Dallas Clouatre, PhD
In nutrition, is there evidence for a category of “super” fruit and vegetables? Are there accepted definitions that make “superfruit” more than just a marketing term?
Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is a firm “maybe.” In retrospect from the vantage of late 2014, the “super” in “superfruit” seems to have arisen chiefly from the novelty of a small number of ingredients that have not typically been part of Western diets. Also important was a period of giddy promotion by The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Dr. Oz Show circa 2008. The primary initial objects of the “buzz” and, let’s face it, hype, were probably only a handful of items that included acai berry, acerola, goji berry and pomegranate that were promoted as exhibiting unique health benefits.
Headlines, even when covering “boring” topics such as science, are designed to draw in the reader with the promise of news that is important, startling, counter to expectations, and so forth, with nutrition and health news every bit as subject to hype and exaggeration as are political affairs. Often authors one year grab attention with the promise of the discovery of a panacea for health and longevity, and then the next year notice is directed toward findings that disprove the very same expectations of extended wellness and youth. Red wine and resveratrol currently exemplify this pendular swing as one typical headline glares, “Red Wine and Health: Resveratrol Health Benefits a Myth?”1 Red wine and resveratrol, one of its constituents, long have been touted to reduce cardiovascular disease rates even in the face of diets rich in saturated fats. Hence, it is quite an attention-grabber to be told that not only does consuming red wine and resveratrol for years not protect the heart, but it also does not protect against cancer nor does it extend lifespan.2 Succinctly, the Los Angeles Times headline summed things up: “Resveratrol in the diet is no help at all.”3
As pointed out last year in a review of pollen extract for prostate support, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH, formerly called hypertrophy), involves a renewed growth in the number of prostate cells late in life.1 Unfortunately, of men between the age of 40 and 59, nearly 60 percent can be shown to already be suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia. This usually does not present a noticeable problem until after the age of 50; by the age of 80, however, some 85 percent of all men suffer from one or more symptoms of BPH. The primary effect of BPH is a progressive decrease in the ability to empty the bladder as the prostate enlarges and applies pressure to the urethra.
Garcinia cambogia is no stranger to the pages of TotalHealth magazine—it was discussed in 2010 under the title, "Insulin, the Real Cause of Weight Gain."1 However, few researchers on Garcinia extracts were prepared for the soaring increase in popularity of this item and its active ingredient, (-)-hydroxycitric acid (HCA), sparked by its late 2012 featuring on the Dr. Oz TV Show. The subsequent demand for Garcinia products has been plagued by two major issues. First, the quality of many or even most of the products being sold is questionable. Based solely on the total HCA content in capsules and tablets judged in relation to label claims, recently Consumerlab.com found that among 11 Garcinia supplements selected for testing, only five contained their labeled amounts of HCA. If the nature of the stabilization is taken into account, a topic discussed below, the number of acceptable products is even lower. Last year, Harry Preuss, MD (Georgetown University Medical Center) and I initially addressed the issue of HCA quality in an essay hosted by the Alliance for Natural Health, parts of which are reproduced in the current article.2
Controversy is no stranger to vitamins and herbs, albeit there are periods of more and of less attention. Popular news sources recently have been making much of a couple of issues: To start, there has been a regular drumbeat regarding the uselessness of vitamins, either alone or in combination, for either preserving or improving health. Multi-vitamin/mineral supplements are common targets, but so are vitamins such as vitamin D and a number of popular herbs. Next, we are warned routinely of possible interactions between various supplements, especially herbal extracts, and prescription drugs. In particular, blood-thinning medications and certain immuno-suppressants used to treat HIV have been emphasized as being incompatible with a number of popular plant products, including St. John's wort and Chinese ginseng. Both sets of issues are real, to be sure, and need to be considered for safety's sake. Nevertheless, the ensuing controversy over supplements is perhaps just as important for what it reveals about American dietary and other habits as for what it reveals about the safety of vitamins and herbs.
Presently, it is widely estimated that between 60 and >90 percent of most staples (corn, rice, soybeans, sugar beets, and so forth and so on) in the American food supply are genetically modified. For instance, 80 to 90 percent of all corn grown in the US is “Roundup Ready,” meaning that it is genetically modified to be resistant to the Monsanto weed killer Roundup. Moreover, many GMOs contain more than one implanted gene; corn can and is modified to be resistant to Roundup along with, say, the corn bore. Non-staple foods, such as cucumber, peas and tomatoes, increasingly are modified, as well. With GMOs having such an extensive presence in the American food chain, most of us would assume that over the years there have been detailed independent tests confirming the safety of GMOs for both those consuming these foods and the environment. Unfortunately, anyone making this assumption would be wrong. As one recent literature review notes, “the risk assessment of GM foods in general, and crops in particular for human nutrition and health, has not been systematically performed as indicated in the scientific literature.”1
It’s the New Year and time to take stock of where we have been, where we are going, and to resolve to do better, right? Unfortunately, for many of us our New Year’s resolutions will include the promise to lose those extra pounds picked up since last summer. If done properly, fulfilling this resolution can pay off with big dividends in terms of increased energy and improved health, not just with a better reflection in the mirror. One or more of the latest weight loss products can help in this “battle of the bulge,” and several of these are reviewed below. However, to make certain that those lost pounds don’t come back again, this year the diet blueprint for weight loss should also include strategic planning regarding food and exercise.
Is There a Link?1
Supplementation with calcium to support bone mineral density and reduce the risk of fractures is not controversial. Qualifications and refinements regarding calcium’s benefits to bone health and fracture reduction have been proposed with varying degrees of support, yet overall the consensus is one of benefit. In contrast to this consensus, there is considerable controversy regarding the unintended results of calcium supplementation. Concern arises primarily from trials in which calcium was supplemented alone without any of the co-factors and other nutrients found in bone and in dietary sources of calcium.
Last month, this column provided an overview for “Thinking About Cancer,” relying on information supplied in a book on prostate cancer that I co-authored several years ago. For those who would like to explore the topic of cancer in greater detail, that book is still available at amazon.com under the title, The Prostate Miracle: New Natural Therapies That Can Save Your Life. As noted in the previous column, researchers giving advice on preventing cancer usually present cancer as developing in three distinct stages: initiation, promotion, and progression. The existence of these stages suggests that there are distinct measures that can be taken to protect against cancer. This month, we will explore some options for preventing initiation and promotion as well as courses of action for those who already are beyond the “prevention” stage and want to be proactive in their own treatment.
A few years ago, I was asked to co-author a book on prostate cancer (The Prostate Miracle: New Natural Therapies That Can Save Your Life, available at amazon.com.) In researching that book, I read a large body of material on cancer in general and came to the conclusion that cancer, or, really, cancer-like and cancer-related changes in the body, often are more environmental than genetic. They are closely related to our habits and our environment and these factors go a long way towards determining whether genetic risks are activated or controlled. Many women at this point in time may not find such a conclusion at all surprising—more than a decade ago, analyses of large trials using hormone replacement therapy to treat menopause revealed that hormone replacement quite significantly increased one or more “women’s” cancers. Moreover, a radical reduction in the use of hormone replacement therapy since that time has been rewarded with a similar reduction in female cancers, thus providing convincing proof for this line of argument. We do not seem to have such an undeniable “smoking gun” for prostate cancer, yet environmental factors (low vitamin D, exposure to environmental or “xeno” estrogens) are clearly at work in this “male” cancer, as well.
Over the years, a great many weight loss products have come and gone. Each new weight loss season, a fresh crop of dragon slayers is announced and by the end of the year, most of these have slipped into well-deserved oblivion. Turnover on this level tends to obscure the fact there are some approaches that work and that the fundamentals of weight control are reasonably well established, even if products are not.
In his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease, Gary Taubes responds concisely regarding the fundamental question of what regulates fat accumulation, which is to say, weight gain. Taubes answers simply, “This was elucidated by 1965 and has never been controversial. Insulin is the principle regulator of fat metabolism...”
The importance of minerals in the diet was brought home to me years ago in the form of an animal study on the effects on serum cholesterol of dietary magnesium in diets that included either butter or polyunsaturated fat in the form of corn oil margarine. Pigs were chosen because their gastrointestinal tracts are very similar to those of humans and they respond to dietary factors similarly, as well. The surprising finding was that the level of dietary magnesium was more significant to plasma total cholesterol (TC), low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) levels than was butter or margarine. When the intake of magnesium was increased substantially (doubled) beyond what was assumed to be an adequate amount for pigs, there no longer was any difference in serum levels of blood lipids between animals ingesting the two different fats.1 The meaning of the study was clear. Mammals possess enzymes known as desaturases and these mineral-dependent enzymes are sufficient to control serum lipids within “normal” ranges. Helping the body to handle fats is merely one of the vast number of roles played by dietary minerals and trace minerals.
More than fifty years ago, a special extract made from rye and other pollens was first discovered to provide dramatic relief not only from the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), but also from the symptoms of prostatitis and prostatodynia, two other common prostate conditions. The story of the discovery of these health benefits of pollen extract is wonderfully recounted in the book, The Prostate Cure, written by Harry G. Preuss, MD, and Brenda Adderly, MHA. However, the story of pollen extract does not end with its benefits in these conditions or even with its benefits in the area of prostate health. Recent research has shown that pollen extract inhibits the growth of some forms of cancer, that it activates important protective liver enzymes, and that it protects against damage to the heart and may improve athletic performance.
Not a month goes by without headlines in the media proclaiming either that vitamins do amazing things or that they do nothing at all. Such concerns no longer are limited to those whose jobs are to raise such issues. Individuals purchasing health foods and related products increasingly are asking questions about the cost and effectiveness of supplements. Likewise, governmental watchdog agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), expect that the manufacturers and marketers of nutrients and herbs be able to back up claims with sound research. Total Health Magazine Online took an in-depth look at some of the issues back in 2011, for which see “Are Vitamin Supplements Safe?”
The health of the body is often reflected in the eyes. Circulatory problems, which are hidden elsewhere in the body, can manifest visibly in these organs. Similarly, the antioxidant status of the aging body often will have a profound effect upon the eyes. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD, a deterioration in the retina at the point at which images are focused) is a typical result of the aging process, as the formation of cataracts (opaque defects in the transparency of the lens of the eye). Prevent Blindness America estimates that AMD may affect 13 million individuals in this country. Cataracts impair the vision of roughly four million Americans. Some authorities estimate that thirty percent of all adults aged 70 and older suffer from some form of vision impairment.
Culinary herbs seldom began their human histories as mere flavorings. Indeed, the kitchen herb and spice rack could reasonably be dubbed the kitchen medicine chest and several useful books have done just that. Oregano is a good example of a culinary herb that leads a double life. In much of the world, this plant continues to be used not just to flavor and preserve food, but also to disinfect surfaces and wounds, to calm the stomach, and much more. For some of these purposes, oregano extracts may still be as good or better than many of the modern alternatives. In other words, the health benefits of oregano are not only "traditional" or "folk remedies."
Milk thistle, as is true of similarly classic liver tonics from the Chinese tradition, such as bupleurum, has occupied a central spot in herbalism for good reasons, many of which remain true today.
This herbal tonic generally ranks high in recognition and sales with the American public in comparison with other botanical products. Nevertheless, its sales here are small on a per capita basis compared with, say, Germany, perhaps as little as 25 percent of what might be expected. Both old research and new suggest that milk thistle deserves even wider appreciation.
The role of probiotics in maintaining health no longer is quite as obscure to Americans as it once was. Yogurt is touted in TV and print advertisements; sometimes, an actor on a show even will play up his or her fondness for yogurt to make a fictional character more human and personable. Similarly, probiotics no longer are found only in health food stores—most drugstores sell at least two or three brands. This situation certainly is an improvement in providing sources of support for digestive health. However, it also may be a bit misleading.
Stress, anxiety and depression are major factors in the lives of many of us. An estimated 9.1 percent of the population of the U.S. suffers from depression every year, which translates to approximately 28 million Americans suffering from depression for at least two weeks with significant symptoms each year. This figure does not include greater or lesser degrees of apathy. Major depression claims 4.1 percent of the population, which is to say, from 12 to 13 million sufferers.1
Even those who are not depressed according to the textbook definition often are not home free. All too often individuals find themselves on a “seesaw” in which they swing from frenetic activity to lethargy and back. Living habits, choices of foods and beverages, the lack of physical exercise and other everyday factors can play a big role in mood swings, but it can be hard to get back into balance once equilibrium is lost. Fortunately, the proper use of nutrients and herbs can go a long way towards helping us to “beat the blues” naturally without resorting to Prozac and other drugs, most of which have numerous and unpleasant side effects.