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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Does Chocolate Help Prevent Strokes?

There are stories everywhere that point to our daily diets as a source of health problems. Too many calories, too much saturated fat, white flour, sugar, trans fats, fried foods. Sometimes it seems that everything that tastes good is bad for you.
 I recently came across an article on the website for the Journal of the American College of Cardiology with some good news about something that tastes good, chocolate:

"Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Stroke in Women

Ample evidence indicates that chocolate may have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. Chocolate consumption has been shown to reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure in short-term randomized feeding trials, and has been demonstrated to improve endothelial and platelet function and to ameliorate insulin resistance. Moreover, flavonoids in chocolate possess strong antioxidant activity and can suppress oxidation of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

...only women in the highest quartile of chocolate consumption (median 66.5 g/week) had a significantly reduced risk of stroke, suggesting that higher intakes are necessary for a potential protective effect.

...In summary, results from this cohort of women suggest that a high chocolate consumption is associated with a lower risk of stroke."

Read the full article here: JACC Stroke and Chocolate

The benefits from eating chocolate seem strongest with dark chocolate, it seems that the higher cocoa amount boosts the health benefits. I have also seen research that suggests that cocoa contains similar health benefits without the calories and fat, for example, NIH, the National Institutes of Health lists these articles: “Effects of cocoa powder and dark chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostaglandin concentrations in humans.” “Cacao seeds are a ‘Super Fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” “The beneficial vascular effects of cacao flavanols: having your cake and eating it too.”,and many more on the health benefits of cocoa and chocolate.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Can Eating Walnuts Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer

We have seen walnuts recommended as good for the heart for quite some time now. Some recent research, reported in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, says that eating walnuts may also help lower the risk of breast cancer.

These statistics come from the National Cancer Institute website:

Estimated new cases and deaths from breast cancer in the United States in 2011:

New cases: 230,480 (female); 2,140 (male)
Deaths: 39,520 (female); 450 (male)

Here is an excerpt from the abstract  from Nutrition and Cancer, reporting on the study, "Dietary Walnut Suppressed Mammary Gland Tumorigenesis in the C(3)1 TAg Mouse." (July 20,2011)

"Walnuts contain multiple ingredients that, individually, have been shown to slow cancer growth, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and phytosterols*. In previous research, consumption of walnuts has slowed the growth of implanted breast cancers...Compared to a diet without walnuts, consumption of walnuts significantly reduced tumor incidence (fraction of mice with at least one tumor), multiplicity (number of glands with tumor/mouse), and size...A comparison with another dietary intervention indicated that the omega 3 content alone did not account for the extent of tumor suppression due to the walnut. The results of this study indicate that walnut consumption could contribute to a healthy diet to reduce risk for breast cancer."

(*Phytosterols are naturally occurring plant compounds. You can read the Wikipedia article about phytosterols, if you want more information.)

Walnuts are good for the heart, and now they may also help reduce the incidence of breast cancer. And they taste good, and are a natural product. (I think raw, unsalted walnuts are a better choice than roasted , salted ones.) It seems like a no-brainer to add them to your diet.  If you are watching your weight, just pay attention to the calories you are eating, make sure not to overdo it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Natural Home Remedies and Relaxation Drinks

I have been doing a series on natural home remedies for insomnia and anxiety over the last few weeks. I have been seeing commercially marketed products calling themselves “relaxation’ or “serenity” drinks. I did a little research to see what I could find out about them.

It seems like there are new “relaxation” drinks on store shelves every week, my concern is that most are just trying to make a quick buck, and may not be very effective.

I found an article on Prevention magazine’s website about these so-called “relaxation” drinks:

Stressed and sleep deprived? In our frazzled world, ample sleep and relaxation seem to be elusive goals. Now manufacturers are trying to cash in on our need to relax, and the market is anything but sluggish. More than 350 varieties of so-called relaxation drinks have hit the shelves, with revenues expected to reach $73 million this year.

 But do they work? Prevention investigated and found some unpleasant surprises with these 'serenity sips.' Because they're not FDA regulated and many labels cite a proprietary blend, a buyer has no idea how much of each active ingredient--melatonin, valerian, L-theanine, and others--is actually captured in the can or bottle. There's also limited research on how these relaxants interact with one another. Nor are they all shelf stable: Some of these compounds degrade in liquid.

Read the full article here: Relaxation Drinks

The article did not conclude that any of the drinks they tested were worthwhile as relaxation aids. After reading the article, I will personally stick with preparing my own “relaxation” drinks. Chamomile tea is relaxing, and much cheaper than these new products; green tea is a natural source of L-theanine, and some research has shown that if you take a supplement of L-theanine, if you take it with green tea, you absorb more of the active constituents.. If I want to use some of the other supplements mentioned I will look for a standardized supplement by a manufacturer who has been around long enough to earn my trust.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What Is Insomnia and How Is It Treated?

I have written about insomnia before, and recommended some natural home remedies to help with insomnia. I found some information about insomnia on the National Institute of Health website, and I wanted to share some key points:

Insomnia is a common condition in which you have trouble falling or staying asleep. The condition can range from mild to severe, depending on how often it occurs and for how long.
• Insomnia can be chronic (ongoing) or acute (short-term). Chronic insomnia means having symptoms at least 3 nights a week for more than a month. Insomnia that lasts for less time is acute insomnia.
• There are two types of insomnia. The most common type is secondary insomnia. This type of insomnia is a symptom or side effect of an emotional, neurological, or other medical or sleep disorder. Secondary insomnia also may result from using certain medicines or substances, such as caffeine.
• Primary insomnia isn't a symptom or side effect of another medical condition. It is its own disorder. A number of life changes can trigger primary insomnia, such as long-lasting stress or emotional upset. Even if these issues are resolved, the insomnia might not go away.
• Insomnia is a common disorder. One in 3 adults has insomnia sometimes. One in 10 adults has chronic insomnia.

As you can see, a large number of adults have at least occasional insomnia, and about 10% suffer from chronic insomnia.

There are a number of approaches to treat insomnia. These include drugs, lifestyle changes, natural remedies, and behavioral therapy.

Sometimes, a few common sense lifestyle changes are all that you need to help you fall asleep faster:

  • If you drink caffeinated beverages of any kind, stop; or don’t drink any after lunch.
  • If you drink alcohol, it can make you fall asleep, but it will disrupt the quality of your sleep, so you should not drink several hours before you go to bed.
  • Don’t watch television in bed, the flickering light will keep you from feeling sleepy. So will the constant scene changes, and changing volume levels.
  • Don’t work in bed. It will keep your mind active when you should be winding down.
  • Don’t read in bed. If you feel you need to read before bed to feel drowsy, do it in a chair close to your bed, and do not use a bright light.
  • Make sure the lights are dimmed as you are getting ready for bed; this signals your brain that it is time to produce melatonin. (A naturally produced hormone that makes you feel sleepy.)
  • Don’t exercise vigorously before going to bed. Some gentle stretching and deep breathing may help you wind down, but vigorous exercise will keep you from falling asleep.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps your body establish a natural sleep cycle.

In my next post, I will continue talking about insomnia treatments.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Natural Anxiety Remedies: Passionflower

I wanted to continue my posts about natural anxiety remedies by talking about the herb Passionflower. Its botanical name is Passiflora, often with a second word such as passiflora officinale, or passiflora incarnata, both of which are listed as alternative names for Passionflower.

Passionflower has been used for centuries to treat anxiety, and insomnia. It is often used in combination with other herbs such as valerian or scullcap.

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database has this to say about the use of passionflower to treat anxiety: "There is some evidence that passionflower can reduce symptoms of anxiety, sometimes as effectively as some prescription medications."

There was a study done in 2001 that compared Passionflower to oxazepam in the treatment of GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), which concluded: "The results suggest that Passiflora extract is an effective drug for the management of generalized anxiety disorder, and the low incidence of impairment of job performance with Passiflora extract compared to oxazepam is an advantage." (The drug oxazepam had worked faster, but did impair job performance during the study.)

You can read more about this study here: Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics.

You should use caution with Passionflower if you are using any other kind of sedative preparation, as Passionflower could intensify the effect. Passionflower is generally considered safe in normal doses, but some side effects have been reported, such as dizziness, confusion, irregular muscle action and coordination, altered consciousness, and inflamed blood vessels. (I have personally used Passionflower without any problems, and have recommended to others, also with no problem. I mention the reported side effects only because they appear in some of the publications which describe the use of Passionflower, and I wanted to make sure my readers are aware of, what I believe is a very slim, possibility of side effects.)

I have found Passionflower can be a safe and effective natural anxiety remedy, and recommend you try it, if you are looking for a natural alternative.

If you have severe anxiety symptoms, please consult a professional. If you are taking any medication, please talk to your doctor before you begin taking Passionflower, or any other natural remedy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Natural Home Remedy for Anxiety

We live in a stressful society, and with so much uncertainty facing nearly everyone, it's no wonder more and more people are feeling anxious. If you are having serious anxiety problems (meaning they interfere with your day to day life) please consult with a medical or mental health professional; don't try to treat your anxiety symptoms with natural remedies.

For mild anxiety, there are several natural remedies that may help, including herbs and supplements. I would like to start by talking about one of the safest, chamomile. (If you have pollen or ragweed allergies, chamomile may set them off.) The National institute of Health reports on a study that was done using a standardized extract of German chamomile to treat anxiety:

"Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) has a wide array of psychological and physical symptoms. Although prescription drugs can help, they often have undesirable side effects. Many people experiencing symptoms of anxiety do not seek medical attention, turning instead to alternatives. One traditional remedy in widespread use is the herb chamomile. However, scientific evidence to support the use of chamomile for anxiety has been lacking.

NCCAM-funded researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to test the effects of chamomile extract in patients diagnosed with mild to moderate GAD...

...Compared with placebo, chamomile was associated with a greater reduction in mean HAM-A (Hamilton Anxiety Rating) scores—the study's primary outcome measure. The difference was clinically meaningful and statistically significant...

...These results suggest that chamomile may have modest benefits for some people with mild to moderate GAD..."

Chamomile has a reputation for being soothing and calming, so it is no surprise that it may help with mild anxiety. While the study used a standardized extract, I have personally used chamomile tea and felt its calming effect. (The study also cautions that other varieties of chamomile may not be as effective as German chamomile.) Chamomile tea is tasty, and relatively inexpensive, so if you want to see if it will help calm your anxiety, I would recommend trying it. If you don't feel like it's working, you can look for a standardized extract. The study used 220mg capsules, standardized to 1.2 percent of the constituent apigenin; so look for that on the label. The study also began with a single capsule, increased to two capsules in week 2, and then incrementally increased the dosage up to 5 capsules, as warranted.

I will write several future posts about other natural home remedies for anxiety; but please, if your symptoms are severe, consult a professional.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Natural Home Remedies and Insomnia

It has been some time since I wrote about natural home remedies and insomnia. It seems a good time to talk about insomnia now, with so many people facing higher and higher levels of stress every day.

Insomnia is generally considered a symptom rather than a disease, and stress is one condition that can produce insomnia.

Insomnia is defined as difficulty in falling or staying asleep, the absence of restful sleep, or poor quality of sleep.

There is a good article from MedicineNet.com on insomnia, which talks about some of the causes, and possible treatments:

"The most common causes of insomnia are:

psychological conditions (for example, depression, anxiety),
environmental changes (travel, jet lag, or altitude changes), and
stressful events or a stressful lifestyle.

Insomnia can also be caused by poor sleeping habits such as excessive daytime naps or caffeine consumption and poor sleep hygiene.

The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health estimates 30%-40% of adults report some symptoms of insomnia each year, and about 10%-15% report they have chronic insomnia."

The article on MedicineNet also lists some medications, both over the counter and prescription medications that may contribute to insomnia. You can read the full article here: Sleep Aids.

As a long time herbalist, I disagree with the statement from this article "the safety or effectiveness of these products has not been documented" with relation to Valerian.

Valerian is a natural remedy for insomnia that has been used at least since the time of Hippocrates. To say that its safety or efficacy are in question is to ignore centuries of use. There is no pharmaceutical insomnia treatment with as long a record of safe and effective use.

Many of the studies I have seen have used a water extract of valerian; herbalists know that an alcohol extract is more effective. Also, many studies have still observed improvements in insomnia after taking valerian.

Here are some reports from the National Institute of Health's (NIH) fact sheet on Valerian:
(They are discussing three studies which they rated as 5 out of 5 in a rating of the quality of the study)
The first study: "Compared with the placebo, the valerian extract resulted in a subjective improvement in time required to fall asleep (more or less difficult than usual), sleep quality (better or worse than usual), and number of nighttime awakenings (more or less than usual).This result was more pronounced in a subgroup of 61 participants who identified themselves as poor sleepers..."

The second study: "The 450-mg test sample of valerian extract reduced average sleep latency (defined as the first 5-minute period without movement)from about 16 to 9 minutes, which is similar to the activity of prescription benzodiazepine medication (used as a sedative or tranquilizer)."

The third study: "...examined longer-term effects in 121 participants with documented nonorganic insomnia...After 28 days, the group receiving the valerian extract showed a decrease in insomnia symptoms on all the assessment tools compared with the placebo group. The differences in improvement between valerian and placebo increased between the assessments done on days 14 and 28."

And a more recent study called Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial, concluded: "Valerian improves the quality of sleep in women with menopause who are experiencing insomnia. Findings from this study add support to the reported effectiveness of valerian in the clinical management of insomnia."

You can read about the first three studies here: Valerian Fact Sheet

The more recent study can be read here:  Valerian and Postmenopausal Women