July 22nd, 2014

Asthma Rates Reaching Epidemic Proportions; the Role of Antibiotics, Probiotics, and Fish Oils

Introduction:
Asthma is a breathing disorder characterized by spasm and swelling of the bronchial airways along with excessive excretion of a viscous mucus that can also make breathing difficult. Asthma affects approximately 7% of the population of the United States and causes 4,210 deaths per year. Although it occurs at all ages, it is most common in children younger than 10 affecting, over 7 million American kids.

The incidence of asthma is rising rapidly in the United States, especially in children. Reasons often given to explain the rise in asthma include the following:
• Increased stress on the immune system due to factors such as greater chemical pollution in the air, water, and food
• Lack of breast-feeding, earlier weaning and earlier introduction of solid foods to infants
Insufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and infancy
• Genetic manipulation of plants, resulting in food components with greater allergenic tendencies
• Frequent antibiotic use during infancy

Background Data:

In a previous analysis of seven studies involving more than 12,000 children, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that those infants prescribed antibiotics before their first birthday, were more than twice as likely as the untreated kids to develop asthma. And, if they had multiple courses of antibiotics, it bumped up the risk even higher, a 16 percent increase for every course of the drugs taken before age one.

There are a couple of explanations for this association between antibiotic use and asthma. –One is that antibiotics contribute to a state of “excess hygiene” leading to a reduced exposure to microbes which, in turn, creates an over-sensitive immune system, mounting an over-the-top allergic reaction to pollen and dust mites, ultimately leading to asthma. Research has also shown that children who grow up on farms have lower allergy and asthma rates, a phenomenon attributed to their regular exposure to microorganisms present in their environment.

The second explanation is that antibiotics have a negative effect on the normal flora of the gastrointestinal and respiratory passages. Some studies have shown that giving probiotics (active cultures of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species) lowers the risk of atopic allergic disease like asthma and eczema (discussed below in Commentary section).

New Data:

Two new studies have come out recently to support the excess hygiene theory of asthma. In the first study, researchers from Johns Hopkins found that infants who grew up in homes with a greater variety of bacteria, as well as mouse and cat dander, and cockroach droppings, had lower rates of wheezing at age 3, compared with children not exposed to these allergens soon after birth.1

The second study, conducted at Harvard Medical School, found a significant dose-response for asthma with antibiotic exposure during the first year of life.2 The more antibiotics an infant was exposed to the more likely they were to develop asthma. For instance, antibiotic use during the first year of life doubled the risk for asthma and when children got five or more antibiotic courses, the odds ratio for persistent asthma was nearly doubled again.

Commentary:

These studies highlight the symbiotic natural relationship between microbes and humans. This delicate balance is being disrupted leading to a faulty immune response, allergies, and asthma. Beyond exposing kids to a “less hygienic” infancy, there are a couple of other measures that deserve mention.

First, there are some really interesting studies that have been done with fish oil supplementation during pregnancy that show that this practice may reduce sensitization to common food allergens and reduce prevalence and severity of both eczema and asthma. In 1990, 533 women with normal pregnancies were randomly assigned at 30 weeks of pregnancy to receive four fish oil capsules providing 2.7 g EPA+DHA per day; four similar-looking capsules with olive oil; or no oil capsules. The rate of developing asthma due to allergies was reduced by 87% in the fish oil compared with the olive oil group.

Think about the public health impact of giving mothers fish oil supplements on asthma alone. But, that is not all these oils do, they are also linked with reducing the risk of post-partum depression, as well as boost baby brain development and IQ.

In regards to probiotics preventing asthma, the data is mixed and a recent analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that probiotic supplementation did not seem to prevent asthma. However, a closer look is necessary. If probiotics are to be helpful, a key reason may be the influence on mucosal IgA, an antibody that participates in allergy elimination. In a study of 237 allergy-prone infants given a combination of four probiotic strains or placebo, researchers found that the probiotic supplementation increased fecal IgA, while reducing inflammatory markers. In infants with high fecal IgA concentration at the age of 6 months, the risk of having any allergic disease or any IgE-associated (atopic) disease before the age of 2 years was cut by nearly 50%.4 High intestinal IgA in early life is associated with reduced intestinal inflammation, as well as a reduced risk for asthma and allergic diseases.

The reason why some of the studies with probiotics failed may have been due to a few factors: (1) perhaps the strain(s) used was not effective in raising mucosal IgA levels; (2) perhaps a combination of strains are required versus a single strain in order to raise mucosal IgA; and (3) perhaps the dosage given was not sufficient.

The bottom line is that there is enough experimental and clinical evidence to support fish oil and probiotic supplementation throughout a person’s life, but especially during infancy and childhood. It just makes good sense.

References:

1. Lynch SV, Wood RA, Boushey H, et al. Effects of early-life exposure to allergens and bacteria on recurrent wheeze and atopy in urban children. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014 May 28. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2014.04.018.
2. Ong MS, Umetsu DT, Mandl KD. Consequences of antibiotics and infections in infancy: bugs, drugs, and wheezing. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2014 May;112(5):441-445.
3. Olsen SF, Østerdal ML, Salvig JD, et al. Fish oil intake compared with olive oil intake in late pregnancy and asthma in the offspring: 16 y of registry-based follow-up from a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jul;88(1):167-75.
4. Kukkonen K, Kuitunen M, Haahtela T, et al. High intestinal IgA associates with reduced risk of IgE-associated allergic diseases. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2010 Feb;21(1 Pt 1):67-73.

July 21st, 2014

Flu Shot Alternatives

You don’t need a flu shot to protect yourself this year. Use natural immune boosters to stay strong and healthy through the fall and winter.

You don’t need a flu shot to protect yourself this year. Use natural immune boosters to stay strong and healthy through the fall and winter.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention advocates a seasonal flu shot for everyone, the reality is that not all people feel comfortable with this recommendation. I and many other health experts do not endorse widespread seasonal flu vaccines, including the H1N1 vaccine. Your immune system, when working properly, has a remarkable capacity to fight off the flu and colds. Even if an infection does gain a foothold, it’s usually just a matter of time before the immune system mounts an effective counterattack.

Recipe for a Strong Immune System

Whether you get a flu shot or not, it is important to bolster immunity during the fall and winter months. This increases your resistance to colds and flu, and protects you against cancer and other diseases. Try these steps to boost your immune system:

  • A healthy lifestyle is essential for immunity. Be sure to eat a healthy diet, get exercise, avoid toxins, maintain your
    appropriate body weight, and get enough sleep.
  • Stress lowers immunity. Practice relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, visualization, or meditation.
  • Avoid refined sugars and saturated fats, but make sure you get plenty of quality protein and essential fatty acids.
  • Take a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement. Vitamins B complex, C and E, zinc, and selenium are especially important.
  • Boost your vitamin D levels (see below).
  • Take a clinically proven immune-enhancing product (see “Go Shopping” below).

Why Vitamin D is Critical for Flu Prevention

Research shows that vitamin D targets more than 2,000 genes (about 10 percent of the human genome). It is now known that low levels of vitamin D are a major factor in the development of at least 17 varieties of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, and many more common health conditions. As it relates to flu prevention, here is what is known:

  • Individuals who have vitamin D blood levels lower than 38 ng/ml had twice as many upper respiratory tract infections as those with higher levels.
  • Children who took 1,200 IU of vitamin D daily reduced their risk of developing the flu by 58 percent.
  • Women taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D (to protect bones) had an average of 30 percent fewer cold and flu episodes compared to women taking 200 IU of vitamin D.

Because it is estimated that one out of every two Americans is likely to have blood levels below 20 ng/ml, supplementing with vitamin D may prove to be more effective than getting a flu shot. For optimal vitamin D status, take 2,000—5,000 IU daily.

Thinking Echinacea?

While echinacea has been shown to exert significant effects on immune function in more than 300 clinical studies, not all of the research has been positive. Mixed results most likely stem from insufficient quantity of the herb’s active compounds. There is tremendous variation in these levels—even within the same product from batch to batch. Echinacea must be grown properly, harvested at the exact time, and extracted properly for maximal levels of all active compounds. Clinical studies with Echinamide (a patented echinacea product standardized for effective levels of key compounds) have proved useful in preventing, as well as shortening, the severity and duration of colds and flu.

July 15th, 2014

Freeze-Dried Strawberries Significantly Lower Cholesterol Levels

Introduction:
The consumption of flavonoid sources such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, dark chocolate, and red wine have all been shown in population studies to be associated with a significantly reduced risk for heart attacks and strokes. For example, data from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) II of 93,600 women showed that a combined intake of >3 servings a week of blueberries and strawberries was associated with a 34% decreased risk of having a heart attack compared to those consuming the berries once a month or less.

A new study shows that even eating freeze-dried strawberries produces valuable effects in reducing heart disease risk.

Background Data:
The major benefits of consuming strawberries and other flavonoid sources in protecting against cardiovascular disease (CVD) is largely due to their effects on improving the function of the cells that line the blood vessels (endothelial cells). The endothelial cells play a pivotal role in the regulation of vascular tone and structure as well as vascular inflammation and clot formation. The lesions of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) first begin to develop with damage to endothelial cells. Flavonoids, particularly the proanthocyanidin types found in berries, and also those found in other flavonoid-rich foods have all been shown to protect and improve endothelial cell function.

In a previous newsletter, a study was reviewed that sought to evaluate the effect of strawberry consumption on cardiovascular disease risk. Healthy volunteers were supplemented daily with 500 g of strawberries (about 2½ cups) for 1 month. Strawberry consumption significantly reduced total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides levels (-8.78%, -13.72% and -20.80%, respectively) compared with the baseline period. Strawberry supplementation also significantly decreased various markers of oxidative stress. A significant increase (>40%) in plasma total antioxidant capacity was also observed after strawberry consumption. In addition, strawberry consumption also improved platelet function, which is a key factor in preventing the formation of blood clots that can break off and cause a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism.

New Data:
A new study was designed to determine if freeze-dried strawberries (FDS) improve levels of blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and lower biomarkers of inflammation and lipid oxidation in adults with abdominal obesity and elevated serum lipids.

The 60 volunteers were assigned to consume 1 of the following 4 beverages for 12 weeks: 1) low-dose FDS (LD-FDS; 25 g/d); 2) low-dose control (LD-C); 3) high-dose FDS (HD-FDS; 50 g/d); and 4) high-dose control (HD-C). Control beverages were matched for calories, total fiber, appearance, and taste.

Results indicated a dose-response to FDS as the high-dose group experienced significantly greater decreases in serum total and LDL cholesterol compared to the lower dosage.

Both doses of strawberries showed a similar decrease in a marker of cellular oxidative damage (serum malondialdehyde) at 12 weeks. In general, strawberry intervention did not affect blood pressure, blood sugar, and serum concentrations of HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation).

Commentary:
I found this study extremely interesting. Previously, I had reviewed a study that showed dietary fiber from fruit intake offered the greatest impact on reducing CVD mortality. Higher fruit fiber intake reduced CVD mortality by 32%. This current study suggests that the benefit might be a combination of effects including the lowering of cholesterol due to the fiber components.

Fresh fruit is obviously the best choice, but the point that this study drives home is that even ingesting a very mild intake of dried strawberries produces clinically meaningful reduction in CVD.

Reference:
Basu A, Betts NM, Nguyen A, et al. Freeze-dried strawberries lower serum cholesterol and lipid peroxidation in adults with abdominal adiposity and elevated serum lipids. J Nutr. 2014 Jun;144(6):830-7.

 

July 8th, 2014

Curcumin Shown to Possess a Powerful Anti-aging Effect

Elderly couple

Introduction:

The latest, and most likely, program theory of aging is the telomere shortening theory. Telomeres are the end-cap segments of DNA (our genetic material). Each time a cell replicates, a small piece of DNA is taken off the end of each chromosome. The shorter the telomere gets, the more it affects gene expression. The result is cellular aging and an increased risk for immune dysfunction, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other degenerative diseases.

New research shows that curcumin, the yellow pigment of turmeric (Curcuma longa), may exert significant benefit in preventing telomere shortening and may actually promote elongation of telomeres.

Background Information:

The key to slowing down the aging process and extending maximal human lifespan will ultimately involve preserving or restoring telomere length to the DNA (as well as decreasing chromosomal damage, cellular oxidation, and many other factors). Several measures have already been shown to achieve this goal:
• Simply adopting a comprehensive dietary and lifestyle change consistent with good health has been shown to preserve telomere length.
• Physical exercise has been shown to be associated with preserving telomere length.
• Meditation has been shown to preserve telomere length by reducing the negative effects of stress.
• Higher vitamin D levels are associated with longer telomeres
• Since levels of inflammatory markers in the blood correlate with telomere shortening, natural strategies that reduce inflammation are very important in reducing the rate of telomere shortening.

New Data:

Although telomeres shorten with each cell division, dividing cells express telomerase, a protein complex that synthesizes and elongates telomeres. Researchers hypothesized that curcumin could increase telomerase expression and thereby help preserve telomere length. To test their hypothesis, they chose to look at its effects on telomerase expression in brain cells exposed to beta-amyloid, a key source of oxidative damage and brain cell death linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers measured the effects of curcumin on cell survival and cell growth, intracellular oxidative stress and telomerase expression in these brain cells. Results indicate that the brain protecting effects of curcumin in Alzheimer’s may be primarily due to its effects on telomerase expression. When telomerase expression was inhibited the protective effects produced by curcumin disappeared.

These results indicate that another key aspect of curcumin in preserving brain health is through its effects on telomere expression.

Commentary:

There is considerable experimental evidence that curcumin, the yellow pigment of turmeric, protects against age-related brain damage and in particular, Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, the two clinical trials conducted to date failed to show any benefit. However, the failure to produce positive results may have been due to the poor absorption profile of the curcumin used in the trials. Of all curcumin products on the market, Theracurmin® shows the greatest absorption by a significant margin. Currently there is a double-blind, placebo-controlled study underway with Theracurmin® in Alzheimer’s disease being conducted at UCLA. Researchers are optimistic will produce positive results due to its enhanced absorption.

For more information, click here: Theracurmin®.

Reference:

Xiao Z, Zhang A, Lin J, et al. Telomerase: a target for therapeutic effects of curcumin and a curcumin derivative in aβ1-42 insult in vitro. PLoS One. 2014 Jul 1;9(7):e101251.

July 8th, 2014

Thyme

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Thyme is a small evergreen shrub and member of the mint family. Native to the western Mediterranean, thyme has been utilized since ancient times for its culinary, aromatic, and medicinal properties. In ancient Greece, thyme was burned as incense during sacred ceremonies and was considered to be a symbol of courage and admiration. Ancient Egyptians valued thyme as an embalming agent used during the mummification process. During the Middle Ages, women presented knights a scarf with a sprig of thyme tied to it over an embroidered bee. In the 16th century, thyme oil was used for cleansing and as a mouthwash due to its antibacterial properties. Today, thyme is a staple in many cuisines around the world.

Health Benefits:

  • Thyme has similar benefits as mint because of its volatile oil content.
  • Volatile oil found in thyme contains caravacol, borneol, geraniol, and thymol.
  • Thyme has shown to possess antispasmodic, antibacterial, carminative, and fungicidal properties.
  • Thyme also contains a variety of flavanoids including apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thrymonin, which increase thyme’s antioxidant capacity.
  • Its high flavanoid and manganese concentration give thyme a high standing on the list of antioxidant-rich foods.
  • Research has shown that thyme may help improve brain function, by increasing the percent of healthy fats found in cell membranes and other cell structures.
  • Studies have also shown that thyme can help raise DHA levels in children with attention deficit disorder, and possibly help improve the condition.

Thyme’s flavor compliments hearty legumes such as kidney beans, pinto beans, and black beans. Another excellent pairing with thyme is fish. Try topping grilled or baked fish with a thyme and rosemary pesto, with the option to add pine nuts or walnuts. Also, try placing a minimum of five sprigs of thyme on poached fish to add flavor. Infuse your favorite olive oil with a few sprigs of thyme and use it as a dipping oil or even in cooking. Want to know the health benefits of other herbs and spices? My book, “The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods” is a fantastic resource.

July 7th, 2014

How to Boost Energy Naturally

The “up” side of caffeine

Vibrant natural energy is truly a wonderful feeling that too few people experience on a consistent basis. The number of Americans suffering from fatigue is staggering. Fatigue is by far the most common medical complaint in medical practice, yet it remains one that is dealt with inadequately.

Fatigue can be caused by factors including depression, diabetes, poor sleep quality, hypothyroidism, and certain medications. Nutritional factors are important as well, including nutrient deficiencies and blood sugar instability or hypoglycemia. Simple iron deficiency (anemia) alone is a major cause of fatigue, particularly in women.

3 essential supplements

The best approach to boosting energy levels naturally is to address any underlying factors as effectively as possible. Beyond that, there are three supplements that are essential in any health promotion plan: a high-potency multiple vitamin and mineral, a high-quality “greens” drink, and a pharmaceutical-grade fish oil supplement. Once this strong nutritional foundation has been established, many people with low energy levels can benefit from dietary supplements containing caffeine-based natural energy formulas.

Is caffeine safe?

There is no question that caffeine is a stimulant that can increase physical and mental energy levels. Caffeinated beverages like green tea, yerba maté, guarana, cola nut, and cocoa are used by cultures around the world. In its natural form, the caffeine is provided along with plant compounds that tend to lessen some of caffeine’s negative effects, such as anxiety and nervousness. For example, in addition to caffeine, green tea contains L-theanine, a natural compound that counteracts some of the effects of caffeine on the brain that can lead to nervousness and interference with sleep.

The effects of a moderate dosage of caffeine (e.g., 10—125 mg) is influenced by consumption pattern; if you regularly ingest caffeine, you develop a tolerance to it. If you don’t, or are a “slow metabolizer” of caffeine, the effects are more pronounced.

Controlled studies of the effects of caffeine on performance have a long history, dating to the late nineteenth century. Early studies showed caffeine intake improved performance in many repetitive tasks. For example, in typists, caffeine consumption increased both speed and accuracy.

Caffeine has been shown to improve attention and reaction time. However, it does not appear to improve performance in complex mental processes.

Caffeine + GABA

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the brain’s most important compounds. PharmaGABA is a special natural form of GABA that has yielded interesting results in clinical studies. In particular, PharmaGABA has shown impressive results in combating stress, including showing an ability to lower cortisol levels and other markers of acute stress during exposure to stressful situations.

When a caffeine source is combined with PharmaGABA, there is a synergistic effect in improving mental function. And as a benefit, the PharmaGABA reduces the stress-producing effects of caffeine.

In a study conducted at University of Shizuoka in Japan, PharmaGABA was shown to do just that, promoting feelings of calmness despite a boost in energy levels from caffeine. Subjects consumed either a cup of regular coffee or the same cup of coffee plus 28 mg of PharmaGABA. Stress markers were significantly lower in the group getting the PharmaGABA.

Is caffeine for everyone?

There are a few situations in which consuming any significant amount of caffeine (e.g., daily intakes in excess of 30—50 mg) is not suggested. This includes people very sensitive to caffeine or those with insomnia, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, fibrocystic breast disease, or high blood pressure. It is particularly important to avoid caffeine if you suffer from poor sleep quality. If you suffer from any of these conditions and want to boost your energy, try herbs that enhance energy levels by supporting adrenal function, such as ashwagandha (e.g., Sensoril), rhodiola, or Siberian ginseng. Often extracts of these plants are combined in “adrenal health” formulas.