severity, may be by changing the types of fat we eat. To investigate whether fat intake has any relation to endometriosis, researchers analysed 12 years of data from the Nurses' Health Study II that began in 1989. Total fat consumption had no relation to endometriosis risk, but women in the top fifth for long-chain omega-3 fat intake had a 22% lower risk of endometriosis, compared to women in the bottom fifth. Omega-3 fats are found in foods such as oily fish, flax and hemp (to be legally sold as food in Australia from November 2017). On the other hand, women in the top fifth of trans-fat intake had a 48% greater risk of being diagnosed with endometriosis. Trans fats are found in margarine and many other packaged, processed foods. Intake of palmitic acid, a type of fat in animal products, was linked with a 52% increase in endometriosis risk when the top and bottom fifths were compared. It is suggested that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fats may be behind their benefits, as a 1995 study found a reduced risk of period pain linked with fish oil consumption. Trans fats, and too much saturated animal fat, is pro-inflammatory. 

Increasing intake of green vegetables and fruit may also be protective against endometriosis. In an Italian case-control study, women in the highest thirds for green vegetable and fruit intake had a 70% and 40% reduced risk of developing endometriosis, respectively. These results were consistent after adjusting for affecting factors. The folate, methionine (an amino acid) and vitamin B6 found in green vegetables can regulate gene expression and detoxification. While another study disagreed, vegetables and fruit do often contain pesticides linked to reproductive problems such as endometriosis. Fruit and vegetables also contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, which protect cells from damage and thus reduce inflammation.

These are just a few ways that nutrition can protect against endometriosis, but further research is needed. An optimal treatment plan for conditions such as this must involve professional support, and communication between practitioners regardless of treatment modality. But as you can see, complex does not mean hopeless.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Disgusting! The Extent of Plastic in Water

Humanity has a disgusting addiction that could not be stopped soon enough: the use of petrochemical plastics. What we have already been told is bad enough, that your average bag or bottle will take centuries to degrade, but new research shows something even worse: where the breakdown products go. It turns out that they end up in our water, air and at least some food items.

So, what is the damage? Pollution by microscopic pieces of plastic (microplastics) is so widespread that 94.4% of US tap water samples tested positive for the breakdown products. In Lebanon, the contamination rate was almost 94% despite drinking water coming from natural springs. In India, the figure was 82.4%, in Uganda, it was around 80%, and in Europe, it was around 72%. Other research has found that beer is almost always contaminated with microplastics, as well as honey, flour, sea salt and other common foods. Our air is contaminated by microplastics from carpets and clothing made from synthetic fibres.

No place for plastic. Source: Andres M. Panti
This is not acceptable, as chemicals in plastics can raise the risk of illnesses such as cancer. And not all of the effects of plastic are terminal illnesses, either. Research on animals has found that environmentally relevant levels of exposure to BPA is linked to early puberty, disrupted oestrous cycles (the animal equivalent of the menstrual cycle) and structural problems with the ovaries. Older mice have exhibited problems such as increased occurrence of ovarian cysts. More serious reproductive issues, including uterine fibroids and tissue overgrowth have also been demonstrated, which cause symptoms such as painful, heavy periods. Phthalates, which are other chemicals found in plastics, can create problems with age at puberty and the oestrous cycle too. These can suppress the levels of our sex hormones. In humans, research has found that higher levels of phthalates may be associated with endometriosis. This disease causes infertility and heavy, painful periods, among other issues.

Although more regions of the world are banning more plastic items, change takes time. So how can we detoxify from the chemicals in plastics? One way, at least in the case of BPA, is through sweating. In a study of 20 people comparing BPA levels in blood, urine and sweat, researchers were more likely to find BPA in sweat than the other samples. Probiotics may also help to detoxify from BPA. Bifidobacterium breve and Lactobacillus casei were shown to speed excretion of BPA in an animal study; these are commonly found in probiotics. Bacterial species found in kimchi, a fermented food from Korea, could actually help to degrade BPA too, to prevent it from causing further harm. As for phthalates, sweat could be a way to help remove them from the body too. Supplements such as resveratrol (from dark red grapes) and curcumin (from turmeric) may aid detoxification, but more research on humans needs to be done. Dietary changes, e.g. increasing intake of cruciferous vegetables, and medicinal herbs like milk thistle, can be beneficial too, but it is best to consult with a qualified naturopath first. Overall, we need to collectively kick our plastic habit, but there are things we can do while we wait for the world to catch up.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Are Parabens a Breast Cancer Threat?

There is no denying it, we live in a toxic world. Fortunately, people are waking up to just what it is that we are doing to our health, longevity and the environment, as the first step is always awareness. One type of artificial chemical that the world is now turning its attention to is parabens, and it turns out that they are a cause of one of our most common types of cancer - breast cancer.

Parabens are primarily used for their anti-bacterial and antifungal properties. As preservatives, they are found in many personal care products such as makeup, deodorants and other skincare items in order to extend shelf life. But if they're legal, they must be safe, right?

Source: KaurJmeb (CC:3.0).
Actually, parabens may contribute to breast cancer development in many ways. Research has found parabens in 99% of breast tissue samples, and that they can behave like oestrogens and stimulate cancer cell growth at realistic concentrations. In a dose-dependent manner, they can also help damaged cells to survive instead of committing the "cell suicide" necessary to stop them from turning cancerous. Long-term exposure increases the ability of breast cancer cells to invade tissues. And if you are a breast cancer survivor, you may need to know that parabens have been shown in lab studies to block the effects of tamoxifen.

Similar results were found in another study using oestrogen-sensitive breast cancer cell lines. Exposure to parabens over 20 weeks resulted in worsened ability of these cells to migrate and invade other tissues. Use of long-term exposure more closely matches the real lives of women, as we are around parabens all the time. When growth factors are included, which are naturally present in human breast tissue, parabens can stimulate the oestrogen receptors at levels that other lab studies have deemed "safe".

Who is most at risk? Pregnant women, foetuses and children are at the greatest risk of harm from parabens, as tissue growth is at its fastest. In the USA, women, high-income individuals and African Americans have the highest concentrations of parabens in their bodies because they use the products that contain them most often. You do not have to go makeup and deodorant-free, however, as there are plenty of natural products that do not contain parabens. Always read the label, and do research on labeling requirements, before making decisions. We have choices, we have control, often even when it doesn't feel like the case.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

One Humble Herb May Be an Effective PMS Treatment

If you're a woman, especially a woman of childbearing age, you are likely to be told that problems such as PMS and menstrual difficulties are to be expected and accepted as "part of being a woman". But do we really have to put up with all of this? There are herbal remedies that, depending on your individual needs, may be able to help, and chaste tree (Vitex angus-castus) is one of them.

In 2012, the results of an Iranian clinical trial were published in Acta Medica Iranica, which aimed to find out if chaste tree is an effective remedy for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It involved 128 women between the ages of 25 and 34 who were not pregnant or breastfeeding, and did not have serious medical conditions or issues with drug and alcohol abuse. All women answered a self-assessment questionnaire listing headache, depression, anger, irritability, breast fullness, bloating and tympani during the week before their menstrual periods. While the potency was not mentioned, treatment consisted of 40 drops of chaste tree extract before breakfast, every day for the six days leading up to their period. This is not a high dose, as 40 drops is a much smaller amount than recommended in books such as the Phytotherapy Desk Reference (Thomson & Gennat). It may help to reduce costs to the patient. After six months, the women recorded significant improvement in their PMS symptoms, both compared to the beginning of the study and compared to the placebo.

A moth enjoying chaste tree. Source: jeffreyw (CC: 2.0)
In another study, chaste tree was used alongside St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) to see if they could help "PMS-like" symptoms in perimenopausal women. Late-perimenopausal women were given either the herbal tablets or a placebo to be taken twice daily over four months. After the four months, the herbal combination was found to be superior to placebo in reducing total PMS-like symptom scores, along with the PMS-D (depression) and PMS-C (cravings) symptom clusters. Scores for anxiety and water retention clusters demonstrated relief too.

Chaste tree has a long history of use in Europe for reproductive system complaints. It has been known for many years to have effects on menstruation and pre-menstrual symptoms, but how does it work? Chaste tree works by binding to the receptors of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which plays a role in mood regulation. This also has effects on reproductive hormone production, smoothing out ovarian function and the menstrual cycle. Chaste tree can improve melatonin secretion at night, which helps us sleep. As some regions, such as Queensland in Australia, do not allow the sale of melatonin supplements, chaste tree could be a more accessible and possibly gentler alternative.

Chaste tree is just one of the herbal remedies that can be used to relieve menstrual complaints. You don't have to accept it as "part of being a woman", there are options, although it is always best to consult a qualified naturopath first.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Some Bad News on E-Cigarettes

E-cigarettes are commonly seen as a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately for those who see them as a way to avoid the dangers of smoking, this is not really the case. A recent study has found that even one use of an e-cigarette may negatively affect blood vessel function.

Source: Dave1185
So what happened? Increasing popularity of e-cigarettes led researchers in West Virginia University to study the effects of short- and long-term exposure to flavoured vapour in female mice. They focused on artery diameter, aortic stiffness and the blood vessels' ability to widen when necessary. Aortic stiffness and the other factors are age-related complications that can indicate cardiovascular disease, and raise the risk of dangerous events. What is the aorta, you ask? It is the largest artery in the body, which all blood passes through after exiting the heart, and before it branches off into other arteries that service different areas.

The researchers found that after five minutes of exposure, the short-term group's arteries were 30% narrower, and vasodilation (widening of the vessels when needed) was impaired too. This affects the ability of the circulatory system to provide oxygen and nutrients to tissues, as well as to remove toxins. It also puts increased pressure on the cardiovascular system and therefore increases the risk of damage. As for the long-term group, 20 hours of exposure per week over 8 months doubled aortic stiffness compared to only breathing normal room air.

What is wrong with e-cigarettes? Other research has shown that they can produce dangerous levels of carcinogens such as formaldehyde. The level of this and other toxic aldehydes was dependent on the amount of flavouring, which decomposed into these chemicals when it was heated up. This is what the vapour is made of. But in all concentrations and all flavours, the level of toxic aldehydes produced was higher than the limit for chemical exposure set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. There are thousands of flavours on the market where e-cigarettes are sold, and they may be attractive to younger people and other non-smokers, so there is a risk of harm instead of them being a quitting aid. While yet another study found that e-cigarettes were 95% less dangerous than smoking, it is clear that they are not harmless. They may be a useful short-term aid in quitting smoking, but should not be used forever.