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Tuesday
Dec022014

What Fish Can Do for Your Brain

Here’s a strategy that could help you keep your wits about you as you age: eat baked or broiled fish at least once a week. A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that seniors who routinely ate baked or broiled fish had larger brain volumes in areas linked to memory and cognition. The researchers were surprised to find that the connection between a weekly dish of broiled or baked fish and bigger brains seemed to be related to lifestyle factors (of which diet is one part), and go beyond the fish providing omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help stave off age-related brain changes. The 260 seniors who participated in the study were cognitively normal when they joined a larger study of heart health in people over 65 and they all remained cognitively normal when tested later in the heart study. For the brain study, all the participants underwent high resolution MRI scans, which revealed brain volume in the two key areas. Those who reported eating broiled or baked fish weekly were more likely to have a college education than other study participants. Eating fried fish, however, provided no evidence of these benefits for the brain.

Sources:
Cyrus A. Raji and James T. Becker, et al “Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.05.037

Monday
Dec012014

Benefits of a Window at Work

If your desk is near a window in your office, you probably sleep longer and better at home, get more physical activity, and overall have a better quality of life than co-workers whose desks aren’t so well positioned. Those findings come from a new study by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who examined the effects of exposure to natural light in the workplace. All told, the study found that employees lucky enough to sit by a window received 173 percent more white light exposure at work and slept an average of 46 minutes more nightly than those who had no natural light exposure during working hours. Increasing evidence shows that exposure to light during the day, particularly in the morning, benefits health through its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism, according to study senior author Phyllis Zee, M.D., a neurologist and sleep specialist at Northwestern Medicine. Study participants included 49 day-shift office workers, 27 who worked in windowless surroundings and 22 whose workplaces had windows. Some wore devices on their wrists to measure and monitor light exposure, activity and sleep. The researchers said that for natural light at work to have an effect, your desk should be within 20 to 25 feet of walls containing windows.

My take? These study results support what we’ve known for some time - that exposure to natural light is beneficial to health. Sleep expert Ruben Naiman, Ph.D., notes that many people get insufficient light during the day, particularly in the morning, and most of us spend the bulk of our waking hours indoors in what Dr. Naiman describes as relatively dampened light. Healthy levels of light naturally energize us, drawing us outward into the world, and regular patterns of light exposure also help us maintain normal circadian cycles, Dr. Naiman says. If your day-to-day routine and work environment don't provide much exposure to natural light, you might consider using a light therapy box – special devices that aim to replicate sunlight.

Sources:
Phyllis Zee and M. Boubekri et al, “Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers: a case-control pilot study.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, doi: 10.5664/jcsm.3780

Thursday
Nov272014

Probiotics for High Blood Pressure

Probiotics are products containing the "friendly" bacteria that normally inhabit the human intestinal tract, where these beneficial microbes help complete the digestive process. Some of these microbes actually produce vitamins, and evidence suggests that without them, the immune system doesn't function optimally, compromising resistance to infection. The latest word on probiotics is that they may also help lower blood pressure. A new analysis of nine earlier randomized controlled trials found that regularly taking probiotics led to reductions in systolic blood pressure (the top number) by an average of 3.56 millimeters of mercury and diastolic pressure by 2.38. While these changes aren’t dramatic, the Australian research team that conducted the review concluded that bigger reductions may occur in people who already have high blood pressure (some of the study participants had normal blood pressure to begin with) Greater benefits might also be possible using probiotics that provide larger quantities of helpful bacteria or multiple species, or when people take probiotics for more than two months, as was the case in the studies reviewed. Positive effects from probiotics on diastolic blood pressure were greatest in people whose blood pressure was equal to or greater than 130/85, which is considered elevated. The probiotics used in the studies were primarily strains of Lactobacillus in dairy products. The study authors concluded that more research is needed before doctors can confidently recommend probiotics for control and prevention of high blood pressure.

Sources:
Jing Sun et al, “Effect of Probiotics on Blood Pressure - A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized, Controlled Trials,” Hypertension, doi: 10.1161/ HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.03469

Tuesday
Nov252014

Chili Peppers for Colon Health?

Capsaicin, a natural compound found in hot peppers (it's what gives them their heat), is an effective local anesthetic, and may be good for our hearts and blood vessels as well because it lowers cholesterol (although we don't yet know how). And now new research suggests that capsaicin can also reduce the risk of colorectal tumors, at least in mice. The compound seems to work by activating TRPV1, a receptor in cells that form the lining in mouse (and human) intestines, leading to a reaction that helps reduce risk from tumors. The study, from the University of California, San Diego, found that feeding capsaicin to mice prone to gastrointestinal tract tumors reduced the growths and extended the lives of the mice by more than 30 percent. The treatment may work in humans, too. Study leader Eyal Raz said the new findings suggest that “individuals at high risk of developing recurrent intestinal tumors may benefit from chronic TRPV1 activation. We have provided proof of principle.” Another member of the team added that future studies should be designed to explore the association between TRPV1 function and human colorectal cancer.

Sources:
Eyal Raz et al, Ion channel TRPV1-dependent activation of PTP1B suppresses EGFR-associated intestinal tumorigenesis” The Journal of Clinical Investigation on August 1, 2014 doi: 10.1172/JCI72340

Monday
Nov242014

Run Five Minutes, Save Your Life?

If you can find even five to 10 minutes a day for running, a new study suggests your risk of premature death would be significantly lower than that of people who don’t run or engage in any type of strenuous exercise. These findings come from a review that examined data from 55,137 people between the ages of 18 and 100 who had check-ups at the Cooper Clinic and Cooper Institute in Dallas, during which they had fitness tests and responded to questionnaires about their exercise habits. The researchers found that the daily runners had a 30 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners and a 45 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, even if they were overweight or smoked. All told, the runners lived three years longer than the non-runners. The report didn’t delve into the mechanisms behind the benefits of running and didn’t try to determine whether it was the only type of strenuous exercise that lowered the risk of premature death.

My take? The great advantage of running is its intensity. As this study suggests, it promotes fitness quickly and efficiently. Because of its intensity, running releases endorphins in many people, creating the runner's high that some describe as an "energy buzz." The euphoria experienced with running - like aerobic exercise highs in general - acts as an effective antidepressant. Running, however, also has some potentially serious disadvantages including a higher chance of injury than most other aerobic activities. Running can also traumatize the body, especially joints in the knees, and back, as well as the kidneys. To minimize the risk of injury never run on concrete. If possible, run on cinder tracks or dirt paths. Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints, and get a new pair whenever your present ones start to wear out. If you develop pain in any joints, stop running or cut back on it until you determine the reason for the pain. It will be interesting to see if other forms of intense exercise – sprint swimming, for example, which is easier on the joints – confer the same lowered risk of premature death.

Sources:
Duck–chul Lee and Timothy Church et al, “Leisure-time Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.04.058

Thursday
Nov202014

Trees Could Save Your Life

Did you know trees help rid the atmosphere of contaminants and reduce air pollution? The effect isn’t great – trees only remove about one percent of airborne pollution – but a new study from the U.S. Forest Service concluded that trees in the U.S. save more than 850 lives a year by performing this important function. They estimate the reduction in pollution prevents 670,000 occurrences of acute respiratory symptoms, adding up to an impact on human health valued at nearly $7 billion. The investigation showed that while pollution removal by trees is higher in rural areas, the impact on human health is greater in urban centers where more than 80 percent of us live. The study looked at four pollutants for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established air quality standards: nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxcide and particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in aerodynamic diameter. Pollution related to particulate matter was linked to 130,000 deaths, while deaths related to ozone totaled 4,700 in 2005, the study found. In addition to being a primary environmental concern, air pollution is linked to a number of negative effects on health, including increased risks of pulmonary, cardiac, vascular and neurological diseases.

Sources:
David Nowak et al, “Tree and Forest Effects on Air Quality and Human Health in the United States," Environmental Pollution, doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2014.05.028

Tuesday
Nov182014

Breast Cancer Drug May Work Best in the Dark

New research suggests that exposure to light at night may undermine treatment with Tamoxifen, a drug often prescribed to breast cancer patients after surgery to prevent recurrence of the disease. This finding came from a study with rats that demonstrated inadequate amounts of melatonin render breast cancer tumors resistant to the effects of Tamoxifen. The researchers noted that the same mechanism might be of concern in humans, and pointed out that even dim light in the bedroom can suppress production of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep-wake cycles. The investigators didn’t pinpoint how much light may cause this effect, but suggested it could be as little as the amount that comes in a bedroom window from a street light. When they gave the rats a melatonin supplement, the animals’ tumors no longer resisted the effects of Tamoxifen. The researchers didn’t recommend that breast cancer patients take melatonin supplements, however, and raised the issue that taking the supplements at the wrong time of day could disrupt the natural cycle of melatonin production. It is darkness, not sleep, that triggers melatonin production. Sleeping in a dark room allows melatonin levels to rise normally, whether or not you’re taking Tamoxifen.

Sources:
Steven M. Hill et al, “Circadian and Melatonin Disruption by Exposure to Light at Night Drives Intrinsic Resistance to Tamoxifen Therapy in Breast Cancer,” Cancer Research, doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-13-3156

Monday
Nov172014

Menopause and Caffeine

First the bad news: women who suffer from hot flashes may be making their symptoms worse if they drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages. The Mayo Clinic recently conducted the most comprehensive study ever to investigate the relationship between caffeine and menopausal symptoms. A total of 2,507 women seen at the Mayo Women’s Health Clinic in Rochester, Minn., participated. The women responded to a health questionnaire devised by the journal Menopause, which published the study online on July 21, 2014. Past studies have reached conflicting conclusions regarding a link between caffeine intake and hot flashes. The good news is that this same study showed that caffeine consumption by perimenopausal women was linked to fewer problems with mood, memory and concentration. While the study’s conclusions were described by its authors as “preliminary,” Stephanie Faubion, M.D., director of Mayo’s Women’s Health Clinic, noted that the results do suggest that limiting caffeine intake may be prudent for women suffering from hot flashes and night sweats.

My take? Hot flashes can make a woman’s life miserable as she enters menopause, but luckily in most cases, the symptoms resolve on their own, usually within six months to a year. For those considering alternative approaches, black cohosh is an effective option and has been well studied, but unfortunately doesn’t work for all women. Dietary measures I recommend include two helpings daily of whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, edamame (green soy beans in the pod) and miso, which may help because these foods contain plant-based estrogens. Women can also try the supplements dong quai, vitamin E and evening primrose oil but, like black cohosh, they don't work for everyone. The most reliable treatment is estrogen replacement, which may be worth considering on a short-term basis, at the lowest effective dose, if nothing else helps.