Probiotics, including foods or supplements containing "friendly" bacteria that normally inhabit the digestive tract (usually Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium), may help prevent colds, a recent study suggests. A review of 10 studies involving data on more than 3,400 participants ranging in age from infants to adults in their 40s showed that taking probiotics for more than a week was associated with 12 percent fewer colds. However, the review, by researchers at China's Sichuan University, found no evidence that taking probiotics could reduce the duration of colds. The only side effects seen among participants in the 10 studies who took probiotics were vomiting and flatulence, but these symptoms were equally as common in the studies' control groups. The researchers noted that three previous investigations have examined how probiotics influenced upper respiratory infections in older adults. One found no reduction in incidence among those who took probiotics, but did report that the colds didn't last as long. Another found a 3.4-fold reduction in the risk of catching a cold or the flu, and the third found that upper respiratory tract infections had a shorter overall duration in those using probiotics compared to those who didn't use them.
If you're at risk for a heart attack, sitting in heavy traffic and inhaling the fumes could help bring one on within hours. A large, recent study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests that the risk of heart attack rises and stays higher than normal for six hours after inhaling those noxious fumes from automotive exhaust. After that, the risk goes back to baseline. Commenting on the study, the director of the British Heart Foundation said that pollution possibly affects heart health by temporarily thickening the blood making it more likely to clot. The investigators analyzed data from more than 79,000 people in 15 areas of the UK who had heart attacks between 2003 and 2006. The research team also referenced the time of day that the heart attacks occurred, plus levels of traffic pollution (including carbon monoxide and ozone) at those times in different parts of the country, to reach their conclusion that the risk rises in the six hours after exposure to the fumes. Their recommendation: if you're at risk for heart attack, stay out of heavy traffic.
My take? We've known for some time that exposure to high levels of air pollution correlates with an increased rate of heart attacks, as well as stroke and deaths due to hospitalizations for heart disease, heart failure and lung problems. Earlier studies have also shown that air pollution is associated with atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque along arterial walls. This study indicates there may be a more critical time-line to the increased risk. The advice to reduce your exposure to heavy traffic is a good one for many reasons, but it isn't something everyone can readily accomplish. To help lower your overall risk, don't smoke, control your blood pressure, get regular exercise and eat a low-glycemic diet.
We can't change our genes, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a loss of control over our health. Learn about the blurred line between genetics and environmental factors, and how diet, lifestyle, and even emotions have the power to control gene expression.
Older women who are overweight or obese may be more at risk of disability as they age than thin women because of a loss of leg strength and power. These findings come from a small study with 25 women at the University of New Hampshire that looked at the effect of excess weight on women's leg strength, walking speed and power, factors that affect how well they can get up out of chairs or climb stairs. On average, the study showed that an overweight women's leg strength is about 24 percent lower than it is among normal weight women, and that the walking speed of obese women is about 20 percent slower. They also found that power - the rate at which strength is applied - was 38 percent lower among overweight women than among those of normal weight. Looking ahead, the study leader suggested that women, regardless of weight, make an effort to maintain their strength as they get older and noted that to maintain good daily function, it may be easier for overweight women to increase strength than to lose weight. The study was published in the October issue of the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. Learn more about obesity.
Why does it sometimes feel guiltless to reach for sweets and other high-calorie foods? New research from Yale and the University of Southern California suggests that when our glucose (blood sugar) levels drop, certain areas of the brain free us to yield to temptation. This new finding comes from a study with only 14 participants, some of normal weight and some of whom were obese. When investigators intravenously lowered the participants' glucose levels and then showed them pictures of food and other images, functional MRI scans (fMRI) revealed changes in specific zones of the brain that encourage eating. Brain responses - in areas called the insula and striatum, both associated with reward - ignited a desire to eat. And another brain area, the prefrontal cortex, appeared to lose its ability to interfere with the increasingly urgent signals to eat. This sequence of events occurred in normal weight study participants only when their glucose levels were lowered, but among the obese participants, the brain's brake on "reward" (meaning more food) didn't seem to work even when glucose levels were normal. The study was published online Sept. 19 by the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
My take? These are interesting findings that may help explain why so many people have such a hard time controlling cravings and losing weight. If confirmed, the results could lead to the development of better strategies to lose weight. In the meantime, I suggest trying to satisfy cravings with low glycemic index fruits (berries, cherries, apples, pears) that are healthier than other sources of sugar and give you the added benefit of fiber. Working with a hypnotherapist in an effort to reduce cravings might also be helpful.
A recent Q&A discussed depression and food: Can Comfort Foods Combat Depression? Check out the article and vote for your favorite comfort food!
A new study from England suggests that early birds are slimmer, healthier and happier than people who stay up - and get up - later. Researchers at Britain's Roehampton University questioned 1,068 men and women about their eating and sleeping habits as well as how they rated their levels of happiness, anxiety and their physical health and weight. Other findings of the online survey showed that, on average, the early birds were out of bed a few minutes before seven a.m. on weekdays while the night owls typically arose a few minutes before nine. Both groups reported spending an extra hour in bed on the weekends. But the lead researcher didn't have much to offer on why early birds do better: he suggested that perhaps getting morning chores out of the way and getting kids out of bed allowed the early risers to cope better with the hectic pace of modern life. The study results were presented at a conference of the British Psychological Society.
Pop quiz: What do apples, pears, cucumbers and cauliflower have in common? Answer: The edible parts of all of them are white. And these fruits and vegetables have now been identified as foods that may dramatically lower the risk of stroke. This news comes from a decade long Dutch study that involved more than 20,000 adults age 20 to 65, none of whom had cardiovascular disease when they enrolled. Over the 10 years, 233 of the study participants suffered strokes. Researchers have since compared the diets the participants reported eating to see which fruits and vegetables, if any, were associated with a lower risk of stroke. Based on information contained in the questionnaires all participants filled out, those who ate the most "white" fruits and vegetables were 52 percent less likely to have had strokes than those who didn't eat as much of these foods. The amount that seemed to make a difference was 171 grams, the equivalent of one medium to large apple daily. The most commonly eaten white foods were apples, pears and applesauce. The study was published online September 15 in Stroke.