Friday, 29 July 2016

Essential Oils and Dementia: Thoughts From the Alzheimer's and Dementia Summit

As I had posted on my Facebook page, I signed up to the free online screening of the Alzheimer's and Dementia Summit, which is running from the 25th of July to the 1st of August, with talks available for purchase for those who have to watch them later. The talks featured in this summit cover a wide range of ways to prevent and treat dementia (Alzheimer's is a form of dementia), from often complex nutritional medicine and detoxification to the simpler things such as use of essential oils. While changing your diet can take a long time, as old habits are hard to break, essential oils, whether they be inhaled or used topically (on the skin), don't require often major changes.

One of the studies described in the talk on essential oils tested the use of rosemary and lemon essential oils in the morning, and lavender and orange oils in the evening. The study involved 28 patients, who were given aromatherapy with these oils for 28 days after a control period, with another 28 day washout period afterwards. After the aromatherapy period, all patients showed significant improvement in personal orientation, related to cognitive function, on two scales used to measure the severity of dementia. Patients with Alzheimer's disease showed significant improvement in the total scores of the Touch Panel-type Dementia Assessment Scale. Routine laboratory tests showed no changes, suggesting a lack of side-effects. There were also no significant changes in the Zarit's score, meaning that caregivers had no effect on the results.

In another, essential oils of lavender, sweet marjoram, vetiver and patchouli were blended into a cream and massaged into the bodies or limbs of 56 patients with moderate to severe dementia. Patients were divided into two groups, where one would receive the treatment for 4 weeks and the other would only receive a plain cream, with interventions switched for the next 4 weeks. During treatment, both groups showed significant drops in frequency and severity of "dementia-related behaviours" in comparison to control periods. In one group, "resistance to nursing care" increased during treatment, which likely reflected greater awareness and alertness. There was also a small but significant increase in Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) scores, suggesting increases in cognitive function, for the seven residents who scored above 0 on the MMSE before treatment. One important thing to remember, as stated by the speaker, is that inhalation of the essential oils is only effective when the patient still has a sense of smell. If they have lost this, then the oils must be given in a cream.

In a third trial, lavender, geranium and mandarin oils in an almond oil base were applied to the skin of 39 patients. Increased alertness and contentment; improved sleep; and less agitation, withdrawal and wandering were observed. An open-label trial that was also discussed involved the use of several essential oils, including ylang ylang, rosemary, patchouli and peppermint. These produced a marked decrease in "disturbed behaviours", thus leading to reduced usage of pharmaceutical drugs. In a placebo-controlled trial, lemon balm and lavender oils were given to six patients, which increased functional abilities and communication while decreasing "difficult behaviour". Overall, essential oils seem to be a simple and effective complementary therapy for dementia, and even if you want to add something more complex such as dietary changes, it's a good place to start.

(Image: lemon balm. Source: Werner100359; CC BY SA: 3.0)

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Fight Cachexia!

Many people living with chronic illnesses, such as some cancers, heart failure and HIV/AIDS, are at risk of the whole-body wasting syndrome known as cachexia, which is often the most deadly symptom. This involves the loss of both muscle and fat, and the degree of weight loss has been associated with shorter survival times, with over 80% of people with gastric and pancreatic cancer suffering from weight loss.

A generally inflamed state is also characteristic of cachexia. The inflammatory markers implicated in this dreadful condition are interleukin-6 (IL-6), tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) and interferon-gamma (INF-gamma). Many studies have found that the first, interleukin-6 (IL-6), may be the most important factor affecting the maintenance of body mass (see above link). IL-6 has been found in higher levels in cancer patients with weight loss than in patients with the same disease, but without any weight loss, for example. In another, IL-6 was the only inflammatory marker that was elevated in all 28 patients, and it increased as they approached death. Research on mice has shown that IL-6 neutralising antibodies prevented cachexia, while a study on humans found that administering IL-6 decreased muscle protein synthesis. Additionally, IL-6 may promote tumour growth.

A turmeric flower.
So how can you reduce levels of IL-6? One substance that may lower IL-6 is turmeric. A study on 40 mice with late-stage pancreatitis showed that curcumin, the most studied phytochemical from turmeric, significantly reduced both IL-6 and TNF-a, which is also relevant in some patients. In humans with chronic kidney disease, a combination of curcumin and frankincense significantly reduce IL-6, with a time and compliance interaction effect. A meta-analysis of nine human trials also showed that curcumin and similar phytochemicals can significantly reduce IL-6, with a strong association between the initial severity of inflammation and the effect of curcumin. Another is vitamin C, as shown in a study where 31 diabetic and/or hypertensive adults were given two daily 500mg doses of vitamin C. Both levels of IL-6 and another inflammatory marker known as C-reactive protein were significantly reduced, but did not change in the control group. Related to the turmeric plant is ginger, which may also reduce IL-6 and other inflammatory markers that can contribute to weight loss. In one study, 64 diabetic patients were assigned to receive either 2 capsules of ginger, or 2 placebo capsules, daily for 2 months. The results? Ginger supplementation significantly reduced IL-6, TNF-a and C-reactive protein compared to baseline, but only TNF-a and C-reactive protein were significantly reduced compared to the control group. However, another study on male endurance runners taking 500mg ginger capsules three times daily found that IL-6 levels were significantly reduced with ginger supplementation after 12 weeks, but not 6 weeks. Levels of IL-1beta were also significantly lower at 12 weeks, and so were TNF-a levels. IL-6 also rises with muscle damage. Therefore, there may be a difference between conditions, or a difference between time that affects the results of ginger supplementation, among other interventions. Fortunately, you can combine natural remedies such as turmeric, ginger, vitamin C and vitamin C-rich foods in smoothies or juices, which may be best during situations where the affected patient has lost considerable strength and appetite.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Cinnamon Could Add Spice to the Next Semester

Beginning a new semester or school year at high school or university may be exciting, or it may be filled with stress, which is likely to increase as assessments pile up. Fortunately, there are natural remedies that can help with learning ability, and a new study shows that cinnamon may be one of them.

In this pre-clinical study, mice were first tested in mazes to separate the good learners from the poor learners. The good learners took an average of 60 seconds to find the food reward at the end of the maze, while the poor learners took an average of 150 seconds; two and a half times how long it took for the good learners. After consuming cinnamon for one month, however, the poor learners were completing the maze puzzle at the same time as the good learners, instead of making so many wrong turns. When the brains of mice from both groups were examined, the poor learners had more of one protein and less of another than the good learners at the beginning of the study. After the month of cinnamon consumption, the levels of these proteins were the same in both groups. Researchers stated that these effects were most likely due to some of the compounds in cinnamon, such as cinnamaldehyde, which gives the spice its aroma and flavour. These are metabolised in the liver to form sodium benzoate, which was reported to stimulate plasticity – the ability to learn and adapt – in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory. Initially, plasticity of neurons in poorly learning mice was much lower than those who could learn more effectively. It also improved the structural integrity of the brain cells, which in turn improved their communication with each other. Integrity of cultured hippocampal neurons was measured by the spine density. Now, clinical trials are being planned, as there is hope that cinnamon extracts may help to fight Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, besides helping stressed out students.

C. verum on the left. Source: Antti Vaha-Sipila (CC BY SA: 1.0)
But isn’t cinnamon just a food, or a mere spice used for flavouring? Actually, cinnamon has been used in traditional medicine to treat conditions such as diabetes for many years. A study on diabetic rats trying to confirm this found that cinnamaldehyde reduced blood glucose by 63% compared to the control group. A dose of 20mg per kilogram of body weight also significantly decreased the amount of haemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein on blood cells) that was tangled up in unabsorbed sugar; increased the liver’s normal stores of sugar and increased the level of insulin. Additionally, it normalised liver enzyme levels. A woman I studied with, who is a type 1 diabetic, had to reduce her dose of insulin after beginning to eat cinnamon! It was the good cinnamon (zeylanicum, or verum), not cassia or another species. Although human clinical trials have not been conducted on cinnamon’s ability to improve learning, it may be still worthwhile to add it to your daily diet. Cinnamon could be added to oatmeal, cereal or yoghurt at breakfast, or consumed as part of chai tea. It could also be added to smoothies, hot chocolate, pancakes or muffins. One idea I found is to combine half a cup of cottage cheese with diced apple and a pinch or more of cinnamon, among many others. Anyway, this is something that could be advisable for stressed-out students.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Six-Hour Workdays Gain Popularity in Sweden

Six-hour workdays are increasingly popular in Sweden, with the aim of not only boosting productivity, but also ensuring that employees have more time to spend on their personal lives. However, this is not all that new: Toyota centres in Gothenburg switched to six-hour days 13 years ago, with happier staff, lower turnover and increased profits. Filimundus, an app developer, changed last year, and while "distractions" such as social media and meetings are eliminated or kept to a minimum, there is more motivation to actually get work done. Even some healthcare workers are enjoying the benefits of a six-hour day, such as doctors and nurses in some hospitals and staff in a retirement home in Gothenburg, which is conducting a study to see whether this is "worth it" to the employers.

When natural forms of medicine achieve equality with allopathic medicine, would I like the same "privileges" as my allopathic brothers and sisters (at least in Sweden) are starting to receive? Yes! Another news article from Refinery 29 covering this topic does state that these employees are still being paid the same amount of money. A 30-hour working week is also the same amount of hours that I spent at school; I'd like to keep that free time and so would many others. Data from the retirement home shows that although the company had to spend (US?)$735,000 in employing more nurses, these nurses reported being happier, more productive and less likely to need sick leave. The care that residents are receiving is also of a higher quality, so one way that the extra costs could be covered may be that those who need aged care could be more likely to choose this home. Besides less sick leave and more productivity, I may be able to add that they could spend less money on hiring new employees, because of lower turnover and the fact that many would be more likely to want to work there. If six-hour workdays become more common, it may also allow more people who are currently economically inactive to get jobs (more people earning more can mean more people spending more, which would probably lead to increased profits in general). It is entirely possible, as I see reports of improvements such as increased pay, less restrictive dress codes, and even unlimited annual leave where quality of work beats quantity, as the labour market tightens (less potential employees). Unfortunately for those in the USA, these changes are most likely to arrive much later than in Europe, where working hours are often (or always) limited by law. I have seen the effects of this while on tour in Europe, with our bus driver's work limits giving us more time at stops, which benefitted us as well.
Rhodiola rosea. Source: Wiki user "Sigma64"

But what can we do to improve our resistance to work-related stress, if less hours are not an option? Besides nutrients such as magnesium and B vitamins (eat your Vegemite!), there is also a class of herbal medicines known as adaptogens, which work in a variety of ways to improve resistance to all forms of stress (oxidative, homeostatic, mental etc.). One of these is rhodiola, which I have prescribed in the student clinic because of its ability to balance out cortisol levels, a key stress hormone. In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, two doses of rhodiola were compared to a placebo on a very uniform group of 161 cadets. The results showed a "pronounced" and "highly significant" effect against fatigue, as measured by the Anti-Fatigue Index. The two- and three-capsule groups had average AFI values of 1.0385 and 1.0195, while the placebo group had an average AFI of 0.9046. No significant effect was shown in physiological tests, but there are many other adaptogens which can improve physical performance, and rhodiola may also provide this benefit in some people. Optimal work-life balance is still best, and adaptogens have many other uses such as antiaging, but if you work long hours adaptogens may help with performance and having the energy to enjoy time off.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Hope in Ending HIV Infections

AIDS is no longer the unstoppable monster it once was, with rates of new infections, including those from mother-child transmission, falling around the world. This year, Thailand became the first country in Asia to end mother-child HIV transmission, and others, such as Haiti in the Caribbean, are close behind. There are still 150,000 children becoming infected every year, but we have come a long way. The WHO has also recognised Armenia and Moldova as eliminating mother-child transmission. While it is not my favourite source, The Huffington Post has reported that 17 other countries in the Americas may have eliminated mother-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. This includes Cuba, the first country in the world to receive validation of this achievement.

But what have I learnt from my naturopathy degree, in regards to HIV/AIDS? Usually it has just been "supportive" care, solely focused on reducing the side-effects of the pharmaceutical drugs. However, in the last few weeks of my degree, I learnt of a study where a 4-herb formula known as Immu-25 was tested for its effects on viral load and CD4 cell count. In this early trial, 36 patients with CD4 cell counts below 500 cells/uL were given two capsules of the formula daily under an open-label study. The results? There was an increase in weight, from 58kg on average to 63kg at 6 months, 64kg at 12 months and 68kg at 18 months. Cough, fever, diarrhoea, anorexia (lack of appetite) and fatigue all decreased with the herbal treatment. These results are especially relevant to naturopaths, who are not allowed to say that we actually treat HIV in Australia; however we can say that we offer supportive care to improve quality of life. As for viral load, there was a decrease from the average of 326,438 at baseline, to 180,495 at 6 months, and 22,069 at 12 months. That is an over 90% reduction in one year, instead of viral load constantly increasing or staying constant! As for CD4 cell count, the average baseline value was 243 cells/uL, which increased to 336 after 6 months, then rose to 527/uL at the 12-month point, and then to 618/uL after 18 months. According to WebMD, 500-1500/uL is the normal range for CD4 cells. The only side effects were mild gastrointestinal disturbances, nowhere near as severe as those caused by pharmaceutical drugs. These benefits and the lack of drawbacks mean that I am very disappointed that this is not more widely known and researched. What if the use of this formula could result in at least a reduction of pharmaceutical doses? 

Holy Basil. Source: Mokkie
The four herbs in Immu-25 are Withania somnifera, Ocimum sanctum, Emblica officinalis and Tinospora cordifolia. The first is withania, or ashwagandha, commonly used by naturopaths for conditions where there is debility. The second is known as holy basil, another adaptogen for those with fatigue-related conditions. The third is amla, or Indian gooseberry, and I am not familiar with it, but have heard of it. The fourth is known as Guduchi or Amrita, among other names, and this is the first time I have heard of it.

Finally, another, non-pharmaceutical way to prevent HIV infections is by ending child marriage and increasing career etc. opportunities for girls. Girls who have been pushed into marriage have less power over their lives, and so are more likely to be forced into unprotected sex. Girls who have to engage in prostitution because there are no other options are also at risk. This is one of the many reasons why I am passionate about increasing and improving education for girls.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Champagne May Prevent Dementia

I often lose count of how many times I have written about why something "bad" can be good in certain situations. I have covered why coffee can have health benefits, why (fermented) dairy can be protective, why both meat and vegetarian diets can improve your health or at least not kill you, and I support controversial research into resurrecting the (brain)dead. Well today I bring you research on how moderate champagne consumption may help prevent cognitive decline in elderly people. Of course, I always say that everyone is different, as some people such as former alcoholics and those with no ancestral history of alcohol consumption should probably avoid all alcohol.

Why champagne, when more research has been on red wine? While there have been many studies on flavonoid-rich foods and beverages, those high in hydroxycinnamates and phenolic acids have been largely neglected. This study was conducted on rats, which are genetically very similar to humans, and would not be the only one showing benefits of moderate wine consumption (usually red) for preventing chronic disease. "Moderate" in this case means three glasses of champagne a week, not three a day like some news articles have misrepresented it. In comparison to alcohol- and calorie-matched controls, six weeks of champagne "supplementation" resulted in an improvement in spatial working memory among aged rodents. The champagne group also had improvements in the "distance" and "walking speed" aspects of the motor skills tests, but they weren't seen as "significant" (almost definitely caused by the champagne). The memory improvements were linked to changes in the levels of proteins involved in neuroplasticity (the brain remodelling to fit what you need to learn), cellular communication and cell division, in the area of the brain that deals with memory. These changes were how the phenolic acids, such as gallic and caffeic acid, were able to improve spatial memory. The higher levels of phenolics in champagne compared to other white wines comes from the type of grapes used to produce it, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are used alongside Chardonnay grapes. ((Image: Pinot Noir grapes. Image Source: PRA/Wikimedia Commons))

Champagne has previously been observed to improve vascular (blood vessel) function in a similar manner to red wine. Caffeic acid, gallic acid and tyrosol, which champagne is relatively rich in, have also been shown to protect against cellular damage at "physiologically relevant" (not unreasonable) levels. Tiny amounts of tyrosol, caffeic acid and p-coumaric acid have been found to protect the cortical neurons against 5-S-cysteinyl-dopamine induced damage. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in motor control and mood, which has to be augmented in Parkinson's Disease. Caffeic acid, known as a hydroxycinnamate, has been shown to protect neurons against damage by reducing the production of inflammatory substances. However, these have been ignored in the world of animal and human research until recently. Actually, any benefit of anything to do with alcohol is often ignored in "my" world of natural health, with many of us not drinking at all, so it is no surprise. However, it was a surprise to learn in the Vienna schnapps museum that liquor has saved many lives from infection in the days before clean water and plumbing. So in conclusion, many "bad" things often have a good side, you just have to use them in the right way.

PS: I'm now on Instagram! Search for alexandraspringchick

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Has Pokemon Go Helped Players with Depression?

Since Pokemon Go was released this month, it has had some surprising impacts on its millions of users, including offering benefits for players who suffer from mental health conditions. Users have taken to social media to report unexpected improvements in depression and anxiety since downloading the game, which requires the player, or “trainer”, to go outside and walk, often for hours at a time. This is commonly a struggle for people with depression or anxiety to achieve for even a few minutes.

A few tweets from some users read as follows:

PokemonGo has already been a better treatment for my depression than anything my doctor prescribed or therapist recommended.”

Took another 4 mile walk and talked to 4 people along the way. PokemonGo may solve obesity and social anxiety in one app.”

PokemonGO is gunna cure my social anxiety. Everyone has been so nice. People are not as scary as originally perceived.”

As playing the game requires going out and exploring one’s neighbourhood to find and capture Pokemon, leaving the house does not come with the forced social interaction which can make it so difficult. While there are hundreds of apps attempting to improve mental health by affirmations or mood tracking, many lose interest after a few days or weeks.

Video games have come a long way since I owned this.
But is there any scientific evidence to explain these benefits? Yes, for both the increased physical activity and the fact that some of the best Pokemon are found near trees or water. A study has found that spending just 30 minutes a week in nature can reduce the risk of depression by 7%, and high blood pressure by 9%. With the high prevalence of these conditions, even 7 and 9% means a significant number of people benefit. Social cohesion, measured by trust, reciprocal exchange and general community cohesion, also improved. Another found that going for a 90-minute walk through a grassland area decreased activity in the area of the brain responsible for negative rumination when compared to brain scans before the walk. Rumination means repetitive thoughts focusing on negative aspects of the self, and can increase the risk of depression. Yet another found that walking down a tree-lined street could significantly lower stress levels, even when the participants were preparing a speech or performing mathematics in front of judges. This has been a familiar concept to Japanese culture for many years, known as “nature bathing”. As for simply exercising, a study on 1,904 women with depressive symptoms, mild or moderate depression found that 200 minutes of walking a week, or 150 minutes of moderate exercise (golf, tennis, swimming, aerobics or line dancing) was linked with improvements in mental health. They had more energy, socialised more, felt emotionally better and were not as limited by their depression. 150 minutes is equal to just over 20 minutes a day, while 200 minutes can be spread out and rounded up to 30 minutes a day. More exercise was associated with greater improvements, though there were still benefits at lower levels of exercise. However, the average Pokemon Go player is likely to walk for much longer than 30 minutes at a time. Overall, it looks like a game that is not only enjoyable and world-famous, but also leads to much-needed exercise and time outside, should not be automatically dismissed as “stupid” or “childish”.
Unfortunately for me, my phone does not support the game, but hopefully I can update it.