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Fruits and Vegetables for Your Head

The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the higher the odds that you'll be as healthy mentally as you are physically. This conclusion comes from research at Britain's University of Warwick, which showed that good mental health was consistently linked to fruit and vegetable consumption among both men and women. Analyzing data from nearly 14,000 adults who participated in the Health Survey for England, the investigators found that 33.5 percent of those identified as having a high level of mental well-being ate five or more fruit and vegetables daily, compared to 6.8 percent of the mentally fit who ate less than one serving daily. The researchers explained that remarkable mental well-being is not merely the absence of mental health problems - it is strongly linked to optimism, happiness, high self-esteem, resilience and good relationships. Smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption were all lifestyle factors linked to low mental well-being, a condition associated with mental health problems.

My take: The suggestion that we can influence our mental fitness through diet is good news. In 2012, University of Warwick researchers reported that eating seven servings of fruit and vegetables per day was associated with increased mental health and happiness. My anti-inflammatory diet calls for eating four to five servings of vegetables and three to four servings of fruit per day to reduce inflammation in the body. It is becoming increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious physical and mental illnesses - including heart disease, many cancers, and Alzheimer's disease. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins (such as secondhand tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation, but dietary choices play a big role as well. The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the healthier - and, perhaps, happier - you're likely to be.


Can Pollution Make You Fat?

Maybe so, and worse, it could lead to heart disease. A new study of seniors living in Massachusetts suggests that black carbon, a component of traffic-generated air pollution, influences levels of leptin. High levels of this hormone are associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

A team of researchers from Brown University measured blood levels of leptin in 765 seniors living in Boston and found that levels of the hormone were 27 percent higher among those with the most exposure to black carbon. These individuals also had lower incomes and higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes than others in the study. The research team didn't establish where the pollution was generated, reporting that the proximity of the nearest major highway was not apparently related to leptin levels. Rather, they suggested that black carbon exposure probably reflects overall pollution from traffic on a wider range of roads in the immediate vicinity of the participants' homes. The study doesn't prove that black carbon exposure increases leptin levels, but the researchers suggested that their findings may help explain increases in cardiovascular disease associated with air pollution.


Mindfulness for Migraines

Mindful meditation may prove a worthwhile do-it-yourself treatment for migraine headaches. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center recruited 19 adult migraine patients and assigned 10 of them to be taught mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) while the others received standard medical care. Those in the mindfulness group attended eight weekly classes to learn MBSR techniques and were asked to practice on their own for at least 45 minutes a day, for at least five days a week. Results showed that the mindfulness patients had fewer headaches than usual. In addition, the migraine episodes they did have were less severe and didn't last as long as they had in the past, or as long as the headaches experienced by those in the control group. Compared to the standard medical care group, the mindfulness patients had 1.4 fewer migraines per month. Because the study sample was relatively small, researchers will need to study the effect of MBSR on a larger group of patients in order to confirm its effectiveness. In the meantime, MBSR is worth a try. There are no side effects.


Forest Bathing for Mind and Body

We've known for some time that connecting with nature can give you a psychological lift.  A new, large-scale study by the University of Michigan, in partnership with three universities in the U.K., goes beyond that. It found that participation in group nature walks is associated with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental and physical well-being.

The research team evaluated 1,991 individuals who walked with a group at least once a week as participants in England's "Walking for Health" program. They found that walkers in rural areas reported less perceived stress, less negativity and greater well-being than those who joined urban groups and walked on city streets. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like serious illness, unemployment, divorce or the death of a loved one especially benefited from outdoor group walks.

My take: I'm not surprised by these findings. It's well established that being close to nature can be calming, trading the jarring sounds, sights, and smells of city life for trees, birds and forest streams. A Japanese study published in 2010 showed that forest bathing - or taking in forest scenery for as little as 20 minutes - reduced levels of salivary cortisol by 13.4 percent, bringing measurements of this stress hormone down to lower-than-average concentrations. Nature walks can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer cells produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer.


Children and Your Prescription Drugs

Each year between 2007 and 2011, about 9,500 children managed to get past child-resistant caps on prescription drug vials, swallow some of the pills and end up in the hospital. A study published in the September 15, 2014 issue of Pediatrics found that three-quarters of those kids are one-and-two year olds. In almost half of those cases, the drugs involved are buprenorphine (used to treat addiction to narcotics and sometimes to relieve pain) or clonidine (found in medications to treat high blood pressure, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraine headaches).  About 28 percent of the poisonings stemmed from ingestion of Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet and other opiod pain relievers, as well as the anti-anxiety drugs Valium, Ativan and Xanax. One way to make drugs safer would be to individually wrap each pill, suggested Daniel S. Budnitz, director of the Medication Safety Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and senior author of the study. Since the research for the study was completed but before publication, some of the medications named have been repackaged in blister packs, which may help defeat curious kids ... and make it harder for some older adults to get to their pills. Bottom line: if you want to avoid a rush to the hospital with a curious child who has swallowed your pills, be sure to keep all drugs out of sight, and stored in a place even the most enterprising kid can't reach.


Can You Be Allergic to Antibiotics in Food?

Here's another good reason to consider choosing organic fruits and vegetables: the case of a 10-year-old girl who had an anaphylactic reaction to a slice of blueberry pie. Her clinical course has alerted allergists to the possibility that some people can have a severe allergic response to antibiotic residues in food. The young patient had a history of asthma and seasonal allergies as well as anaphylaxis to penicillin and cow's milk, but she had no known allergy to the ingredients in the pie. After ruling out other possibilities, doctors concluded that her reaction was due to a blueberry in the pie contaminated with streptomycin, an antibiotic used in agriculture as a pesticide in fruit to combat the growth of bacteria, fungi and algae and in medicine as a treatment for tuberculosis. While allergic reactions like this one are considered rare, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology noted that allergists and emergency room personnel should be aware of the possibility that antibiotic residues can trigger allergic reactions.


Surprising News About Sugar

We know that the excessive amount of sugar in western diets isn't healthy, and now a study from the U.K. has identified sugar as the onlycause of tooth decay in children and adults. That finding implicates all the sugars in our diets, especially those added to food (including beverages) by manufacturers, as well as the sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. The researchers backed up their findings with epidemiology linking sugar consumption with tooth decay across the globe. For instance, during World War II, tooth decay was "hugely reduced" in Japan, but increased after the war when sugar could again be imported. The researchers also reported that only two percent of the people in Nigeria (whose diets contain negligible amounts of sugar) have tooth decay, compared to 92 percent of adults living in the United States. To rein in this problem, the researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recommended reducing the amount of sugar in the diet to less than three percent of total calories (that would work out to 60 calories on a 2000 calorie daily diet). Current guidelines from the World Health Organization set a maximum of 10 percent of total calories from sugar with a target of half that amount, five percent.

My take? In addition to its unwelcome effect on teeth, sugar has a negative impact on health in generalDiets high in sugar may predispose some people, especially women, to yeast infections, may aggravate some kinds of arthritis and asthma and may raise triglyceride levels. In people genetically programmed to develop insulin resistance, high-sugar diets may drive obesity and high blood pressure and increase risks of developing type 2 diabetes. Our physiology does not require foods made with copious amounts of sugar, and does not respond well to it. Cutting sugar back to three percent of total calories is a tough goal, but it would have a considerable positive payoff for your teeth - and the rest of your body.


Eat More Fish, Hold on to Hearing

Eating fish may help save your hearing, at least if you’re female. A new study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that consumption of two or more servings of fish per week was linked to a 20 percent lower risk of hearing loss compared to women who rarely ate fish. The researchers followed more than 65,000 women who participated in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study II from 1991 to 2009, during which 11,606 cases of hearing loss were reported. A lower risk of hearing loss was associated with eating all types of fish and shellfish, as well as with higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Earlier research had suggested a link between fish consumption and hearing loss, but this study is the first to identify a relationship over time between eating fish and self-reported hearing loss in women. Study leader Sharon G. Curhan, M.D., noted that while a decline in hearing is highly prevalent and often viewed as inevitable with aging, this study and other research suggest that there may be ways to prevent or delay it.

Sharon G. Curhan et al, “Fish and Fatty Acid Consumption and Hearing Loss in Women,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.114.091819

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