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Over the course of the last two decades there have been changes in the American diet. A recent study found that Americans now eat more ultra-processed foods than ever (53.5% of calories), and have decreased their consumption of minimally processed foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat). This is not good for health.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity and some chronic diseases. It is also not good for the gut microbiome (the community of millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the intestines). Ultra-processed foods include sugary breakfast cereals, sweets, frozen pizza, soda, fast food, salty snacks, canned soup. They can contain preservatives, additives, artificial ingredients, and emulsifiers (which are linked to gut inflammation).

The study by New York University researchers found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57 percent at the end (2017-2018). They found that ready-to-eat or just heat meals (e.g., frozen dinners) increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks (e.g. soda) declined.

Most of the decrease in minimally processed whole foods (from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories in two decades) was mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy. And who increased their intake of ultra-processed foods the most during this time? Older adults (age 60 and over), who also decreased their intake of whole foods the most over 2 decades.

Bottom line: try to increase your intake of real whole foods, and decrease your intake of ultra-processed foods. This would benefit your gut microbiome (feed the good gut microbes with whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts) and your health.

From Science Daily - Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased over the past two decades across nearly all segments of the U.S. population, according to a new study by researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health.  ...continue reading "Americans Are Eating More Ultra-Processed Food Than Ever"

While many doctors encourage routine medical check-ups for healthy adults each year, others have raised doubts whether this is really necessary. There is also the issue of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which  may actually cause harm.

Doubts about any benefits from annual general medical physicals, medical tests, and screenings for healthy adults (who have no symptoms) have been expressed for years by physicians, researchers, and some studies not finding any benefit (e.g., no decreases in heart disease, stroke, and deaths). Other countries also do not recommend all these routine screenings for healthy adults with no symptoms.

I recently came across the following interesting article by Dr. Jeremy Faust, a physician who writes at Inside Medicine. His background: MD, MS, board-certified emergency physician, founding editor of Brief19 (daily reports by physicians on the frontline of COVID-19), researcher, and author. He recommends a primary care doctor, but not an annual check-up for healthy adults (no symptoms), and discusses research supporting this.

Excerpts from Dr. Jeremy Faust at Inside Medicine: Do you really need a routine medical checkup?

Have decades of medical progress since changed the prognosis for routine checkups? To find out, a group of researchers in the United States recently analyzed the results of all the trials performed by other researchers since. The findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ...  ...continue reading "Annual Medical Physical May Be Unnecessary for Healthy Adults"

The incredibly high use of pesticides in this country, especially when routinely applied to crops, lawns, and residence interiors, is worrisome. Over 1 billion pounds used in the US annually! Not only are there all sorts of environmental effects, including contamination of water, air, soil, but pesticides also have health effects on humans and wildlife. It seems that with each new study, more concerns are raised.

A recent large study found a link with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and exposure to pesticides. The Dartmouth College researchers found the link with about two dozen neurotoxic pesticides, including 2,4-D, chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, permethrin, MCPB, carbaryl, and paraquat.

Note that 2,4-D is a herbicide (weed-killer) that is used in crops, and also in feed and weed products for lawns. Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide in the world, and used extensively on crops in the US.

The study has limitations, but it should definitely get people investigating this possibility more. For a while now, pesticide exposure has been hypothesized to be a risk factor for ALS. This is a progressive and fatal disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.

Excerpts from Environmental Health News: Higher estimated pesticide exposures linked to ALS risk

Every year, approximately 5,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.  ...continue reading "Pesticides and Lou Gehrig’s Disease"

Planned home births are safe, as safe as births at a birth center. Those are the conclusions from a large Washington state study looking at low-risk women delivering with a licensed midwife at either a licensed birth center or at home. This is very reassuring because home births are considered controversial in the US.

The Univ. of British Columbia and Bastyr Univ. researchers analyzed outcomes of 10,609 births, of which 40.9% were planned home births and 59.1% were planned birth center births. Overall, they found low Cesarean rates (4.7%), high breastfeeding rates (93%), and low rates of complications in both groups. The infant death rate was also low in both groups, with 0.57 deaths per 1,000 (includes perinatal and and neonatal deaths).

It must be stressed that in this study they looked at low-risk pregnant women. Low-risk meant they were healthy pregnancies, with babies full-term, only 1 baby (not twins), babies were in a head down position (not breech), the women did not have a prior cesarean delivery, no hypertensive disorders, and no pre-pregnancy diabetes. By the way, Washington state is supportive of midwives, and they are well-integrated into the health care system.

The study results are similar to a large international study comparing planned home births with planned hospital births and finding no differences between the two in risk of perinatal or neonatal death.

From Medical Xpress: Planned home birth presents little risk where midwifery is well-integrated: study

In the state of Washington, a planned home birth with a licensed midwife is just as safe as a birth at a licensed birth center.  ...continue reading "Comparing Home Births With Birth Center Births"

Something to ponder: Are tiny plastic particles (microplastics) that enter the human body traveling to the brain and causing harm? An article by the science writer Erica Cirino examines that question by looking at existing research and comes to the disturbing conclusion of: Yes, they are.

Yes, that plastic particles are inhaled or ingested (in food, water, and air), that many are excreted, but some travel to organs in the body, are absorbed in the bloodstream, and some eventually cross into the brain. Research in fish shows that this ultimately results in abnormal (dysfunctional) behavior. [Note: she is the author of the book Thicker Than Water, which addresses the plastics pollution problem.]

One problem is that plastic particles contain all the chemicals in the original plastic, which includes endocrine (hormone) disruptors.  Another is that the plastic particles accumulate once they are in the organs. Yes, studies find plastic particles in humans (e.g., the placenta, the lungs, and other tissues) and also that many microparticles are excreted in feces. But much is still unknown.

A study by Canadian researchers estimated that the consumption of microplastics by Americans ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles (depending on age and sex) each year. When they added in inhalation of microplastic particles, the numbers increased to 74,000 to 121,000. And those who only drink bottled water may be getting an additional 90,000 microplastics (versus about 4000 microplastics from tap water). Yikes!

Since more and more plastics are entering the environment each year, then this does not bode well for humans. We need to deal with plastic pollution!

Excerpts from an article by Erica Cirino in The Scientist: Opinion: Plastic Pollution May Endanger Brains

In 1950, 2 million metric tons of plastic were produced globally; in 2015, petro-chemical companies churned out 381 million metric tons. Most plastic waste—more than 6.3 billion metric tons of it has been generated by humans over the last 80 years—is never recycled. And to scientists’ best knowledge, petroleum-based plastic will never biodegrade. Instead, it breaks up into ever-smaller particles that always remain plastic.  ...continue reading "Microplastics Are Entering Our Bodies"

For years pregnant women were told that taking acetaminophen (also known as paracetamol) during pregnancy is OK - that it doesn't harm the baby. And more than half of pregnant women worldwide report taking acetaminophen (in Tylenol) during pregnancy, whether for pain, fever, or headaches. Ooops! It may not be harmless.

Acetaminophen is the most common drug taken by pregnant women. But... research suggests that the drug can alter fetal development, and this can increase the risks of some neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, language delay in girls, and decreased IQ), reproductive tract disorders (e.g. male undescended testicles), and urogenital disorders in the baby. It is an endocrine disruptor. The studies find similar results in both humans and animals.

As a result, more than 90 scientists, doctors, and public health researchers published a consensus statement calling on U.S. and European regulators to conduct new safety reviews of acetaminophen, to raise awareness of possible dangers of the drug, and for doctors to inform women of possible risks of taking the drug during pregnancy..

Bottom line:  If you absolutely need to take Tylenol during pregnancy, use the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.

From Environmental Health News: Researchers, doctors call for regulators to reassess safety of taking acetaminophen during pregnancy

More than 90 scientists, doctors, and public health researchers are calling on U.S. and European regulators to conduct new safety reviews of acetaminophen, pointing to mounting evidence that fetal exposure to the commonly used pain reliever could increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders and reproductive system effects.  ...continue reading "Acetaminophen Use During Pregnancy May Harm the Baby"

When COVID-19 vaccines first became available to the general public in 2021, women were concerned over whether it was safe to get vaccinated during pregnancy. The answer (from medical studies) is yes, the vaccines are safe and beneficial for both the mother and baby. This is great news!

Also, a recent study found that when women get a mRNA vaccine (either Pfizer or Moderna) during pregnancy, they pass high levels of antibodies to their babies. This means 100% of the babies had protective antibodies to COVID-19 when they were born. The New York University researchers found the highest level of antibodies in the infants when the mothers received the vaccine in the second half of pregnancy.

Current CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women get the COVID-19 vaccine. This is because getting COVID-19 during pregnancy can result in more severe disease, higher risk of preterm birth and  pregnancy outcomes.

BOTTOM LINE: Getting the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy protects both the mother and baby. (By the way, studies also find that nursing transfers antibodies to the baby in the breast milk, but it is still unclear if the levels are high enough to fully protect the baby from COVID-19).

From Science Daily: Pregnant women who receive COVID-19 vaccination pass protection from the virus to their newborns

Women who receive the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy pass high levels of antibodies to their babies, a new study finds.  ...continue reading "The COVID-19 Vaccine During Pregnancy Protects Both Mother and Baby"

Many people somehow think that COVID-19 is just another flu virus and not that bad. Wrong! The deadly flu epidemic of 1918 killed an estimated 675,000 persons in the United States. But COVID-19 has already killed more than 690,000 persons - and these are the confirmed cases! It is now officially the deadliest disease event or pandemic in American history.

Currently more than 1900 persons are still dying daily in the United States - so the numbers are increasing rapidly.

It is thought that actual numbers of deaths are at least 10% higher (e.g., a person dies at home from the virus, but had never taken COVID-19 test when alive). Johns Hopkins University updates case and death numbers daily (see COVID-19 Dashboard), for both the US and the rest of the world.

Very soon the official number of deaths from COVID-19 will surpass 700,000! In just two short years! Some comparisons of events causing large numbers of deaths are: the death toll for Americans in the War Between the States (Civil War) was about 650,000, and about 405,000 for World War II. The HIV/AIDS virus has killed at least 700,000 people since the beginning of the epidemic in the 1960s - but this is over the course of 60 years.

Excerpts from Stat News: Covid-19 overtakes 1918 Spanish flu as deadliest disease in American history

The Covid-19 pandemic has become the deadliest disease event in American history, with a death toll surpassing that of the 1918 Spanish flu. ...continue reading "COVID-19 Is Now the Deadliest Pandemic in American History"

Breastfeeding
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Anton Nosik

Some women struggle with breastfeeding, and wind up breastfeeding for a shorter duration than other women. A recent study suggests one reason for women stopping breastfeeding early - they may have higher levels of PFAS chemicals, called "forever chemicals", in their bodies. These chemicals have many harmful health effects, including reproductive effects (such as endocrine disruption, higher levels of infertility).

The researchers analyzed levels of 5 different PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals in the blood of more than 1000 pregnant Dutch women. They found that those with higher levels  breastfed their babies for a shorter time (up to 20% shorter time) than those with lower levels. [NOTE: almost all humans are contaminated with PFAS chemicals, but levels vary}

Where did the PFOS chemicals come from? These human-made chemicals are used as water and stain repellants, and as coatings in many common products. For example, in rugs and fabrics with added stain resistance, certain dental flosses (e.g., Oral-B Glide floss), non-stick pots and pans (e.g., Teflon coating), water resistant long-lasting make-up, water and stain resistant food packaging, and even many water supplies.

How can we reduce exposures to these chemicals and lower levels in our bodies?  There are reasons they are known as "forever chemicals" - they stick around (persist), and contaminate both humans and the environment! But we can reduce our exposures to these chemicals and then levels in our bodies will go down. It just means making some changes.

For example, avoid using non-stick pots and pans, use plain waxed dental floss, cook more at home, and eat less take-out or fast-food (to avoid the water and grease resistant package coatings). For more tips:  Avoiding Harmful Chemicals.

From Science Daily: PFAS exposure can affect women’s ability to breastfeed

Women with higher levels of PFAS in their system may be 20% more likely to stop breastfeeding early, according to a new study published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.  ...continue reading "Certain Chemicals May Have An Effect On Breastfeeding"

General Sherman, a giant sequoia tree. Credit: Wikipedia, Kimon Berlin

Trees that are several thousand years old in California's Sequoia National Park are in danger of being destroyed in this month's wildfires. Things are currently so bad that the base of some of the world's largest trees are being wrapped in aluminum fire-resistant blankets.

The trees being wrapped are giant sequoias, and the largest tree of all is called General Sherman. This tree is about 2200 to 2700 years old, 275 feet tall, over 36 feet in diameter at the base, and with a circumference of 102.6 at the base. (Almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty!).

Giant sequoia trees are adapted to fire, but both drought conditions and fires are getting more intense (climate change!) and can overwhelm them. Last year's Castle Fire destroyed an estimated 7500 to 10,600 mature giant sequoia trees that ranged in age from hundreds to 3000 years old. This is about 10 to 14% of these trees on Earth!

Giant sequoia base wrapped in fire-proof blanket. Credit: National Park Service, Sept. 16, 2021

From The Guardian: World’s largest tree wrapped in fire-resistant blanket as California blaze creeps closer

As flames crept closer to California’s cherished sequoia trees firefighters took an unusual step to protect them, wrapping the giant bases in fire-resistant blankets.

The shiny material that helps quell flames, commonly used to protect structures, is rarely applied to natural features, but crews fighting the KNP Complex fire in the Sequoia national park said they are doing everything possible to protect the iconic trees. ...continue reading "Giant Sequoia Trees Wrapped In Fire Resistant Blankets"