Friday, 19 May 2017

Could Herbal Birth Control Be Available Soon?

Natural systems of medicine, such as European naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, are very popular among couples struggling with infertility. But what about those of us who don't want children? Conventional methods of birth control include hormonal drugs, which often cause nasty side effects, implants and surgery - but what if there was a more natural approach, one with side benefits?

It turns out that this could become a possibility. Centuries before the oral contraceptive pill was approved in 1960, women tried all sorts of methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Staunch supporters of modern medicine (only) like to point and laugh at use of crocodile dung and cat testicles, but there were much more pleasant remedies around. One of these is the thunder god vine, also known as Tripterygium wilfordii in scientific circles. In a research article published on the 15th of May, 2017, scientists at the University of California describe exactly how two phytochemicals present in the medicinal herb can prevent fertilisation.

Cycle tracking beads. Source: Dellex.
When a sperm cell travels through the female reproductive system, its flagellum (whip-like tail) lets it swim forward. If it finds an egg, this flagellum must go into a "drilling" mode to allow it to penetrate through the egg's jelly lining. The drilling mode is impossible without a reaction between progesterone and a protein that sperm produce called ABHD2. Pristimerin and lupeol, two phytochemicals found in thunder god vine, were able to block this reaction. Only a tiny amount of these were required to prevent fertilisation - about 10 times less than the amount of levonorgestrel in Plan B. This also explains why infertility is often reported after the herb's more common use as a natural anti-inflammatory for problems such as arthritis. In the future, these, either isolated or maybe as part of a standardised herbal extract, could become a low-dose, safer form of birth control for both genders. Unfortunately, human clinical trials are years away.

There are also other forms of "natural family planning", such as the Billings ovulation method, which are free of side effects, but may be less reliable. In a small study, 15 Turkish women monitored their fertility across 30 menstrual cycles using both the Billings method and urinary levels of luteinising hormone (LH), which spikes during ovulation. The Billings method detected a potentially fertile period of 10 days, with a "peak" in the cervical mucus sign on day 13 (as an average, day 13.65). The surge of LH that accompanies ovulation also peaked on day 13 (as an average, day 13.65), and lasted for five days. This association was deemed significant, and it was concluded that women can use this method effectively. However, it is a small study, and every woman is different. According to the World Health Organisation (1981, sourced from Wikipedia), this method is at least 97% effective with "perfect use", and 77-99% effective with "typical use". In other words, it seems best to stick to the Billings method's precise rules, and probably use a condom as well. So, in conclusion, you don't have to put up with birth control side effects just because you were born as an opposite sex-attracted woman. However, you do need the correct training to use natural family planning methods, and will probably have to wait several years for proven herbal methods.  This article is not intended to be birth control training or advice, it is just for general information.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Air Pollution May Be an Ignored Cause of Cancer

When you try to convince your chain-smoking uncle or fast food-addicted cousin to make healthier choices in order to prevent cancer and other diseases, they probably will point to a "healthy" person who did "everything right" and still got cancer. Oh, but my mum ate so healthy! Oh, but Farrah Fawcett was so fit! The truth is, however, that cancer prevention isn't totally an individual effort. There are things that we as a society must address, such as air pollution.

This lil' bug may just save your life. Source: Danrok
For this recent study, the US EPA's Environmental Quality Index, a county-level measure of over 200 environmental variables, was compared to SEER state cancer profiles. Data on cancer rates was available for 85% of the over 3100 US counties. The average age-adjusted cancer rate in the US is 451 cases for every 100,000 people. The counties with poor environmental quality had, on average, 39 more cases per 100,000 people than those with high environmental quality. The main factors linked with higher cancer rates were air pollution, the presence of highways and the availability of housing and public transport. Of course, highways, public transport and the location of houses are factors that affect air pollution too. Urban areas showed the strongest associations, most likely because there are more things like cars which consume fossil fuels. As for which cancers were most affected by air pollution, breast and prostate cancers have the strongest associations. Maybe instead of the "early detection is the best protection" line used to promote mammograms (which sounds quite like propaganda), how about "environmental protection is the best prevention"?

This is not the only study linking air pollution to cancer. In 2012, the IARC confirmed that diesel exhaust does cause cancer. In the USA alone, diesel fuel use causes over 50,000 deaths every year, and it's nowhere near as dirty as the diesel used in other countries! This doesn't just include cancer, but also emphysema, bronchitis, heart disease and severe asthma attacks. There is also a link between acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL) and living close to oil and gas wells. On the other hand, when air quality regulations in California caused the level of diesel pollution to drop by 68%, the risk of developing cancers from the toxins in diesel dropped by three quarters! Cancer incidence in general has declined in the USA too, due in no small part to "personal" air pollution, i.e. smoking, falling out of fashion. While 451 per 100,000 is still too many, the age-adjusted cancer rate was 511 per 100,000 in 1992, when incidence peaked. So when someone develops cancer, it may not be all their fault. It may be society's responsibility to clean up the world, so we can all live long, healthy lives, and make what diseases that would remain easier to treat.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Five Ways to Fight Wrinkles

While it isn't the worst sign of aging, as it won't kill you, wrinkles are surely the most visible sign of aging. Millions of dollars are spent every year in attempts to fight them, with varying degrees of efficacy, to the point that "anti-aging" is often shorthand for "anti-wrinkle". If youthful beauty is your thing, you don't want to waste time and money throwing everything and anything you can find at the problem. Simple, targeted approaches that benefit your overall health are best. There are many ways to fight wrinkles, and what is best depends on the individual, but here are 5 of the most basic ones, starting with...

1) Stress management: Poorly managed stress causes wrinkles in more ways than simply frowning all the time. Chronic stress, whether it be psychological or physical, will activate the fight/flight response just as acute stress (which isn't usually harmful) does. In this response, levels of adrenaline and cortisol rise dramatically in order to give you the energy needed to escape the "threat". Sustained levels of high cortisol causes protein breakdown (so it can be used as energy), and the collagen and elastin in your skin is not exempted. This leads to more wrinkles, thin skin, easy bruising and dryness. Once again, however, the best ways to reduce stress and improve stress management depend on the individual, so seeing a qualified naturopath is recommended.

2) Sleep hygiene: As if poor sleep didn't cause enough problems already, it also contributes to skin aging! Research on 60 women without chronic illnesses found that poor sleep quality and duration (less than 5 hours a night) was linked to higher skin aging scores and even poorer resilience against UV exposure. Women who slept well had a 30% better response to a skin barrier challenge.

Green tea. Source: McKay Savage (CC BY-SA: 2.0)
3) Diet: Yes, diet affects skin aging too, and those articles saying that sugar speeds aging aren't all clickbait! A diet that causes chronically elevated blood sugar increases the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), which tangle in proteins such as collagen and elastin, thus speeding up aging. They also lead to a vicious cycle of inflammation and oxidative stress (more aging!). Common herbs and spices, including cinnamon, garlic, oregano, ginger and cloves may inhibit AGE production, especially when cooking, as high-heat methods such as frying, grilling and roasting generate them too.

4) Avoid pollution: This one is taking a collective effort, with the switch to clean energy and electric vehicles from fossil fuels well underway, but even though it's not happening overnight it will be worth it in the end! In a study of elderly women, exposure to traffic-related air pollution was strongly linked with skin aging, which included more pronounced wrinkles and 20% more age spots. As exposure to pollution is still unavoidable, enhancing your detoxification abilities is important, but the best way to do it depends on the individual (again).

5) Green tea polyphenols: Polyphenols are antioxidant chemicals found naturally in green tea (among other sources), which can protect against UV-induced sunburn, skin aging and immune suppression. In a clinical study of 60 women without skin conditions, drinking a beverage with green tea polyphenols led to less UV-induced redness and better skin quality overall, compared to placebo. Elasticity, roughness, hydration, density and scaling all improved. Green tea improved blood flow and oxygen delivery to the skin, which may boost regeneration.

Like other aspects of aging, skin aging isn't something you just have to accept; there are ways to mitigate it, which benefit your overall health too. And besides, research and clinical experience related to anti-aging is building up every day - we live in exciting times.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Benefits of Coffee Strike Again

Coffee has been conventionally seen as a vice, something that busy business types drink as a stimulant and performance enhancer, until adrenal burnout catches up with them. While yes, too much coffee can be harmful to your health, there is much research showing the health benefits of moderate consumption. The latest study takes us to Italy, and finds a relatively simple way to prevent one of the most common chronic illnesses in men.

Old macchinetta. Source: Rafiq Sarlie
The illness that I'm talking about is prostate cancer, something associated with much fear, embarrassing symptoms, and embarrassing tests to check for it. We have known for years that lifestyle changes can reduce men's risk of developing it, but whether or not coffee can help out had been up for debate. That is where this study comes in. Researchers analysed the coffee consumption and prostate cancer incidence among almost seven thousand men in Italy, where prostate cancer risk is much lower than other developed countries. Over the four-year study period, men who drank three or more cups of coffee every day had a 53% lower risk of prostate cancer than men who only had two or less.

But...why coffee? The researchers then looked at the effects of coffee extracts on prostate cancer cells in the lab. Caffeinated extracts were able to reduce the ability of prostate cancer cells to grow, divide and spread, while decaffeinated extracts could not. This is most likely caused by a synergistic reaction between caffeine and other bioactive, antioxidant compounds in coffee.

Unfortunately, however, not all coffee is created equal. Most of the men in this study would have been drinking Italian-style coffee, which is prepared differently to coffee in countries like the USA. The use of filters is common in the USA, which can reduce the amount of beneficial nutrients and compounds that actually make it from the ground beans to what we drink. As you can see in these instructions, optimal extraction of compounds such as essential oils also requires high pressure and hot to boiling water. The most expensive macchinetta machines, found in espresso bars, produce about 9 atmospheres (900kPa) of pressure, but the more traditional ones for home use go to about 1.5 atmospheres (150kPa). Boiling the water causes it to rise through the coffee grounds, extracting the caffeine and other phytochemicals, and into an upper chamber. It is not as simple as pouring water on any old instant coffee, but whether you're drinking it for the flavour or health benefits, it's worth it!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

How Much Exercise Reverses Aging By How Many Years?

In the latest round of "alternative facts" to come out of the current US government, Donald Trump has stated that exercise is harmful, because he believes that people are like batteries: born with a finite amount of energy. His belief that exercise kills you has come out just in time for a new study, which like many others, helps to confirm that exercise is one of the most practical antiaging treatments we have.

Source: Kyle Cassidy
You and other thinking people may have noticed by now that people just don't age as fast as they used to. Even centenarians, those who have lived past 100, are noted to be increasingly active and engaged, as well as increasing in number. At Tucson Medical Center's Salute to Centenarians event, some attendees exercised at least several times a week, do paid work and even live on their own. So much of this is caused by better knowledge of what makes up a healthy lifestyle, including exercise. But how much of an antiaging effect does exercise have, and what amount of exercise is needed to achieve this? Exercise science professor Larry Tucker's study on around 6000 adults, published in Preventative Medicine, found that "regular exercise at high intensity" could take nine years off your biological age! This level of exercise, by the way, is the equivalent of running 30 minutes for women, and 40 minutes for men, five days a week. However, people who only did low to moderate intensity exercise were no younger (in a biological sense) than those who did not exercise at all. My guess is that this level of exercise still has benefits, but not what was measured in this study.

“Just because you’re 40, doesn’t mean you’re 40 years old biologically,” said Larry Tucker. “We all know people that seem younger than their actual age. The more physically active we are, the less biological ageing takes place in our bodies.” The marker of biological aging that he and the other researchers measured was telomere length. These are protective caps of DNA which sit on the end of our chromosomes, and unfortunately usually shorten with each cell division. As lack of telomeres means cell death, longer telomeres are associated with longevity, and high-intensity exercise meant longer telomeres. This study echoes another which showed that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) has significant antiaging effects. It also echoes yet another on running; this one found that running one hour can add, on average, seven more hours to your life. These benefits stopped at about three extra years of life, and four hours of running a week. Overall, presidents are not always right, physical activity has been repeatedly shown to extend average lifespan.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Longevity for Pets

Countless studies are showing that certain foods, lifestyle factors and natural medicines are longevity-promoting for humans, so why would there be nothing for, say, your dog? As we live longer, it is totally valid to want the same thing for your pet. Movies like A Dog's Purpose may portray death as something that gives life meaning, but in reality it has a destructive effect on more than the life that was lost, and we do not necessarily "gain" anything from the experience.

Spontaneous photo of my dog because he had his tongue out <3
Rodney Habib, a vet passionate about pet nutrition, has something much more useful than a schmaltzy movie written to play with our emotions. In his TEDx Talk, Why Don't Dogs Live Forever?, he explains that the current situation is far from acceptable. He has learnt that in the 1970s, the average lifespan of a dog was 17. Now, it's 11. Why? Well, a dog's risk of diabetes is 900% higher now, obesity is up by 60% and dogs now have a higher risk of cancer than any other mammal. Only less than 10% of cancer cases are genetic, the rest is caused by dietary factors, toxin exposure, stress, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Here is an example: in a study of Scottish terriers, both with and without a type of bladder cancer, consumption of vegetables at least three times a week was associated with a 70% lower risk of developing this type of cancer. For green leafy vegetables, the risk reduction approached 90%; for yellow and orange vegetables, it was about 70%. Cruciferous vegetable consumption was not significantly associated with lower cancer rates. Other research at Purdue University showed a 90% reduction in bladder cancer risk when green leafy vegetables were added to a processed food diet three times each week. As Scottish terriers have a much greater risk of bladder cancer than other dogs, these study results could be even more significant, as they may have a strong genetic predisposition.

So far, the world's oldest dog was Maggie, who lived to be 30. She lived on a dairy farm and often walked/ran nine kilometres in a single day! Her diet included raw milk from grass-fed cows, and her owner did not mind much when she self-fasted some days. Imagine a world where this is normal; where dogs living well into their 20s or even 30s is what we expect, not something that is unusual enough to make the news. While I am not a vet, I have only studied health in humans, there are many people like Rodney Habib who are fighting to give our fur-children a longer and better life.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

How Do I Live Longer?

It's something on many of our minds. We love living, and don't want to die, but the question is: how can I extend my life? You may know that it's possible, given our increasing life expectancy, but not know how to go about it (looking at WHO statistics over time, US life expectancy hasn't fallen, despite what this article opens with). You may have been told that it isn't, but something inside you suspects otherwise. Either way, there are things you can do, starting from today, to live a longer and healthier life.

Source: Audrey (CC BY-SA: 2.0)
First of all, get a good night's sleep! As Dr. Steven Wilson says, “If you sleep less than six hours per night, you’re not going to live as long". On average, we need five sleep cycles each night, which takes around seven hours. This helps to prevent problems such as anxiety, high blood pressure and diabetes. Dr. Wilson, like those of us in natural health, also stresses the importance of nutrition. “Everyone should eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day—of various colours, which represent different phytonutrients,” he says. Lean protein, anti-inflammatory fats and limiting processed foods are also essential recommendations. Taz Bhatia, author of What Doctors Eat, reminds us of the anti-inflammatory properties of spices such as turmeric, ginger and cayenne pepper. For example, a trial published in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that (good quality!) turmeric can be equally effective to ibuprofen in treating knee osteoarthritis. However, it is best to see a qualified professional in order to determine what specific advice is right for you.

Dr. Michael Roizen, co-author of Age-Proof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip, adds: Jump! Hip fractures are a major trigger for death in older adults, but jumping provides low-level stress that strengthens bones. A study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that women who jumped on a hard surface 40 times each day increased bone density, while those who didn't continued to lose it. This was 20 jumps twice a day, with 30 seconds of rest between each. And as Rachel Straub, co-author of Weight Training Without Injury, says, never neglect cardio nor strength training every week. Remembering these can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, cardiovascular issues and all-cause mortality.

This article goes into other simple ways to lengthen your life, such as meditation to improve brain function and reduce stress; minimising exposure to toxins and being socially engaged. As we are all individuals, however, my advice is to see a qualified holistic health professional so you can learn what is right for you, and to take this article as general advice.