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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Melatonin and Cancer: Risk and Treatment

Health and disease are two great differences between ancient civilizations and industrialized cultures. Changes in lifestyle are often blamed for the rise of modern illnesses and there is no doubt that manufactured toxic compounds in air, water and food play a part. Scientists now believe that light may have important implications as well. The effects of light on melatonin production in the body are being studied for their role in cancer risk and treatment. Can something as subtle as circadian rhythm have such a serious impact?

Physiological Functions

Melatonin, a hormone produced and secreted primarily by the pineal gland in the brain, regulates our circadian rhythm of natural sleep and wake cycles. Patterns of melatonin secretion vary by time of day and also by season. Levels are lowest during daylight hours and begin to rise in the evening. They remain high for most of the night, promoting sleep. Melatonin levels abate in early morning hours, promoting wakefulness. Young children have the highest levels of nighttime melatonin and production declines gradually with age.

Melatonin has other essential functions in the body. It has antioxidant actions and plays a part in controlling the timing and release of female sex hormones such as estrogen. It also has an important role in immunity because it helps to regulate the development and function of white blood cells, specifically helper T-cells and natural killer cells that destroy cancer cells.

Light suppresses melatonin secretion and darkness stimulates it. When people are exposed to excessive light during the night or too little light during the day, natural cycles of melatonin are disrupted. The most dramatic effects occur in people who work night shifts, such as hospital employees and commercial flight crews.

Cancer Risk

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have conducted several studies on melatonin, night shift work and breast cancer. Examining Nurses’ Health Study data from women with invasive breast cancer and cancer-free women, they found that those who worked rotating night shifts experienced increased levels of estrogen and decreased levels of melatonin.

The researchers also concluded that lower melatonin levels were associated with an elevated risk for developing breast cancer. Women who worked rotating night shifts for one year or more, including at least 3 night shifts in addition to day and evening shifts during the same month, had a moderately increased risk of breast cancer. Those who worked rotating night shifts for 30 years or more had an even higher breast cancer risk.

Although the protective effect of melatonin has been most studied in relation to breast cancer, researchers have found that women who work rotating night shifts also have an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Other preliminary studies have found that melatonin may play a protective role in prostate cancer as well.

Cancer Treatment

Studies show that melatonin is a critical component in the treatment of cancer. Scientists in Spain found that melatonin reduces circulating levels of estrogens by inhibiting their production and interfering with estrogen receptors in the body. At breast tumor sites, melatonin acts as a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) much like pharmaceutical drugs by the same name that are used to treat breast cancer.

In a more general cancer study, researchers in Italy followed more than 1,600 patients with advanced, untreatable tumors. Some patients were only given chemotherapy treatment and others received 20 milligrams of melatonin daily during darkness hours in addition to chemotherapy. Weakness, wasting, low platelet levels and low white blood cell counts were less common in those who received the adjunct melatonin treatment compared to the patients who were given chemotherapy alone. Those treated with melatonin also experienced greater benefits from the chemotherapy, measured by tumor response rate and stabilization of tumor growth, and significantly fewer side effects, including mouth inflammation, cardiotoxicity and neurotoxicity (harmful effects on heart and nerve tissues). Additionally, the one-year survival rates were significantly higher in the patients given melatonin.

A study in Germany demonstrated that melatonin induces apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in colorectal cancer cells. Researchers in Texas found that melatonin reduced prostate cancer cell multiplication by a mechanism that involved sex hormone receptors. Research studies on melatonin and the treatment of various types of cancer continue.

The Bottom Line

Artificial light has become an essential element of life in industrialized societies, especially during hours of darkness. However, spending time outdoors during daylight hours and dimming lights indoors during evening hours can minimize disruption in melatonin secretion. Avoiding night shift work also helps maintain a healthy circadian rhythm and reduces the risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Melatonin has great potential for treating cancer and reducing side effects of conventional chemotherapy treatment. Melatonin has very low toxicity and overall adverse effects are not significantly more common with melatonin than with placebo. However, people interested in supplementing melatonin should consult with their doctor.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Calcium Debate

Osteoporosis in the United States has been called an epidemic. It has also been called a myth, a normal part of aging rather than a disease. In the middle of this debate is calcium. Experts recommend supplementation as a way to prevent osteoporosis and bone fracture, but worldwide population studies have shown that people who consume the most calcium (like those in the United States and Scandinavian countries) also have the highest rates of fracture, while people who consume the least (like those in Asian and Mediterranean cultures) have the lowest fracture rates. If bone loss is the problem, is calcium really the answer?
   
Bone Mineral Density

Bones are composed of protein matrix and minerals like calcium, and they continuously regenerate themselves. Cells called osteoclasts break them down and cells called osteoblasts build them back up. The balance between bone destruction and bone growth determines bone density. The body favors growth during younger years while the skeleton is developing and maturing, but after the age of 30, the balance shifts toward bone loss. Around age 50, declining levels of estrogen and testosterone may speed the process.

Below average bone mass is known as osteopenia when the deficiency is slight and osteoporosis when it becomes more advanced. Low mineral density makes bones more fragile and increases the risk of fracture. For older adults, hip fracture is often a life-changing event. Only 25 percent of elderly individuals who sustain such an injury are able to return to their pre-fracture activity level. Most require specialized long-term care in a rehabilitation facility or nursing home and 25 percent die within one year.

Calcium

Researchers have found that a high intake of calcium does improve bone mineral density, but long-term observational studies have not found lower rates of bone fracture with high calcium intake. Some studies have even suggested that too much of the mineral may increase the risk of kidney stones, prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 1000 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day for adults until age 50, and 1200 mg per day thereafter. Because these routine recommendations do not take dietary sources into account, many people get more calcium than they need. The average adult in the United States consumes about 300 mg of calcium per day from non-calcium-rich foods. Each serving of dairy products (one cup of milk or yogurt, or one and a half ounces of cheese) and each cup of cooked spinach add approximately 300 mg of calcium. Three ounces of sardines (with bones) or one cup of cooked collard or turnip greens accounts for an additional 400 mg. When considering supplementation, these estimations make it easy to calculate true calcium needs.

Calcium should always be taken with magnesium in a 2:1 ratio. Calcium citrate is the most easily assimilated form, which is optimal for older adults who tend to have less stomach acid. Studies have also shown that unlike other forms, calcium citrate inhibits kidney stone formation.

Other Influences

Calcium is not the most important factor in bone health. Studies have shown that weight-bearing and resistance exercises, as well as impact activities like walking, jogging and dancing, are the best protection against osteoporosis and bone fracture. The reason behind the research is simple: force applied to bone triggers growth and the absence of force leads to deterioration. Exercise not only makes bones stronger and more resistant to breaking, it strengthens muscles and improves balance and coordination so falls are less likely. Walking at least two hours each week can reduce the risk of hip fracture in elderly adults, but choosing a variety of activities that apply force to a variety of bones gives the best results.

Other factors found to have a positive affect on bone mass include vitamins D and K; both are necessary for the absorption and utilization of calcium. Researchers in Germany who studied black cohosh found that the herb had positive effects on bone metabolism equal to estrogen replacement therapy, but without increasing the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, blood clots and strokes.

In contrast, factors that negatively impact bone density include smoking, diets high in protein and/or sodium, and consumption of saturated fat, caffeine, soda and excessive amounts of alcohol. Osteoporosis can also result from chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, certain kinds of cancer, stomach surgery and medications such as corticosteroids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, tetracyclines, some cancer drugs, thyroid hormones and antacids containing aluminum.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line for stronger bones is regular exercise, outdoor activities and a healthy, balanced diet that includes foods high in calcium and at least one daily serving of dark green vegetables, rich in vitamin K, such as broccoli, turnip greens or spinach.

People who don’t spend enough time in the sun to generate adequate levels of vitamin D (determined by a simple blood test) can compensate by adding sardines, herring, salmon and/or cod liver oil to their diets.

To reduce the risk of falls and fracture, older adults should live in clutter-free environments with good lighting, have their sight and hearing tested annually, wear rubber-soled shoes and always use caution when walking on slippery or uneven surfaces.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Health Benefits of Pasture-Raised Animals

The agricultural revolution dramatically changed our diet. When humans started growing their own food rather than foraging for it, and keeping domestic livestock instead of hunting wild game, grains became a staple food. The human diet wasn’t the only one affected; most of the animals raised for food in the United States now eat grain too. These changes in diet and lifestyle have been followed by changes in health, for people as well as livestock. Surely other factors, from pollution to processed foods, have played prominent roles in the rise of chronic diseases that were virtually nonexistent in early human cultures, but researchers are learning that the animal products we consume are an important piece of the puzzle. The differences between pasture-raised animals and their grain-fed counterparts are more significant than we once thought.

Pasture-Fed Animals

Pasture-raised is a more accurate term than grass-fed when it comes to animals that graze. Plants in the pasture compose a salad bar of species: several kinds of grasses, legumes like clover and lupine, and broad-leaf plants such as plantain and dandelion. These greens contain generous amounts of folic acid, beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fats. Unlike grain-fed animals, cows and chickens that eat wild greens produce meat, milk and eggs with high levels of these nutrients. Their high-fiber, low-starch diet and a lifestyle of continuous movement make these animals leaner and more similar to the wild game our ancestors ate.

Researchers in the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin found that meat from pasture-raised cows also contain high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that is being studied for its role in the prevention of cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes and obesity.

Grain-Fed Animals

In the United States, hundreds of millions of animals that would once have grazed in pastures are now raised on factory farms. These confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are able to boost productivity and lower costs by raising large numbers of livestock in one location and feeding them grain. Corn is the grain of choice because it is cheap and it causes animals to gain weight quickly, providing more meat in less time than traditional pasture grazing. Due to their different diet, grain-fed animal products lack the omega-3 fats found in those of pasture-fed animals, but they do contain more total fat, saturated fat and omega-6 fats.

The diet of animals raised in CAFOs also includes by-products of other animals, medications to buffer gas and acid in the rumen that result from an unnatural diet of grains and antibiotics to thwart infections that are common in crowded quarters. Not surprisingly, CAFOs also contribute to air and water pollution, toxic waste production, antibiotic resistance, loss of biodiversity and dependence on the fossil fuels necessary to grow and transport so much corn.

Fatty Acid Composition

Although grain-fed animal products lack the folic acid, beta-carotene and vitamin E of those that eat their natural diet of wild greens, changes in fatty acid composition may be the most important difference. Experts estimate that the dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was close to 1:1 for our ancient ancestors, but the ratio found in the average American diet is much higher (closer to 20:1) as a result of too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3 fats.

Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential elements in our diet because our bodies need them but cannot make them. However, more is not always better. Too many omega-6 fats, like those found in grain-fed animal products, and too few omega-3 fats, like those found in pasture-fed animal products, can have serious consequences for our health.

Effects on Human Health

Studies have shown that excessive intake of omega-6 fats is associated with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and lupus erythematosis. These conditions have in common high levels of inflammatory leukotrienes derived from omega-6 fats. Supplementation with omega-3 fats, which lowers the fatty acid ratio, has been shown to decrease disease activity and reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medications.

Studies in Italy found that, in vitro, prostaglandins derived from omega-6 fats have carcinogenic properties and omega-3 fats have the opposite effect. Omega-3 fatty acids antagonize the formation of inflammatory prostaglandins, which may explain their anticancer action. Research has also shown that omega-3 fats play an important role in the prevention of breast and prostate cancers.

Other illnesses that have been linked to too many omega-6  and too few omega-3 fats include cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes mellitus, asthma, hay fever, depressive disorders and dry eye syndrome. Furthermore, researchers at the University of California in San Diego found that a high ratio was associated with decreased bone mineral density in both men and women, regardless of age, body mass index, lifestyle factors and hormone replacement therapy.

The Bottom Line

Clearly, the fats in our diet, and the animals we eat, have a significant impact on our health. Raising the animals we eat on pasture supports not only a healthier planet, but healthier people as well.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Mushroom Medicine

“Food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates. Well known as the father of medicine, this ancient Greek doctor gave good advice. Mushrooms have been revered as both food and medicine for thousands of years in Asian countries. As powerful modulators of the immune system, they play an important role in protecting the body against pathogenic microbes and abnormal cells.

Decades of research in China and Japan support the medicinal use of mushrooms, but scientists in the United States have only recently begun to take note. Studies in vitro and in vivo, as well as human clinical trials, have yielded positive results and scientists are seeing the great potential for mushroom medicine that traditional healers have recognized for centuries.

Shiitake

Shiitake mushrooms have been used traditionally in Japan and China to cure the common cold, increase energy and eliminate intestinal worms. Preliminary trials suggest that they may be useful in the treatment of hepatitis B, HIV infection and pancreatic and stomach cancers, especially when combined with chemotherapy.

One trial investigated the use of the shiitake extract lentinan in treatment of genital warts caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Two groups of men and women underwent laser surgery, and one group also took lentinan post-operatively for two months. The group who supplemented with the shiitake extract had fewer recurrences than the group who were treated only with surgery.

Reishi

Reishi mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine as tonics for fatigue, weakness, asthma, insomnia and cough. In vitro, researchers have isolated reishi constituents that inhibit cholesterol production, tumor growth and cancer metastasis.

Preliminary human trials have suggested that the mushrooms may be useful for altitude sickness, chronic hepatitis B, Epstein-Barr infection, herpes zoster infection, diabetes mellitus, leukemia, and cancer of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.

Clinical trials have also found that reishi mushrooms can lower high blood pressure significantly in comparison to both placebo and controls.

Maitake

Maitake mushrooms have been used traditionally in Asia to promote vitality and wellness. Modern medicine is investigating their potential for the prevention and treatment of cancer, and treatment of HIV infection. Polysaccharides found in maitake are some of the most powerful compounds studied in medicinal mushrooms so far.

Human trials studying MD-Fraction, a maitake extract containing the polysaccharide beta-D-glucan, demonstrated cancer regression and symptom improvement in patients with cancers of the liver, breast and lung. Researchers believe that the anti-cancer effects are due to the ability of MD-Fraction to activate special immune cells, including natural killer cells, macrophages and helper T-cells.

Animal studies also suggest that maitake mushrooms may lower cholesterol.

Coriolus Versicolor

The coriolus versicolor mushroom is widely prescribed for the prevention and treatment of infections and cancer in China and Japan. Researchers attribute its anti-cancer activity to the mushroom’s selective ability to induce cell death in cancer cells but not in normal cells.

Coriolus versicolor contains two proteoglycans that have been extensively researched: Polysaccharide K (PSK) and Polysaccharide Peptide (PSP). In vitro, in vivo and human studies have demonstrated that PSK and PSP can increase production of immune cells, ameliorate side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and make it easier for immune cells to invade tumors.

Studies in Japan have found PSK to extend five-year survival in cancers of the lung, nasopharynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, as well as a specific type of breast cancer. It has also been shown to increase levels of immune cytokines such as interferon, interleukins and tumor necrosis factor. These substances act to increase activity of certain white blood cells.

Double blind clinical trials have concluded that PSP relieved pain, increased quality of life and boosted immunity in patients with cancers of the lung, esophagus, stomach, ovary and cervix.

Cordyceps

Cordyceps mushrooms were once prized as a cultural treasure and eaten only by emperors. In ancient China they were used to strengthen the body after exhaustion or illness, and as a common treatment for backache, impotence and opium addiction.

In vitro experiments have demonstrated that cordyceps increase immune surveillance of tumor cells, stimulate activity of natural killer cells, inhibit tumor growth, induce apoptosis and prevent angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels necessary for the growth of tumors.

Animal studies have suggested that the antioxidant activity of cordyceps may be useful in protecting against memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.

Human clinical trials support the use of Cordyceps for treatment of liver, kidney and immune problems.

Use of Medicinal Mushrooms

Incorporating medicinal mushrooms into your diet can have many positive health benefits. However, allergic reactions are possible, side effects have been reported at high doses for some species and misidentifying wild mushrooms can have dangerous consequences. Talk to your doctor before consuming large amounts of medicinal mushrooms or concentrated mushroom extracts.

REFERENCES

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Is Cleaner Really Better?

Bacteria are everywhere: in soil, dust, air, water and food. Recognizing their role in disease and taking measures to prevent and treat infections has saved many lives, but new hygiene standards are making our environment increasing sterile. We use pesticides to clean our soil, disinfectants to clean our homes, sanitizing sprays to clean the air, radiation and pasteurization to clean our food and antibacterial soap to clean our skin. Some experts believe this lack of exposure to normal bacteria in our environment has a negative effect on our health. Is it possible, or is cleaner really better?

Normal Flora

Bacteria are not just part of our environment, they are part of us, too. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, about ten times more. Scientists estimate that each person carries 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria, totaling one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) microbes. Bacteria that are expected to be present and do not usually cause disease are normal flora. Specific species vary with age, diet, culture, environment and anatomical location. Also appropriately referred to as “friendly” bacteria, normal flora play important roles in immunity and digestive health.

Digestive Disturbances

In the gastrointestinal tract, friendly flora help digest food, produce vitamins and aid the absorption of nutrients. They prevent colonization of potential pathogens, or “unfriendly” microbes, not only in the intestines, but also on the skin and in the mouth and vagina. Friendly bacteria keep unfriendly microorganisms under control by maintaining an acidic pH and producing substances that inhibit their ability to grow and reproduce. When the bacterial balance is disturbed, increasing populations of potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi (such as the yeast Candida albicans) can cause symptoms that range from inflammation and infection to indigestion and diarrhea.

Dysbiosis, an imbalance of intestinal flora, may result from a change in environment, a new diet or the use of antibiotics. Although antibiotics are useful to treat dangerous infections, they often kill the protective bacteria along with the pathogenic species, causing common side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and vaginal yeast infections in women.

Immune Implications

Bacteria play other important roles in immunity. They trigger the production of antibodies, which are proteins in the blood that alert the immune system to foreign substances. Low levels of antibodies produced in response to normal flora can cross-react with certain pathogenic microbes to prevent infection. Bacteria also stimulate the development of lymphatic tissue in the intestines, an extension of the immune system containing white blood cells that destroy foreign microorganisms and abnormal cells.

Bacteria can even impact allergies. When immune cells have not had sufficient exposure to microorganisms in the environment, they can overreact when they encounter foreign molecules. Hypersensitivity reactions aren’t limited to invading microbes and may also be triggered by harmless substances such as animal dander, pollen, mold spores and dust mites.

Some experts have noted that children in large families tend to have lower rates of allergic diseases, including hay fever, asthma and eczema. Older children can expose younger siblings to a wide array of bacteria that strengthen their developing immune systems.

Making Friends With Microbes

In general, cleaner is better only when it comes to individuals with compromised immune systems, who should always avoid unnecessary risk of infection. However, others can benefit from friendly bacteria and exposure can improve immunity and gastrointestinal function.

For healthy bacterial balance, avoid chemicals that kill normal flora, such as chlorine and antibiotics (unless infections are life-threatening). Antibiotics can be lifesaving medications, but they should only be used when absolutely necessary. Residues from antibiotics fed to animals can be ingested unintentionally, so choose organic foods, especially when it comes to animal products. Chlorine does reduce transmission of disease-causing microbes, but it also has a negative effect on the normal flora of the intestine and should be removed after it has served its purpose. Filter chlorine out of water used for drinking and showering, where it is inhaled with steam.

To increase exposure to friendly bacteria, spend time outside and play in the dirt. Gardening can provide benefits beyond bacteria, such as stress relief and fresh, seasonal, organic food. Avoid the use of pesticides, not just in the garden but on houseplants as well. When it comes to personal hygiene, antibacterial products are not necessary. Regular soap will kill unfriendly organisms, but excessive washing can remove protective skin oils as well as normal flora, increasing chances of irritation and infection. Friendly bacteria can also be supplemented. Look for products from reputable companies that have at least one billion colony-forming units (CFUs) per capsule, an expiration date and a lot number. Keep them in the refrigerator and take as directed by your doctor.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Overcoming Obstacles to Infertility

Conventional treatments for infertility often involve high costs and low success rates: approximately 5 to 30 percent, depending on the procedure, age of the female partner, quality of the egg and sperm and skill of the treatment team. The procedures that are successful are not without side effects. In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ISCI) increase the risk of multiple pregnancies, low birth weight, birth defects and disability in surviving infants. Although necessary and rewarding for some couples, assisted reproductive technology may not be essential for everyone.

In 2002, a joint study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina and the University of Padua in Italy analyzed the fertility of 782 couples from seven European cities. Researchers concluded that most of the women with no known reasons for not conceiving naturally who did not achieve pregnancy during the first year of trying became pregnant the second year, unassisted. Lead investigator Dr. David Dunson recommended delaying assisted fertility treatments for healthy couples until they have tried to get pregnant on their own for 18 to 24 months. Focusing on optimal wellness and removing obstacles to infertility may eliminate the need for high-tech treatments.

Medical Assessment

Couples have the best chance of conceiving when both partners are in ideal health. There are a number of medical conditions that can interfere with fertility including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease and infections of the urinary tract and reproductive organs. Health problems specific to women include polycystic ovarian syndrome, fallopian tube blockage or damage and uterine abnormalities such as fibroids and endometriosis. For men, conditions associated with reduced fertility include abnormal sperm, undescended testes, varicocele (enlargement of veins in the spermatic cord) and obstructions of the reproductive system from scarring after injury, surgery or infection.

Before a couple starts trying to conceive, each partner should have a complete health check-up and address any abnormalities. The check-up should include a thorough physical exam and laboratory tests to screen for infection, nutritional deficiencies and diabetes, and to evaluate liver, kidney, thyroid and cardiovascular function. If sperm abnormalities are suspected, a semen analysis will measure the volume of semen, sperm count, sperm mobility and percentage of abnormal sperm.

Body Mass Index

A healthy weight is important for optimum wellness and critical for achieving a pregnancy, especially in women. Responding to primitive survival mechanisms, the body perceives limited food intake and weight loss as signs of starvation. It shuts down non-essential systems, like reproduction, and ovulation stops until fat stores are sufficient.

When the amount of fat tissue increases, so do estrogen levels, but sometimes too much. Overweight women also have lower rates of fertility. Fortunately, weight loss as little as ten percent can improve hormone imbalance and restore ovulation, increasing chances of pregnancy.

Body mass index (BMI) is a ratio of weight to height that provides a better estimate of fat distribution than weight alone. Individuals with a BMI below 20 are considered underweight, while those with a BMI above 24 are overweight. To achieve an ideal BMI, regular exercise and a healthy diet are essential.

Good Nutrition

For optimum health, eat a varied diet high in fiber, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, and wild coldwater fish including salmon, halibut, herring, sardines and anchovies. Avoid tap water, refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, processed foods, deep fried foods, caffeine, alcohol, unnecessary medicines and foods that contain potentially harmful pesticides, ripening agents, waxes, hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified organisms.

Sometimes people don’t get all of the nutrients they need from their diet, so a multiple vitamin-mineral supplement is good insurance. Certain nutrients are especially important for reproductive processes, including omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium, manganese, iron, folate and vitamins C, E, A, B6 and B12. Amino acids arginine and carnitine can improve the production and function of sperm. Some nutrients can be harmful when taken incorrectly, so see a qualified practitioner before starting supplementation.

Exercise and Stress Management

Wellness of body, mind and spirit is not possible without exercise and stress management. A regular fitness routine should incorporate aerobic, strengthening and stretching exercises. Make it a priority and schedule time for physical activity six days each week. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen; she or he can provide individual recommendations for intensity, duration and target heart rate.

Exercise is one way to manage stress. Basic breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation work well too. Some activities exercise both the body and mind, like yoga and qi gong.

According to Chinese medicine philosophy, illness results from congestion and stagnation. When qi (energy) flows freely and evenly through the body, healing can take place. Qi gong is a movement technique that embodies this ancient wisdom and is quickly gaining popularity in the Western world.

Environmental Awareness

The Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals from the Centers for Disease Control recently confirmed that certain toxins in our environment affect hormone balance and fertility. Potentially harmful chemicals are found in insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, solvents, plastics, heavy metals, household cleaners, fragrances, nail polish and construction materials. Couples who want to conceive should avoid unnecessary exposure.

Non-toxic building materials are essential for parents-to-be who plan to remodel a room for a baby or move into a new home. Potential parents should avoid carpet, particleboard furniture, vinyl and linoleum flooring. Good choices include “no-VOC” (volatile organic compounds) paint and sealant, and inert building materials, such as ceramic, stone, slate, bamboo, porcelain and stainless steel. A non-toxic home is not only good for conception, it will create a healthy environment for raising children.

Alternative Approaches

Couples who are in optimal health but unable to conceive after two years should seek medical advice, especially when the female partner is above the age of 35. Whether or not conventional therapies are part of the picture, alternative options such as botanical (plant) medicines, homeopathy and acupuncture can be helpful. These couples should find a qualified practitioner experienced in treating infertility and inform everyone on their treatment team of all the therapies they are using.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Fertility Awareness for Reproductive Health

Despite decades of medical progress and technological advancement, researchers have yet to design a perfect form of birth control and many women still struggle with infertility. But ancient wisdom may help answer these modern dilemmas. One of the oldest and most widely practiced strategies of conception and contraception, Fertility Awareness empowers women to become knowledgeable and active in their reproductive health. Whether they want to avoid a pregnancy, achieve one or simply learn more about their bodies, understanding monthly hormone cycles is essential for better health and better health care.

The Method

Fertility Awareness (FA), also known as the Sympto-Thermal Method, helps women and couples understand basic information about fertility and reproduction. Three fertility signs – waking body temperature, cervical fluid and position of the cervix – are charted on a daily basis to identify the fertile days of each menstrual cycle, and to determine if and when ovulation and pregnancy occur.

Like any new skill, FA must be learned and used correctly to be effective. Many women can learn the charting techniques and rules of interpretation by reading a book. Others may prefer to take a class with a certified instructor. Once the basic principles are learned, charting only takes minutes each day but requires a commitment to consistent practice.

Contraception

According to Planned Parenthood, Fertility Awareness is 97 to 99 percent effective when used correctly. Unlike other methods of contraception, FA is free of chemicals, exogenous hormones and side effects. Through identification of fertile days, FA shortens the time that couples need to use barrier contraceptive devices, such as condoms, diaphragms or cervical caps.

Fertility Awareness is often confused with the Rhythm Method and Natural Family Planning. Although none prevent sexually transmitted diseases, all three can be used as birth control, with varying degrees of success.

The Rhythm Method relies on past cycles to predict future fertility. In contrast, FA is based on daily observation of current fertility signs to determine if a woman can become pregnant on any given day. Women are only fertile a few days each month, around the time of ovulation. Because the length of each cycle and the exact day of ovulation may vary from month to month for each woman, FA is much more accurate than the Rhythm Method.

Natural Family Planning is similar to FA, but couples abstain from intercourse during fertile days, rather than using barrier methods of contraception. Couples who use Natural Family Planning may have religious reasons to choose abstinence over contraception, but like couples who practice FA, they desire a natural method of effective birth control.

Conception

Just as the identification of fertile days can be used to avoid pregnancy, it can also be used to achieve pregnancy. Menstrual cycles vary among women, usually from 24 to 36 days, but many health care practitioners assume that women have 28 day cycles and ovulate on day 14. Women who are treated for infertility often undergo expensive and uncomfortable tests and procedures, but these are only effective when timed correctly.

When couples are trying to get pregnant, FA will not only determine when sexual intercourse is likely to result in conception, but it can provide vital information for the diagnosis and treatment of infertility. Women who practice FA can help their doctors determine whether their fertility problems result from hormone imbalance, infertile cervical fluid, anovulation, late ovulation, a short luteal phase or miscarriage. With this information, doctors can time tests and procedures to ensure optimal results.

Reproductive Health

Fertility Awareness can also be a useful tool in other areas of reproductive health. When women regularly chart their fertility signs, they recognize changes that may indicate potential health problems. Those who experience irregular bleeding, cervical abnormalities, premenstrual syndrome and vaginal or urinary tract infections can provide their doctors with information to facilitate diagnosis and prevent unnecessary and invasive tests. Many health care practitioners diagnose common conditions based on the average women’s symptoms, but women who practice FA can help their doctors identify individual irregularities based on the unique nature of their menstrual cycle.

Resources

For more information about Fertility Awareness, books are a great place to start. Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer are both excellent resources.

Or find a certified instructor near you by contacting your local health department or Planned Parenthood for information and referrals. For classes and workshops in New York City, contact the Fertility Awareness Center at 212-475-4490.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Natural Remedies for First Aid

As you head into the great outdoors, don’t forget your first aid kit. Many natural remedies work wonders to treat minor injuries, but the key is knowing when to use them and when to proceed directly to the doctor. From bug bites to poisonous plants, learn the what, when, why and how of natural first aid.

Bites and Stings

Some pests are more than mere annoyances. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, mosquitoes may be carriers of the West Nile virus and some spiders are poisonous. Anyone who becomes ill after a bite or develops a wound that does not heal, a rash or flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and body aches should seek medical attention to rule out serious disease.

Another potential problem is allergic reaction. Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening allergy that requires emergency medical attention. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, rapid pulse, dizziness, weakness and pale, cool skin. Individuals with known insect allergies should carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) syringe with them whenever there is potential to be stung.

When a bee stings, the venom pouch is dislodged and remains with the stinger. If the stinger is still in the skin, it should be scraped away rather than tweezed because tweezers may squeeze out more venom. If the bite came from a tick that is still attached, tweezers may be used to remove it. Grasp the head of the tick as close to the skin as possible and exert slow backward pressure until it is released.

First aid for bites and stings starts with a cold compress to reduce pain and swelling (wrap a wet towel around ice cubes and apply to the affected area). Onion can also reduce inflammation because it contains the anti-inflammatory bioflavonoid quercitin and enzymes that break down prostaglandins, which are chemicals released by your body to signal pain. Cut a raw onion in half and place the freshly cut side on the affected area.

Other options include lavender essential oil, which can be used both as an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory agent to relieve pain and itching, and a paste of baking soda and water, which is alkaline and can neutralize acid in insect venom. If you are in the wilderness, applying mud to the area can help draw out the insect venom and sooth inflammation. Several itchy bites can be soothed by a vinegar bath (add 32 ounces of vinegar to a tepid bath and soak for 30 minutes).

Plantain, known botanically as Plantago major, is an edible and medicinal plant. The leaves will help draw inflammatory secretions and insect venom from the skin and promote healing. This plant also has anti-microbial and pain-relieving properties, so it is useful for treating cuts and scrapes in the wilderness. It grows close to the ground and has unevenly toothed leaves, four to ten inches long, growing from a central root. If you can correctly identify this plant, make a poultice by chewing or mashing the leaves into a pulp. Apply it directly to the bite or sting until the pain subsides.

Homeopathic remedies may be taken orally as sublingual pellets and or used topically in creams and ointments. Homeopathic creams are usually not antibiotic, so if the skin has been broken, it is best to use the remedy orally rather than topically.

Remedies for bites and stings include Ledum when the person feels chilly and the wound is inflamed, swollen, cold and numb; Apis Mellifica for stinging, burning pain with rapid swelling, especially if the sting came from a bee; Carbolic Acid for itchy blisters and hives; and Arnica Montana when soreness is a symptom.

Cuts and Scrapes

When the skin surface is broken, bacteria can create an infection. Signs include fever, pain, redness, swelling, local warmth, red streaks near the injury and pus with a foul odor. Medical attention must be sought immediately if any of these symptoms are present, or if pieces of skin are missing, bleeding does not stop, the skin was broken by a dirty or rusty object, the object is still imbedded, or the cut is more than skin deep or the result of a puncture wound.

To stop bleeding, elevate injured areas and apply sterile gauze and gentle pressure. If you’re in the wilderness, spider webs can help stop bleeding, but make sure the spider has vacated the premises.

Cuts and scrapes must be cleaned to remove debris and prevent infection. Regular soap and water are effective, but calendula succus, a plant extract in alcohol, is also a good choice and can be used full strength to clean wounds and promote healing. Other topical antiseptics include lavender essential oil and tea tree oil. Unlike most essential oils, both can be used full strength, up to five drops at a time. Cover clean wounds with sterile dressings and change them daily.

Herbal creams or salves containing aloe vera, calendula, comfrey, and/or echinacea can be applied to encourage healing. Once the wound closes, dressings are not needed and vitamin E oil may be applied if no signs of infection are present, to support skin repair and reduce scarring.

Homeopathic remedies include Hypericum for sharp and shooting pain; Ledum for puncture wounds and cuts that are swollen, red, numb and cold; Phosphorus for small wounds that bleed heavily; and Aconitum for severe bleeding, anxiety and fear. Additionally, Arnica Montana can be taken for any shock or trauma.

Minor Burns

Burns can be categorized by the degree of damage. First degree burns feel hot to the touch. The skin is pink to red, dry and there may be some swelling. Second degree burns are associated with blisters; red, raw skin and extreme pain. Third degree burns may have little to no pain because the nerves have been damaged and skin is usually white or black.

First degree burns are the only ones that can be safely treated with first aid. Second and third degree burns, and all chemical and electrical burns, should receive emergency medical care. Consult a doctor if burns involve the face, eyes, neck, hands, feet, genitals or large areas of skin.

To treat minor burns and sunburn, immediately place the affected area under cold water or apply a cold compress until the pain subsides. Then use any of the following natural remedies to reduce inflammation, applying several times per day as needed: aloe vera gel, cooled peppermint tea bags, yogurt or sliced raw potato.

Homeopathic remedies for burns include Arsenicum Album for burned skin that is red, scaly, swollen and sensitive; Urtica Urens for burns that have a stinging or prickly feeling; and Cantharis for swollen burns with smarting pain, especially if the pain causes anger or irritability.

Bruises

If bruising is not the result of local injury, it may be the result of serious medical conditions such as hemophilia, anemia or certain cancers, or a side effect of some prescriptions including aspirin, antidepressant and asthma medications. Individuals with a tendency to bruise easily should consult with their doctor. If bones may be broken or if there has been severe trauma to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, back or pelvis, increased risk of internal bleeding requires a trip to the emergency room.

First aid for bruises starts with elevation and a cold compress to reduce swelling, applied for 20 minutes at a time and repeating every hour as necessary. Once swelling and inflammation have gone down, apply heat to the area to stimulate blood flow and tissue repair.

The most common homeopathic remedy for bruises is Arnica Montana but others may be helpful too: Ruta Graveolans for bruises over bones such as shins, knees and elbows; Hypericum for bruises to sensitive areas such as eyes, fingertips, lips and nose; Ledum for bruises with extreme tenderness; and Rhus Toxicodendron for swelling and inflammation around soft tissue that feels stiff but better with movement.

Sprains and Strains

Sprains (injury to ligaments) and strains (muscular injury) are usually a result of stretching tissues beyond their normal range of motion. Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising and reduced function. As soon as injury occurs, it is important to stop activity to prevent further trauma. If a sprain or strain results from a severe blow, numbness is present, fracture is suspected or function is totally lost (for example, not being able to walk after twisting an ankle), then medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.

Immobilization of the injured part, elevation and a cold compress can limit swelling of sprains and strains. Ice can be applied for 20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off, repeated as necessary to reduce pain and swelling. Once initial inflammation subsides, hydrotherapy can increase blood flow to injured areas, bringing nutrients necessary for tissue repair and removing inflammatory waste products. Alternate applications of a hot, moist towel for three minutes and a cold, wet towel for 30 seconds. Repeat for at least three full cycles, several times per day. Limit use of injured joints and muscles until fully healed to prevent chronic injury and inflammation.

Homeopathic remedies for sprains and strains include Rhus Toxicodendron for swollen and hot joints, especially stiff ones that feel better with movement; Ruta Graveolans for injuries around bones and joints that feel stiff and bruised; Bryonia alba for injured parts that are red, hot and swollen with stitching or tearing pain; and Arnica Montana, especially when a fall contributed to injury.

Poisonous Plants

Contact with resin from Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac plants can cause allergic reactions and red, itchy rashes. Blisters may also appear, oozing and crusting until the skin is healed. Symptoms usually start a few hours after contact, or even a few days later.

Prevention is always best, so learn to identify poisonous plants common in areas where you spend time outdoors and wear long pants, shoes and socks to minimize exposure. Poison Oak is more common in the Western United States and like Poison Ivy, leaves come in groups of three. Poison Sumac has seven to 13 leaves per group and like Poison Ivy, may have white berry clusters.

The first intervention is removal of the plant resin, within 15 minutes or as soon as possible. Launder all clothes and wash potentially affected skin with soap and water. Apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce inflammation and discomfort. To relieve itching, apply aloe vera gel, calendula succus, cooked oatmeal or a sea salt compress (soak a cloth in a solution of 1 tablespoon salt per pint of water). Large rashes can be soothed by a vinegar bath or an oatmeal bath (run tepid bath water through a sock filled with raw oats).

Homeopathic remedies for rashes include Rhus Toxicodendron for restless patients with extremely itchy red blisters soothed by heat; Croton Tiglium for extremely itchy, dry red blisters accompanied by diarrhea; and Anacardium for itchy rashes with yellow discharge that feel better with warm water and for individuals who want to scratch their skin until it bleeds.

Natural First Aid Kit

Besides bandages, sterile gauze, scissors, tweezers and adhesive tape, pick remedies for your first aid kit that have several uses. My top six picks are lavender essential oil, calendula succus, aloe vera gel, arnica montana ointment, homeopathic Apis and rescue remedy, a combination homeopathic remedy usually found in liquid form which can be used to relieve anxiety associated with trauma. When making your first aid kit, consider where you plan to use it and tailor it to fit your needs.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Container Gardening for the Urban Farmer


Foods are best when they are freshest, and you can’t get fresher foods than those you pick yourself. If you don’t have a garden plot, turn a sunny windowsill into an herb garden or grow a pot of peppers on your patio. Many plants grow well in containers, from salad greens to strawberries, so apartment-dwellers take note. You can grow fresh food in small spaces.

Plant Picks

Your local farmers’ market or nursery can tell you which plants are best suited to growing conditions in your area. In general, plants that grow best in containers include chard, fennel, garlic, lettuce, leek, onion, pepper, radish, salad greens, shallot, strawberry and tomato. Herbs like basil, chive, cilantro, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme also grow well in pots, as do edible flowers like nasturtium, borage, pansy and calendula.

Dwarf varieties of beans, beets, carrots, parsnips and peas can be good container candidates because their roots do not grow as deep as the traditional varieties. Trailing plants like cucumbers, peas, summer squash and zucchini usually take up a lot of space, but if you train vines and tendrils to climb up stakes, trellises or walls, it is possible to grow them in containers. Aside from strawberries, fruit is more difficult to grow in small spaces because even dwarf varieties usually require fifteen-gallon pots and a warm climate, as well as pollination and pruning expertise.

Seeds or Starts

You can buy plants that have been started in a nursery (known as “starts”) or germinate them yourself from seed. For container gardens, some plants are best bought as starts because they can be difficult to germinate or because they need to be germinated in the fall for a summer harvest. These include lavender, mint, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries, thyme and tomatoes.

Other plants are easily germinated from seed within a week or two under the right conditions. Use a covered seed-starting tray as a miniature greenhouse and keep the seeds moist until they sprout. Arugula, beet, calendula, carrot, chard, cilantro, dandelion, lettuce, marjoram, nasturtium, pansy and savory are good choices if you want to start your plants from seed. Additionally, garlic can be grown from an organic peeled clove planted in soil.

Container Collection

When it comes to containers, different plants require different depths. Plants that only require four inches of dirt include basil, chives, cilantro, most lettuces, radishes and marjoram. Calendula, garlic, mint, mustard greens, nasturtium, savory, shallots and thyme need a pot at least six inches deep. If your container is eight inches or deeper, you can plant chard, lavender, peppers, rosemary, sage, strawberries and tomatoes.

Terra cotta pots are popular choices for container gardening. They are inexpensive, easy to find and available in several sizes, shapes and colors. Terra cotta is made from clay, so unlike metal and plastic pots, their porosity allows oxygen and moisture to pass through the container. They may require more frequent watering, but over-watering and root rot are less likely. Because terra cotta is heavy, these pots provide good stability and are less likely to tip over in windy conditions. If they crack, break them up with a hammer and use them for drainage material.

Although plant pots work perfectly, some opt for more creative containers such as buckets, crates, drawers, tubs or half barrels. As long as the receptacle won’t rust and has drainage holes (or you can make some) it can be used for gardening. All containers should be cleaned with biodegradable soap and wiped out with a dilute hydrogen peroxide solution at the end of each growing season and again before planting.

Dirty Details

Soil and drainage materials will be the most important factors in the health of your plants’ roots and the success of your container garden. Roots require moisture, air and nutrients to support foliage and flowers, so treat them well. Dirt from outdoor gardens doesn’t work well in containers, so buy the potting soil and plant food best suited to what you want to grow. Most plants grow well in general-purpose potting soil, but some need more acidic soils, so check before you plant. Rocks, pieces of terra cotta and seashells all make good drainage materials for the bottom of the pot. They will keep excess water away from roots and allow air to circulate.

If you put multiple plants in the same pot, choose ones that have similar water, soil and sunlight requirements and space them four to six inches apart. Plants that need full sun include basil, oregano, peppers, rosemary, sage, thyme and tomatoes. Light shade is better for chard, garlic, leeks, lettuce, radishes, spinach and other salad greens. Mint likes moist and shady conditions, and it should always be planted in its own container because it can easily crowd out other plants.

Like us all, plants need food, water, air and sunlight. When you satisfy their basic requirements, whether they grow on a garden plot or inside a pot, you will be rewarded with a healthy harvest.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Pregnancy Recovery and Postpartum Health

The miracle of birth is only the beginning. New babies come with new challenges for the mind, body and spirit. Lack of sleep, managing life with a new infant and possibly returning to work in a matter of weeks can make pregnancy recovery difficult.

But recovery is exactly what postpartum moms need. Nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and physical exhaustion can set the stage for irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, low immunity, low libido, fatigue and headaches. During a time when all eyes are focused on the baby, mom needs nurturing too.

Postpartum Nutrition

A whole foods diet rich in vitamins and minerals provides nutritional precursors critical for pregnancy recovery. B vitamins support the body’s ability to handle physical and emotional stress, while zinc and vitamins A, C and E promote tissue repair. Vegetables are a good source of these nutrients and seven daily servings (or more) will help meet the body’s needs.

Essential fatty acids reduce inflammation, support the immune system and promote healthy hormone balance. They are found in foods such as olive oil, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, wild salmon, halibut, sardines and anchovies.

Refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour should be replaced with whole grains and complex carbohydrates, such as fresh fruit.

Nursing moms can prevent colic by avoiding foods that may irritate the baby’s gastrointestinal tract. These foods include carbonated beverages, caffeine, citrus fruit, strawberries, dairy products (except yogurt with live cultures), Brewer’s yeast and gas forming vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. Breastfeeding women should also avoid foods they know they are sensitive to.

Exercise and Weight Loss

The average postpartum woman loses 10 to 20 pounds in the four weeks following birth, then one to four pounds per month, returning to pre-pregnancy weight after six to eight months. Just as it took time to gain all of the weight, it will take time to lose all the excess.

Women who want to lose weight quickly may be tempted to limit food intake, but restricting protein, fat and carbohydrates compromises the body’s ability to repair tissues and bring the body into balance. Lactating women need an extra 500 to 1000 calories per day for milk production and should not attempt to lose weight while breast-feeding.

When new moms are ready to lose weight, they should get permission from their doctor to start an exercise program incorporating aerobic exercise (40 minutes four to six days per week), strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups and stretching once muscles are warmed up and again at the end of the workout. Women who have a hard time losing weight despite a healthy diet and determined exercise efforts should talk to their doctor about possible hormone imbalances, which can make dropping pounds difficult.

Emotional Health

From exhilaration to isolation, postpartum emotions are often a mixed bag. Feelings of sadness and loss may accompany changes in daily routine, responsibilities and relationships. In the first few days following the birth of a child, an estimated 50 to 75 percent of new moms experience the “baby blues,” a mild and temporary form of depression. Ten percent of women experience true postpartum depression, a more severe form of sadness lasting for at least two weeks after giving birth and interfering with daily activities.

Experts agree that these conditions are multifactorial, attributing onset to psychological variables as well as biochemical changes accompanying pregnancy, labor and delivery. When feelings of sadness persist, women should talk to their doctor about treatment options.

New moms can ease the transition by asking for help when they need it and seeking support from partners, family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and health care professionals. Spending time with other new moms and their babies can provide regular adult contact and exchange of parenting experience and expertise.

Better Balance

A healthy diet and supplemental nutrients may be enough to address postpartum imbalances caused by nutrient depletion and changing levels of hormones and brain chemicals. If additional support is needed, botanical medicines, homeopathic remedies or supplemental natural hormones can correct more serious problems. Postpartum moms should talk to their doctor before taking any medicine, whether natural or pharmaceutical, especially those who are breastfeeding.

Like everyone else, new moms need nutritious meals, restful sleep, regular exercise, intellectual stimulation and social interaction. Regaining physical, emotional and biochemical balance after the challenges of pregnancy, labor and delivery is the best prescription for postpartum mothers and their new baby.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Andropause: Menopause For Men

Are women the only ones who go through hormonal changes as they age, or do men experience menopause too? The concept of a male climacteric was once highly controversial, but medical researchers are showing more interest in aging and the effects of declining hormone levels in men, and more doctors are diagnosing this common condition.
   
Basic Biology

Andropause refers to decreased levels of male sex hormones, or androgens. It is a normal process for aging men caused by complex physiologic and biochemical changes in the metabolism of testosterone, estrogen and sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). 75 year old men make approximately 65 percent of the testosterone found in younger men. Most of this hormone is inactive and bound to SHBG, a protein that shuttles it around the body. As production of SHBG increases naturally with age, a greater percentage of remaining testosterone is inactive. Furthermore, adipose tissue converts sex hormones into estrogen. Men who accumulate body fat as they age make more estrogen, compounding existing hormone imbalances.

Signs and Symptoms

Andropause is commonly referred to as male menopause, but some experts prefer the term “progressive androgen decline in the aging male” (PADAM). PADAM is a syndrome characterized by unpredictable onset, variable manifestations and several possible symptoms. These include decreases in sex drive, erectile function, cognitive abilities, body hair, bone density, muscle mass and strength. Symptoms also include changes in body fat distribution, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anger and other mood changes.

In some ways, PADAM is similar to peri-menopause. In both cases, symptoms usually start between the ages of 40 and 55, and different individuals experience different symptoms. Some men barely notice the transition, while severe symptoms cause others to seek treatment. However, unlike women, men usually do not experience abrupt changes in fertility and hormone levels. Andropause is a gradual and subtle process, which can make diagnosis difficult. 

Risk Factors

Because hormone function declines with age, men above the age of 50 are most likely to experience symptoms of andropause. Stress, cigarette smoking, certain medications, and diets high in processed foods and low in nutrients can contribute to its onset. Obese men have a higher risk for more severe manifestations.

Once men have been diagnosed with androgen deficiency, they are at risk for complications such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. Testosterone plays an important role in building bones, and declining levels can lead to decreased bone mineral density and osteoporotic fractures. Researchers have found that low levels of testosterone are associated with increased levels of triglycerides in the blood and increased blood pressure, raising the risk for heart attack and atherosclerosis. Studies have also shown that deficient testosterone levels can be associated with excess glucose in the blood and increased body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight). These symptoms set the stage for diabetes mellitus and other chronic diseases. 

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Researchers have noted significant improvement in both symptoms and hormone levels when deficient men were supplemented with testosterone and/or its precursor dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). However, there have been no long-term studies supporting their safety. Just as synthetic hormone replacement therapy in women poses an increased risk for breast cancer, synthetic testosterone replacement therapy in men may cause increased risk for prostate cancer. Bioidentical testosterone is always a better choice than synthetic versions because it exactly matches the hormone produced by the body, making it easily recognized and safely eliminated.

Natural Intervention

Organic foods reduce exposure to xenoestrogens in pesticide residue that may promote androgen imbalance. A nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains provide vitamins, minerals, nutrients and fiber that support strong bones and a healthy heart. Soy and flaxseeds contain phytoestrogens, which are compounds that can have anti-estrogenic effects in the body. Botanical and homeopathic medicines can offer acute symptom relief as well as constitutional balance.

An active lifestyle supports optimal physiological function as the body ages. Exercise not only promotes hormone balance, strong bones and cardiovascular health, but it also improves mood, reduces diabetes risk and helps correct other symptoms common in aging adults. People who exercise regularly benefit from improved sleep, stronger immunity, healthier joints, better balance and coordination. A combination of aerobic, strengthening and stretching exercises is the best prescription.

The Bottom Line

Symptoms of andropause are common and often overlooked as normal signs of aging, but they may be cause for concern and intervention. Everyone, especially aging men, should address any health problems with their doctor, and get permission before starting a new exercise program or taking new medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Natural Alternatives to NSAIDs

Millions of people are seeking alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) after studies raised concern about increased risk for heart attack, stroke and blood clots. These drugs have been routine treatment for pain and inflammation associated with acute and chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and minor injuries. Fortunately, natural alternatives can provide safe and effective pain relief.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Irritating foods can cause a variety of symptoms, including acute inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet, also known as a hypoallergenic diet, avoids all suspect foods for a minimum of two weeks, then reintroduces them in a systematic way to identify any food sensitivities. The ten most common dietary allergens are dairy products, eggs, gluten (a protein in wheat and other grains), soy, peanuts, chocolate, citrus, corn, sugar and nightshade plants, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant.

Exercise

Exercise increases circulation, strengthens muscles around sore joints to stabilize and protect them from further injury and can even have anti-inflammatory effects. For individuals with chronic joint pain, swimming and isometric exercises are the best choices because they strengthen muscles without putting excess stress on joints. Walking programs have helped relieve pain and improve function for individuals suffering from osteoarthritis. Exercise should not be painful, nor should it be initiated without a doctor’s recommendation.

Topical Treatments

Topical treatments can be very effective for soothing sore muscles and inflamed joints. Hydrotherapy, ultrasound, acupuncture, massage and other touch therapies can be used to increase circulation in inflamed areas, relax tense muscles and relieve pain.

Hydrotherapy is the therapeutic use of hot and cold water. Heat helps muscles relax and can be delivered by a hot, moist towel, hot bath or infrared sauna. Adding magnesium-rich Epsom salt to a bath also helps muscles relax. Ice and cold water help limit swelling and ease pain in acute injuries but heat should not be applied until initial inflammation subsides. If it is applied too early, heat can increase blood flow and subsequent swelling and discomfort in affected areas. For chronic joint pain, alternating hot and cold water treatments are the best way to increase circulation and promote healing.

Homeopathy

Homeopathic medicines can address specific symptoms such as pain, stiffness and swelling. Homeopathy is based on the principle that “like cures like.” Substances that cause symptoms in large amounts are used therapeutically in small amounts to treat those same symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are prepared from natural sources and most of them are botanical in origin. For example, Arnica, a common remedy for acute injuries, is derived from a plant in the Asteraceae family. Hundreds of remedies exist, but in theory there is only one correct choice for each person’s specific symptoms. Consult a homeopathic practitioner for an individualized prescription and best results.

Botanical Medicines

Several common kitchen staples are also anti-inflammatory herbs. These include cayenne, chamomile, ginger, licorice, tumeric and mint (wintergreen). Cooking with them or using them to make a therapeutic tea may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. Stronger botanical preparations can be used to relieve pain and inflammation, but like pharmaceutical medicines, they should be prescribed by a doctor.

Nutrients derived from plants can also be taken as supplements to relieve inflammation. Bioflavonoids, such as quercitin derived from citrus fruit, help decrease inflammation in many ways, from lowering histamine levels to inhibiting formation of pro-inflammatory mediators such as leukotrienes and phospholipase A2.

Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme derived from pineapple. Taken with food, this nutrient helps digest food; but when taken away from food, it inhibits production of inflammatory prostaglandins and prevents blood clots.

Nutritional Supplements

Several vitamins and minerals are essential for reducing inflammation and maintaining healthy tissues. A whole foods diet high in fresh vegetables is the best source, but a multivitamin can supplement when necessary.

Additionally, glucosamine sulfate and/or chondroitin sulfate may help relieve joint pain associated with osteoarthritis by stimulating production of glycosaminoglycans, the molecules used to build connective tissue such as bone and cartilage. Sometimes is it necessary to take these supplements for several weeks before effects are noticed.

Always talk to your doctor before taking any new medications, whether natural or pharmaceutical.