Friday, 30 September 2016

Could the Paleo Diet Help Heart Health?

One of the media's favourite diets to criticise is the Paleo Diet. If you follow this diet, regardless of how much your health has improved, it sounds like you might as well wear a bucket on your head and call yourself Ned Kelly, because it's sometimes talked about as if it were a crime. However, there is (ignored) research out there validating those who promote the diet, including this small but interesting recent study.
You won't actually turn into a caveman.

The researchers asked eight healthy people (ie no diagnosed illness) who normally ate a typical Western diet, high in processed foods, to switch to the non-processed Paleo diet for eight weeks. They all received a sample menu and recipe guide, as well as dietary advice. They were able to eat as much food as they wanted, as long as they stuck to the Paleo diet's rules. After the eight weeks, the researchers found that the participants experienced, on average, a 35% increase in levels of interleukin-10 (IL-10). IL-10 is an anti-inflammatory molecule produced by immune cells. In fact, low levels of IL-10 are associated with an increased risk of heart attack, which is the main finding here that suggests a protective effect of the Paleo diet. There were also other changes to inflammatory markers, but their effects were uncertain. Participants also lost weight during the trial, and reported a 44% reduction in carbohydrate consumption, and a 22% reduction in overall energy consumption. This validates those out in the real world who report losing weight after starting the diet, where there are also no restrictions on energy intake. Although the trial did not have a control group, it could still be said that their baseline results served as a control, as only you are a biochemical match for yourself (unless you have an identical twin).

This new study was not the only time that the Paleo diet had been found to improve markers of cardiovascular health. In another, 20 volunteers with high cholesterol were first instructed to eat a diet following standard "heart healthy" guidelines for four months, and then a Paleo diet for another four months. After four months on the Paleo diet, triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL levels were lower, while HDL levels were higher, than when the volunteers were on the "heart healthy" diet. This is despite the higher fat content of your typical Paleo diet. It may also reduce blood glucose levels, as well as waist circumference. In a third study, 29 volunteers with ischaemic heart disease were assigned to one of two groups: one on a Paleo diet (defined as: based on lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts), and one on a Mediterranean-like diet (defined as: based on wholegrains, low-fat dairy, vegetables, fish, fruit, oils and margarines). All had either glucose intolerance or type II diabetes. Over the 12 week study period, there was a 26% decrease in area-under-the-curve (AUC) glucose levels and a reduction of 5.6cm in waist circumference in the Paleo group. However, there was only a 7% decrease in AUC glucose and a waist circumference reduction of 2.9 cm in the Mediterranean group. Blood glucose and waist circumference are also related to heart disease risk because of inflammation. Overall, if the Paleo diet is working for you, you don't need to give it up because of a "witty" news report or article.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Are Omega-3 Fats the New Cholesterol?

It seems as though we hear about omega-3 fats and their apparently never-ending list of benefits so much that many people just roll their eyes whenever they're mentioned. But some health experts, like Dr William Harris, will freely talk about them as if they are the holy grail of health. A professor at the Sanford School of Medicine, Dr Harris has been researching essential fatty acids (1 omega-3, 1 omega-6) and their benefits for 30 years. "Each study clarifies what it does. It's been shown to help brain health, depression, dementia and there is something there that omega-3 helps with. It just needs to be worked out. We're just about to start this", he says.

Dr Harris is currently in Australia, helping to launch a national omega-3 testing program that is appropriately called the Omega-3 Index. Not only is it a risk factor for heart disease that can be addressed without drugs, but he "would bet" that omega-3 levels are the most important risk factor for heart disease. Once it is rolled out, the Omega-3 Index test will be a simple finger-prick blood test, which anyone could order from a doctor or naturopath. Then, the blood levels of omega-3 will be tested and recorded as a percentage. The optimal percentage range is 8-12%, with levels under 4% considered too low. The best source of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and in particular its downstream products EPA and DHA, is species of oily fish such as salmon (with the skin on), sardines, herring and mackerel. There are also plant sources of ALA, such as flax, chia, walnuts and hemp seeds (which are still not legally food in Australia). Hemp seeds have an optimal ratio of the essential omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 fatty acids, at 2.5:1. Flax seeds have the highest ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, with the 6:3 ratio being 0.2:1. However, some people have a harder time converting ALA to the stronger downstream products EPA and DHA, so they must eat fish or take a supplement. Others can do it much more easily, but it also means they convert omega-6 fats into harmful (in excess) products at a higher rate, and so must avoid consuming a higher than optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats.

So how do omega-3 fatty acids work to protect heart health? At least one of the ways that they work is to reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation can result in tissue damage, and some inflammatory chemicals produced by the body can dysregulate blood sugar, elevate blood lipids (such as those linked to heart disease) and raise blood pressure. Omega-3 fats have been found to aid in the production of chemicals that can both stop inflammation in its tracks and resolve it. After acute inflammation, which is beneficial to the body, you are meant to produce chemicals that act as "stop signals" and mop up the pro-inflammatory ones. These are known as lipoxins, resolvins and protectins. Without them, low-grade, damaging, chronic inflammation marches on and can lead to all sorts of problems later. Resolvins are made from omega-3 EPA and DHA, protectins are made from DHA and while lipoxins are made from the omega-6 product arachidonic acid, they need the presence of EPA and DHA.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Green Tea Extract May Help Those With Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is a genetic condition caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21, and results in a range of mental and physical issues. Because it is genetic, most people do not see any hope of improving the health and abilities of the thousands who are affected by it. However, research is now suggesting that some natural medicines may help to improve the mental abilities of Down Syndrome sufferers, one of them being green tea extract.

Source: Wikimol
Conducted in Barcelona, 87 volunteers aged 16 to 34 with Down Syndrome signed up for this Phase II clinical trial. All participants were randomly assigned to receive either a decaffeinated green tea extract or a placebo for one year, and were given cognitive training alongside it. The main component of the green tea extract was epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG. After one year of treatment, functional brain scans (fMRI) showed that the volunteers who received the green tea extract had better neuronal connectivity in certain brain regions. They also scored better than the placebo group on tests measuring visual recognition memory, inhibitory control and adaptive behaviour. "Adaptive behaviour" means functional academics, so EGCG could help children with Down Syndrome perform better in school, and help adults with their jobs. Researchers suggested that these improvements could be due to EGCG's effects on an enzyme that is also active in Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. EGCG may also help cognition by altering the expression of some genes, improving mitochondrial function and acting as an antioxidant. This study was the first well-powered trial to show improved academic functioning and brain changes in young adults with Down Syndrome, whether the relationship between EGCG and cognitive training was synergistic (multiplying) or additive. One can wonder, what would happen if EGCG was given to young children, or what would the effects of it be over a number of years?

The cognitive disability seen in Down Syndrome may also be partly inflammatory. Both Alzheimer's disease and Down Syndrome has been associated with much higher brain levels of interleukin-1 than in non-affected people. Compared with age-matched controls, interleukin-1 was present in up to 30 times as many glial cells, which are a type of supporting cell that offer immune protection. Life Extension Foundation has even reported that DMSO was once found to improve neurological function in people with Down Syndrome, but this seemed to be only one, old study and would need further research. It looks like, despite the genetic cause, that there is hope for those with Down Syndrome to improve their cognitive skills, so one day - or perhaps now - they do not have to miss out on many of the things that non-affected people take for granted.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Could Gluten Make You Go Crazy?

Despite much progression towards a free, individualistic society, a considerable amount of conformity unfortunately remains. This results in bullying and harassment towards people who simply make different choices, even when those different choices are simply what is best for their health. In this case, I am talking about people like me who need to stay on a gluten-free diet. Some of us (like me) cannot or should not be tested in order to get an "official diagnosis" because of often torturous neurological symptoms. I lose balance, co-ordination, memory and feel like I have been partially erased from existence; that is the main reason why I will not get tested. Others, such as a woman in a case study recounted by Dr Kelly Brogan, have it much worse - by "worse", I mean "psychosis". Gluten has been known for years, at least in limited circles, to trigger chronic and disabling psychiatric conditions.

Source: Panaderia La Colegiala
The woman in this case was 37 at the time and studying for a PhD. Partly because of stress related to studying, she began to believe that people were talking about her. Then, it progressed to paranoid accusations that her parents had assisted in a burglary targeting her home. She was initially hospitalised and given the label "psychotic disorder", and was prescribed risperidone and sertraline. Ultimately she was diagnosed with Hashimoto's and Coeliac disease, because of her nutrient deficiencies, weight loss and inability to absorb thyroid medication. Unfortunately, she refused to stick to a gluten-free diet, believing that her doctors were lying to her. She lost her job, became homeless and attempted suicide before being put back into hospital where she was made to stay on a gluten-free diet. Her delusions resolved in three months, but she later relapsed after accidentally eating gluten. In other unfortunate events, Dr Alessio Fasano repeats conventional warnings to not start a gluten-free diet until after intestinal biopsy, in order to avoid a false-negative result. But as Kelly Brogan writes, simply trialling a gluten-free diet could be a path of less harm, as it doesn't result in further damage and more symptoms. Then there is the question of a negative biopsy result, despite the growing acknowledgement of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and its potential psychiatric manifestations. As Dr Hadjivassiliou states, gluten intolerance can be totally neurological, with no intestinal damage. One paper states:
"If gluten is the putative harmful agent, then there is no requirement to invoke gut damage and nutritional deficiency to explain the myriad of the symptoms experienced by sufferers of celiac disease and gluten-sensitivity". 

Want to know how long gluten has been suspected as a cause of neurological disorders? About 60 years...and it still hasn't been recognised in the mainstream! The oldest reports of emotional disturbances being resolved after the removal of gluten date back to 1951. In 1966, a study was published showing an association between schizophrenia rates and wheat consumption. Less wheat consumption, which required a world war to happen, was linked to significantly lower first-time admissions for schizophrenia. More recent research has found a drastically higher incidence of anti-gluten antibodies among schizophrenics, and a 2006 review found at least significant reductions in schizophrenic symptoms after initiating a gluten-free diet. In a study published in 1984, only 2 people out of over 65,000 Pacific Islanders eating a traditional, grain-free diet had chronic schizophrenia. Westernisation of their diets resulted in a Western-level prevalence of the disease. In a 1996 study (why is this not common knowledge?), anti-gluten (gliadin) antibodies were found in 27% of the population, and in up to 57% of people with neurological problems of unknown cause. There is no excuse for bullying or harassing people who do not eat gluten, whether or not they have the medical records to satisfy your questions.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Can You Repel Ticks With Essential Oils?

Ticks are annoying, but did you know that they could also be dangerous? Some ticks carry Lyme disease, a tick-borne, and often sexually-transmitted, disease known to be caused by bacteria of the Borrelia species. Normally when a tick is removed, there may only be some itching and minor swelling. However, Lyme disease commonly results in a "bulls-eye" rash that spreads around the bite like a target pattern, although many people never see this rash. Flu-like aches and pains are some other initial symptoms of Lyme. If it isn't treated right away, the bacteria can stay inside the body and cause more chronic symptoms, such as arthritis, fatigue, cognitive issues, numbness, weakness or headaches. The worst part for some people is that in Australia, Lyme disease is not recognised as existing in the country! Patients who cannot find doctors with access to the appropriate antibiotics, and naturopaths trained in Lyme disease, often end up with a severe, chronic illness and  sometimes have to travel to countries like Germany for treatment.

Syzygium aromaticum/Clove.
Fortunately, there are both chemical and natural ways to repel ticks, which is good news for those who may react to the chemical repellents. Some essential oils that may be toxic to tick larvae (in this study: Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus) are Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and garlic (Allium sativum) oil. Mexican oregano and garlic oil killed 90-100% of tick larvae at all concentrations ranging from 1.25-20%, while rosemary oil only killed at least 85% of larvae at 10-20% concentration. Another study tested the effects of vetiver oil (Chrysopogon zizanioides) against not only the tick species Rhipicephalus microplus, but also Amblyomma cajennense. Vetiver oil was able to reduce egg production, egg hatch rates and also survival of larvae, at rates higher than some conventional products. Oregano oil (Origanum bilgeri) may also repel and kill ticks (in this study: Rhipicephalus turanicus Pomerantzev). The dominant constituent of this essential oil, making up 93% of it, was carvacrol. After 48 hours, the oregano oil at a concentration of 0.8% killed over 83% of ticks, and over 63% at a concentration of 0.4%. In another study, this time testing clove oil (Syzygium aromaticum) and Java citronella (Cimbopogon winterianus) against R. microplus, clove oil was able to kill ticks at different stages of their life cycle at a rate of 92-100%. An ubiquitous essential oil in Australia is tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). This was found to completely inhibit reproduction in R. microplus ticks at 5% and 10% concentrations, and at a 1% concentration was able to kill off 70% of the ticks. One basic recipe for a natural tick repellent involves 4 ounces of base/carrier oil, and 40 drops in total of tick-repelling oils, such as clove, garlic and carvacrol-rich oils. It is recommended to use this whenever camping, hiking or during any outdoor activity where the risk of tick bites is high. Using both natural and conventional tick repellents may be best.

Prevention is always best, partly because of how difficult Lyme disease is to treat, but an interesting pre-clinical study suggests that, of all things, stevia leaf extract may be effective in fighting the bacteria that cause this terrible condition. Stevia extract was shown to significantly reduce the biofilm, a protective coating that the bacteria produce to resist antibiotic and immune attack, and wiped out much of the bacteria. While more research, especially human trials, are needed in the natural prevention and treatment of Lyme disease, of course there is hope.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Could Turmeric Fight Alzheimer's Disease?

Whether you are a celebrity or factory worker, much-loved or infamous, Alzheimer's Disease doesn't care who you are. Like a monster (or a Titan, if you're an anime fan too), it eats everything that makes a person who they are. But even though you can't reason with it, an increasing number of nutritional and herbal medicines are showing potential in the fight against Alzheimer's Disease. One of these may be turmeric, which is rapidly becoming one of the most researched herbal medicines of all time.

Turmeric, more specifically curcumin - its most "active" component - has attracted the attention of researchers after population studies showed that it may reduce the risk of dementia. One study published in 2000 found that Indian people in their 70s had a 4.4 times lower risk of dementia than Americans of the same age. In another of 1,010 Asian people aged 60-93, those who ate curry, even including less than once a month, performed better on the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) than people who didn't eat curry.

So how does it work? One way that curcumin may fight Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is by helping immune cells clear away the brain-damaging amyloid-beta plaque seen in the condition. When immune cells from patients with AD were treated with curcumin and then introduced to amyloid-beta plaque, they were better at eating away the plaque than they were without curcumin. A study on rats also found that curcumin could reduce the growth of immune cells unique to the brain. This is a sign of inflammation, and an excessive amount of these activated cells can worsen AD by producing inflammatory substances that promote plaque and tissue damage. Curcumin has been shown in many studies to fight inflammation by acting on several different pathways. Some steps that it interferes with normally result in the production of multiple inflammatory chemicals, which have a range of damaging effects. It may also fight inflammation caused by amyloid-beta plaques, thus reducing further damage caused by the plaques seen in AD patients. Another ability of curcumin that has been widely researched is its antioxidant effect. Yet more studies have found that it could increase levels of our own antioxidant enzymes, which would otherwise fall with age, and decrease types of oxidative stress that would otherwise increase with age. A small study on three people with AD resulted in cognitive improvements for all of them - one had improved MMSE scores (from 12/30 to 17/30), two got to recognise their family after a year.

If you don't like turmeric, the good news is that dementia rates are actually falling, which may be because of people taking better care of their cardiovascular health. When data from 5,205 participants was analysed from the 1970s to the 2010s, dementia rates fell by 44% over the almost 40 years. The average age at diagnosis also rose from 80 to 85. Another, using data of about 140,000 people, found that dementia rates fell by about 10% from 2006-7 to 2009-10. It is a good thing that people are swapping smoking and hamburgers for gym selfies and green smoothies. I'd rather have my Facebook newsfeed flooded with pictures of those than posts about disease diagnoses. While I would like to see more clinical trials (with more than three people), it looks like turmeric could be another weapon in the fight against age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Monday, 5 September 2016

BPA Exposure May Be Linked to Asthma

Previously I wrote about a new, vegan-friendly alternative to leather made from pineapple leaves. But that's not all it substitutes, as "vegan leather" used to only mean synthetics made from petrochemical products such as PVC, which can contain toxic chemicals including BPA. BPA is an increasingly unpopular chemical, with water bottles using a lack of BPA as a selling point. The most well-known effect of BPA exposure may be hormone disruption, but did you know that it may also increase the risk of asthma?

Just say no. Source: Aney.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory illness that has unfortunately been increasing in incidence. It is characterised by over-sensitive airways, which leads to airflow obstruction, and is inflammatory. Asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalisation for children and teenagers under the age of 15. I used to have asthma, but kicked it at the age of 8 by swimming in a heated pool. Others are not so lucky, as 75% of children still have symptoms of asthma when they reach adulthood. Asthma is caused by an interaction between genes and the environment, including BPA exposure. One study described in a review showed that higher prenatal levels of BPA was linked with a 20% higher risk of wheezing. 657 pregnant women were tested for their BPA levels during the first and third trimester. In another, urinary BPA levels were tested when mothers were 16 and 26 weeks pregnant, as well as at birth. Above average BPA levels was associated with more than double the risk of wheezing at 6 months, but not at three years old. It has also been demonstrated that every 10-fold increase in BPA levels was associated with a 55% increase in the risk of wheezing from birth to 5 years. A study that didn't show that BPA increased the risk of asthma only measured levels of the toxin during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, in two other studies, one involving almost 400 mothers, higher BPA levels 16 weeks into pregnancy was linked with higher risks of wheezing, one showing a 20% increase, the other showing a 79% increase. BPA exposure in childhood may or may not increase the risk of asthma too. One study found a 40-50% increase in asthma in children 3-7 years old. Two others, however, only found an increased risk in girls.

Why would a commonly used product cause diseases such as asthma? It's legal, so it must be safe, right? Well, even though BPA only has a six-hour half-life in the body, we are often in contact with it so much that little to no accumulation wouldn't make much difference. Many people also habitually use the same type of products, I have "my brand", you have "your brand". The way that BPA may cause asthma is by interfering with immune function, which may explain the mixed results in research. It may swing the immune response in favour of the T-helper 1 (Th1) cells; in naturopathic circles Th1 dominance is known to put our patients at risk of certain illnesses. Th2 dominance comes with its own risks. Others have shown that BPA could create Th2 dominance. BPA may increase the production of pro-allergic immune chemicals such as IL-4 and IgE, which tell a type of immune cell to start an inflammatory response. BPA may also cause oxidative stress, which has been known to promote diseases (including general aging) for many years. The well-known effects of oxidative stress is why popular health magazines and websites will tell you to drink green tea and eat brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables. It was the first thing I ever heard to do with antiaging, which was why even at 14 I drank green tea more than soft drinks. Overall, while human studies show mixed findings, because of individual differences, there is now more evidence, more reasons to avoid BPA.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Pineapple Leather Anyone?

Every day, more people are turning towards healthy, environmentally-friendly alternatives to products which, to put it bluntly, do result in death and destruction. Polluted air and oceans; the killing of animals; the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals; and the resulting effects on our health are so last year. Life-friendly alternatives are coming into fashion, one of these being "leather" made from pineapple leaves.

Leather expert Carmen Hijosa invented the non-woven pineapple leather, trademarked as Pinatex, in response to the problems with conventional leather production. Unlike cotton, no additional land, water or other resources are required to produce it, as pineapple leaves are typically a waste product. It also gives farmers extra income, which is much-needed in many regions where crops such as pineapples are grown. Where most of the cotton plant is left to die after harvesting, pineapple leather means that all parts of the pineapple plant are used. As well as being sustainable, biodegradable and reusable, the "leather" is very versatile, as it can be cut, molded, painted, dyed, oiled, waterproofed and stitched. Cotton can use up to 20,000 litres of water per kilogram, and conventional farming of the plant is responsible for over 25% of all insecticide and 12% of all pesticide use.

Stylish. Source: TR2HG
Leather, whether it's real or synthetic, is no better. You are not just killing an animal; even if you do eat meat it is a cause for concern, since toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in its production.  The chromium used to produce leather has been found to cause cancer and other issues in both the animals where it is dumped, and in the humans who work with it. When inhaled, chromium increases the risk of asthma, bronchitis, respiratory polyps, enlarged lymph nodes and pharyngitis. It can also cause erosive ulcerations in the skin that do not heal. As for cancers, chromium is now known to cause lung, nasal, testicular, bladder and pancreatic cancer. In fact, Germany has banned the use of the most dangerous form of chromium, Cr+6, in leather production since 2010.

Synthetic leather is usually made from plastic, which comes from petroleum, a finite resource that can become all sorts of toxins. Sometimes, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is involved, a product that contains phthalates among other chemicals. PVC also frequently contains the increasingly unpopular BPA, and is used in making a wide range of products from shoes to catheters to toys. Because of the chlorine content, dioxins are released when PVC is manufactured, burnt or landfilled, and at least one of the dioxins is a carcinogen. Phthalates, BPA and dioxins are also endocrine disruptors, which negatively affect hormone production and activity. With manufacturing and often use of both conventional and synthetic leather being harmful to producers and consumers, why not switch to plant-based substitutes?