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Black Pepper: More Than a Spice

Black pepper is perhaps the most popular spice in the world, and black, green and white peppercorns all come from the black pepper plant (Piper nigrum), native to Asia. Black pepper is the whole, partially ripened fruit; green is the unripe fruit; and white pepper is derived from the peeled seed. Some reasons to eat black pepper?

  1. It is a proven antibacterial agent.
  2. It contains compounds that help maintain the integrity of DNA, possibly providing some protection against cancer.
  3. It has been known to help calm digestive issues - it helps signal the stomach to produce more hydrochloric acid, which aids in protein digestion. This, in turn, can help address heartburn, indigestion, gas, diarrhea and constipation.
  4. It can promote detoxification via sweating and increased urination, while the outer layer of peppercorns facilitates the breakdown of fat cells.

It also provides manganese, iron and vitamin K, and is a good source of dietary fiber.

Keep in mind that black pepper can irritate the GI tract, urinary tract, and prostate, and shouldn't be consumed frequently in quantity.

For the best flavor, choose whole peppercorns that you can mill before adding to dishes, and add pepper just before removing the dish from heat to ensure best flavor.


What is Oil Pulling?

Oil pulling - swishing sesame or sunflower oil around the mouth without swallowing for 15 to 20 minutes every morning - is an Ayurvedic practice that is promoted as a way to prevent a host of health concerns related to the mouth. These include the prevention of:

  • Tooth decay
  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding gums
  • Dryness of the throat
  • Cracked lips

It is also touted as a way to cure a host of other health issues. Unfortunately, I’ve seen no compelling evidence that it works. The only study I found that had actual, positive results was from an Indian dental study that evaluated the effects of oil pulling on bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) in plaque and saliva of children, comparing its antiseptic power with that of using a conventional mouthwash containing chlorhexidine. The researchers found a reduction in the bacteria count in the plaque and saliva samples in both the study and the control groups, and concluded that oil pulling can help maintain oral health. Based on this, I would suggest that oil pulling isn’t hazardous to your health, but I don’t see it as an effective means to improve your overall health. A good oral care routine that includes daily brushing and flossing, and regular visits to the dentist is a more sound and evidence-based route to choose.


Is 5 Minutes of Running The Key To Living Longer?

Want to lower your risk of premature death significantly? Go from being a couch potato to being a runner – even a (very) short distance one. A study in Dallas found that people who engaged in little to no strenuous exercise, when compared to those who ran daily for as little as five to 10 minutes, had a 30 percent higher risk of dying. When the cause of death was heart disease, the number went up to 45 percent.

While running can be hard on the joints, knees and kidneys, it is an efficient high-intensity form of exercise that quickly increases fitness and may be a good option for those with little time to exercise. An added bonus is that it can also act as an anti-depressant. While I prefer swimming or biking, many people do enjoy running. To minimize the risk of injury, try the following:

  • Limit running on concrete and instead opt for running tracks or cinder or dirt paths.
  • Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints; replace the shoes when their cushioning begins to fail.
  • If you develop pain in any joints, cut back or stop running until you determine the reason for the pain.

How to Reduce Snacking While Watching TV

For those who can’t break a television and snack habit, the trick might be to watch Charlie Rose’s interview program rather than action movies. A new study from Cornell University found that students who watched the 2005 action movie “The Island” on television ate 65 percent more calories (354) than those who watched Charlie Rose (215 calories). The participants who watched "The Island" also consumed nearly twice as much food – 7.3 ounces v. 3.7 ounces - compared to the Charlie Rose crowd. Another group of students assigned to watch “The Island,” but without sound, ate 46 percent more calories than those who watched Charlie Rose, and consumed five ounces of food compared to the 3.7 ounces eaten by those who watched the Rose show. Study leader Aner Tal revealed that the students who watched “The Island” (with sound) ate the most food by weight because they were snacking on baby carrots, which weigh more than, say, popcorn. Tal said that he thinks the students ate more while watching the action movie because they kept pace with the tempo of the film. The not-so-scientific message here may be that if you want to cut the calories you consume while watching TV, stick with slower-paced and more cerebral offerings rather than action-adventure movies or TV shows.

Aner Tal et al, “Watch What You Eat Television Action-Related Content Increases Food Intake.” JAMA Internal Medicine doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4098


More Potassium, Please

Potassium from bananas, sweet potatoes and white beans can help protect midlife women from strokes, but most of women in this age group don’t consume nearly enough potassium-rich foods. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York followed more than 90,000 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 for an average of 11 years and determined that those whose diets included the most potassium were 12 percent less likely to have a stroke and 16 percent less likely to have an ischemic stroke (the most common type where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off) than were women whose potassium intake was lowest. They also found that the women who received the most potassium were 10 percent less likely to die than women who consumed the least, and that the risk of ischemic stroke was reduced by 27 percent among those who did not have high blood pressure and whose potassium consumption was highest. The risk of all types of stroke was 21 percent lower among these women than among those whose potassium intake was lowest. Women who had high blood pressure and consumed the most potassium had a lower risk of death, but not a reduced risk of stroke compared to those whose diets contained the least potassium, a result that speaks to high blood pressure as a primary risk factor for stroke. Only 2.8 percent of women in the study get at least 4,700 mg of potassium daily, the amount recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only 16.6 percent of the women consumed at least 3,510 mg or more as recommended by the World Health Organization. The study results were based on potassium intake from food, not supplements.

Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller et al, “Potassium Intake and Risk of Stroke in Women With Hypertension and Nonhypertension in the Women's Health Initiative.” Stroke, September 4, 2014.


Bad News About Energy Drinks

New research conducted in France suggests that consuming energy drinks can lead to heart problems including angina (chest pain that follows decreased blood flow to the heart), irregular heartbeat and even sudden death. The main problem with these drinks is the caffeine they contain. Of the 212 adverse effects connected to energy drinks reported to the French food safety agency between January 1, 2009 and November 30, 2012, 95 were cardiovascular symptoms, 74 psychiatric and 57 neurological symptoms, although these problems sometimes overlapped. Of the heart problems documented in the study, cardiac arrests and sudden or unexplained deaths occurred in at least eight cases, the investigators reported, while 46 people developed heart rhythm disorders and 13 experienced angina. The most common presenting symptoms were diagnosed as “caffeine syndrome” characterized by tachycardia (fast heart rate), tremor, anxiety and headache. Study leader Milou-Daniel Drici, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, advised doctors to alert patients with cardiac conditions to the danger energy drinks can pose, and to ask young patients if they consume them. Dr. Drici presented the report at the European Society of Cardiology 2014 conference on August 31 in Barcelona, Spain.

My take? This new French study expands on what we already know about the health effects of caffeine in energy drinks. Consuming more than 250 mg of caffeine can cause restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) or cardiac arrhythmia, periods of inexhaustibility (where a person seems unable to use up all their energy) and psychomotor agitation (repeated activity such as pacing or handwringing). Unfortunately, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not listed on the label in the U.S. Prompted in part by the number of adverse effects reported, the FDA has started looking into the addition of caffeine in many products – food as well as drinks - and its effects on children and adolescents. It’s about time.


Medical Marijuana and Drug Overdoses

An apparent benefit of the legalization of medical marijuana has been an unexpected drop in deaths related to overdoses of prescription painkillers. A study that assessed the availability of medical marijuana and analyzed the data on deaths nationwide between 1999 and 2010 found that deaths from prescription painkillers had dropped by 25 percent in states that had legalized medical marijuana (in 2010 only 13 states had done so compared to 23 states today). The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that, in 2010 alone, overdose deaths dropped by about 1,700 in states where medical marijuana had been legalized. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths related to pain medications have become epidemic over the past two decades and are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. The CDC reported that in 2011, 55 percent of drug overdoses stemmed from prescription medications and 75 percent of those involved opiate derived painkillers. One critic of the study suggested that other explanations, such as expanded methadone and buprenorphine programs, might have influenced the drop in overdose deaths, as might the action of the Drug Enforcement Administration in shutting down “pill mills.”

Marcus A. Bachhuber, et al, “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010,” JAMA Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4005


More Tomatoes, Please

Eating lots of tomatoes – a total of 10 servings a week – could cut the risk of prostate cancer by 18 percent, according to new research from Great Britain. Those 10 servings don’t have to be raw tomatoes or tomato salad – they could include the tomatoes in pasta sauce or on pizza, tomato juice and the tomatoes in baked beans, the study found. Researchers from the universities of Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge examined the diets of some 14,000 British men ages 50 to 69 to reach these conclusions. They further reported that men who ate five servings or more of fruit or vegetables per day had a prostate cancer risk that was 24 percent lower than that of men whose fruit and vegetable consumption averaged two and a half servings a day or less. The antioxidant lycopene found in tomatoes is believed responsible for the lower risk of prostate cancer. In addition, the researchers reported that men whose diets included selenium provided in bread and pasta and calcium from dairy products also had a lower risk of prostate cancer. This study doesn’t conclusively prove that eating lots of tomatoes prevents prostate cancer – just that there is an association between the amount of tomatoes eaten and a lower risk of the disease.

My take? Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant - it is the carotenoid pigment responsible for the red color of tomatoes. In a number of large studies, it has demonstrated a protective role against prostate, colon, and rectal cancer, as well as heart disease. Lycopene is much more available to the body from cooked tomatoes than from raw ones. And since it is fat soluble, you need to eat your cooked tomatoes with some fat to facilitate absorption. That doesn't mean eating all the pizza you can get your hands on. However, it does suggest that homemade marinara sauce would be a healthful staple. I make my marinara with olive oil and keep some on hand in the freezer. If you don’t like tomatoes, you can always obtain lycopene from watermelon, which contains 40 percent more lycopene than an equivalent weight of tomatoes. The lycopene from watermelon is as well-absorbed by the body as the lycopene from tomatoes. (And, fortunately, you don't have to cook watermelon to get the same benefits that you get from tomatoes.)

Vanessa Er and Richard M. Martin et al, “Adherence to Dietary and Lifestyle Recommendations and Prostate Cancer Risk in the Prostate Testing for Cancer and Treatment (ProtecT) Trial.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-0322

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