Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Could Chocolate Fight Heart Disease?

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? However, new research has found that a piece of good quality dark chocolate a day could help to prevent heart disease and regulate insulin levels (SWNS - National News). The cocoa that dark chocolate is so rich in was found to increase the level of "good cholesterol" (HDL) when eaten in amounts of 200-600mg a day.
Source: Simon A. Eugster

But why would something that contains sugar and isn't fruit be healthy? Scientists believe that the flavonoids in cacao beans, which are fermented, dried and roasted to make cocoa powder, are responsible. Flavonoids are also found in tea, red wine, blueberries, apples and cherries - one reason why they say "an apple a day keeps the doctor away". The flavonoids in cocoa have been shown to help lower high blood pressure, improve blood flow and protect against cellular damage. In a study of 21,000 adults in Norfolk, England, which spanned 11 years, it was found that 17.4% of those who did not eat chocolate developed or died of heart disease, but only 12% of those in the top tier of chocolate consumption suffered the same fate. The participants who ate chocolate may have had healthier lifestyles in general - those who did not had more inflammation in their arteries, more diabetes and had a higher average weight.

One mechanism behind this is the antioxidant properties of cocoa flavonoids, and studies have shown that blood cholesterol is less likely to form arterial plaque when protected by antioxidants. After four weeks of an intervention involving cocoa powder, volunteers with mildly elevated cholesterol experienced a small, but significant, reduction by 5% of their LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels. In another study, people with normal cholesterol levels saw a 15% reduction in LDL after a few weeks of eating an amount of chocolate that equaled 168mg of flavanols. These flavonoids could also fight inflammation by affecting important pro-inflammatory enzymes, such as cyclo-oxygenase and lipo-oxygenase. When over 800 people who ate dark chocolate regularly were compared to over 1,300 who did not, those who ate around 20 grams of dark chocolate every three days had significantly less inflammation than volunteers who are more or no chocolate. Therefore, it may be best to eat chocolate in moderation, and the people who ate it every day could have also been more likely to have other vices. Other research has found that these substances in chocolate can even relieve high blood pressure, with a similar effect to your average anti-hypertensive drugs! Overall it looks like dark chocolate and cacao powder, which you can use to make your own desserts, may in fact be health foods, but of course, only in moderation.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Breast Cancer Prevention Awareness

If you're on the hunt for a useful Pink October, mainstream media is not exactly helpful. We are told that early detection is the best protection, but there are actually many natural ways to really reduce your risk of breast cancer. Some say a third, while others say half, and others still say even a greater proportion, of breast cancer cases are preventable, with the general consensus seeming to point to increasingly larger proportions of preventable cases as knowledge and experience grows. One example of new knowledge is the science of epigenetics, as it has been discovered that dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors can control gene expression.

Red grapes contain resveratrol.
So what are some of the things we can use to prevent breast cancer? One of them may be omega-3 fatty acids. To test this link, 103 women with breast cancer and 309 women without the disease, matched by age and season, had their blood levels of omega-3 and saturated fats measured. Compared with the lowest tertile, women in the highest tertile of omega-3 fatty acid consumption had almost half the risk of breast cancer. There was no link between meat and saturated fat consumption and breast cancer. A higher level of EPA was linked to a 73% reduced risk and a higher level of DHA was linked to a 94% reduced risk. Besides reducing inflammation, epigenetics appear to be one way that omega-3 fatty acids could prevent breast cancer. A gene known as EZH2 is over-expressed in several cancers, such as breast cancer, and may contribute to metastasis (spreading) and poor prognosis. Fortunately, cells treated with omega-3 fatty acids have shown reduced expression of EZH2.

It may seem over-done, but resveratrol could be another way to reduce breast cancer risk. In a Swiss study of 369 cases and 602 controls, women in the highest tertile for resveratrol intake had their breast cancer risk cut by 61%! The middle tertile had their risk halved compared to the lowest. There was a significantly lowered risk for resveratrol from grapes - cut by 36-45% - but not for red wine. Alcohol and the general benefits of eating fruit did not influence the results. Resveratrol could also work by changing the expression of genes related to cancer. In women with a high risk of breast cancer, resveratrol increased the expression of a tumour suppressor gene that may be protective.

Carotenoids, found in fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, mangoes and carrots, may also protect against breast cancer. In a study of over 600 women with breast cancer and over 600 without it, higher blood levels of carotenoids were linked with a halved risk of the disease in women with high mammographic density. A high density indicates more connective and epithelial tissue in the breast, and so a much higher risk of cancer. The carotenoid lycopene, found in tomatoes, has been found to increase the expression of tumour suppressing genes, at levels seen as relevant to dietary intake.

Overall, there are many ways that we can reduce our risk of diseases such as breast cancer. Other foods and nutrients that may be protective are coffee, green tea, fermented soy and vitamin D, as detailed on Life Extension.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Health Benefits of Maca

The general consensus, whether or not we say it out loud, is that A big part of aging is a decline in hormone production, which negatively affects the integrity and function of every part of our bodies. Unfortunately, the common pharmaceutical hormone replacement therapies have their own side effects, but could herbal or food medicines such as maca be effective alternatives?

Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a Peruvian root vegetable that looks a lot like a very top-heavy parsnip. It has been cultivated for around 2,600 years, and has been traditionally used as an aphrodisiac. Maca is rich in nutrients such as calcium, potassium, iron and vitamin E. Additionally, it contains five times the amount of protein as potatoes, and four times the amount of fibre.

What, no leg day? Source: Konstantin Silka
So how can it help women during, or after, menopause? Anecdotal cases have reported that consuming maca can improve energy and stamina, and even boost oestrogen levels in women who have had their ovaries removed! In one study, ten early post-menopausal women were given two grams of a product called Maca-GO for eight months. Compared to placebo, women taking maca had higher levels of oestrogen and progesterone, but lower levels of FSH, leading to less menopausal symptoms. FSH stands for Follicular Stimulating Hormone, and its production goes into overdrive during menopause in an attempt to stimulate growth of non-existent eggs in order to increase oestrogen and progesterone. A second study involving early post-menopausal women also showed that maca relieved symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats, while increasing oestrogen. They also found that ACTH (adreno-corticotrophic hormone), cortisol and BMI all decreased. Cortisol is the main "stress hormone", which in high levels can cause protein loss and weight gain. A third study on women, who were once again post-menopausal, had them taking maca for only six weeks in a crossover, placebo-controlled trial. When taking maca, the women experienced significant reductions in psychological symptoms of menopause, such as anxiety, depression and sexual dysfunction. However, their hormone levels did not change. This may be because of the shorter duration of the study period where they were taking maca.

A study on mice has found an additional benefit of maca besides increasing hormone levels. Middle-aged mice, 14 months old, were administered maca powder for five weeks to measure any effect on cognitive decline. Maca was found to improve cognitive function, endurance and motor co-ordination, and this effect was caused by improved mitochondrial function. The mitochondria are the parts of the cell responsible for the vast majority of energy production, without them, you can't do anything. People with conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease have more damage to their mitochondria than those without, showing the importance of protecting your mitochondria against oxidative damage. And it's not just your brain - your heart muscle cells are 40% mitochondria. Interestingly, mitochondria have their own DNA which they use to reproduce; you get this DNA from your mother, and if you are European, you have basically the same DNA as one of seven Stone Age women who have an unbroken line of daughters. So play nice with your brothers and sisters. Anyway, with research on maca showing positive effects against hormonal and possibly mitochondrial drivers of aging, it looks like a worthy (fair-trade!) addition to your favourite smoothie or raw dessert.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Are We Winning?

The mainstream media and others who speak for the processed food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries like to portray the "wellness revolution" as a fad or a silly little children's game, when they're not demonising us. But those of us fighting for organic and natural food, instead of having to eat chemical-laced, processed junk, are gaining often-unspoken ground.

Many people in the USA make fun of healthier diets, or those that just aim to avoid intolerances, as if it were an elitist concern. However, food companies are actually struggling to keep up with societal changes. General Mills plans to drop all artificial colours and flavours from its cereals. Kraft said they were dropping artificial dyes from its macaroni and cheese. Hershey's will begin to move away from artificial emulsifiers to "simple and easy to understand ingredients". Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farm are beginning to reduce the use of antibiotics in chicken farming. I must say that, with the exception of chicken, these are all very American foods that are rarely seen here in Australia.

Source: Jessica Reeder
Big Food companies are also beginning to acquire smaller, healthier companies and bring out new products. Newer brands like Amy's Kitchen and Sweetgreen are still taking market share from these, however. The per-person sales of soft drink (soda) and packaged orange juice have fallen by 25% and 45% since 1998, respectively. Super-sugary packaged cereals have lost 25% of sales since 2000. On the other hand, sales of freshly-prepared foods have risen by 30% since 2009, and per-person vegetable consumption is up by 10%. Even the giant corporation Nestle is trying to change its direction and image. My nasty, horrible generation is partly to blame: in one survey, 37% of "millennials", now aged 20-37, do not trust large food companies, while only 18% of others feel the same way. It may not just be a desire to get healthy, but also the culture surrounding smaller businesses, that is driving these social changes. An increasing number of people, in the USA and elsewhere, are even bypassing food companies for some of their needs, by growing their own food and reviving traditional cooking skills (or making their own modern foods such as bliss balls and smoothies).

But why is the wellness revolution, or food movement, so successful in the face of such powerful opposition? It turns out that while it shares many strengths with the environment, feminist, labour and civil rights movements, it does not have many of their weaknesses. First of all, this revolution includes the movements I just mentioned - there is something for everyone, it transcends our differences. Organic, locally-produced food cuts down on chemical and greenhouse gas pollution. It does not poison the workers paid to farm and produce the food, and supports smaller businesses. Traditional practices of many cultures are recognised instead of steamrolled by "efficiency". Better health means less unpaid caring work for women. Second, this is a self-organising, leaderless revolution. Those like Jamie Oliver, Dr Vandana Shiva and others are thought leaders, but do not dictate and earned their positions. And you don't need a TV show or PhD to contribute, you could be a poorer, rural woman or man who has only recently gained land rights. Female (and male) farmers in India are now embracing organic farming and passing the message on to others. Although it is a movement of many different factions, there is also a level of support for each other that a cynic would not have predicted. Finally, it is low-budget, which not only makes things more convenient but helps to prevent the message being bought out by wealthy predators. So, are we winning against monopolies and disease? Yes!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Maritime Pine Bark May Fight Muscle Loss

French maritime pine bark, in the form of an extract known as Pycnogenol, has previously shown success in fighting skin aging in research where it reduced wrinkles. However, wrinkles are not the worst part of aging, as symptoms such as muscle loss (sarcopenia) not only look unattractive, but threaten health and independence. Could Pycnogenol fight this symptom of aging too? A new study, published in September 2016, suggests that it can.

Source: Drow Male
Why is this so important, if we are told aging is normal? A physically inactive individual can lose as much as 8% of their muscle mass per decade from the age of 30, but exercise alone is still not enough to completely avoid this problem. Because it would eventually interfere with daily tasks, such as opening jars or climbing stairs, it is one of the greatest threats to your independence. Apart from your own independence, that of your wife, sister, or daughter, may be affected too, as women are usually the ones burdened with unpaid caring work. On International Day of the Girl, I must emphasise the importance of antiaging medicine (natural as well as the more technical stem cell therapies and BHRT) in women's liberation.

In this study, participants in their 70s, who had no (recognised) chronic illnesses but were experiencing muscle loss, took either 150mg of Pycnogenol every day or a placebo for 8 weeks. After these 8 weeks, those taking Pycnogenol showed greater muscular function and endurance in daily tasks: 71% improved in carrying 4-5 pound items compared to 23% in the control; 52% improved in climbing stairs vs 20% of control; and 38% improved in distance walked compared to 17% in the control group. Pycnogenol also reduced oxidative stress by 14%, which is one of the drivers of muscle damage and destruction. It reduced the amount of protein in the urine, which can indicate muscle damage, by 40%, and improved general fitness scores by 46%. Hand grip strength, another essential ability, was improved too. A very important observation was an improvement in the left ventricular ejection fraction, from an average of 53.2 to 55.4. The left ventricle is the area of the heart which pumps blood to the entire body, the right ventricle is smaller and only sends blood to the lungs to receive oxygen. This has an effect on all tissues, not just the muscles.

Pycnogenol most likely produced these benefits through its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects, which protect against tissue damage, as described in this review. It is mostly made up of procyanidins and phenolic acids, which are two types of antioxidants recognised to be beneficial when included in a person's typical diet. Besides being an antioxidant, it may also double the production of our bodies' own antioxidants and regenerate vitamins C and E. Anti-inflammatory effects have been observed in people with asthma, lupus and sunburn (though sun protection is still important). Dilation (expansion) of the small blood vessels has been seen in patients with cardiovascular disease, where it is often too constricted.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Five Uses for Lavender Oil

Lavender oil has got to be the most well-known, bordering on stereotypical, essential oil there is. In Australia, you can even buy it in supermarkets for home use. It has been used for over 2,500 years in traditional medicine, from ancient Rome to China, but there is also a lot of modern scientific evidence to back up its use.


Anxiety is likely to be the most well-known use for lavender oil. In a study of 90 patients waiting for open-heart surgery, there was a significant reduction in anxiety among those inhaling the lavender oil compared to the distilled water placebo. It wasn't just about feeling calmer, as the cortisol levels of the lavender group were, on average, 69% lower than in the placebo group. A German study also found that lavender oil was more effective than placebo in relieving anxiety in a trial involving elderly patients. The researchers then stated that it could be a safe alternative to synthetic drugs.


A better night's sleep is another common use for lavender oil. This study was a clinical trial on the effects of lavender oil inhalation, with 158 post-partum mothers who were either assigned to a treatment or placebo group. As labour and caring for a completely dependent child are very stressful situations, there is a high chance of inadequate sleep. Poor sleep can lead to problems with concentration, judgement and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Every night before going to bed, the women participating in the study inhaled 10 deep breaths of either the lavender oil, dropped onto a cotton ball, or a placebo, and then kept it beside their bed until the morning. This is very similar to use of a diffuser. After eight weeks, women in the lavender group reported significant improvements in sleep, from an average of 8.3 to 6.8 on the Pittsburgh sleep quality index; the placebo group saw a non-significant improvement from 8.5 to 7.6.
Source: Saffron Blaze

Menstrual Issues

Lavender oil may also be effective in managing dysmenorrhoea, or period pain. In a study of 44 nursing and midwifery students in Turkey, self-massage with lavender oil was more effective than a placebo massage with petroleum-based oil in relieving pain. In another study of seventeen women with emotional PMS symptoms, inhaling lavender oil for 10 minutes was associated with a significant increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity - that is, it relieved stress, which allowed the autonomic nervous system to learn more towards the "rest and digest" side. Lavender oil was also able to significantly reduce feelings of depression/dejection and confusion.

Pain Relief

Lavender oil may help with other types of pain too, including during the insertion of needles necessary for kidney dialysis. Thirty-four patients volunteered for this cross-over study, where their pain levels were measured during three different interventions: lavender oil, placebo and nothing. Using the lavender oil, their pain levels were an average of 2.91; with the placebo, it was 4.18. Using nothing, their average score was 4.59, and as all differences were seen as significant, this means that even use of a placebo had some mild effect.

Mouth Ulcers

Another painful condition is mouth ulcers, could lavender oil help with these too? This study tested the effects of lavender oil on both animals and people with mouth ulcers in order to find out. Lavender oil was shown to be safe and effective in animals, with a significant ulcer size reduction and increased rate of repair and healing in three days compared to baseline and placebo. Patients treated with lavender oil also showed a significantly improved rate of healing. Time to heal, inflammation level, pain and ulcer size were all greatly reduced compared to placebo, without side effects.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Does Camel Milk Have Health Benefits?

Australia's Shonky Awards have recently named and shamed this year's worst commercial products, but while their criticism is usually rightfully deserved, could we say the same for camel milk? The alternative to cow's milk has received negative media attention for apparently claiming to be a treatment for autism and other conditions, but this may be a lesson in doing your own research instead of thinking as the media tells you to.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs social and communication skills. It has also been associated with autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal issues such as dysbiosis and mental retardation. Sadly, the prevalence of autism in the USA has risen to 1 in 88 children; in comparison, Saudi Arabia only has a rate of 6 in 1000 children. It is understandable that parents often get emotional when any evidence emerges that something, usually inflammatory, could contribute to autism, but we have to find the root cause of these problems, no matter how guilt-inducing.

As there is a link between autism and immune dysfunction, there is also a link between camel milk and relief from autism. In this study, 60 autistic children were divided into three groups, where they received a different type of milk: raw camel milk, boiled camel milk or cow milk. Preference was given to children with known food allergies or intolerances. Parents were instructed to give 500mL of the assigned milk to their children every day for 2 weeks, and not add any other diet changes, supplements or drugs. Both the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and the Wing Subgroups Questionnaire (WSQ) were used to measure symptom severity, and blood levels of antioxidants were also measured. After two weeks, the blood levels of glutathione, one of the three antioxidants, were significantly higher in the groups drinking camel milk. However, only those drinking boiled camel milk had significantly higher levels of superoxide dismutase, another key antioxidant. Myeloperoxidase, the third antioxidant enzyme, was also significantly higher in both camel milk groups. Low levels of antioxidant enzymes have been reported many times in autistic children, and the resulting oxidative stress has been linked to metabolic issues that affect neurodevelopment. The CARS scores were also, on average, significantly improved in both camel milk groups. In another Saudi study, this time on 65 children, consumption of camel milk for 2 weeks once again significantly improved CARS scores, as well as their scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC).

So what is so special about camel milk? Camel milk has a unique composition compared to the milk of other ruminants. It is lower in fat, cholesterol and lactose than cows' milk; and higher in zinc, magnesium, calcium, potassium, copper, and vitamins A, B2, E and C. It has no beta-casein or beta-lactoglobulin, which are the main allergy triggers in cows' milk. Camel milk also contains immunoglobulins and enzymes that can help to rehabilitate the immune system and prevent further allergies. With scientific and anecdotal reports of autistic children improving after starting a gluten and casein-free diet, or after reducing inflammation, maybe camel milk is right for you or your child. However, with complex, chronic conditions such as autism, it is best to seek the advice of a naturopath in a clinical setting, where they can take a full case history.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Plastic May Lower Vitamin D Levels

The research denouncing BPA, a chemical commonly used in plastics, seems to be building up all the time. BPA is now one of the most widely known endocrine disruptors, named as such because of their documented negative effects on our hormones. Another type of endocrine disruptor is the phthalates, which are found in many cosmetics and children's products, as well as medical tubing and food packaging. These seem to be less well-known, maybe because of the hard-to-remember name. Now, a new study is showing a link between these chemicals and low levels of vitamin D.

"Nearly every person on the planet is exposed to BPA and another class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, so the possibility that these chemicals may even slightly reduce vitamin D levels has widespread implications for public health," said the study's first author, Lauren Johns. Vitamin D plays a key role in the maintenance of muscle and bone health; a severe deficiency in childhood can cause rickets, a disease that results in soft, weak bones and associated deformities. Inadequate sun exposure and nutritional deficiencies are the main causes of rickets, which is rare in Australia but on the rise. Less severe deficiencies have been linked with cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes and autoimmune conditions. Higher levels of vitamin D may also protect the independence of the elderly. A study of over 2,000 people found that those with vitamin D levels under 50nmol/L had a 29% higher risk of mobility limitation, and a 93% higher risk of mobility disability, than people with levels higher than 75nmol/L. Volunteers whose levels were between 50 and 75nmol/L had a 27% higher risk of limitations and a 30% higher risk of disability.

This study examined data from 4,667 adult volunteers in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), from 2005 to 2010. This is a cross-sectional study aiming to collect health and nutrition data from a sample of US adults meant to represent the general population. Information on vitamin D levels were taken from blood test results, and endocrine disruptor exposure was measured by urine samples. The study found a link between the level of phthalates, another type of endocrine disruptor, and low levels of vitamin D in both sexes, although the link was stronger in women. The link between higher BPA levels and low vitamin D was only significant in women. While more research is needed, these endocrine disruptors are thought to alter the active form of vitamin D, possibly by the same mechanisms that they use to interfere with thyroid and reproductive hormones.