Valerian, an herb used traditionally for insomnia and anxiety, may help some menopausal women conquer sleeping problems. The latest news on this long-popular herb is that it improved sleep in 30 percent of women who received it during a study at Tehran University in Iran. Investigators there recruited 100 postmenopausal women to take two capsules of valerian or a placebo every night for a month. They found that 30 percent of the women who took the herb reported better quality of sleep - they were able to fall asleep faster and woke up less often than they had previously. Only four percent of the women in the placebo group reported these improvements. None of the women complained of side effects from the valerian. The study was reported in the September 2011 issue of the journal Menopause. When buying valerian look for products standardized to 1% valerenic acid. The usual dose is one to two tablets at bedtime or one teaspoon of the tincture in one-quarter cup of water. While side effects are rare, you can become psychologically dependent on valerian.
Of course, the potatoes in question can't be French fries or chips or loaded with butter, cheese or all the other high calorie trimmings that sometimes come with spuds. But if you're partial to potatoes and enjoy eating them steamed or boiled, in moderation, they could be good for your blood pressure, even if you're already taking medication for hypertension. Researchers performing a small study (only 18 participants, mostly overweight or obese) at the University of Scranton reported the results of eating six to eight purple potatoes twice a day. After a month, average diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) among the study group dropped 4.3 percent while average systolic pressure (the top number) fell 3.5 percent. Researcher Joe Vinson, Ph.D., noted that plain potatoes are not particularly fattening (a single one contains about 110 calories), and they're loaded with beneficial phytonutrients, which may be responsible for the blood-pressure lowering effect seen in his study. In a statement he noted that earlier research showed that potatoes contain a substance similar to ACE inhibitors, a group of blood pressure drugs.
The latest news about chocolate is encouraging: an analysis of several studies involving data on more than 100,000 people suggested that those who reported eating chocolate regularly lowered their risk of heart disease by more than one-third. That may be cause for celebration among chocolaholics, but of course, there's a catch to it: the studies involved were all observational - that is, they all looked at chocolate consumption and health as reported by participants. The analysis didn't directly compare those who ate a set amount of chocolate per week with those who consumed a placebo (in this case, a chocolate look-alike and taste-alike), as would be required in a clinical trial to investigate chocolate's effects on the heart. What's more, the studies included reports of consuming chocolate in all its forms - dark, milk, in drinks, cookies and desserts. And it didn't specify how much chocolate study participants ate. Still, if the analysis has any merit, people who eat lots of chocolate regularly may find that they have healthier hearts than those who don't. The analysis, from England's University of Cambridge, was published August 29 in BMJ online.
My take? Chocolate is a source of polyphenols (the same type of antioxidants found in red wine). Stearic acid, the fat it contains, doesn't affect cholesterol levels, and studies have shown that flavonoids in dark chocolate help reduce the stickiness of platelets, cells that play an important role in blood clotting. As a result, blood takes longer to clot, reducing the danger of coronary artery blockages. Chocolate's polyphenols also appear to boost levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol) and lower LDL (the "bad" cholesterol), at least in the lab. I recommend consuming good-quality dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa as a healthy snack, as long as you don't go overboard. An ounce or two a few times a week is good for you.
Dried plums, also called prunes, seem to be really good for bones. Researchers from Florida State and Oklahoma State universities tested two fruits, dried plums and dried apples, on two groups of postmenopausal women. For a year, one group of 55 women ate about 10 prunes per day while a second group of 45 women ate 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of dried apples daily. All participants took 500 mg of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D daily during the study. Afterwards, the women who ate the prunes had significantly higher bone mineral density in the spine and the ulna (one of two long bones in the forearm) than the women who ate the dried apples. The researchers said the difference was due in part to the ability of the nutrients in prunes to suppress the rate of bone breakdown, which tends to exceed the rate of new bone growth as we age. The study was published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
The belly fat you can see may not flatter your figure, but it isn't as harmful to your health as hidden belly fat surrounding internal organs deep in the abdomen. That's the stuff that boosts the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some kinds of cancer. Now, researchers at Duke University Medical Center have shown that the best way to lose this dangerous fat is with aerobic exercise. The Duke team compared aerobic exercise, resistance training (exercising with weights) and a combination of the two during an eight-month study with 196 overweight adults ages 18 to 90. They found that aerobic exercise burned 67 percent more calories than resistance training. It also had beneficial effects on known risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, including elevated liver enzymes, fasting triglycerides and fasting insulin resistance (here, the normal amount of insulin secreted is not sufficient to move glucose into cells - thus cells are said to be "resistant" to insulin's action). No such positive changes were seen in the resistance training group. The aerobic exercise performed in the study was equivalent to jogging 12 miles per week at 80 percent of maximum heart rate.
A recent Q&A looked at "Ferberizing" an infant: Ferberizing: Should Babies Cry Themselves to Sleep? Check out the article and let us know your thoughts on the act of "Ferberizing" an infant!
If your cholesterol is on the high side, you may be able to help bring it down with a diet that includes nuts, whole soy foods and high fiber foods. The latter includes vegetables, and breads and cereals containing whole grains like oats and barley. A study published in the August 24/31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that this "portfolio" diet yielded better cholesterol-lowering effects than the low fat diet that has been traditionally recommended to bring down high levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol). Study participants on the portfolio diet lowered their LDL by more than 13 percent, compared to only a three percent reduction among participants who followed a low-fat diet. Essentially, on the "portfolio" diet, participants replaced sources of saturated fat such as red meat and dairy products with foods that provide healthy fats, namely nuts and soy products. The diet also calls for substituting plant sterol enriched margarine for butter.
My take? I've long recommended including nuts and whole soy based protein (instead of animal protein) in your diet if you're trying to lower your cholesterol. I also think it's a good idea to reduce the amount of sugar and flour in your diet when you're trying to bring down your cholesterol. Recent evidence indicates that added sugar - in the form of table sugar (sucrose) or high-fructose corn syrup - is probably a greater contributor to heart disease than is saturated fat. I disagree with the inclusion of margarine in the "portfolio" diet and discourage its use in general because the highly processed fats it contains promote inflammation, cancer and damage to the immune system. The monounsaturated fat found in olive oil and nuts is the healthiest fat of all and the type I recommend that you rely on the most, whether or not you're trying to lower your cholesterol.
Here's more evidence that even a little bit of exercise can make a big difference to your health. Researchers in Taiwan followed more than 400,000 people for an average of eight years and found that 15 minutes of exercise daily can boost life expectancy by three years. Compared to inactive individuals, participants who exercised for just under 15 minutes per day were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause during the eight years of the study, and 10 percent less likely to die of cancer. Beyond that, each additional 15 minutes of daily exercise lowered the risk of death - from any cause - by four percent, and the extra physical activity cut the risk of death from cancer by one percent. Earlier this month, a review published online in Circulation showed that people who get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week reduce their risk of heart disease by 14 percent compared to inactive people and that exercising five hours per week can lower heart disease risk by as much as 20 percent. The new study from Taiwan was published online on August 15 by The Lancet.