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Monday, December 1, 2008

Twelve Ways to Improve Your Health

It’s never too late to improve your health, whether you want to prevent future disease or treat current conditions. Use this guide to outline your personal twelve-step program or focus on one issue each month to make this your healthiest year yet.

Evaluate Your Current Condition

If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen your doctor, schedule an appointment for a routine physical exam and any lab tests she or he thinks is necessary. Discuss your health concerns and goals, family medical history and risk factors for chronic illnesses. Review medications, supplements, diet and exercise habits. Formulate a plan with your doctor to optimize physical, mental and emotional health.

Stop Smoking

People who smoke cigarettes have a higher risk of developing lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, ulcers, gum disease and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and heart attack. Cigarettes are also unhealthy for people exposed to second hand smoke. If you smoke, quit now.

Clean Your Kitchen

A healthier diet and lifestyle starts in the kitchen. Cooking your own food allows you to choose ingredients and methods of food preparation, imposing quality control that isn’t possible when dining in restaurants, ordering take-out and eating processed foods. Clean out your cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer. Eliminate pre-packaged meals and snacks, sugar, artificial sweeteners and white flour. Instead, stock whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and millet; minimally processed sweeteners like maple syrup and honey; legumes like lentils, beans and dried peas; fresh fruit and vegetables; frozen spinach and berries; tinned fish like sardines, herring and mackerel; and healthy snacks like raw nuts and plain yogurt. Buy a cookbook or check one out from the library if you need to familiarize yourself with preparing whole foods or are looking for new recipe ideas.

Exercise Everyday

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, depression, diabetes and dementia. Exercise doesn’t have to happen in a gym, as long as the key components are there: aerobic exercise, strengthening exercise and stretching. Once you have your doctor’s permission, start slowly and gradually the increase time and intensity of your workouts. Meet with a personal trainer if you need instruction or inspiration. From hiking and biking to swimming and squash, aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity five days each week. Aat the very least, sedentary individuals can start with a daily walk around the block.

Eat More Vegetables

A vegetable-based diet is full of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients that are important for good digestion, optimal health and disease prevention. Aim for seven to nine servings each day. In most cases, one half cup equals one serving, but when it comes to raw green leafy vegetables like lettuce, count one cup as a serving. Benefit your body and your community by shopping for fresh, seasonal, organic produce at local farmer’s markets.

Eliminate Processed Foods

After you have eliminated processed foods from your kitchen, eliminate them from your diet completely. Unlike whole foods, they lack fiber, nutrients and water. Most processed foods also contain additives and preservatives that can have negative impacts on health.

Take a Steam or Sauna

Increase circulation and detoxification with a weekly visit to a steam room or sauna. First get approval from your doctor, then start with one fifteen-minute session each week. Remember to replace lost fluids by drinking extra water and compensate for lost electrolytes by eating foods that contain concentrated amounts. Good choices include celery, broccoli, artichokes, parsnips, mustard greens, apricots, figs, watermelon, kiwi and kidney beans.

Relax

Counter stress by incorporating relaxation into your daily schedule. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are good choices that offer other health benefits as well, including better balance, flexibility, strength and coordination. Meditation and breathing exercises can be done anytime, anywhere. For a basic breathing exercise, position yourself so that your spine is straight and exhale completely. Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through pursed lips, making a “whoosh” sound, for a count of eight. Repeat three or more times.

Sleep Better

Good sleep is critical for good health. Lack of sufficient sleep can be associated with high blood pressure, overweight and obesity. Sleep deprivation may also increase production of stress hormones in the blood and elevate levels of inflammatory substances, increasing risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. To get a good night’s sleep, evaluate your mattress and pillows for comfort and support and replace them when needed. Make your sleeping environment as peaceful as possible and avoid working, watching television or using computers in the bedroom. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about any medical conditions that may be interfering with sound sleep. Choose relaxation techniques over medications, which cause daytime drowsiness, create dependence and lose effectiveness over time.

Drink More Tea

Staying hydrated with teas that are full of antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds. Choose low-caffeine green or white tea, or caffeine-free herbal or rooibos tea, also known as red tea. Drink them hot or cold, several times per day.

Have Fun

Spending time doing things that you love is good for you. Once considered a mere myth, the mind-body connection is now supported by scientific studies and recognized as an important factor in health and disease. Because mental and emotional conditions can affect physical well-being, taking time to have fun benefits your whole body.

Seek Supplements

A doctor trained in the use of nutritional and botanical medicines can create an individualized plan for supplements to address current conditions and prevent disease. Never self-diagnose and seek expert advise before taking medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Healthful Holiday Eating

The holiday season can be the most challenging time of year to maintain a healthy diet. Feelings of fear, anxiety and guilt around overeating and weight gain can obscure the true meaning of the season. Instead, set yourself up for success. From family dinners to cocktail parties, follow these twelve tips and get through the holidays healthier than ever.

Follow the Same Basic Guidelines

To your stomach, a holiday is just another day. So the same rules still apply: one half of your dinner plate should be vegetables, one quarter should be 3 to 4 ounces of protein (roughly equivalent to the size of a deck of cards), and the remaining quarter should contain grains or legumes. Whenever possible, choose whole grains over refined grains and if you eat meat, seek out products from animals raised on pasture. Choose fruit for dessert.

Exercise Portion Control

If there are several dishes at a special event that you want to taste, select a small portion of each. Derive pleasure from savoring the flavor and texture of every bite, not from eating a large amount. Choose quality over quantity.

Limit Sweet Foods

It’s always best to limit foods that contain refined flour and sugar. However, there can sometimes be room for small holiday indulgences (you wouldn’t want to offend grandma by passing on her famous pumpkin pie). Limit yourself to small servings of sweet foods, equivalent to one-half cup each day or less. If you are given more dessert than you can eat, share it with someone or save what you didn’t eat to take home with you. Of course, if you are diabetic or have another medical reason to eliminate high glycemic foods from your diet, always follow the advice of your doctor. And if you have a hard time sticking to small servings, do not eat these foods at all.

Eat Slowly

Chew your food thoroughly and eat slowly. This will support good digestion and give your brain better feedback from your stomach about how satiated you are. Taking time to enjoy meals makes it less likely that you will eat more than you should.

Drink After You Eat

For optimal digestion, drink beverages after you eat, not during mealtime. Excess liquid in your stomach can dilute gastric acid, slow digestion and contribute to feelings of fullness. If an event calls for a drink, avoid sweetened beverages. Choose water or wine instead. When consuming alcohol, be aware that it can lower inhibitions about overeating.

Stop Eating When You Are Full

After meals you should feel satiated, not stuffed. Consuming too much is uncomfortable and unhealthy, so when you’ve had enough food, stop eating and clear your plate. If you have leftover food, make yourself a plate for later, when you’ll appreciate it much more.

Bring Your Own Dish

If you anticipate that an event you plan to attend won’t have healthy foods on offer, bring your own dish to share. If you don’t have time to cook, assemble something nutritious: a variety of raw vegetables and hummus for dipping, a colorful fruit plate, or a smoked fish platter with lemon wedges, whole grain crispbread, and thick, creamy Greek yogurt.

Don’t Skip Meals

If you are anticipating eating a large meal, don’t skip other meals in preparation. Your body needs a certain amount of food each day to function optimally, but only a limited amount at any given time. If you fast to prepare for a big meal, you will arrive at the table feeling extremely hungry, making overeating and weight gain much more likely. Having a light lunch before a larger dinner is fine, but skipping lunch completely is not. Eating meals at regular times helps your body maintain balanced blood sugar and healthy metabolism.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity also supports a healthy metabolism. Exercise not only helps prevent weight gain and relieve holiday stress, it improves cardiovascular health, energy levels, quality of sleep, balance, coordination and overall mood. But before you start any new physical activity, always ask your doctor for permission.

Eat Before You Go

If you plan to attend an event offering hors d’oeuvres rather than a full meal, eat something healthy before you go. If you have a big salad prior to the party, not only will you be sure to get your vegetables, but you’ll be more content to eat smaller portions of rich foods on offer.

Don’t Stand by the Food

If you are standing next to a food buffet at a holiday party, you will be more likely to continue eating even after you are no longer hungry. Instead, position yourself away from the food and focus on connecting with other people in the room.

Plan Other Activities

When you gather with family and friends for holiday meals, don’t make food the only focus. Plan other activities too. Go for a walk, build a snowman, make holiday decorations and play games.

Host It Yourself

It can be a lot of work, but when you host an event yourself, you have control over the food, beverages and activities. If you’re cooking dinner for a group, keep things simple: find healthy recipes you feel confident making and prepare as much as you can ahead of time so you will be able to enjoy your company when the event arrives.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Holiday Survival Kit



Is it the best of times or the worst of times? When it comes to the holiday season, the decision can be difficult. Some people look forward to the bustle of family, friends and festivities. Others dread the stress, travel and insomnia that often accompany. To minimize the negatives, maximize the positives and stay healthy this holiday season, get your survival kit ready.

Lavender Essential Oil

Wherever the holidays take you this year, essential oil of lavender should follow. The most versatile of essential oils, it is gentle enough to be applied directly to the skin. Lavender essential oil can be used as a fragrance, an antiseptic for cuts and scrapes, or an anti-inflammatory agent to relieve pain and itching associated with insect stings. It can also be used as aromatherapy to promote relaxation and good sleep.

The quality of the oil can have a significant impact on its therapeutic effects, so choose essential oils carefully and avoid “fragrance oils.” There are many ways to reap the benefits: dab a drop on your skin, place a drop or two on a cotton ball next to your pillow, add several drops to a warm bubble bath or use an aromatherapy diffuser.

Rescue Remedy

A homeopathic dilution of flower essences, Rescue Remedy is formulated to correct emotional imbalances. It is most commonly used in situations of acute anxiety, such as fears of flying and hosting in-laws.

Rescue Remedy is safe, well-tolerated and available in most health food and supplement stores. It will not interact with pharmaceutical or natural medications, but it may interfere with other homeopathic remedies.

Alternatively, a homeopathic doctor can prescribe a constitutional remedy tailored to meet your individual needs, from holiday stress to chronic ailments.

Multiple Vitamin and Mineral Supplement

Whether you’re at home or away, your body needs at least seven servings of vegetables each day. If you can’t meet that goal, take a multiple vitamin and mineral (MVM) supplement to ensure that your body gets the nutrients it requires to stay healthy, especially during times of stress when your needs are greater.

But don’t use MVM supplements as excuses to eat poorly. When holiday meals present a challenge, sample rich dishes in small portions to make room on your plate for healthier choices. Eat slowly, chew your food well and finish the meal feeling satiated rather than stuffed.

Walking Shoes

Just as holidays are not an excuse to skip out on a healthy diet, neither are they a reason to skip regular workouts. But exercise doesn’t always have to involve a trip to the gym. Walking, carrying packages and running errands can count too, as long as your heart rate increases and you are on your feet for at least 30 minutes.

If you are traveling for the holidays, pack your walking shoes so you can exercise whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. Regular physical activity will improve energy, sleep, mood and your ability to handle holiday stress.

Green Tea

Traditionally, green tea has been used to improve resistance to disease. Research studies concur and scientists have found compounds in green tea called catechins. They have anti-bacterial, anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. Catechins can lower cholesterol, improve lipid metabolism and protect the liver against harmful free radicals generated by drinking alcohol. (If you’ll be drinking alcohol at a holiday party, increase your green tea consumption before and after the event.)

When you are short on time and sleep, choose green tea over coffee. Both contain caffeine, but green tea contains significantly less. Overuse of caffeine can have negative effects on your adrenal glands and the balance of stress hormones they produce. If you do drink coffee, limit yourself to one cup per day and drink green tea as well. If you are still tired, schedule more sleep.

Ginger

Ginger helps alleviate nausea and motion sickness associated with travel. It also stimulates digestion while protecting the lining of the stomach. Ginger has anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic and anti-cancer actions.

For ginger tea, add ½ teaspoon fresh grated ginger (or more) to a cup of boiling water, cover for fifteen minutes, then strain.  Drink it hot or chill it for iced ginger tea.

Encapsulated ginger supplements are convenient for travel, but they are also more potent. If you will be taking ginger in a concentrated supplement form, ask your doctor about the best dosage for you.

Probiotics

Healthy bacteria, generally referred to as probiotics, are important for travelers. They help digest food, produce vitamins, aid the absorption of nutrients and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal infections.

Regular use of probiotics can help prevent colds and flu as well as digestive disturbances associated with food borne illness and travel to places with unfamiliar microbes. (Before you traveling to distant lands, educate yourself on any particular health risks in the areas you plan to visit.)

Melatonin

Whether you’re going by bus, train or plane, bring along an eye mask and ear plugs if you will be traveling during nighttime hours. Getting as much of your regular sleep as possible makes it less likely that you will suffer from jet lag, a common side effect of time zone changes.

The bigger the difference between your home zone and the one you visit, the bigger disruption in your daily circadian rhythm. To minimize adverse effects, never nap on the day you arrive in a new time zone. Stay awake until after dark to let the natural sunlight re-calibrate your internal clock.

If jet lag progresses to insomnia, melatonin can help your body get back on track. If you anticipate the need, talk to your doctor before you leave about the best dosage for you and ask about potential interactions with any medications or supplements you may be taking.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The HPV Vaccine: Risks, Benefits and Alternatives

In June 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Gardasil® vaccine, designed to prevent infection by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). That same month, a federal advisory panel on immunization practices recommended that all eleven and twelve year old girls receive the vaccine. But before girls and their parents can make informed decisions, it is important to understand the possible risks and potential benefits of Gardasil®, as well as alternative options for increasing immunity and reducing risk of infection.

Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer

There are more than one hundred strains of the human papillomavirus and at least forty can be transmitted through sexual contact to both men and women. According to the National Cancer Institute, fourteen of these sexually-transmitted HPV strains have been associated with a high risk for developing cervical cancer. Two of these, 16 and 18, are associated with seventy percent of all cases.

According to the FDA, HPV infection is very common and it is rare for HPV infection to lead to cervical cancer, especially in women under the age of thirty. In fact, ninety percent of cervical HPV infections become undetectable within two years. When cervical cancer is diagnosed, it is one of the most treatable cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, invasive cervical cancer diagnosed in its earliest stage has a five-year survival rate of ninety-two percent.

Immunization Basics

Gardasil®, manufactured by Merck, is currently the only available vaccine against HVP, specifically strains 6, 11, 16 and 18. To measure the effectiveness of the vaccine, trials conducted by Merck assessed prevention of pre-cancerous lesions, not cervical cancer. Therefore, predictions about the ability of Gardasil® to prevent cancer is speculation, as the majority of pre-cancerous lesions revert to normal without treatment and only a minority develop into cancer.

Merck researchers concluded that the vaccine was ninety-nine percent effective in preventing infection and pre-cancerous lesions caused by HVP strains 6, 11, 16 and 18 in women who had not been exposed to these viruses before immunization. The vaccine did not protect against infection or pre-cancerous lesions in women who had already been exposed to HPV. Because more than half of all men and women are exposed to HPV within one year of becoming sexually active, the vaccine is most effective when administered before the onset of sexual activity.

According to the CDC, approximately thirty percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV strains not covered by Gardasil® and women who receive the vaccine are still at risk for cervical cancer. The vaccine does not treat existing HVP infections and does not prevent cervical cancer caused by existing infections.

The vaccine has only been tested by Merck, only for four years, and only in girls and women between the ages of nine and twenty-six. There is no long-term safety data about the vaccine and no information about its use in girls less than nine years old and in women above the age of twenty-six.

Certain individuals should not receive the Gardasil® vaccine. These include women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, breastfeeding women and anyone with a compromised immune system resulting from immunosuppressive therapy, genetic defects, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Adverse Effects

According to Merck’s clinical data, adverse effects after immunization most commonly included pain and inflammation at the injection site, fainting, dizziness, fever and nausea. Other side effects were rare but some were very serious, including blood clots, lymphatic system disorders, gastrointestinal problems, nervous system disorders such as Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome, musculoskeletal and connective tissue problems, systemic autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosis and death. Cases of paralysis have also been reported.

According to Merck, Gardasil® has not been studied for its potential to cause cancer or birth defects. However, during clinical trials, women who became pregnant within thirty days of receiving the vaccine had more “serious adverse experiences during pregnancy” including “congenital abnormality” compared to women who received a placebo. Additionally, cases of acute respiratory illness were higher in the infants of breastfeeding women who had received the vaccine within the previous thirty days, compared to infants of breastfeeding women who received the placebo.

One additional concern is the aluminum contained in the vaccine. Aluminum is a heavy metal that can accumulate in the body and has been associated with disruption of normal neurological function. Elevated levels of aluminum have been associated with dyslexia, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Risky Behavior

One alternative to the HVP vaccine is behavior modification. Because HPV strains 6, 11, 16 and 18 are transmitted by sexual contact, abstinence from sexual activity is one hundred percent effective in preventing infection and associated pre-cancerous lesions. When abstinence is not realistic, other behaviors can reduce the risk: delaying the onset of sexual activity, reducing the number of sexual partners and using condoms during sexual activity. Condoms can reduce transmission of the human papillomavirus, but only to and from the areas they protect: the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, and rectum. Condoms do not prevent HVP transmission to and from other areas, including the vulva and perineum.

Regular Screening

Because HPV has a slow growth cycle, most associated cases of cervical cancer are slow to develop and slow to progress. For this reason, regular Papanicolaou tests, also known as pap smears, are important tools of prevention. Pap smears can catch cellular abnormalities that may lead to cancerous changes before they occur and detect early stages of cancer while still highly curable. An additional HPV test, administered at the same time as the Pap test, can determine if a woman has been infected with a high-risk strain. As a result of regular testing, the death rate from cervical cancer continues to drop approximately four percent every year.

Girls and women who are immunized with Gardasil® still require regular pap smears because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV strains associated with cervical cancer, nor does it protect against other causes, including genetic defects and exposure to carcinogenic compounds in cigarette smoke.

Probiotics

Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can prevent infection by other microorganisms. When taken by mouth, they reduce the risk of viral gastrointestinal (GI) infections and vaginal yeast infections. Because they promote a healthy balance of flora in both the vagina and GI tract, probiotics taken orally may reduce susceptibility to HPV infection of the vulva, vagina, cervix, perineum, anus and rectum,. They may also reduce the risk of HPV-associated cervical cancer. Probiotics are available in supplement form, but regular consumption of organic plain yogurt and kefir are also good sources.

Lifestyle Factors

A healthy lifestyle is essential. Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet can prevent cancer as well as chronic disease. Studies have consistently shown that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of cancer and researchers continue to learn more about the vital role that nutrients found in plant foods play in prevention. Phytonutrients can increase the elimination of carcinogenic compounds from the body, protect cells against damage to DNA and inhibit the growth and development of cancerous cells.

Also essential to a healthy lifestyle is addressing stress and high blood sugar. Both of these conditions can suppress the immune system and inhibit the action of white blood cells responsible for destruction of viruses like HPV and abnormal or cancerous cells in the body. Blood sugar imbalances should be discussed with a doctor and are often treatable through diet and exercise. Stress management strategies are plentiful, from meditation and breathing exercises to yoga, tai chi and qi gong.

Nutritional supplements and botanical medicines can also support a healthy immune system and help prevent cancer. Never self-prescribe; instead find a doctor trained in the use of these natural therapies to individualize a protocol for you. She or he will take into account your medical history, risk factors, current symptoms, future goals and any potential interactions with medications or supplements you may already be taking.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Locavore Movement

Eating locally is the latest diet trend among health nuts and environmental advocates alike. The locavore movement is as old as our early human ancestors, whose only option was to forage and hunt for food, but the recent popularity of books such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty by Canadian couple Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon has inspired people across the country to take a new look at this old diet. People are also taking action: more families are planting their own gardens and an increasing number of businesses are offering local fare. But eating local foods is not just a new trend, it’s a better way of life for both people and the planet.

Environmental Issues

According to a 2002 study by the Worldwatch Institute, food travels between 1500 and 2500 miles from the industrial farm where it was grown to the average person’s plate. The enormous amount of fossil fuels used to transport food long distances has a significant impact on the environment. Emissions of carbon dioxide contribute to the Greenhouse Effect and global warming while emissions of particulate matter, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide are responsible for smog, air pollution and rising rates of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. The oxide gases combine with water vapor in clouds to form sulfuric and nitric acids that become part of rain and snow. This precipitation pollutes water sources and damages ecosystems when lakes and rivers become too acidic to support plant and animal life.

Environmental costs of shipping foods long distances also include energy required for processing, refrigeration and packaging. Plastic packaging usually ends up in landfills where it can take 1000 years to degrade, polluting soil and water in the process.

The sources of most foods shipped long distances – industrial monoculture farms and confined animal feeding operations – also damage air and water quality by spraying pesticides and producing pollutants such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia. In contrast, small family farms supplying local foods usually employ sustainable production methods like crop rotation and management-intensive grazing. They often improve the quality of the land they manage by enhancing soil fertility, water quality and biodiversity.

Health Benefits

Any gourmet cook or professional chef will tell you that local foods are best because they are freshest. The flavor and texture of fruits and vegetables ripened on the plants that grew them and picked within hours of purchase is nothing like that of produce items picked days or weeks in advance and ripened artificially. But fresh, local foods not only taste better, they are much more nutritious. As soon as fruits and vegetables are picked, vitamins, minerals and other healthful phytonutrients begin to break down. When days or weeks pass between harvest and consumption, produce items can lose significant nutritional value.

Furthermore, local foods are usually whole foods. Unlike their processed counterparts, whole foods do not contain additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, dyes, artificial sweeteners or other chemicals that can have negative impacts on health. Processing foods removes nutrients, fiber and water that are essential to healthy digestion and optimal wellness. Whole foods, fresh or preserved at their peak, are always the best choice.

Do-It-Yourself Solutions

The best way to eat local foods year-round is to stock up during peak season and preserve what you don’t eat fresh by canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating or fermenting. Finding these foods can be easy, and you may be able to start in your own backyard.

Garden plots can be planted in any sunny patch of soil. Fruit trees and edible flowers such as lavender, nasturtium and violets make attractive additions to landscaping designs. When yard space is not available, container gardens can be placed on porches, balconies and windowsills. Food can be grown almost anywhere, as long as you choose plants to fit the conditions (sunshine, shade, temperature, moisture). For gardeners without a green space, community gardens offer a viable alternative.

For shoppers who don’t garden, farmers markets offer fresh, seasonal, local foods, from fruits and vegetables to eggs, cheeses and meats. Many also offer fish and seafood (in coastal areas), honey, wine, cider, juices, fruit preserves and pickled vegetables. Some farms offer Pick-Your-Own programs that welcome people who want to pick their own fruits and vegetables. Food cooperatives often carry local produce as well.

Other do-it-yourself strategies include beekeeping, hunting, fishing and foraging. Hunters and fishers should seek local licenses and the knowledge to operate their equipment safely in designated areas. Wild berries, salad greens and mushrooms can often be gathered, depending on season and climate. Edible plants may include strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, mulberries, dandelion greens, nettles, lamb’s quarters, chicory, purslane, ramps (wild leeks), chanterelles, morels and oyster mushrooms. Foragers should be knowledgeable about the food they gather, as some wild plants can be poisonous. Around New York City, naturalist Steve Brill hosts tours and talks that teach attendees to identify local edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms.

Booming Businesses

The rising popularity of eating a local diet has prompted new business ventures for gardeners and chefs alike. Such services are an ideal option for people who don’t have the time, energy, interest or ability to manage their own gardens, shop for local foods or make their own meals.

Personal gardeners offer the benefits of a garden and fresh-picked produce without the long hours of labor. In cities such as Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California gardening services offer clients a menu of produce varieties to choose from and design gardens tailored to meet their needs and preferences. They plant and tend the garden and pick the produce. Some gardening businesses also provide consultations for those who want to manage their own gardens but need advice.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) provides customers with shares of seasonal, farm-fresh foods each week. CSA shares usually include a variety of vegetables and some offer fruits, flowers, baked goods, dairy products and eggs from free-range or pasture-raised chickens. Produce is usually organic (check with the farmer), always fresh-picked and available for weekly pick-up at a regular location during harvest season.

For those who want to skip the gardening, shopping and cooking completely, some personal chefs offer meals composed of local ingredients.

Restaurants are accommodating local diets too. Across the globe, from the 100 Mile Café in Melbourne, Australia to The Plaza Hotel in New York City, an increasing number of eateries are proposing local menus. It is now easier than ever for locavores to dine out and support businesses that support their way of life.

Resources

To learn more about gardening, food preservation, beekeeping, hunting, fishing, foraging, and cooking local foods, visit your library or bookstore to browse the bountiful selection of books on these subjects. Instructional DVDs may also available.

Also, online resources abound. To find a farmers market or CSA near you, visit localharvest.org. Visit communitygarden.org to find a community garden in your neighborhood. To find farms where you can pick your own produce, visit pickyourown.org. Localfork.com can help you find restaurants serving local foods in New York and other selected communities. For more local resources throughout United States and Canada, visit 100milediet.org.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Probiotics For Better Health

The gastrointestinal tract is a complex ecosystem and microorganisms are essential. Experts have estimated that the human body contains more bacterial cells than human cells, so it’s no wonder that intestinal flora can have important impacts on health. The balance of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract can be influenced by age, diet, antibiotic use and stress. When the delicate balance is disturbed, disease and dysfunction often follow. Fortunately, as recent research studies show, supplementing healthy flora can reestablish microbial balance and improve many health conditions.

Probiotic Basics

Probiotics are beneficial live microorganisms naturally present in the human gastrointestinal tract. They can be taken as a dietary supplement in capsule, tablet or powder form, but certain foods, such as yogurt, kefir and miso contain these organisms as well.

Probiotics generally come from two groups of bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and one species of yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii. Each bacterial group has several species, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidis, and within each species exist several strains. Probiotics are generally safe and well tolerated. Side effects are rare and usually limited to mild digestive disturbances such as gas and bloating.

Anti-microbial Effects

Probiotics prevent pathogenic microbes such as parasites, fungi, yeasts and bacteria from attaching to the wall of the intestines. They also produce bacteriocins, proteins that are lethal to disease-causing bacteria. Probiotics also that maintain a pH that is unfavorable for many pathogenic microorganisms by secreting compounds such as lactic acid, acetic acid and hydrogen peroxide.

Not only are probiotics useful for preventing and treating gastrointestinal infections, but they are also effective against diarrhea and other infections. Probiotics can improve symptoms of antibiotic-induced diarrhea, radiotherapy-induced diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections in women. Continued use of probiotics can also prevent recurrences.

Anti-allergy and Anti-inflammatory Effects

Researchers in Finland have demonstrated the benefit of probiotic supplementation in the prevention and treatment of allergic inflammation. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, twenty-seven breast-fed infants diagnosed with atopic eczema were weaned to whey formulas with or without probiotics, specifically Bidifobacterium lactis or Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. The infants who were given either strain of probiotics experienced great improvements in their skin conditions compared to the placebo group. Another study followed more than one hundred four year old children and concluded that those given Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG during the first two years of life had the lowest rates of eczema.

The use of probiotics in other inflammatory conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is under investigation. A small study in Italy followed twenty-four patients with Crohn’s disease and found that after four weeks of supplementation with Saccharomyces boulardii, seventeen of them went into remission. Overall, studies have had mixed results, but the research continues.

Immune System Support

Supplementation with probiotics has been associated with increased immunity and resistance to cancer and infection. Studies on animals and humans have demonstrated that lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis can increase levels of white blood cells and immune factors – such as antibodies, cytokines and interferon – that modulate the immune system. Additionally, Bifidobacterium lactis has also been shown to enhance activity of natural killer cells.

Clinical trials have tested the effectiveness of probiotics on certain immune-related diseases, such as cancer. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study in Ireland followed eighty patients for twelve weeks. Some had been diagnosed with colon cancer and others had undergone surgery for removal of intestinal polyps. Those who had been given probiotic strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Bifidobacterium lactis reduced their risk of development and recurrence of colorectal cancer.

Benefits for Babies

Probiotics have benefits for babies too. Supplementation can reduce risk of diarrhea in infants, especially rotavirus gastroenteritis. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG has been shown to decrease incidence of cavities in children. Preliminary trials also suggest that supplementation with Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG may reduce frequency of respiratory tract infections as well as related antibiotic treatments and absences from school. Additionally, there is evidence that preterm infants and babies with low birth weight may benefit from supplementation with Saccharomyces boulardii. This yeast inhibits colonization by pathogenic Candida species and promotes a balance of stool flora similar to that of breast-fed babies.

Supplement Standards

Your doctor can recommend the best strains of microorganisms for you, as well as an appropriate dosage. Some probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics, which are complex sugars such as inulin, lactulose or fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) that stimulate growth of beneficial bacteria. In some individuals, FOS can cause gas and bloating. Alternatively, prebiotics can also be supplied by the diet. Food sources include garlic, onions and fermented foods such as miso, tempeh, kefir and kombucha.

Choose carefully when selecting probiotic supplements. Unless otherwise indicated, most probiotics need to be refrigerated to maintain viable and stable live cultures. Buy products that have been kept cool and store them in the fridge when you get home. The label should list the ingredients and each serving should contain at least one billion colony-forming units (CFU). A lot or batch number should also be listed, along with the name and address of the manufacturer.

To ensure that products have been tested by an independent lab, look for seals from independent organizations like the United States Pharmacopeia, the National Nutritional Foods Association, Consumer Lab or National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International. Certification guarantees that supplements contain what they are labeled to contain. However, it doesn’t ensure that manufacturers started with the highest quality raw ingredients or tested them in clinical trials.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Medicines in Your Kitchen

The kitchen herb and spice rack isn’t the first place most people look for remedies to sooth stomachaches and other minor discomforts, but it’s a good place to start. Before the advent of drug stores and medicine cabinets, people used local plants and herbs to treat illness and maintain good health. Eventually these plants became cultivated for regular consumption and found their way into everyday foods. Now regarded simply as seasoning, the medicinal uses of culinary herbs and spices have been largely forgotten. But from garlic to rosemary, you probably have plants with healing properties already in your kitchen.

Anise

Anise is one of the oldest known spices, dating back as far as 1500 B.C. It was used by the Romans to aid digestion after heavy meals and it is still used for this purpose today. Anise is a carminative spice, which means that it reduces intestinal gas. It also acts as an expectorant and a mild antispasmodic agent, helpful for expelling phlegm and quieting coughs during upper respiratory infections.

Cayenne

This nightshade plant can be eaten as a spice, taken as a medicine, or applied externally. Because it stimulates circulation and decreases pain, cayenne is a common ingredient in topical creams used for muscle spasms and joint pain. When taken internally, it can stimulate appetite and reduce inflammation in the body. It also acts as a diaphoretic to increase sweating. Researchers are investigating its use in cancer and obesity.

Cinnamon

The use of cinnamon spans several centuries and many cultures. It has been most commonly used as a carminative spice but recent research has revealed antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal actions. Scientists have found cinnamon to be a promising treatment in type 2 diabetes mellitus because it acts as a hypoglycemic agent, lowering blood sugar and improving glucose and insulin metabolism. One study of diabetics found that cinnamon also lowered cholesterol and triglycerides. Other research has shown that it may be helpful in treating cancer and severe viral infections.

Fennel

A plant native to Mediterranean regions, fennel is prized as both a food and a medicine. In India and other countries the seeds are chewed after meals to freshen breath and aid digestion. Fennel is carminitve and antispasmodic, reducing gastrointestinal gas, cramping and bloating. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have confirmed its success as a treatment for infant colic.

Fenugreek

Historically, fenugreek has been used as a condiment, incense, embalming agent and health tonic. It has been used medicinally in Chinese and Indian traditions to ease indigestion, aid labor and delivery and stimulate lactation. Recent research has uncovered hypolipidemic and hypoglycemic actions, giving it good potential to treat high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus and insulin resistance.

Garlic

Dating back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece, garlic has been used in many cultures for many complaints, including infections, abnormal growths, emotional health and conditions of the heart, lungs and gastrointestinal system. Modern studies have shown that it has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties, making garlic a good remedy for fighting infections. As a carminative and antispasmodic agent, it aids digestion. It has also been found to reduce blood pressure and levels of glucose, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol. Because garlic acts as an anticoagulant, it may prevent blood clots and stroke but high dosages can increase the risk of bleeding. Recent research has also shown that garlic can reduce rates of cancer, particularly ovarian and colorectal cancers.

Ginger

Ginger has a long history of therapeutic use in Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions. This root is anti-emetic, preventing and treating nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness, pregnancy, chemotherapy and surgery. Ginger stimulates digestion while protecting the stomach lining and reduces gas and bloating. It is a warming spice and can act as a diaphoretic to increase sweating. Ginger also has expectorating and antitussive effects, expelling phlegm and quieting coughs during upper respiratory infections. It acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent used to treat arthritis and cancer. Because ginger reduces the aggregation of blood platelets, it can decrease the risk of blood clots and stroke, and high dosages can increase the risk of bleeding.

Rosemary

Rosemary has been popular in Mediterranean cultures for flavoring foods as well as preserving them. Historically, rosemary has been used as a medicine to treat respiratory conditions, hair loss, menstrual pain and indigestion. Most research on rosemary has focused on the constituent rosemarinic acid, found to have strong antioxidant actions. It is being studied for potential use in cancer and inflammatory conditions.

Tumeric

Tumeric has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to strengthen the body and treat fatigue, gallstones, gastrointestinal complaints, urinary conditions, menstrual pain and arthritis. One of its constituents, curcumin, has been studied for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer actions. Tumeric works as an anti-inflammatory agent with the same mechanism of action as pharmaceutical COX-2 inhibitors, drugs that reduce levels of enzymes that mediate inflammation in the body. As such, tumeric can be an effective remedy for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Studies have also shown great potential for the use of tumeric in both the prevention and treatment of cancer. Scientists have found that curcumin induces apoptosis (normal cell death designed to destroy cells when they become old, abnormal or cancerous).

Herbs as Medicine

Cooking with medicinal herbs and spices can have gentle, positive effects on the body. When used to treat specific conditions, therapeutic dosages are often significantly higher than amounts used in cooking and concentrated supplements may be necessary. Always talk to your doctor before taking any new medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical, as interactions can occur and not all supplements are appropriate for all people.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Nutritional Intervention for ADHD

Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common and fastest growing disease among children in the United States, although adults can be affected as well. Characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness, ADHD is a complex condition commonly treated with stimulants such as Ritalin. As an alternative or adjunct to conventional medication, dietary changes are often helpful. Addressing the four most important nutritional issues – essential fats, pesticides, food allergens and simple carbohydrates – can have a positive impact on learning ability, focus, concentration and memory in children and adults affected by ADHD.

Essential Fatty Acids

The brain is sixty percent fat, so it is no wonder that essential fatty acids play a prominent role in mental function. Omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the primary fatty acid in brain cells and accounts for approximately 30 percent of the total brain fat. Studies have shown that, on average, children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3 fats such as DHA in their blood. Other studies have shown that supplementing these important nutrients can correct symptoms.

In a randomized, double-blind clinical trial, researchers at Purdue University studied fifty children with ADHD. For four months, one of the two groups received a daily supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids, including 480 milligrams of DHA. The other group was given olive oil, which is a healthy fat but low in omega-3 fatty acids. Results were based on reports from parents and teachers and evaluated children in four areas: hyperactivity, attention, conduct and Oppositional/Defiant Disorder. Although children in both groups showed significant improvement in most symptoms, those receiving the supplement containing DHA had consistently better results, especially in the areas of conduct and attention.

The best dietary sources of DHA are small, wild fish that live in cold water like salmon, halibut, herring, sardines and anchovies. Avoid large predatory fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna, shark and marlin because they are often contaminated with industrial pollutants like mercury, a heavy metal that can interfere with brain function, learning ability and behavior. Visit the Seafood Watch website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium to search for safe choices in your area. For those who don’t eat fish, or don’t eat it several times per week, fish oil is the next best thing.

Pesticides

Although anyone can be adversely affected by pesticides, children are most susceptible because their brains are still developing. Infants under one year of age are especially at risk because their blood-brain barrier, a protective membrane that filters compounds passing from the blood to the central nervous system, isn’t fully formed yet and harmful substances pass more easily into areas where they can cause permanent impairment.

A study at the University of Arizona demonstrated a clear connection between pesticide poisoning and cognitive problems in children. Researchers looked at four- and five-year olds in Mexico with similar diets, water mineral contents, genetic backgrounds, and cultural and social traditions. One group lived in areas where pesticide use was routine on local farms and in households, while the other group lived in areas where pesticides were not used. The children exposed to pesticides scored lower in gross and fine eye-hand coordination, stamina, thirty-minute memory and drawing ability.

Eating organic ensures that foods contain no pesticide residue. When an organic-only diet isn’t possible, make smart produce choices. The most recent report from the nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed more than 43,000 tests performed by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They found that the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables are (in descending order) apples, peaches, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes. The 12 least contaminated produce items include (in ascending order) onions, avocado, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, frozen sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya. EWG concluded that consumers can cut their pesticide ingestion by almost 90 percent when they replace the most contaminated fruits and vegetables with those that are least contaminated.

Food Allergens

Eliminating certain foods from the diet is sometimes helpful for individuals with ADHD. Allergies and intolerances to foods can have negative effects on any body system, including the brain. While only a small number of people are affected by true food allergies, food intolerance is much more common. The difference is that food allergies involve an immune reaction, which can be life threatening, while intolerances involve a problem with metabolism or digestion that can be uncomfortable but not fatal. The most common foods to offend include wheat, cow’s milk, eggs, soy, nuts, fish and shellfish. Blood tests are available, but an elimination diet can also be used to identify problematic foods.

Additives in processed foods also have great potential for food allergy and intolerance. The FDA has approved more than 28,000 chemicals for addition to foods – including sweeteners, dyes, artificial flavors, preservatives, hydrogenated oils and flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG) – and estimates that the average child consumes 150 to 300 milligrams of additives per day from processed foods, beverages and candy. Replace processed foods with whole foods to avoid food additives.

Simple Carbohydrates

Foods high in sugar affect individuals with ADHD in a unique way. All cells in the body require glucose, the simple sugar produced when carbohydrates are digested. Unlike other cells, brain cells do not have the ability to store glucose for later use and require a constant supply. After eating carbohydrates, blood glucose levels rise and the pancreas secretes insulin to allow the glucose to enter cells, reducing levels circulating in the blood. As blood sugar levels begin to drop, the adrenal glands produce epinephrine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that increase the uptake of glucose into brain cells to offset the effects of insulin and increase alertness and concentration. In individuals affected by ADHD, this process may be impaired.

Researchers at Yale University used PET scans and a meal high in glucose to compare children with and without ADHD. They found that glucose and insulin levels were similar in both groups, but levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine were much lower in children who had been diagnosed with ADHD. These children scored lower on cognitive tests and exhibited increased physical activity and faster reaction times. Physical activity stimulates the adrenal glands to produce more norepinephrine, which compensates for the lower levels found in children with ADHD.

Individuals with ADHD should avoid simple carbohydrates, such as foods made with sugar and flour, as well as processed foods and those that are individually problematic. A balanced diet of healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains, will balance both blood sugar and brain chemistry.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Coffee: Concerns, Benefits and the Bottom Line

Recent research has shown coffee in a whole new light. The world’s most popular beverage may not be as harmful to health as we once thought. A concentrated source of antioxidants, coffee may even have a protective effect against certain diseases. Do the newfound perks outweigh the known side effects? A review of the most recent findings puts benefits and concerns in perspective.

Diabetes Mellitus

Earlier this year, two studies in Finland investigated the relationship between coffee consumption and type two diabetes mellitus (DM2).

One followed more than 20,000 men and women for more than 13 years, on average. Researchers concluded that those who drank three or more cups of coffee each day were less likely to develop DM2 - regardless of body mass index, alcohol consumption, or physical activity.

The other study examined metabolic markers in the blood associated with an increased risk of DM2 including elevated glucose and insulin levels. Drinking coffee was found to have a positive impact on these markers and regular coffee drinkers were less likely to have problems with blood sugar regulation.

Heart Disease

Harvard researchers studied more than 128,000 men and women free of cardiovascular disease. They found no relationship between coffee consumption and the development of heart disease, even when results were adjusted for age, smoking status, alcohol use, and body mass index. Researchers in Norway concur. After following more than 41,000 postmenopausal women for 15 years, they concluded that coffee drinkers had lower rates of inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease, probably because antioxidants in coffee inhibit inflammation in the body.

Other studies have investigated the relationship between drinking coffee and risk factors for developing heart disease, such as hypertension and increased levels of homocysteine in the blood. Although caffeine can temporarily increase blood pressure, data from the Nurses’ Health Studies I and II - which included more than 155,000 women - found no association between habitual coffee consumption and hypertension in women.

A small study in the Netherlands found that chlorogenic acid, a polyphenol in coffee, raised homocysteine levels by 12 percent. Homocysteine may irritate blood vessels and cause blood to clot more easily, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis. A study in Greece also demonstrated that coffee raises homocysteine levels, but the effect was only significant when people consumed at least 500 ml (about 16 ounces or 2 cups) of coffee each day.

Liver Disease

Researchers in Maryland investigated the association between hospitalization or death due to chronic liver disease and consumption of coffee or tea. They concluded that people who were at high risk for liver problems - such as alcoholics, diabetics and overweight individuals - and drank two or more cups of coffee or tea each day had half the risk of chronic liver disease as those who drank less than one cup per day.

Other studies have focused on specific liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and a form of cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Researchers in California followed more than 125,000 people without known liver problems for 16 to 23 years. They concluded that those who drank coffee were less likely to develop liver cirrhosis, especially alcoholic cirrhosis, than those who abstained. A study in Italy found that people who drank two or more cups of coffee each day reduced their risk of developing HCC, and Japanese studies concluded that the chance of dying from HHC was lower in individuals who drank at least one cup of coffee each day.

Parkinson’s Disease

Researchers in Hawaii examined the relationship between coffee and Parkinson’s disease. More than 8,000 Japanese-American men were followed for 30 years, and those who consumed more coffee and caffeine had a lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease. A study in Singapore found a dose-dependent relationship: for every three cups of coffee consumed each day, there was a 22 to 28 percent risk reduction.

Other studies estimate that, regardless of genetic susceptibility, coffee drinkers have a 30 percent reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Experts think the caffeine in coffee has a protective effect on the brain, blocking adenosine receptors and stimulating the release of dopamine. Some drugs, called dopamine agonists, used to treat Parkinson’s disease have a similar mechanism.

Side Effects

Most of the recent scientific studies scrutinizing coffee have been positive, but coffee isn’t necessarily a health food. Side effects can include restlessness, nervousness, psychomotor agitation, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, rapid or irregular heart rate, increased production of gastric acid and increased excretion of minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium. There are also concerns about drinking coffee during pregnancy. A recent study of more than 88,0000 women in Denmark found that the risk of fetal death was higher in pregnant women who drank coffee, especially after 20 weeks of gestation.

The Bottom Line

Everything considered, coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Regular drinkers may experience lower rates of type two diabetes mellitus, heart disease, liver disease and Parkinson’s disease. However, moderation is important and coffee should never be used as a regular replacement for the good sleep that is essential to good health. Limiting intake to a cup per day is ideal. However, pregnant women, individuals who experience negative side effects and those with elevated levels of homocysteine in their blood should seek an alternative.

REFERENCES

Anderson LF et al. Consumption of coffee is associated with reduced risk of death attributed to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(5):1039-46, May 2006.

Bech BH et al. Coffee and fetal death: a cohort study with prospective data. American journal of epidemiology, 162(10):983-90, Nov 2005.

Bidel S et al. Effects of coffee consumption on glucose tolerance, serum glucose and insulin levels – a cross-sectional analysis. Hormone and metabolic research, 38(1):38-43, Jan 2006.

Gale C and Martin C. Tobacco, coffee and Parkinson’s disease. British Medical Journal, 326(7390):614, Mar 2003.

Gelatti U et al. Coffee consumption reduces the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma independently of its aetiology: a case-control study. Journal of hepatology, 42(4):444-6, Apr 2005.

Hu G et al. Joint association of coffee consumption and other factors to the risk of type two diabetes: a prospective study in Finland. International journal of obesity, 25 Apr 2006.

Klatsky AL et al. Coffee, cirrhosis and transaminase enzymes. Archives of internal medicine, 166(11):1190-5, Jun 2006.

Kurozawa Y et al. Coffee and risk of death from hepatocellular carcinoma in a large cohort study in Japan. British journal of cancer, 93(5):607-10, Sep 2005.

Lopez-Garcia E et al. Coffee consumption and coronary heart disease in men and women: a prospective cohort study. Circulation, 113(17):2045-53, Apr 2006.

Olthof MR et al. Consumption of high doses of chlorogenic acid, present in coffee, or black tea increase plasma total homocysteine concentrations in humans. American journal of clinical nutrition, 73(3):532-8, Mar 2001.

Panagiotakos DB et al. The association between coffee consumption and plasma total homocysteine levels: the “ATTICA” study. Heart vessels, 19(6):280-6, Nov 2004.

Ragonese P et al. A case-control study on cigarette, alcohol, and coffee consumption preceding Parkinson’s disease. Neuroepidemiology, 22(5):297-304, Sep-Oct 2003.

Ruhl CE and Everhart JE. Coffee and tea consumption are associated with a lower incidence of chronic liver disease in the United States. Gastroenterology, 128:24-32, Dec 2005.

Tan EK et al. Dose-dependent protective effect of coffee, tea and smoking in Parkinson’s disease: I study in ethnic Chinese. Journal of the neurological sciences, 216(1):163-7, Dec 2003.

Winkelmayer WC et al. Habitual caffeine intake and the risk of hypertension in women. Journal of the American medical association, 294(18):2330-5, Nov 2005.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Alternative Hygiene Products for Women

Experts estimate that 20 billion sanitary pads and tampons end up in landfills and sewer systems each year. Not only is the environment paying the price, but women are too. Disposable hygiene products are a continuous expense and some are associated with an increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal infection whose incidence is again on the rise. Alternative hygiene products such as reusable cotton pads, menstrual cups and sea sponges are a better choice for both women and the environment.

Toxic Shock Syndrome

TSS is an infection caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, a microorganism commonly found on the skin and in the vagina. When Staphylococcus aureus enter the bloodstream, they release toxins that can cause sudden hypotensive shock, organ failure and death. Although toxic shock syndrome can also be acquired through surgery, burns and open wounds, it primarily affects women using super-absorbent tampons.

Products that are more absorbent than necessary can dry vaginal tissue, leading to small tears or ulcerations that allow bacteria to enter the body. When tampons remain in the vagina too long, they become a favorable environment for bacterial overgrowth, which also increases TSS risk. It is possible for cervical caps, diaphragms and sponges to promote growth of bacteria as well, but the only cases of toxic shock syndrome related to these products developed after they had been left in the body for an unusually long period of time: 30 hours or more.

Reusable Pads

Reusable sanitary pads are soft, comfortable, hypoallergenic and worn outside the body like disposable pads. They range in size and thickness and are available in several colors and patterns. The fabrics used to make reusable pads are usually organic cotton terry cloth, cotton flannel or cotton-hemp blends.

Unlike disposable pads that end up in the trash after they have served their purpose, these products can be washed, dried and reused. Ten dollars is an average price for a reusable menstrual pad and starter kits start at forty dollars for a variety of sizes and absorbencies. These products usually last five years.

Menstrual Cups

Reusable menstrual cups, also known as internal reservoirs, are shaped like a cup with a stem, which makes insertion and removal easy. These cups sit inside the vagina and catch menstrual fluid as it exits the cervix, and can even be worn overnight. The frequency with which the cups need to be emptied depends on the amount of flow, but two or three times per day is recommended.

These products, made of gum rubber or latex-free silicone, come in two different sizes. The smaller size usually fits women under the age of thirty who have never given birth vaginally, and the larger size accommodates women who have had at least one vaginal birth and those over the age of thirty. To disinfect reusable menstrual cups, simply wash them in warm, soapy water. Prices start around thirty dollars and each cup will last ten years or more.

Sea Sponges

Sustainably harvested Atlantic and Mediterranean silk sea sponges are natural alternatives to tampons. They can be trimmed to any size or shape and should be changed every three to six hours as they become saturated. Some women use a pad in addition to a sponge on days of heavy flow to prevent leakage. Because they have no applicator or string, sea sponges can be more difficult to insert and remove than tampons. However, tying a string around the sponge can ease removal and like any new skill, using them becomes easier with practice.

Like tampons, sea sponges are not sterile. They need to be disinfected when not immediately rinsed and reused. Sea sponges can be boiled before their first use to remove any microorganisms, but boiling them repeatedly may cause them to shrink and toughen. For regular but gentle cleansing, tea tree oil solutions remove both odor and microorganisms, including the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria associated with toxic shock syndrome. Hydrogen peroxide can be used as a disinfectant and non-toxic bleaching agent. When well cared for, natural sea sponges will last up to one year and two sea sponges cost only eight dollars.

Resources

Reusable cotton menstrual pads:
  • Glad Rags (800-799-4523 or www.gladrags.com)
  • Pandora Pads (888-558-7237 or www.pandorapads.com)
  • Many Moons (800-916-4444 or pacificcoast.net/~manymoons)
  • Wemoon (www.wemoon.com.au)
  • Lunapads (888-590-2299 or www.lunapads.com)
  • Mother of Eden (800-670-1364 or www.mothereve.com)
  • Urban Armor (877-733-0663 or urban-armor.org)

Menstrual cups:
  • The Keeeper (800-500-0077 or www.keeper.com)
  • Urban Armor
  • DivaCup (latex-free, 866-444-3482 or www.divacup.com).

Sea sponges:
  • Jade and Pearl (800-219-9765 or www.jadeandpearl.com)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Reducing Risks Associated with Childhood Immunization

Childhood immunization remains a controversial subject, but parents, doctors and health officials can all agree on one thing. Reducing the risk of adverse effects associated with vaccines is a good thing. Parents who choose to have their children immunized can take steps at the doctor’s office and at home to minimize the chance of adverse reactions.

Delay Immunization

Babies are born with immature immune systems that continue to develop during the first four to six months of life. Before they mature, they cannot mount an adequate antibody response to vaccines. Delaying immunization until four months of age or later can reduce the risk of adverse effects and make shots more effective.

Review the Risks

Certain medical conditions increase the risk of adverse reactions to vaccines and should be discussed with the doctor prior to immunization. These include previous adverse reactions, allergies, autoimmune disease, convulsions, seizures, epilepsy and other neurologic disease, and immune system disorders such as HIV, AIDS, cancer and leukemia.

Read Vaccine Information Sheets

Vaccine providers are required to give Vaccine Information Sheets (VIS) for each vaccine administered. Request the VIS prior to the immunization and take time to read them thoroughly. Learn the risks, benefits and ingredients of each vaccine, and discuss any questions with your doctor. Before the injection, request the package insert to verify it is the right vaccine and to ensure it is given correctly.

Check Up Healthy

A doctor should examine children and determine that they are in good health prior to all vaccinations. Postpone shots when signs of illness or fever are present, if the child has been sick recently or if a member of the household is ill.

Take Titers

Before regularly scheduled booster vaccines, ask your doctor to check antibody levels in the blood. If levels are sufficient, further immunization is unnecessary.

Avoid Allergic Reactions

Vaccines can contain several additives, including formaldehyde, aluminum, yeast, antibiotics and proteins from eggs, chickens, pigs and cows. Also, vaccine vials may include latex stoppers. If your child has any allergies, discuss the potential for allergic reaction with your doctor before scheduling the shot.

Mention Medications

Medications such as steroids, immune globulin and immunosuppressive drugs can interfere with vaccines, as can current or past treatment for cancer, and blood or plasma transfusions. Make your doctor aware of all current and recent medications and medical procedures. She or he may recommend that you postpone immunization.

Request Thimersol-Free Vaccines

Some vaccines still contain thimersol, a mercury-containing compound used as a preservative. All shots commonly given to preschool children are available in a thimersol-free form, so verify that this is the form being administered to your children.

Select Single Vaccinations

Potential adverse effects are associated with each individual vaccine, but when multiple vaccines are given at once, new adverse effects are possible. Convenient combination vaccines are becoming increasing popular because they save both time and money, but they may not be the safest form of immunization. Reduce the risk of adverse effects by requesting administration of single vaccines at separate office visits.

Take Vitamins

Vitamins A and C are necessary for immune function. Although a healthy diet is essential, taking these nutrients in supplement form before and after immunization can ensure extra support. Vitamin A can be given in the form of cod liver oil and vitamin C is available in both liquid and chewable forms. Talk to your doctor about the dosages that are right for your family.

Consider Homeopathy

The homeopathic remedy Thuja is used to treat chronic conditions related to vaccination, but it can also be taken preventatively prior to immunization. After the vaccine, the homeopathic remedy apis can help relieve pain and swelling at the injection site (a cold compress is helpful too).

Support Natural Immunity

Two important sources of natural immunity are tonsils and breast milk.

Tonsils, the major lymphatic glands at the top of the throat, produce monocytes and macrophages. These white blood cells engulf and destroy foreign cells and debris as the body’s first line of defense in infection and inflammation. These glands are an essential part of the immune system and kids who keep them have lower rates of infectious illnesses than kids who have them removed.

Breast milk contains maternal antibodies that provide passive immunity to babies. It also contains components that have antibacterial, antiviral and antiparasitic properties, such as macrophages (white blood cells), lysozyme, lactoferrin, prostaglandins, fatty acids and vitamins A and C.

Identify Adverse Reactions

Prior to immunization, talk to your doctor about the possible adverse effects of each vaccine and how to identify them. Recognizing reactions quickly can speed treatment and minimize damage. Common reactions to immunization include fever, vomiting, loss of appetite, drowsiness, irritability, and tenderness and swelling at the site of injection. These symptoms should clear within two days. Contact your doctor immediately if these symptoms last longer than 48 hours, or if at any time you observe unusual limpness or pallor, excessive sleepiness and lack of alertness when awake, convulsion, seizure or persistent high-pitched crying for more than three hours.

Keep Your Own Records

Keep records of each vaccine administered, including the date of immunization, the lot number and any adverse reactions. Report side effects to both your doctor and to the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (www.vaers.hhs.gov or 800-822-7967).

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Alternatives to Antibiotics

According to the Centers For Disease Control, 75 percent of all antibiotics prescribed by office-based physicians are used to treat upper respiratory infections. 90 percent of these colds and flu cases are caused by viruses. Because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses, most of these prescriptions are unnecessary. Overuse of antibiotics not only compromise their effectiveness in time of true need, but they also have side effects – most commonly stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea – and they can create imbalances in healthy bacteria that help prevent infection. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives to antibiotics that can shorten the duration and severity of common colds and flu.

Food as Medicine

Garlic is one of the best home remedies for upper respiratory infections. Garlic has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. For colds and flu, chop or crush and swallow two fresh cloves each day until symptoms resolve. (If you don’t chew the garlic, its aroma is less likely to linger on your breath.)

When sick, eat only when you are hungry. Lack of appetite is a sign that your energy is better spent fighting the infection than digesting food. When hunger does strike, choose foods that are nutritious and easy for your body to break down, like steamed vegetables and vegetable soups. Chicken soup, the traditional prescription, is a good choice too, but hold the noodles. Whole grains like rice are better choices than refined grains like pasta.

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy, the therapeutic use of water, is inexpensive and easy to do at home. Add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a steam inhalation to clear congestion in breathing passages and fight infection at the same time. Because eucalyptus essential oil has anti-bacterial actions, it can prevent secondary bacterial infections that may develop on top of viral illness.

A warm sea salt gargle can also prevent secondary bacterial infections and soothe sore throats. Add one half teaspoon of sea salt to one cup of warm water and gargle. Repeat until all of the solution is used. Like the eucalyptus steam treatment, sea salt gargles should be done two or more times per day.

Extra Nutrients

Vitamin A has been called the “anti-infective vitamin” for good reason. It is vital to immunity and maintains the integrity of mucosal surfaces, including respiratory passages in the nose, mouth and throat. Vitamin A protects the body against viral, bacterial and parasitic infections. Because it is a fat-soluble nutrient, it must be taken with food to be absorbed. Vitamin A is toxic in high doses and pregnant women should consult with their doctor before taking vitamin A.

Zinc is also essential for healthy immune function and works synergistically with vitamin A. It is best taken with food because it may cause nausea or stomach upset. Zinc lozenges can soothe sore throats, but for best results choose a product that does not contain sugar.

Botanical Medicine

Echinacea enhances immune function by increasing the number and activity of white blood cells. It has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory actions in the body. Echinacea is best taken at the start of symptoms and can work synergistically with other herbs, like astragalus, hyssop, osha and reishi mushrooms. Licorice root, marshmallow root and slippery elm bark can soothe sore throats and help expectorate phlegm.

Botanical medicines can be taken in the form of tea, capsules, tinctures (alcohol-based liquid herbal extracts) or glycerites (alcohol-free liquid extracts). Tinctures usually have a bitter flavor and can be added to water or juice. Glycerites have a sweete flavor and are best suited to children and others who wish to avoid alcohol or cannot tolerate it.

Botanical medicines should always be taken under the supervision of a doctor, especially in the case of pregnant women.

Friendly Fevers

The body responds to infections by raising the internal temperature to create an inhospitable environment for invading microorganisms, to inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses, and to support immune function. Fevers increase the production of white blood cells, their release into circulation and their ability to kill invading microorganisms. Fevers also increase production of antibodies, the proteins that bind to foreign substances, causing them to be destroyed.

Temperatures of 102F to 104F are common during colds and flu, and usually decrease over a period of days. There is no evidence that fevers as high as 106F cause brain damage (but high external temperatures can elevate internal temperatures to a dangerous degree). Fevers may be uncomfortable, causing fatigue and loss of appetite, but they rarely cause serious problems. The biggest concern is dehydration, so drink plenty of fluids when body temperatures rise. Suppressing a fever with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen can interfere with the body’s ability to heal and should be avoided unless directed by a doctor.

The Best Prescription

For upper respiratory infections, antibiotics are usually not necessary unless complications or secondary bacterial infections develop. The best prescription for colds and flu is extra sleep and plenty of fluids. Eat only when hungry, avoid suppressing fevers and use hydrotherapy, vitamin A, zinc, garlic and botanical medicines to ease symptoms and speed healing. Stay home from work and school to prevent spreading the infection, but if symptoms don’t clear within a week, a visit to your doctor is in order.