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Weight Loss Lowers Inflammation

Losing weight can do wonders for your health by decreasing the activity of immune system cells that promote inflammation. New research from Australia published in April suggests that even modest weight loss (in this case only about 13 pounds) can reverse damaging pro-inflammatory changes often seen in the immune cells of obese individuals. The investigators at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research looked at 13 obese patients with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes who agreed to go on a diet of between 1,000 and 1,600 calories per day for 24 weeks. Halfway through the study the participants underwent gastric banding, a surgical procedure in which the stomach is cinched so that it can hold only a small amount of food. At the study's end, the researchers found an 80 percent reduction in the overall number of pro-inflammatory cells, as well as decreased activation of immune cells in the body fat of their subjects. This changed the pro-inflammatory nature of circulating immune cells back to that found in lean people, the team reported.

My take? We know that weight loss can positively affect many aspects of health, particularly type 2 diabetes and its consequences including heart disease. Excess weight is also implicated in many cancers and other diseases. These new findings are very interesting because they illustrate that the health dangers posed by obesity may be reduced by even modest weight loss. But this was a rather small study, so we’ll have to see whether future research confirms these encouraging results.


Gardening in BC

Asha and Ajax help out in the garden at my summer place in British Colombia.


A Note on Plums

When dried, plums are called prunes, and whether you eat them fresh or dried, this fruit packs a powerful antioxidant punch and is a great source of dietary fiber. With over 2,000 varieties, plums can range from soft and sweet to firm and tart, and can be eaten alone, used in baked goods and sauces, poached, baked, stewed... the possibilities are practically endless.


Stressed? Call Mom

Just a chat with mom can trigger release of a brain hormone that fights stress, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The hormone, oxytocin, is associated with human bonding and is released during breastfeeding, hugging and orgasm. But the Wisconsin study found that when stressed young girls spoke by phone with their mothers for 15 minutes, elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped and levels of bond-building oxytocin rose. The researchers assigned 61 girls, ages 7-12, to give a speech or do math problems publically, both big stressors in this age group. Afterward, a third of the girls were reunited with their mothers for hugs and soothing; another third spoke to their moms on the phone and the third group watched a movie. Tests showed that cortisol levels immediately tumbled while oxytocin increased among the girls who hugged or phoned their mothers, while cortisol continued to spiral up in the movie group. Researchers used to believe that only physical contact boosted oxytocin, but the Wisconsin group now thinks that talking will also do the trick, and will work for adults as well as kids.


Vitamin D and Seniors

The lower their levels of vitamin D, the more likely men and women age 65 and older are to become depressed, according to a new study from the National Institute on Aging. When they enrolled, 42 percent of the women and 18 percent of the men were depressed. Of this group, 72 percent had insufficient levels of "D" (compared to 60 percent of non-depressed participants). Over the six year course of the study, depressive symptoms worsened among the women with low "D." What's more, women who were low on vitamin D when the study began but weren't initially depressed were more likely to become depressed before the study ended than women with sufficient "D." This doesn't prove that low levels of "D" cause depression, and the study wasn't designed to determine whether increasing vitamin D intake would relieve symptoms. The researchers did note, however, that normalizing levels of "D" might eventually prove to be a treatment for depression in seniors. The study was published online on May 5, 2010, in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.


Essential Oils Thwart Germs

Essential oils, particularly those from thyme and cinnamon, could help thwart bacteria, including superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (the notorious MRSA that resists treatment with many common antibiotics and is to blame for tens of thousands of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes every year). The latest MRSA-fighting strategy comes from Greek researchers who tested the antimicrobial activity of eight essential plant oils and found that thyme essential oil worked best. It almost completely eliminated the bacteria it was pitted against within an hour. The investigators, from the Technical Educational Institute of Ionian Islands reported their findings at the spring meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in Edinburgh, Scotland. They viewed essential oils as an inexpensive and effective treatment option for emerging antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, and noted that substituting the oils for antibiotics could minimize the risk that additional resistant strains would emerge. They suggested that the oils or their active ingredients could be incorporated into antimicrobial creams or gels for application to the skin and noted that these agents also could be used for preservation of packaged foods instead of today’s synthetic chemicals.

My take? This is a return to the historical use of essential oils and welcome news. I hope that further research substantiates the findings. We need an effective way to counter MRSA, and if these results hold true, essential oils could be at least part of the solution. I have long recommended using a mixture of water plus lavender or tea tree essential oils for an environmentally and people-friendly antibacterial spray for kitchen or bathroom surfaces. In addition, studies have shown that a wash of one-percent basil essential oil effectively eliminates bacteria on fruits and vegetables, and is much friendlier to human beings and the environment than bleach.


A Note on Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe is a thick-skinned fruit with an outer layer that resembles a net. In peak harvest season during June, July and August, cantaloupe provides a refreshing, sweet and hearty treat, perfect for fruit salads and smoothies. Belonging to the same family as pumpkin, squash and cucumber, cantaloupe is an excellent source of beta-carotene and vitamin C. With a relatively low calorie count per serving, cantaloupe is a satisfying way to get your vitamins during the summer months. (Diabetics should eat cantaloupe in moderation, as it is falls in the medium range of the glycemic index.)

You can identify a ripe cantaloupe by pressing your finger into the stem end - a gentle yielding is an indication of ripeness, as is a distinctive aroma of cantaloupe flesh where you test it.

Try cantaloupe in Two-Color Fruit Gazpacho as part of a refreshing summer brunch.


Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has no positive role in a healthy diet. Because it is a highly saturated fat - one of the few saturated fats that doesn't come from animals - coconut oil can raise cholesterol levels. In the past, coconut oil was widely used in movie popcorn, candy bars and commercial baked goods, but has been phased out of many of these products due to consumer concerns about the health effects of consuming tropical oils.

While there is still debate about the hazards of dietary saturated fats, using cosmetic products containing coconut oil is another story. Although I prefer skin care products with natural anti-inflammatory activity, some components of coconut oil have been studied for their benefits to both skin and hair. The lauric acid found in coconut oil is available in a wide variety of skin and hair care products, including body and facial cleansers, soap and sunscreens. Clinical research supports the safety of these products in general, and the utility of coconut oil to help moisturize skin in particular.