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7 Ways to Prevent Gallstones

Every year, more than one million Americans discover that they have gallstones - hardened, pebble-like deposits in the gallbladder that can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. Roughly 50 percent of people diagnosed with gallstones end up in surgery for the removal of the gallbladder.

So how can you prevent gallstones? Since most stones are composed of cholesterol, diet plays a role in their formation. If you are at risk of developing gallstones (risk factors include a family history of gallstones, being overweight, recent rapid weight loss and, among women, pregnancy, using birth control pills, or hormone replacement therapy after menopause), you may be able to prevent them or prevent symptoms from worsening with these measures:

  1. If you need to lose weight, do so slowly (crash dieting can lead to gallstone formation).
  2. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep hydrated - this can help keep the bile in your gallbladder fluid.
  3. Women should make sure to get 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium from all sources daily (an intake level that's associated with a lower incidence of gallstones). Consider taking 500-700 mg of calcium in supplement form. This can help bind bile acids and decrease the risk of stone formation. However, men should limit calcium consumption to 500 to 600 mg from all sources.
  4. Take 200 mg of supplemental vitamin C daily (in one study, women with higher blood levels of vitamin C were half as likely to develop gallstones as those with lower levels).
  5. Keep your fat intake to about 25 percent of daily calories. A high-fat diet can trigger the gallbladder to release bile and set off an attack if you already have gallstones. But be wary of very low-fat diets, which can promote the formation of stones by failing to stimulate normal gallbladder contraction and flow of bile.
  6. Limit your intake of sugar, which may promote gallstone formation.
  7. Increase your fiber intake, and substitute whole soy protein for animal protein in your diet.

This past post covers three ways to treat gallstones.


Out-Walking Alzheimer's

Taking a regular, daily walk is good for physical health, and now it appears that it may slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and ward off mental decline as well. The amount of walking needed to realize these benefits to the brain is more than just a stroll around the block: researchers from the University of Pittsburgh concluded that to guard against cognitive decline you've got to put in an average of at least five miles a week, every week, for about 10 years. The investigators analyzed data from an ongoing 20 year study looking at the weekly walking patterns among 426 seniors. At the start of the study, 44 of the participants already had Alzheimer's and another 83 had mild cognitive impairment (in half of all cases, this disorder eventually progresses to Alzheimer's). All the others were cognitively healthy. Ten years into the study, after accounting for age, gender, body-fat composition, head size and education level, the researchers found that brain volume was largest among participants who exercised the most (greater brain volume is a sign of general brain health and less brain cell death).  What's more, walking five miles a week appeared to protect those with some form of cognitive impairment against further cognitive decline. The healthy participants had to walk six miles a week to protect their brain health.

My take? I'm not surprised by this finding. It fits in with earlier evidence showing that regular physical exercise can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's by up to 50 percent. A Japanese study followed 265 people with both normal mental function and mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer's for a year. After 12 months of a moderate exercise intervention, 70 percent of participants showed significant improvement in memory function. And the more the participants exercised, the greater the improvement.

In addition to walking, try turmeric for Alzheimer's.


Blachford Lake, Canada (Slideshow)

In February of 2011, I spent a frigid but spirit-renewing week with friends at Blachford Lake, Canada . It's a short plane ride from the small city of Yellowknife, and just 250 miles below the Arctic Circle. I had just finished a big book project, and found that being in almost total wilderness - on a frozen lake surrounded by birch/spruce forest - was just what I needed. We made the trip to see the aurora borealis; the dancing, greenish "northern lights" caused by colliding charged particles directed by Earth's magnetic field. It was truly breathtaking, and something that you must experience for yourself. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the aurora due to a camera malfunction caused by the cold. But a Japanese friend, Hiroaki Shintaku, took these photos of the aurora at Blachford Lake during his nine trips there; they'll give you a sense of the amazing sights we saw. For other highlights, see the following photos, taken by Andre Fasciola:


Overeating in Your Sleep?

Night eating syndrome (NES) is a combination diagnosis of a sleeping disorder and an eating disorder. It is characterized by eating a variety of things - from the usual pantry items to less people-friendly fare such as cat food and cigarettes - while asleep, often with no recollection of these nocturnal binges. While most reported cases of NES have occurred among women, men can have NES as well. If you or a loved one has experienced NES, do not lock the kitchen or the refrigerator to discourage the binges, as you may end up eating something from another room that is toxic or dangerous. Instead, I recommend seeking treatment at a sleep disorders center for NES.


Live Longer with Alpha-Carotene

We've all heard about the health benefits of beta-carotene, but it now appears that high levels of another carotenoid, alpha-carotene, are associated with a reduced risk of dying. This information comes from a 14-year nutrition and health survey including more than 15,000 adults. Alpha-carotene is found in yellow-orange fruits and vegetables including carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squash along with dark-green vegetables including broccoli, green beans, peas, spinach, turnip greens, collards and leaf lettuce. The researchers who conducted the study suggested that alpha-carotene may be more effective than beta-carotene at inhibiting the growth of cancer cells in the brain, liver and skin and has been more strongly associated with a decreased risk of lung cancer than consumption of all other kinds of vegetables. They observed that the risk for dying from any cause during the study was lower among participants with higher blood levels of alpha-carotene. The study was reported online in November and will be published in the March 28, 2011 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

More on carotenoids.


Gluten-Free Vegan Brownies

These brownies are a delicious, low-fat, high-fiber indulgence. Vegans and omnivores will enjoy their rich flavor.

Food as Medicine

Soy foods may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of menopause. Soy is also high in calcium, which can help slow the accelerated bone loss many women experience as they grow older.

1 cup Sucanat, Rapadura or brown sugar
4 oz. (½cup) medium-firm tofu or firm or extra-firm silken tofu (1/3 of a box)
¼ cup water (can be part liqueur of choice, such as Kahlua)
4 teaspoons powdered egg replacer
1 tablespoon coffee (or coffee substitute) granules or espresso powder
1 tablespoon vanilla 
1 ½ teaspoons vinegar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (or carob powder, if you insist)
⅓ cup Bryanna’s Gluten-Free High-Fiber Flour (see below)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Higher-fat option: ½ cup chopped nuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350°  F.

2. In a blender or food processor mix until smooth the sugar, tofu, water, egg replacer, coffee granules, vanilla, and vinegar.

3. In a medium bowl whisk together the cocoa, flour, salt, baking powder and soda. Add the cocoa mixture and mix briefly. Add nuts, if using.

4. Pour the mixture into a nonstick or lightly-oiled or sprayed 9" square cake pan. Spread evenly. Bake 25 minutes. Cool on a rack in the pan, then cut into 12 bars.

Bryanna's Gluten-Free High-Fiber Flour Mix
Makes about 13 cups

7 ½ cups brown rice flour 
2 ½ cups potato starch
1 ¼ cups tapioca flour
1 cup ground flax seed
1 cup chickpea flour or soy flour
4 and ½ tablespoons xanthan or guar gum (see note below)

Mix well and store in a moisture-proof container in in the freezer. Use cup-for-cup instead of regular flour. 

NOTE: Because non-gluten flours lack the structure that gluten provides, xanthan gum or guar gum (available in health food stores) is often added to gluten-free baked goods. This mixture contains enough xanthan or guar gum for cakes, cookies, pancakes and quick breads. For yeast breads, you may have to add up to 1 teaspoon more gum per cup of gluten-free flour.

Recipe from "The Almost No-Fat Holiday Cookbook" by Bryanna Clark Grogan.


Belly Fat and Bone Health

If you're female and overweight, don't count on that excess padding to protect you from osteoporosis. New research suggests that if the fat is in your belly, it could actually increase your risk of weakening bones. Investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the impact of "visceral" fat - the kind that surrounds internal organs - on bone density. The Mass General team looked at the effect of subcutaneous abdominal fat (that lies under the skin), bone marrow fat, total fat, and visceral fat on bone mineral density. Their study group was comprised of 50 premenopausal women who had a mean body mass index (BMI) of 30, indicating obesity. Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, they looked at the bone marrow fat of the fourth vertebra (L4) in the lumber section of the spine and then used quantitative computed tomography to measure the bone mineral density of L4. They found that women with more visceral fat had increased bone marrow fat and decreased bone density. None of the other types of fat studied was associated with this decrease.

My take? Previous research has shown that visceral fat increases the risk for heart disease, and we know that the fat that surrounds internal organs in the abdomen is linked to increased risks of diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well. We used to think that excess weight protected women from osteoporosis, but this study suggests that it won't. Although genetics does contribute to developing visceral fat, poor diet and lack of exercise play significant roles as well. The good news is that you can protect yourself against osteoporosis the same way you can protect yourself from the increased risk of heart disease: eat less and exercise more.


Are Your Eyes Dry?

One more reason to take your omega-3s: these essential fatty acids can help prevent dry eye syndrome, a painful condition in which not enough tears are produced to keep the eyes lubricated. Dry eye syndrome affects about eight million Americans, mostly women, and research has demonstrated that a high daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids can protect against its uncomfortable symptoms. To support general eye health, try increasing your intake of oily, cold-water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, herring and black cod, as well as walnuts and freshly ground flaxseed. If you suffer from dry eye syndrome, you may also want to consider supplementing with a high-quality fish oil product.

Learn how I keep my own eyes in optimum health: The Eyes of Dr. Weil