Thursday, 22 June 2017

Too Many Are Unaware of the Obesity-Cancer Link

Prevention skeptics would tell you that if cancer was preventable and we knew what caused it, then no one would be developing it. This is, however, not the case, and it isn't just about people continuing to smoke despite knowing the risks. After smoking, obesity is the second most common cause of cancer, but the message doesn't seem to be getting through to people! Cancer Research UK has recently found that 75% of people don't know that obesity contributes to several types of cancer, including breast cancer. Men and members of lower-income families are less likely to be aware of the connection. In the UK, one quarter of people are obese, even though it is now common knowledge that staying active and eating a healthy diet, high in vegetables and fruit, can prevent and reverse obesity. We are told this since childhood, but obesity rates haven't fallen as much as they should. Many naturopaths point out that diet and exercise aren't always enough because of environmental toxins, but is there any evidence to back this up?

Even makeup may contain phthalates.
Source: Tiffany Bailey (CC: 2.0)
Actually, both human and animal studies have found that environmental toxins, such as BPA, can dramatically raise the risk of becoming obese. After animal studies found that BPA could raise the risk of being overweight or obese, researchers set out to see if it had the same effect in humans. Over 1300 boys and girls from grades 4-12 at several Shanghai schools had their urine levels of BPA tested and compared to their body weight. Girls aged 9-12 with a higher than average level of BPA (over 2 micrograms/litre) had twice the risk of having their body weight in the top 10th percentile. If their BPA levels were over 10 micrograms/litre, they had five times the risk of obesity. Thirty-six percent of the girls with above-average BPA levels were overweight or obese, compared to 21% with below-average levels. Boys, however, did not seem to be affected by BPA, most likely because it is oestrogenic. The authors then suggested that BPA could increase weight gain and accelerate pubertal development for girls during their pre-teen years. BPA also reduces adiponectin, a hormone that increases insulin sensitivity, along with other negative effects on the pancreas, thyroid hormone pathways and brain function. All of this may worsen the severity of food cravings and reduce the energy and motivation needed to get active. To minimise your exposure to BPA, use plastic and cans as little as possible for food preparation and storage; and use plastic in general as little as possible too.

Besides BPA, another hormone-disrupting class of chemical called phthalates has also been shown to increase obesity. These are found in personal care and cosmetic products; plastics and even in medication and supplement coatings. While phthalate exposure is near universal, one study has shown that children with the highest levels of DEHP, one of the phthalates, had five times the risk of obesity compared to children with the lowest levels! Together with BPA and other hormone disrupting chemicals, this may help to explain why the rate of childhood obesity in the USA has grown from 7% in 1980, to over 40% in 2008, with 15% of 6-19 year olds classed as "obese". In conclusion, if diet and exercise aren't shifting unwanted weight in you or your child, it may be time to look at what chemicals you are being exposed to.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

In Defense of Coconut Oil

If you read the mainstream health news for whatever reason, by now you would have seen the USA Today article advising Americans to stop using coconut oil and replace it with omega-6 rich vegetable oils. Of course, for this article, based on an American Heart Association statement, to be true, it must be assumed that saturated fat is the enemy and inflammation isn't the key driver of health problems such as cardiovascular disease. But as this is not the 1980s anymore, we can't assume this to be true.

So many uses! Source: Crisco 1492 (CC 3.0)
High consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, and a low intake of omega-3 fats, can contribute to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Cooking with so-called "heart healthy" vegetable oils such as canola or safflower oil raises your omega-6:3 ratio. While we need both omega-6 and -3 fatty acids, their ratio should be, according to different sources, anywhere from 5:1 to 1:1, but most of us consume far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3. These fatty acids are used to make a type of signalling molecule known as eicosanoids. Omega-6 fats are converted to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which are used in immune responses, by the enzymes cyclo-oxygenase and lipo-oxygenase. These enzymes also convert omega-3 fats to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Why am I telling you this technical information? Many common painkillers work by suppressing cyclo-oxygenase, even though it isn't always the real enemy, too many pro-inflammatory fats often are. Research has even found that supplementation with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, can prolong remission and reduce symptoms of some autoimmune diseases. It can also improve nerve cell communication and inhibit neuroinflammation.

However, the USA Today article ignores all of this, instead focusing on the possibility that it could raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol. But the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee removed cholesterol as a cause for concern, stating that there is "no appreciable relationship between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol or clinical cardiovascular events in general populations”. Many studies have found that low cholesterol may in fact be associated with a higher risk of dementia, suicide, homicide, accidental death and depression!

Coconut oil is not only safe, it also could have health benefits! In a small study of 20 people with Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment, supplementation with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which coconut oil is rich in, resulted in improved cognitive performance in some patients. Only patients who had a 4- APOE gene saw improvement in their condition. Higher levels of ketones were associated with better performance in paragraph recall with MCT use relative to placebo. Additionally, in another study, taking coconut oil helped patients to achieve reductions in weight, BMI, waist and neck circumference, and diastolic blood pressure. Coconut oil also gave them higher HDL ("good") cholesterol. All patients had coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, and most of them were "elderly" with an average age of 62. Looking at newer and more nuanced evidence, there is no reason to throw out your coconut oil! It's vegetable oils that belong in the bin.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Old Age Isn't Old Age Anymore

This year, the oldest of the Baby Boomers are turning 70. But the eighth decade of life isn't what it used to be, with celebrities such as Cher (who also turns 70 this year) no longer holding a monopoly over looking and acting younger. Life expectancy is still rising, and the UK's Oxford Institute of Population Aging is recommending that people in their 70s and 80s be called "active adults" instead of "old". Even the Daily Mail has added to the discussion, with a few writers who are, well, rewriting what it means to be over 70.

She may be 67 here, but has no monopoly
on retaining youthfulness.
Source: David Carroll (CC 2.0)
First up is Angela Neustatter, who at 73 looks years younger than you'd expect. She attributes her youthfulness to yoga, Pilates, a house full of stairs, sex and stepping back from emotional conflict. Angela does and wears what she wants, even mini skirts and leggings! Lesley Pearce also appears to be in her 50s at the age of 72. Her "normal" involves parties, swimming and scrambling around her cliff-top garden. Jan Leeming is still a BBC newsreader at the age of 75. As part of the first generation of women to have lifelong careers, she doesn't see the point of retiring or giving up travel or physical activity. Jo Foley is also very grateful for a life of freedom, so unlike her mother's generation. She describes the new and improved "normal" as: "In our 70s we shop at Zara, drink pisco sours, take slow boats along the Mekong and talk to ourselves without contradiction." Jo then adds, "Did we ever think to thank our parents?", referring to the restricted life of marriage, children, staying home and growing old that she saw in previous generations.

Older age groups growing younger are nothing new, however. Dr Martin Connolly, Freemason's Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Auckland University, says that 90-somethings today are the same in terms of health and fitness as 70-somethings at the end of World War One. He describes meeting someone over 90 as "rare" thirty years ago, but common now. And despite his position, he struggles to pinpoint the age of someone over 90 by looking at them, even though he has an easy time of doing the same for someone under 90. This may be because researchers have found that aging appears to stop at around 90 in humans (with a range of 80-100), and at different ages in other animals. It's hard to get your head around, but we do have our own mechanisms of fighting key drivers of aging such as oxidative stress and inflammation, and the aim of this research is to keep those mechanisms strong. Overall, these days, we don't have as much to fear or put up with as we once thought, as times are changing in ways we didn't previously expect.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Horse and Music Therapy May Help Stroke Patients

Conventional wisdom would tell you that stroke patients only have a limited time and capacity to recover lost physical and mental functions. Now, a new study suggests that horseback riding and music and rhythm therapy, which are not typically used in stroke recovery, may improve outcomes even in people who are years post-event.

"Normal" methods in stroke recovery start as soon as the patient is awake and stable. What this involves depends on the damage: speech and language therapy if those centres of the brain were affected; physical therapy if limb function was damaged; or help in getting back to work, among other things. As stroke survivors usually do not continue rehab for too long, it isn't clear whether or not the same approaches will work for later stages of recovery. The "normal" opinion is that the potential for recovery is limited. Fortunately for too many, researchers are increasingly looking at "late-phase" recovery, as knowledge of neuroplasticity grows. Neuroplasticity gives us the ability to recover from injury by working around the damage and even growing new neurons (see: The Brain That Changes Itself).

Source: David Blaikie (CC 2.0)
For this study, conducted in Sweden, researchers randomly assigned 123 stroke survivors to horseback riding, music and rhythm therapy, or conventional care. Patients in both treatment groups met with their therapists twice a week for 12 weeks. Although it was only for three months, after six months, patients lucky enough to be in the horse riding or music therapy groups showed better balance and mobility than the control group. They were also more likely to rate their recovery as having progressed, with 56% and 43% noticing improvement respectively, compared to only 22%. Despite this being a small study, the results are promising, but music therapy was deemed more feasible because of the setting and cost required for horse riding. Both of them stimulate the body and mind in ways that can aid neuroplasticity. This form of music therapy requires participants to move their hands and feet in patterns based on cues in the music and visual instruction. Horse riding simulates normal human walking, without having to move yourself. While music therapy was seen as more widely available, regions such as Queensland in Australia already have programs such as Riding for the Disabled. Many people who join this program see improved physical function, including better reflexes, increased range of motion and stretching of spastic or overly tight muscles. And unlike traditional therapy, it's fun!

This is not the first study to show functional improvement with horse riding after stroke. A smaller one, published in 2015, assigned ten patients to 30 minutes of horse riding a day, 5 days a week, for six weeks (the other ten were the control group). The group who got to ride horses showed significant improvement in gait, balance and activities of daily living, both compared to their abilities before and to the control group. While these were relatively small gains, the trial was only for six weeks. Overall, research may be in its early stages, but horse riding could be a great new hobby and therapy for stroke survivors, as it can do more than just standard therapy alone.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Can We Enhance Growth Hormone Naturally?

Antiaging and longevity circles have known for many years that a decline in human growth hormone (HGH) levels play a key role in the aging process. Younger people have abundant levels of HGH, allowing for a youthful metabolism and body composition. However, reaching "middle age" results in a decline of HGH and other hormones, causing muscle loss, fat gain and many other problems. In men at least, every seven years after the age of 25 brings a 50% drop in the size of HGH's pulsed release. So it should be a simple matter of replacing lost HGH, right? Well, one study in men over 60 did find that 6 months of HGH injections had effects on lean body mass and fat tissue that were equivalent to reversing 10-20 years of aging, but growth hormone replacement is still controversial and not always available. Fortunately, there are relatively simple ways to naturally increase production of our own HGH, which are also much cheaper.

So, what is HGH made of? Like many other things produced by the body, it is made of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. The most important amino acids for HGH are glutamine, arginine, ornithine and glycine. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and even consuming a relatively small amount of 2 grams (2,000mg) has been shown to increase blood levels of HGH. It has even been found to help protect muscle mass in patients vulnerable to losing it after inactivity following surgery. Therefore, protein supplementation could save a lot of time, money and inconvenience to people recovering from surgery. Arginine is also able to increase HGH release at rest, with its effects even greater when combined with exercise. Ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate is both tissue-building and may boost HGH secretion. Other research shows that combining arginine and ornithine aids the benefits of strength training by increasing lean body mass and strength. We should be consuming protein soon after exercise anyway. Glycine not only improves sleep, but a supplement mix of glutamine, glycine and niacin (vitamin B3) was found to significantly boost HGH levels in middle-aged and older men and women. Those who also responded with an increase in IGF-1 reported improved energy and memory.

The amino acids most important to HGH production are best when combined with exercise, because of their other tissue-building effects, but exercise alone is another way to increase HGH. One study compared the effects of exercise and passive standing on HGH, with both of these split into groups where volunteers were exposed to either 18 or 33 degree temperatures. All groups experienced a significant increase in HGH, but the strongest effects were seen in the exercise group exposed to higher temperatures.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Terminally Ill Toddler May Be Saved By New Treatment

Most of us take our lives and those of our children for granted, but for an unfortunate minority, rare genetic diseases don't just threaten to steal lives away, they are serious enough to follow through with it. This is the case for one such genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), but a recently released drug holds promise as its first known treatment.

Unfortunately, not everything is going smoothly. Some children, such as toddler William Storr, have been denied access as not all hospitals in the UK are providing it. His version of the disease is so severe that 95% of children like him do not live to see their second birthday. He can only move his hands and toes, cannot swallow and cannot breathe properly. While clinicians, charities and patient groups are calling on the NHS to make the drug, known as Spinraza, available to all people with SMA, the NHS claims there are a lack of staff and beds (even though SMA is rare). Until NICE, another UK health organisation, approves the drug themselves, Spinraza is only available through an expanded access program run by the pharmaceutical company that produces it. Fortunately, the Sheffield Children's Hospital is opening a discussion with the Storr family and six others whose children need the treatment, as it is likely to be available there soon.

So what is all the fuss about...does it really work? Spinraza is a biologic drug, designed to increase expression of another gene that produces the "survival motor neuron" protein. Without it, motor neurons die off and victims lose muscle function. Multiple clinical trials have shown that Spinraza is able to bring about neurological improvements in the majority of participants receiving it. Most children were also able to meet the developmental milestones that almost all of us take for granted. Survival rates, of course, improved too.

Natural therapies do not exist for spinal muscular atrophy, as there are only a very small number of in vitro (test tube) studies showing an effect of nutrients on the remaining spinal motor neuron protein gene, SMN-2 (SMN-1 is the gene lost in SMA). In one of these, curcumin (from turmeric), EGCG (from green tea) and resveratrol (from red grapes and Japanese knotweed) were able to increase the rate of SMN-2 producing the full-length, functional SMN proteins, as it usually makes shorter, useless ones. This of course meant that cells of patients with SMA began to contain more of the full SMN proteins, and it may mean that these polyphenols could be a useful adjunct to Spinraza. The drug should be available to anyone who needs it, as should anything that is the only treatment for a disease this serious.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

How Music May Help People with Dementia

Natural therapies aren't just about nutritional and herbal medicine, usually with some lifestyle advice added in. There are also many psychological and energetic healing modalities, each with their own benefits that food, nutrients and herbs may not be able to achieve alone. Music is one of them, as there is something about it that can light up various areas of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens (which releases dopamine), the amygdala (which processes emotion) and the prefrontal cortex (which makes decision-making possible). Because of all of these effects, researchers have been looking into music as a way to give at least some relief to people suffering from dementia.

Some examples of how music can benefit people with dementia were documented in the 2014 documentary Alive Inside, but researchers wanted to evaluate this in a scientific manner. They then decided to implement a "Music and Memory" program in 98 nursing homes, and compare the results to 98 nursing homes used as a control group. The endpoints they compared included the discontinuation of antipsychotic and antianxiety medication (if used), reductions in disruptive behaviour and improvements in mood. Over six months, dementia patients who got to listen to music personalised to their tastes had a 20% chance of discontinuing antipsychotics, compared to 17.6%. 57% had reduced behavioural problems, compared to 51%. Music can also bring back lost memories, especially if it is tied to their past.

Singing bowls. Source
Other research has found healing effects of sound too, this time with singing bowl sound therapy. An observational study on 62 people found that, using the POMS scale (Profile of Mood States), sound therapy had significant effects on tension, anger, confusion, fatigue and vigour. Using the HADS (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale), depression and anxiety levels also dropped considerably. Spiritual wellbeing also increased. In another study described by the authors, which was a randomised cross-over trial, use of a singing bowl was more effective than silence alone in reducing blood pressure and heart rate before a guided visualisation. Yet another trial examined the effects of a crystal singing bowl on the body's electrodermal responses. Forty acupuncture meridian points on the patients' left hands and right feet showed increases and decreases respectively in electrical impulses. That study showed this effect with both "toning", where a Marcel Vogel crystal was held to chakra points on the subject's back, and playing a crystal bowl tuned to the note "F", which corresponds to the heart chakra. Everyone acted as their own control; while some people would prefer a separate placebo group, this could have an advantage as we are all individuals.

While it may be too new of a concept to be published in high-quality journals, a more informal trial conducted in Western Australia suggests that sound therapy with singing bowls may specifically help patients with dementia. The main endpoint was reductions in "agitation", involving aggression, verbal agitation (such as screaming and repetitive sentences) and physical non-aggressive behaviour (such as taking clothes off and handling objects inappropriately). After some time with recorded sound therapy, residents were more likely to be classed as non-agitated across all three categories. Case studies described some residents as having improved appetite and sleep, being more active and alert, and better verbal ability. From the findings so far, sound therapy looks like something that should be far more recognised, and more research is needed to both quantify and refine its effects.