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Americans are eating so much ultra-processed food that it's now more than 50% of their daily calories. And why shouldn't they eat these foods? They're easy to get (fast foods, prepackaged foods, take out foods), they taste good, and they're great for people pressed for time. That's why they're called "convenience foods" and include fast foods, prepackaged foods, many frozen meals, take out foods, soda, packaged snacks, and many cakes, candies, and cookies.

But... there's a dark side to highly processed food. It is linked to all sorts of harmful health effects (cancer, Alzheimer's disease, etc), to chronic inflammation, and now to worse heart health. Even our beneficial gut microbes don't like highly processed foods. Instead, they like real whole foods, especially plant based foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes.

There are all sorts of ingredients in ultra-processed foods that are laboratory concoctions, from artificial and natural flavors, colors, additives, preservatives, etc. Read the ingredient lists!

The results of a new study by researchers at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found that  for every 5% increase in calories from ultra-processed foods a person ate, there was a corresponding decrease in overall cardiovascular (heart) health.

From Science Daily: Too much ultra-processed food linked to lower heart health  ...continue reading "Highly Processed Foods and Heart Health"

The last few years has seen a loosening of all sorts environmental rules here in the United States, including air pollution. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is not looking out for ordinary people, but doing its best to be as accommodating as possible to big industry. Pollution standards and rules are going backwards! A lot.

[NY Times Dec. 2018 list of 78 environmental rules on the way out. Since then things have only gotten worse - see regulatory rollback tracker from Harvard Law School. Posts on air pollution and health effects.]

Which is why I'm now posting an article about 5 personal air pollution monitors that measure what is in the air around you -  whether in your home, workplace,  or outside. Some can be carried around, others meant to be set up indoors. Most are small, portable, and under $250 (Aeroquel is more expensive). They measure particulates in the air plus other things such as VOCs.

They are Atmotube, Plume LabAwairAeroqual, and Purple Air monitors. Purple Air monitors smoke, dust, and particulate pollution, and connects a person into an air quality network, so that there is "real time" monitoring. They all are a little different, and all look good. I really, really want an air pollution monitor!

Since this NY Times article was published, it appears that new versions of the pollution monitors (more advanced) are available from these companies.

Excerpts from a Nov. 30, 2018 article by Nellie Bowles in the New York Times: Do You Know What You’re Breathing?  ...continue reading "You Can Easily Measure the Air Quality Around You"

Generations of people were raised thinking that when a person sleeps, that the brain is also resting. Well.... that was then, but the new view is that when we are sleeping, a number of important things are occurring. A main activity during sleep is that the brain is flushing out the garbage, that is, waste products or toxins. [Some other stuff going on includes cell repair, building of bone and muscle, memory consolidation, and strengthening of the immune system.]

A team of Boston researchers found that first a wave of electrical signal in the neurons of the brain occurs (known as a slow wave), and seconds after that a pulse of cerebrospinal fluid washes through the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the liquid that flows through the brain and spinal cord. The researchers, who studied sleeping humans, said that the waves were like a really slow wash cycle in the brain, and that this was happening every 20 seconds during deep sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep). Their thinking is that the fluid washes away toxins associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Bottom line: Make sure to get enough sleep! Your health depends on it.

From NPR: How Deep Sleep May Help The Brain Clear Alzheimer's Toxins

The brain waves generated during deep sleep appear to trigger a cleaning system in the brain that protects it against Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.  ...continue reading "The Brain Flushes Out Waste and Toxins During Deep Sleep"

For years it has been known that eating foods with artificial trans fats has serious health effects. It has been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, inflammation, and risk of early death, diabetes, and poorer memory in middle-aged men. Now the results of a study, which followed 1628 older residents of a Japanese community for a decade, found that we can add dementia and Alzheimer's disease to this list.

The researchers measured blood levels of elaidic acid, which is a biomarker for artificial (industrial) trans fats. Those persons in the groups with the highest levels of elaidic acid had higher levels of dementia and Alzheimer's disease after a decade (a linear association - the higher the levels, the higher the incidence), but there was no association with vascular dementia.

The researchers found that eating sweet pastries, margarine, sugar confections (e.g. candy, caramels, chewing gum), croissants, nondairy creamers, ice cream, and rice crackers were all the strongest predictors of having higher serum elaidic levels in this study. [Notice that margarine, which for years was considered "healthy", is now considered "unhealthy" because of its trans fats.]

The FDA banned the use of trans fats in foods starting June 2018, but there is a big loophole, a really big loophole. Foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats are allowed to be labeled as ZERO grams of trans fats, because they are allowing the companies to round downward. So if a person eats a number of foods per day containing these "minimal" amounts, they add up. And in this way one can wind up with pretty high levels in the blood. [By the way, some countries still allow trans fats. Also, read the interesting story of the man behind the U.S. ban.]

Where are trans fats still found? Trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils, as well as in other types of refined oils, monoglycerides, diglycerides and other emulsifiers, and even in flavors and colors. They are found in a lot of processed food (e.g. baked goods, vegetable shortening, vegetable oils, whipped toppings), so read ingredient labels carefully and avoid them. As usual, best are real whole foods . If you see something that you don't routinely have and cook with in your kitchen, then avoid that ingredient. For example, do you have monoglycerides in your kitchen? NO? Then it's an ingredient to avoid.

From Medscape: Trans Fats Tied to Increased Dementia Risk  ...continue reading "Trans Fats and Dementia"

The results of a recent study makes sense - that different microbes are found in city and town apartments and homes versus rural homes and jungle huts. And of course one would expect these different exposures to have an effect on our health. Guess where one gets more fresh air and sunlight, and where one has more chemical exposures?

Inside modern city and town buildings is lots of exposure to all sorts of plastics, human made chemicals, cleaners (and disinfectants), pesticides, medications, lack of fresh air, and along with lack of sunlight - all sorts of fungi. On the other hand, in rural areas there is fresher air, more sunlight, and more natural materials. [Remember: it's plastics and modern chemical compounds that outgas into the air and are a cause of air pollution. And yes, get into our bodies and affect our health negatively.]

The study was conducted in Peru and Brazil by several big names in the microbiome field, including Martin Blaser, Rob Knight, and Maria Dominguez-Bello. As the researchers point out, we have replaced a natural environment with a synthetic environment. Bottom line: get out into nature as much as possible, even if it's just walks. Try to use natural materials in your home (e.g., wood and not just plastic furniture), try to use "natural" products, and fewer chemicals routinely (pesticides, disinfectants, etc)

From Futurity: More Fungi Live In Urban Homes Than In Jungle Huts  ...continue reading "Different Microbes Live In Urban Homes Versus Really Rural Homes"

Researchers in Canada found that sunlight (or UVB light) on the skin changes the gut microbes (gut microbiome), especially in people with lower levels of vitamin D, that is, who are vitamin D deficient. UVB (Ultraviolet B light) exposure increased beneficial gut microbe diversity and richness in these people, as well as increasing their vitamin D levels. However, people who had been taking vitamin D supplements prior to the study, and who had sufficient vitamin D levels, did not have significant gut microbiome changes.

The researchers viewed the study results as evidence that there may be a skin-gut axis. As the researcher Vallance said: “It is likely that exposure to UVB light somehow alters the immune system in the skin initially, then more systemically, which in turn affects how favorable the intestinal environment is for the different bacteria,” suggested Vallance.

The researchers also thought that these study results (which was conducted in Vancouver, Canada, in healthy human volunteers) could help explain the protective effect of UVB light against inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). And how did the researchers know what bacteria were in the gut in the study participants? They analyzed the feces with modern genetic sequencing methods. By the way, these results match what has been found in earlier studies in humans and mice.

Bottom line: Sunlight on the skin is beneficial to the gut microbiome, by increasing gut bacteria linked to health. In the study the increases in bacteria (after UVB light exposures) were in the Lachnospiraceae, Ruminococcus, and Clostridiaeae families. And nope, none of those are found in currently available probiotics. By the way, this study was conducted in winter in Canada, so the effects of UVB light were clearly seen in the healthy volunteers. This study supports getting some sunlight exposure (on the skin), and perhaps supplementing with vitamin D in the winter.

From Medical Xpress: Where the sun doesn't shine? Skin UV exposure reflected in poop  ...continue reading "Exposure To Sunlight Improves Gut Microbes and Vitamin D Levels"

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Researchers are starting to raise concerns about routine daily intake of probiotics for "gut health". Much is still unknown, but problems are starting to appear. A healthy gut contains hundreds of species (bacteria, fungi, viruses), and taking megadoses of a few species (a probiotic supplement) can overwhelm the normal gut microbial community. A healthy gut is one with a greater diversity of species, not just some species.

For example, one study found that daily probiotic ingestion can result in overgrowth of some bacterial species in the intestines, resulting in such symptoms as brain fogginess, bloating, and gas. Successful treatment was antibiotics and stopping the use of probiotics.   Another recent study found that after using antibiotics, those who took probiotics (thinking it would help microbial recolonization of the gut microbes) actually had slower recovery of the gut microbiome (microbial community).  The best recovery was in those who took nothing, no supplements at all, or those who received a fecal microbial transplant (where an entire microbial community is transplanted).

The evidence is showing that for gut microbial health, the best thing to do is eat a variety of real whole foods (and not highly processed foods) that have lots of fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes (beans). In other words, feed the beneficial bacteria. A Mediterranean style diet is good.

A recent article in Medscape (the medical site) highlights these same concerns. [See below.] A study that looked at the gut microbiome of people who were about to undergo treatment for melanoma found that those who were taking probiotics actually had worse gut microbial diversity. [Remember, gut microbial diversity is considered an indicator of gut health.] And the cancer treatment (immunotherapy) did not work as well on them.

Bottom line: The evidence is showing that for gut microbial health, the best thing to do is eat a variety of real whole foods (and not highly processed foods) that have lots of fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes (beans). In other words, feed the beneficial bacteria. A Mediterranean style diet is good. Don't take routine daily supplements or probiotics for  "gut health" - they won't help. Instead, if you want - only take probiotics for a short while for a specific symptom or problem.

Dr. Lorenzo Cohen wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal laying out those same points. Some excerpts from: Those Probiotics May Actually Be Hurting Your ‘Gut Health’  ...continue reading "Daily Use of Probiotics Can Hurt Gut Health"

The evidence is building, study by study, that we are all exposed to a mixture of hormone disrupting chemicals (endocrine disruptors) on a daily basis, and that these have serious health effects, including on the developing fetus during pregnancy. Researchers found that early prenatal exposure to a mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals  was associated with lower levels of cognitive functioning (lower IQ scores) at age seven, particularly among boys.

Researchers in New York City and Sweden looked at the impact of 26 endocrine disrupting chemicals during pregnancy on 718 Swedish mother-child pairs. It appeared that the higher the exposure during pregnancy, the more of an effect at age 7. Especially harmful was the BPA replacement chemical BPF - this is because it is chemically related to BPA.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) include bisphenols (BPA and its replacement  chemicals, such as BPF - used in products called "BPA free"), phthalates (especially used in vinyl products), parabens, chemicals used in flame retardants and non-stick coatings,  and some pesticides (e.g. the commonly used chlorpyrifos).

Especially worrisome is that while scientists typically test chemicals one at a time to determine their safety, in the real world we are all exposed to mixtures of these chemicals in our food, consumer products (including personal care products and cosmetics), and environment. Some of these chemicals can cross the placenta during pregnancy and so have an effect on the developing the fetus, including brain and neurological development. Yes, some of these chemicals are only in the body for a short time, but during critical developmental  stages, the effects can be big - even at very low exposures.

Bottom line: If trying to conceive a child or during pregnancy, try to minimize exposure to plastics, pesticides, flame retardants, non-stick cookware, stain-proofing (in fabric and rugs), fragrances and scented products (including air fresheners and dryer sheets), and food stored in cans and plastic containers. Avoid triclosan, anti-odor, antibacterial, anti-germ products and clothing. Avoid parabens (in lotions, etc). Read labels. Glass and stainless steel is perfectly fine. Use unscented or fragrance free products as much as possible.

From Medical Xpress: Chemicals in consumer products during early pregnancy related to lower IQ   ...continue reading "Pregnancy, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, and Lower IQ"

Food is all important for health. A recent study (that analyzed data from 10 large studies in the US, Europe, and Asia) found an association between high fiber intake from foods and also frequent eating of yogurt with a lower incidence of lung cancer. Persons with the highest yogurt and fiber consumption had a 33% reduced risk of lung cancer (when compared to the group who did not consume yogurt and consumed the least amount of fiber).

Think of it this way: The fiber in foods feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut. High fiber foods that feed microbes in the gut are known as prebiotics. It is good to eat a variety of foods, because they provide a variety of fibers. High fiber foods are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seed, nuts, and legumes (beans).

Gut microbes use fiber to generate short-chain fatty acids, and these are anti-inflammatory. Evidence suggests that the beneficial effects are not restricted to the gut, but reach organs throughout the body, including the lungs. The researchers suggest that both fiber and yogurt have anti-inflammatory effects, and the combination of fiber and yogurt is stronger against lung cancer than either alone. They also thought that the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species in yogurt somehow help improve the gut microbial system.

From Medical Xpress:  High fiber, yogurt diet associated with lower lung cancer risk  ...continue reading "High Fiber Foods, Yogurt, and Lung Cancer"

Reading the following study, I thought to myself - OK, once again someone is testing a supplement, but generally studies find that supplements don't do as well as real, actual foods in whatever is being tested. In this case, a supplement containing lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, was tested by researchers in the UK to see if it would help with sperm quality in men. Other studies have found dietary lycopene to have health benefits (e.g. lower incidence of lethal prostate cancer), which is among the reasons the researchers focused on testing it for semen quality.

The study design was nice - with 60 young healthy men randomly assigned to one of 2 groups - the supplement group and the placebo group, and no one knew who was assigned to which group (double blind). They took either the lycopene supplement (14 mg/d of lactolycopene, equivalent to 2 kg of cooked tomatoes)  or a placebo for 12 weeks. They found changes in sperm quality after the 12 weeks, with significant improvement in the proportion of "fast progressive sperm" and normally shaped sperm (morphology). However, "motile sperm concentration" (the number of moving sperm) did not improve - and this is considered the main measure associated with chance of conception. So it is unknown how the 2 things that improved would affect fertility.

Bottom line: Studies find numerous health benefits from diets rich in fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and other red foods, such as watermelon, papaya, and pink grapefruit. And yes - ketchup is a good source. Apparently more lycopene is bioavailable when tomatoes are cooked or processed, especially when cooked in oil (as compared to raw tomatoes). And when eating fruits and vegetables, try to eat as many that are organically grown, because eating fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residues has a negative effect on sperm quality.

From Science Daily: Dietary supplement from tomatoes discovered to boost sperm quality  ...continue reading "Lycopene In Tomatoes and Sperm Quality"