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Lifestyle modifications, particularly switching to plant-based diets, are effective tools in reversing diabetes.
Antioxidants in foods may reduce diabetes risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Type 2 diabetes continues to be an epidemic that is monopolizing health care budgets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence of diabetes has tripled in the last 20 years (1). We need a plan to prevent the disease and to reverse its course.

In medicine, our arsenal of drug therapies has grown considerably, but there are unpleasant side effects. Drugs have even been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease in diabetes patients, which is the number one reason that patients die.

However, there is nothing potentially more powerful with beneficial side effects than lifestyle modifications, especially diet and exercise. And when it comes to reversal, lifestyle modifications are the only potential source.

Two large observational studies, the Adventist Health Study 2 and the EPIC trial, have shown the considerable prevention abilities of diet. In terms of reversal, several studies with a plant-based diet, including one run by Dr. Neal Barnard and another that I published with Dr. Joel Fuhrman, indicate its efficacy. These are backed up by additional anecdotal stories from my clinical experience over an 11-year period.

Let’s look at the research.

Prevention of diabetes with diet

Lifestyle modifications, particularly switching to plant-based diets, are effective tools in reversing diabetes.

A recently published prospective study of the E3N EPIC trial showed considerable benefit from the antioxidant capacity of foods including fruits, vegetables and tea (2). Those who consumed the highest quintile of antioxidants reduced their diabetes risk 39 percent compared to the lowest quintile. After adjusting for weight loss, there was still a statistically significant 27 percent reduction. Interestingly, fruits had the greatest impact with a 23 percent decrease in risk, and vegetables followed with a 19 percent decrease.

This study serves two purposes: one, it shows that antioxidant capacity is important in food; and two, it demonstrates that fruit actually has beneficial effects for those at risk of diabetes. This was not solely a plant-based diet or a vegan or vegetarian diet. This is an impressive effect considering that people may have been eating many other items that may not have been beneficial in addition to fruits and vegetables.

Study participants were 64,223 women who did not have diabetes or cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study. One of the major weakness of this trial is that the food frequency questionnaire was only used at the study’s start. This means we have to assume people continued to eat the same way throughout the study.

In the Adventist Health Study, the results of a plant-based diet were very powerful. This showed significant effects and, unlike the EPIC trial, compared people who were trying to eat healthy with those who ate either a vegan or vegetarian plant-based diet. Results showed that those who ate a vegan plant-based diet and those who ate a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet were at 62 and 38 percent, respectively, lower risk of developing diabetes than those who were eating a health-conscious omnivore diet (3). This study reaffirms how a plant-based diet is so important when it comes to preventing diabetes.

There were 15,200 men and 26,187 women in this study, and the results were as impressive in both blacks and nonblacks.

Reversal of diabetes with diet

A randomized controlled trial, considered the gold standard of trials, used drug therapy to reduce HbA1C to near nondiabetes levels; however, they could not achieve this before multiple deaths occurred (4). The reason, the researchers surmise, was polypharmacy, or too many drugs.

Fortunately, this is not the case with lifestyle modifications. In one randomized controlled trial, Barnard compared a low-fat vegan diet to the American Diabetes Association diet at the time. The results showed that with a low-fat vegan diet, HbA1C was reduced significantly more than with the ADA diet (5). This trial included 49 patients on the low-fat vegan diet and 50 patients on the ADA diet. The trial duration was 74 weeks. This trial, though small, does show substantial benefit with a low-fat vegan diet.

The benefits of a plant-based diet have been known for many decades. In a 1979 study on diabetes, results showed that insulin was significantly reduced by more than half on a high carbohydrate, high-plant fiber diet (HCF) compared to a control diet (6). This effect was seen in approximately 2.5 weeks.

Involving 20 men with type 2 diabetes who had a mean duration with diabetes of 8 years, patients were started on the control diet for seven days and then switched to the HCF diet for 16 days. This showed reversal with diet over a short period of time and reduction in medication. Thus, diet does not only have an insidious (slow) effect, but it also has an acute (immediate) effect on diseases. Of course, insulin was the gold standard of treatment at the time.

More recently, in a retrospective (backward-looking) case series with 13 men and women with type 2 diabetes, results showed that HbA1C was reduced from a mean of 8.2 to 5.8 percent over a seven-month period (7). This was an impressive 2.4 percent reduction in HbA1C, and 62 percent of patients reached normal sugar levels.

At baseline, patients were on an average of four medications, including diabetes medications. By seven months, they were able to reduce this to one medication while significantly decreasing their HbA1C. In addition, their blood pressure and triglycerides improved. These patients were following a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. This study was performed by myself and Fuhrman using patients in his practice. The study’s weaknesses were that there was no control arm and that it was retrospective. But this does imply that there is potential for diabetes reversal.

In my clinical practice, I have seen many diabetes patients successfully reverse their disease. Let me share one anecdotal story. A 55-year-old diabetes male Caucasian patient told me that no relative had lived past 57 because they died from diabetes complications. He is currently 60 years old or, as he likes to put it, “three years past expiration date.”

When he first came to see me, he was on four diabetes medications, including insulin, plus a statin. He is no longer on any of these medications. These results were seen in only two months. He did lose weight, but at a much slower pace than the metabolic changes that took place in his body. This anecdotal story is inspirational and reinforces the research above.

In conclusion, while medications are important for the treatment of diabetes, nothing seems to trump lifestyle modifications. Diet, especially, can play both prevention and reversal roles. Even fruit plays a significant role in reducing the incidence of diabetes. Regardless of family history, as demonstrated by my patient, these results can be achieved. Whether or not you are on medications, if you have diabetes, lifestyle modifications should be adopted to get optimal results.

References: (1) CDC.gov. (2) Diabetologia online Nov. 9, 2017. (3) Nutr. Metab Cardiovsc Dis. 2013;23(4):292-299. (4) N Engl J Med. 2008;358:2545-2559. (5) Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May; 89(5): 1588S–1596S. (6) Am J Clin Nutr 1979 32: 2312-2321. (7) Open J Prev Med. 2012 2(3), 364-371.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Arthritis, a history of stroke and Parkinson’s disease can contribute to fall risk.
Increased risk can begin at the age of 45

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

When we are young, falls usually do not result in significant consequences. However, when we reach middle age and chronic diseases become more prevalent, falls become more substantial. And, unfortunately, falls are a serious concern for older patients, where consequences can be devastating. They can include brain injuries, hip fractures, a decrease in functional ability and a decline in physical and social activities (1). Ultimately, falls can lead to loss of independence (2).

Of those over the age of 65, between 30 and 40 percent will fall annually (3). Most of the injuries that involve emergency room visits are due to falls in this older demographic (4).

What can  increase the risk of falls?

Many factors contribute to fall risk. A personal history of falling in the recent past is the most prevalent. But there are many other significant factors, such as age; being female; and using drugs, like antihypertensive medications used to treat high blood pressure and psychotropic medications used to treat anxiety, depression and insomnia.

Chronic diseases, including arthritis, as an umbrella term; a history of stroke; cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s disease can also contribute. Circumstances that predispose us to falls also involve weakness in upper and lower body strength, decreased vision, hearing disorders and psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression (5).

How do we prevent falls?

Fortunately, there are ways to modify many risk factors and ultimately reduce the risk of falls. Of the utmost importance is exercise. But what do we mean by “exercise”? Exercises involving balance, strength, movement, flexibility and endurance, whether home based or in groups, all play significant roles in fall prevention (6). We will go into more detail below.

Many of us in the Northeast suffer from low vitamin D, which may strengthen muscle and bone. This is an easy fix with supplementation. Footwear also needs to be addressed. Nonslip shoes, if recent winters are any indication, are of the utmost concern. Inexpensive changes in the home, like securing area rugs, can also make a big difference.

Medications that exacerbate fall risk

There are a number of medications that may heighten fall risk. As I mentioned, psychotropic drugs top the list. Ironically, they also top the list of the best-selling drugs. But what other drugs might have an impact?

High blood pressure medications have been investigated. A propensity-matched sample study (a notch below a randomized control trial in terms of quality) showed an increase in fall risk in those who were taking high blood pressure medication (7). Surprisingly, those who were on moderate doses of blood pressure medication had the greatest risk of serious injuries from falls, a 40 percent increase. One would have expected those on the highest levels to have the greatest increase in risk, but this was not the case.

While blood pressure medications may contribute to fall risk, they have significant benefits in reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease and events. Thus, we need to weigh the risk-benefit ratio, specifically in older patients, before considering stopping a medication. When it comes to treating high blood pressure, lifestyle modifications may also play a significant role in treating this disease (8).

Where does arthritis fit into this paradigm?

In those with arthritis, compared to those without, there is an approximately two-times increased risk of two or more falls and, additionally, a two-times increased risk of injury resulting from falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1). This survey encompassed a significantly large demographic; arthritis was an umbrella term including those with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus and fibromyalgia.

Therefore, the number of participants with arthritis was 40 percent. Of these, about 13 percent had one fall and, interestingly, 13 percent experienced two or more falls in the previous year. Unfortunately, almost 10 percent of the participants sustained an injury from a fall. Patients 45 and older were as likely to fall as those 65 and older.

Why is exercise critical?

All exercise has value. A meta-analysis of a group of 17 trials showed that exercise significantly reduced the risk of a fall (9). If the categories are broken down, exercise had a 37 percent reduction in falls that resulted in injury and a 30 percent reduction in those falls requiring medical attention. Even more impressive was a 61 percent reduction in fracture risk.

Remember, the lower the fracture risk, the more likely you are to remain physically independent. Thus, the author summarized that exercise not only helps to prevent falls but also fall injuries. The weakness of this study was that there was no consistency in design of the trials included in the meta-analysis. Nonetheless, the results were impressive.

Unfortunately, those who have fallen before, even without injury, often develop a fear that causes them to limit their activities. This leads to a dangerous cycle of reduced balance and increased gait disorders, ultimately resulting in an increased risk of falling (10).

What specific types of exercise are useful?

Many times, exercise is presented as a word that defines itself. In other words: Just do any exercise and you will get results. But some exercises may be more valuable or have more research behind them. Tai chi, yoga and aquatic exercise have been shown to have benefits in preventing falls and injuries from falls.

A randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of studies, showed that those who did an aquatic exercise program had a significant improvement in the risk of falls (11). The aim of the aquatic exercise was to improve balance, strength and mobility. Results showed a reduction in the number of falls from a mean of 2.00 to a fraction of this level — a mean of 0.29. There was no change in the control group.

There was also a 44 percent decline in the number of patients who fell. This study’s duration was six months and involved 108 postmenopausal women with an average age of 58. This is a group that is more susceptible to bone and muscle weakness. Both groups were given equal amounts of vitamin D and calcium supplements. The good news is that many patients really like aquatic exercise.

Thus, our best line of defense against fall risk is prevention. Does this mean stopping medications? Not necessarily. But for those 65 and older, or for those who have “arthritis” and are at least 45 years old, it may mean reviewing your medication list with your doctor. Before considering changing your BP medications, review the risk-to-benefit ratio with your physician. The most productive way to prevent falls is through lifestyle modifications.

References: (1) MMWR. 2014; 63(17):379-383. (2) J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1998;53(2):M112. (3) J Gerontol. 1991;46(5):M16. (4) MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2003;52(42):1019. (5) JAMA. 1995;273(17):1348. (6) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;9:CD007146. (7) JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Apr;174(4):588-595. (8) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):577-587. (9) BMJ. 2013;347:f6234. (10) Age Ageing. 1997 May;26(3):189-193. (11) Menopause. 2013;20(10):1012-1019.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Insomnia is frustrating because it does not necessarily have one cause.
Untreated insomnia can have long-term health effects

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Insomnia is an all-too-common complaint. Though the statistics vary widely, about 30 percent of Americans are affected, according to the most frequently used estimate, and women tend to be affected more than men (1). Insomnia is thought to have several main components: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking up before a full night’s sleep and sleep that is not restorative or restful (2).

Unlike sleep deprivation, patients have plenty of time for sleep. Having one or all of these components is considered insomnia. There is debate about whether or not it is actually a disease, though it certainly has a significant impact on patients’ functioning (3).

Insomnia is frustrating because it does not necessarily have one cause. Causes can include aging; stress; psychiatric disorders; disease states, such as obstructive sleep apnea and thyroid dysfunction; asthma; medication; and it may even be idiopathic (of unknown cause). It can occur on an acute (short term), intermittent or chronic basis. Regardless of the cause, it may have a significant impact on quality of life. Insomnia also may cause comorbidities (diseases), two of which we will investigate further: heart failure and prostate cancer.

Fortunately, there are numerous treatments. These can involve medications, such as benzodiazepines like Ativan and Xanax. The downside of these medications is they may be habit forming. Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics (therapies) include sleep medications, such as Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Ambien (zolpidem). All of these medications have side effects. We will investigate Ambien further because of its warnings.

There are also natural treatments, involving supplements, cognitive behavioral therapy and lifestyle changes.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Heart failure

Insomnia may perpetuate heart failure, which can be a difficult disease to treat. In the HUNT analysis (Nord-Trøndelag Health Study), an observational study, results showed insomnia patients had a dose-dependent response for increased risk of developing heart failure (4). In other words, the more components of insomnia involved, the higher the risk of developing heart disease.

There were three components: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty maintaining sleep and nonrestorative sleep that is not restful. If one component was involved, there was no increased risk. If two components were involved, there was a 35 percent increased risk, although this is not statistically significant.

However, if all three components were involved, there was a 350 percent increased risk of developing heart failure, even after adjusting for other factors. This was a large study, involving 54,000 Norwegians, with a long duration of 11 years.

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer has a plethora of possible causes, and insomnia may be a contributor. Having either of two components of insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep (sleep disruption), increased the risk of prostate cancer by 1.7 and 2.1 times, respectively, according to an observational study (5).

However, when looking at a subset of data related to advanced or lethal prostate cancer, both components, difficulty falling asleep and sleep disruption, independently increased the risk even further, 2.1 and 3.2 times, respectively.

This suggests that sleep is a powerful factor in prostate cancer, and other studies have shown that it may have an impact on other cancers as well. There were 2,102 men involved in the study with a duration of five years. While there are potentially strong associations, this and other studies have been mostly observational. Further studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be made.

What about potential treatments?

Ambien: While nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics may be beneficial, this may come at a price. In a report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of reported adverse events with Ambien that perpetuated emergency department visits increased by more than twofold over a five-year period from 2005 to 2010 (6). Insomnia patients most susceptible to having significant side effects are women and the elderly. The director of SAMHSA recommends focusing on lifestyle changes for treating insomnia: by making sure the bedroom is sufficiently dark, getting frequent exercise and avoiding caffeine.

In reaction to this data, the FDA required the manufacturer of Ambien to reduce the dose recommended for women by 50 percent (7). Ironically, sleep medication like Ambien may cause drowsiness the next day — the FDA has warned that it is not safe to drive after taking extended-release versions (CR) of these medications the night before.

Magnesium: The elderly population tends to suffer the most from insomnia, as well as nutrient deficiencies. In a double-blinded, randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of studies, results show that magnesium had resoundingly positive effects on elderly patients suffering from insomnia (8).

Compared to a placebo group, participants given 500 mg of magnesium daily for eight weeks had significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration and time to fall asleep, as well as improvement in the body’s levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control the circadian rhythm.

The strength of the study is that it is an RCT; however, it was small, involving 46 patients over a relatively short duration.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

In a study, just one 2½-hour session of cognitive behavioral therapy delivered to a group of 20 patients suffering from chronic insomnia saw subjective, yet dramatic, improvements in sleep duration from 5 to 6½ hours and decreases in sleep latency from 51 to 22 minutes (9). The patients who were taking medication to treat insomnia experienced a 33 percent reduction in their required medication frequency per week. The topics covered in the session included relaxation techniques, sleep hygiene, sleep restriction, sleep positions and beliefs and obsessions pertaining to sleep. These results are encouraging.

It is important to emphasize the need for sufficient and good-quality sleep to help prevent, as well as not contribute to, chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer. While medications may be necessary in some circumstances, they should be used with the lowest possible dose for the shortest amount of time and with caution, reviewing possible drug-drug and drug-supplement interactions.

Supplementation with magnesium may be a valuable step toward improving insomnia. Lifestyle changes including sleep hygiene and exercise should be sought, regardless of whether or not medications are used.

References: (1) Sleep. 2009;32(8):1027. (2) American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2nd edition, 2005. (3) Arch Intern Med. 1998;158(10):1099. (4) Eur Heart J. online 2013;Mar 5. (5) Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev; 2013;22(5):872–879. (6) SAMSHA.gov. (7) FDA.gov. (8) J Res Med Sci. 2012 Dec;17(12):1161-1169. (9) APSS 27th Annual Meeting 2013; Abstract 0555.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Exercise significantly reduces breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Pink is everywhere this month, as we make a fashion statement to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This awareness is critical. The incidence of invasive breast cancer in 2017 in the U.S. is estimated to be over 250,000 new cases, with approximately 40,000 patients dying from this disease each year (1). The good news is that from 2003 to 2012 there was decreased mortality in the U.S. across all racial and ethnic populations (2).

We can all agree that screening has merit. Television commercials tout that women in their 30s and early 40s have discovered breast cancer with a mammogram, usually after a lump was detected. Does this mean we should be screening earlier? Screening guidelines are based on the general population that is considered “healthy,” meaning no lumps were found nor is there a personal or family history of breast cancer.

All guidelines hinge on the belief that mammograms are important, but at what age? Here is where divergence occurs; experts can’t agree on age and frequency. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms starting at 50 years old, after which time they should be done every other year through age 74 (3). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends consideration of annual mammograms starting at 40 years old and continuing until age 75. They encourage a process of shared decision-making between patient and physician (4).

The best way to treat breast cancer — and just as important as screening — is prevention, whether it is primary, preventing the disease from occurring, or secondary, preventing recurrence. We are always looking for ways to minimize risk. What are some potential ways of doing this? These may include lifestyle modifications, such as diet, exercise, obesity treatment and normalizing cholesterol levels. Additionally, although results are mixed, it seems that bisphosphonates do not reduce the risk of breast cancer nor its recurrence. Let’s look at the evidence.

Bisphosphonates

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Bisphosphonates include Fosamax (alendronate), Zometa (zoledronic acid) and Boniva (ibandronate) used to treat osteoporosis. Do they have a role in breast cancer prevention? It depends on the population, and it depends on study quality.

In a meta-analysis involving two randomized controlled trials, results showed there was no benefit from the use of bisphosphonates in reducing breast cancer risk (5). The population used in this study involved postmenopausal women who had osteoporosis, but who did not have a personal history of breast cancer. In other words, the bisphosphonates were being used for primary prevention.

The study was prompted by previous studies that have shown antitumor effects with this class of drugs. This analysis involved over 14,000 women ranging in age from 55 to 89. The two trials were FIT and HORIZON-PFT, with durations of 3.8 and 2.8 years, respectively. The FIT study involved alendronate and the HORIZON-PFT study involved zoledronic acid, with these drugs compared to placebo. The researchers concluded that the data were not evident for the use of bisphosphonates in primary prevention of invasive breast cancer.

In a previous meta-analysis of two observational studies from the Women’s Health Initiative, results showed that bisphosphonates did indeed reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer in patients by as much as 32 percent (6). These results were statistically significant. However, there was an increase in risk of ductal carcinoma in situ (precancer cases) that was not explainable. These studies included over 150,000 patients with no breast cancer history. The patient type was similar to that used in the more current trial mentioned above. According to the authors, this suggested that bisphosphonates may have an antitumor effect. But not so fast!

The disparity in the above two bisphosphonate studies has to do with trial type. Randomized controlled trials are better designed than observational trials. Therefore, it is more likely that bisphosphonates do not work in reducing breast cancer risk in patients without a history of breast cancer or, in other words, in primary prevention.

In a third study, a meta-analysis (group of 36 post-hoc analyses — after trials were previously concluded) using bisphosphonates, results showed that zoledronic acid significantly reduced mortality risk, by as much as 17 percent, in those patients with early breast cancer (7). This benefit was seen in postmenopausal women but not in premenopausal women. The difference between this study and the previous study was the population. This was a trial for secondary prevention, where patients had a personal history of cancer.

However, in a RCT, the results showed that those with early breast cancer did not benefit overall from zoledronic acid in conjunction with standard treatments for this disease (8). The moral of the story: RCTs are needed to confirm results, and they don’t always coincide with other studies.

Exercise

We know exercise is important in diseases and breast cancer is no exception. In an observational trial, exercise reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women significantly (9). These women exercised moderately; they walked four hours a week. The researchers stressed that it is never too late to exercise, since the effect was seen over four years. If they exercised previously, but not recently, for instance, five to nine years ago, no benefit was seen.

To make matters worse, only about one-third of women get the recommended level of exercise every week: 30 minutes for five days a week. Once diagnosed with breast cancer, women tend to exercise less, not more. We need to expend as much energy and resources emphasizing exercise as a prevention method as we do screenings.

Soy intake

Contrary to popular belief, soy may be beneficial in reducing breast cancer risk. In a meta-analysis (a group of eight observational studies), those who consumed more soy saw a significant reduction in breast cancer compared to those who consumed less (10). There was a dose-response curve among three groups: high intake of >20 mg per day, moderate intake of 10 mg and low intake of <5 mg.

Those in the highest group had a 29 percent reduced risk, and those in the moderate group had a 12 percent reduced risk, when compared to those who consumed the least. Why have we not seen this in U.S. trials? The level of soy used in U.S. trials is a fraction of what is used in Asian trials. The benefit from soy is thought to come from isoflavones, plant-rich nutrients.

Western vs. Mediterranean diets

A Mediterranean diet may decrease the risk of breast cancer significantly.

In an observational study, results showed that, while the Western diet increases breast cancer risk by 46 percent, the Spanish Mediterranean diet has the inverse effect, decreasing risk by 44 percent (11). The effect of the Mediterranean diet was even more powerful in triple-negative tumors, which tend to be difficult to treat. The authors concluded that diets rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and oily fish were potentially beneficial.

Hooray for Breast Cancer Awareness Month stressing the importance of mammography and breast self-exams. However, we need to give significantly more attention to prevention of breast cancer and its recurrence. Through potentially more soy intake, as well as a Mediterranean diet and modest exercise, we may be able to accelerate the trend toward a lower breast cancer incidence.

References: (1) breastcancer.org. (2) cdc.gov. (3) Ann Intern Med. 2009;151:716-726. (4) acog.org. (5) JAMA Inter Med online. 2014 Aug. 11. (6) J Clin Oncol. 2010;28:3582-3590. (7) 2013 SABCS: Abstract S4-07. (8) Lancet Oncol. 2014;15:997-1006. (9) Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev online. 2014 Aug. 11. (10) Br J Cancer. 2008;98:9-14. (11) Br J Cancer. 2014;111:1454-1462. Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.

Foods high in Vitamin D include egg yolks, beef, shiitake mushrooms, cheese, milk and cold-water fatty fish like salmon, above.
In most geographic locations, sun exposure will not correct vitamin D deficiencies

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Vitamin D is one the most widely publicized and important supplements. We get vitamin D from the sun, food and supplements. With our days rapidly shortening here in the Northeast, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore what we know about vitamin D supplementation.

Vitamin D has been thought of as an elixir for life, but is it really? There is no question that, if you have low levels of vitamin D, replacing it is important. Previous studies have shown that it may be effective in a wide swath of chronic diseases, both in prevention and as part of the treatment paradigm. However, many questions remain. As more data come along, their meaning for vitamin D becomes murkier. For instance, is the sun the best source of vitamin D?

At the 70th annual American Academy of Dermatology meeting, Dr. Richard Gallo, who was involved with the Institute of Medicine recommendations, spoke about how, in most geographic locations, sun exposure will not correct vitamin D deficiencies. Interestingly, he emphasized getting more vitamin D from nutrition. Dietary sources include cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines and tuna.

We know its importance for bone health, but as of yet, we only have encouraging — but not yet definitive — data for other diseases. These include cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases and cancer.

There is no consensus on the ideal blood level for vitamin D. The Institute of Medicine recommends more than 20 ng/dl, and The Endocrine Society recommends at least 30 ng/dl. More experts and data lean toward the latter number.

Skin cancer

Vitamin D did not decrease nonmelanoma skin cancers (NMSCs), such as squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma. It may actually increase them, according to one study done at a single center by an HMO (1). The results may be confounded, or blurred, by UV radiation from the sun, so vitamin D is not necessarily the culprit. Most of the surfaces where skin cancer was found were sun exposed, but not all of them.

The good news is that, for postmenopausal women who have already had an NMSC bout, vitamin D plus calcium appears to reduce its recurrence, according to the Women’s Health Initiative study (2). In this high-risk population, the combination of supplements reduced risk by 57 percent. However, unlike the previous study, vitamin D did not increase the incidence of NMSC in the general population. NMSC occurs more frequently than breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers combined (3).

Cardiovascular mixed results

Several observational studies have shown benefits of vitamin D supplements with cardiovascular disease. For example, the Framingham Offspring Study showed that those patients with deficient levels were at increased risk of cardiovascular disease (4).

However, a small randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of studies, calls the cardioprotective effects of vitamin D into question (5). This study of postmenopausal women, using biomarkers such as endothelial function, inflammation or vascular stiffness, showed no difference between vitamin D treatment and placebo. The authors concluded there is no reason to give vitamin D for prevention of cardiovascular disease.

The vitamin D dose given to the treatment group was 2,500 IUs. Thus, one couldn’t argue that this dose was too low. Some of the weaknesses of the study were a very short duration of four months, its size — 114 participants — and the fact that cardiovascular events or deaths were not used as study end points. However, these results do make you think.

Weight benefit

There is good news, but not great news, on the weight front. It appears that vitamin D plays a role in reducing the amount of weight gain in women 65 years and older whose blood levels are more than 30 ng/dl, compared to those below this level, in the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures (6).

This association held true at baseline and after 4.5 years of observation. If the women dropped below 30 ng/dl in this time period, they were more likely to gain more weight, and they gained less if they kept levels above the target. There were 4,659 participants in the study. Unfortunately, vitamin D did not show statistical significance with weight loss.

Mortality decreased

In a meta-analysis of a group of eight studies, vitamin D with calcium reduced the mortality rate in the elderly, whereas vitamin D alone did not (7). The difference between the groups was statistically important, but clinically small: 9 percent reduction with vitamin D plus calcium and 7 percent with vitamin D alone.

One of the weaknesses of this analysis was that vitamin D in two of the studies was given in large amounts of 300,000 to 500,000 IUs once a year, rather than taken daily. This has different effects.

USPSTF recommendations

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends against giving “healthy” postmenopausal women the combination of vitamin D 400 IUs plus calcium 1,000 mg to prevent fractures (8). It does not seem to reduce fractures and increases the risk of kidney stones. There is also not enough data to recommend for or against vitamin D with or without calcium for cancer prevention.

Need for clinical trials

We need clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of vitamin D in many chronic diseases, since it may have beneficial effects in preventing or helping to treat them (9). Right now, there is a lack of large randomized clinical trials. Most are observational, which provides associations, but not links. The VITAL study is a large RCT looking at the effects of vitamin D and omega-3s on cardiovascular disease and cancer. It is a five-year trial, and the results should be available in 2018.

When to supplement?

It is important to supplement to optimal levels, especially since most of us living in the Northeast have insufficient to deficient levels. While vitamin D may not be a cure-all, it may play an integral role with many disorders.

References: (1) Arch Dermatol. 2011;147(12):1379-1384. (2) J Clin Oncol. 2011 Aug 1;29(22):3078-3084. (3) CA Cancer J Clin. 2009;59(4):225-249. (4) Circulation. 2008 Jan 29;117(4):503-511. (5) PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36617. (6) J Women’s Health (Larchmt). 2012 Jun 25. (7) J Clin Endocrinol Metabol. online May 17, 2012. (8) AHRQ Publication No. 12-05163-EF-2. (9) Endocr Rev. 2012 Jun;33(3):456-492.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For more information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.

Lower triglycerides may reduce cardiovascular risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

The lipid, or cholesterol, profile is one of the most common batteries of blood tests. Why? Abnormal cholesterol levels may have an integral role in exacerbating a number of chronic diseases. These diseases are some of the most common, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) and vascular dementia. It’s even thought to be a component of age-related macular degeneration, the number one cause of vision loss in those who are at least age 60 in industrialized countries (1).

Let’s delve into the components that make up the cholesterol profile. The lipid panel is made up of several components. These include total cholesterol, HDL or “good cholesterol,” LDL or “bad cholesterol” and triglycerides. Many people focus more on total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL and less on triglycerides. We worry about whether the levels are high enough for HDL and are low enough for total cholesterol and LDL. Is this the proper focus? With total cholesterol and LDL, this seems to be appropriate.

However, with HDL it is becoming more complicated; it is less about how high the levels are and more about the functionality of HDL. There are drugs that increase HDL levels, such as niacin and the fibrates, without significantly reducing cardiovascular events. This was demonstrated in the AIM-HIGH trial (2). In this trial, niacin added to a statin drug increased HDL levels and decreased triglyceride levels without a change in the primary end point of cardiovascular outcomes. Thus, they were deemed less than satisfactory and the trial was abruptly ended. However, triglycerides get the short end of the stick. Just look at the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. In this article, we will explore the different components of the lipid panel and the supposed roles they play in our health. Let’s look at the research.

HDL — the good cholesterol that may not be so good

Eating one-and-a-half cups of oatmeal each day can lower your cholesterol by 5 to 8 percent.

For years, when patients were told their total cholesterol and LDL are high, they asked if their HDL levels compensated for this. Of course, we in the medical community are partially to blame for fueling this thinking. More and more studies point to the importance of HDL functionality rather than the level.

In a study investigating a specific gene variant, or mutation, those who had very high levels of HDL, a mean of 106 mg/dL, and two copies of a P376L mutation, had an increased risk of heart disease (3). In a population of 300 participants with this very high level of HDL, only one had this mutation.

When the investigators broadened the number to 1,282 participants, the results were the same. Results were consistent when they looked at a meta-analysis of 300,000 participants with high HDL.

Carriers of the gene mutation, meaning they had one copy instead of two, were at a 79 percent increased risk of heart disease. Those who had this gene mutation were mostly Ashkenazi Jews of European descent. The good news is that this gene mutation is rare. However, it does show that in certain circumstances, HDL is not always good.

Lest you become too relaxed about this study, since the occurrence was uncommon, another study’s results showed that there is a U-shaped curve when it comes to HDL levels (4). In other words, those on the lowest and the highest ends of HDL levels had higher risk of death from both cardiovascular and noncardiovascular death. There were associations among HDL and other factors, like vegetable and fruit consumption, high blood pressure, diabetes, age and sex. Thus, HDL may not by itself be an indicator of heart disease death risk as suggested by the investigators in the trial. This was a large population-based study with over 600,000 participants.

In a third study, results showed that functionality is more important than HDL level (5). What is called the cholesterol-efflux capacity may be central to HDL functionality. This technique calibrates the reverse transport of cholesterol. Cholesterol is removed from a type of white blood cell in the wall of the artery, put back into the bloodstream and removed by the liver. The importance of the functionality is that a higher cholesterol-efflux capacity results in a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. In other words, you may not be able to rely on HDL levels to determine cardioprotective effects.

Triglycerides should get their due

Triglycerides need their 15 minutes of fame, just like the rest of the cholesterol profile. Triglycerides may be an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In a study, results showed that triglycerides are an independent risk factor for all-cause mortality in those with heart disease (6). But even more interesting is that those with high normal levels, those between 100 and 150 mg/dL, have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular death. In other words, those who are still within normal limits, but at the upper end, should consider reducing their levels.

The results also showed a dose-dependent curve; the higher the levels of triglycerides, the higher the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Measurements used included borderline high of 150-199 mg/dL, moderately high of 200-499 mg/dL and very high of >500 mg/dL. This was a secondary prevention trial, meaning the patients already had heart disease. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of patients were men, 81 percent. However, this study had a strong duration of 22 years with data based on 15,000 patients. The weakness of this trial was its inability to control for confounders such as sickness, treatments and cause of death. Still, this signifies that triglycerides have an important role in our health.

Triglycerides are affected by diet. The elements in the diet that raise levels include sugars, grains — for some even whole grains — and starchy vegetables as well as saturated fats and trans fats.

What about whole eggs? Good, bad or neutral?

Today, the debates in the medical community over eggs’ merits, detriments or neutrality continue. In an observational trial from Finland, results show that one egg a day did not increase the risk of heart disease (7). Whew, now we can put that debate behind us and eat eggs, right? NOT SO FAST!

While the strength of the trial was its very impressive duration of 21 years, the weaknesses of the trial were huge. First, participants were asked for a four-day dietary history at the start of the trial and then never again. It was assumed that they were eating the same foods over this long time period. Second, there were no blood tests taken specifically for the study. In other words, there are no cholesterol levels for the trial. So we don’t know if one egg a day — and remember we’re making a gigantic assumption that they did eat one egg a day — had any negative impact on cholesterol levels. Third, this study population did not include women. There were 1,032 men involved. Having said all this, you could try an egg a day. However, I would highly recommend a physician’s supervision.

In my practice, I had several patients eat two eggs a day, and their total cholesterol levels went up by approximately 100 mg/dL in one month. But this is anecdotal data from my clinical experience.

In conclusion, don’t think you’re safe if you have a high HDL level. It is best to lower your triglycerides to below 100 mg/dL, and an effective way to do this is by reducing sugars, grains, starchy vegetables and saturated fat in your diet. However, there is subset data suggesting that the fibrate class of drugs may have benefit in those who have triglycerides of at least 500 mg/dL (6).

References: (1) www.nlm.nih.gov. (2) N Engl J Med 2011; 365:2255-2267. (3) Science 2016; 351:1166-1171. (4) AHA 2015 Scientific Sessions; Nov. 10, 2015. (5) N Engl J Med. 2014;371(25):2383-2393. (6) Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes 2016;9:100-108. (7) Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(3):895-901.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

A short walk after eating may help lower blood sugar levels
Similar risks found in prediabetes and diabetes

By David Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

Let’s start with a quiz:

1. Compared to sitting, which has more benefit on diabetes?

a) Standing for five minutes every half hour

b) Walking for five minutes every half hour

c) Neither had benefit, the activities were too short

d) Both were potentially equal in benefit

2. True or false? Diabetes patients are predominantly obese and overweight.

Diabetes just won’t go away. It seems that every time I write about the disease, the news is doom and gloom about how it has become a pandemic. The prevalence, or the number with the disease, and the incidence, or the growth rate of the disease, always seem to be on the rise, with little end in sight.

Depression and stress

We don’t want to make you depressed or stressed, especially since these conditions combined with diabetes can have dangerous outcomes. In fact, in an observational study, results showed that diabetes patients with stress and/or depression had greater risk of cardiovascular events and death, compared to those with diabetes alone. When diabetes patients had stress or depression, there was a 53 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease (1). And in those diabetes patients who had both stress and depression, there was two times greater risk of death from heart disease than in those without these mental health issues. These results need to be confirmed with more rigorous study.

Something to brighten your day!

However, there is good news. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence, or the rate of increase in new cases, has begun to slow for the first time in 25 years (2). There was a 20 percent reduction in the rate of new cases in the six-year period ending in 2014. This should help to brighten your day. However, your optimism should be cautious; it does not mean the disease has stopped growing, it means it has potentially turned a corner in terms of the growth rate, or at least we hope. This may relate in part to the fact that we have reduced our consumption of sugary drinks like soda and orange juice. By the way, the answers to the quiz questions are (1) d and (2) True, although not all patients have a weight issue.

Get up, stand up!

It may be easier than you think to reduce the risk of developing diabetes. This goes along with the answer to the first question: Standing and walking may be equivalent in certain circumstances for diabetes prevention. In a small, randomized control trial, the gold standard of studies, results showed that when sitting, those who either stood or walked for a five-minute duration every 30 minutes, had a substantial reduction in the risk of diabetes, compared to those who sat for long uninterrupted periods (3).

There was a postprandial, or postmeal, reduction in the rise of glucose of 34 percent in those who stood and 28 percent reduction in those who walked, both compared to those who sat for long periods continuously in the first day. The effects remained significant on the second day. A controlled diet was given to the patients. In this study, the difference in results for those who stood and those who walked was not statistically significant.

The participants were overweight, postmenopausal women who had prediabetes, HbA1C between 5.7 and 6.4 percent. The HbA1C gives an average glucose or sugar reading over three months. The researchers hypothesize that this effect of standing or walking may have to do with favorably changing the muscle physiology. So, in other words, a large effect can come from a very small but conscientious effort. This is a preliminary study, but the results are impressive.

Can prediabetes and diabetes have similar complications?

Diabetes is much more significant than prediabetes, or is it? It turns out that both stages of the disease can have substantial complications. In a study of those presenting in the emergency room with acute coronary syndrome (ACS), those who have either prediabetes or diabetes have a much poorer outcome. ACS is defined as a sudden reduction in blood flow to the heart, resulting in potentially severe events, such as heart attack or unstable angina (chest pain).

In the patients with diabetes or prediabetes, there was an increased risk of death with ACS as compared to those with normal sugars. The diabetes patients experienced an increased risk of greater than 100 percent, while those who had prediabetes had an almost 50 percent increased risk of mortality over and above the general population with ACS. Thus, both diabetes and prediabetes need to be taken seriously.

Sadly, most diabetes drugs do not reduce the risk of cardiac events. And bariatric surgery, which may reduce or put diabetes in remission for five years, did not have an impact on increasing survival (4).

What do the prevention guidelines tell us?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force renders recommendations on screening for diseases. On one hand, I commend them for changing their recommendation for diabetes screening. In 2008, the USPSTF did not believe the research provided enough results to screen asymptomatic patients for abnormal sugar levels and diabetes. However, in October 2015, the committee drafted guidelines suggesting that everyone more than 45 years old should be screened, but the final guidelines settled on screening a target population of those between the ages of 40 and 70 who are overweight or obese (5). They recommend that those with abnormal glucose levels pursue intensive lifestyle modification as a first step.

This is a great step forward, as most diabetes patients are overweight or obese; however, 15 to 20 percent of diabetes patients are within the normal range for body mass index (6). So this screening still misses a significant number of people.

Potassium: It’s not just for breakfast anymore

When we think of potassium, the first things that comes to mind is bananas, which do contain a significant amount of potassium, as do other plant-based foods. Those with rich amounts of potassium include dark green, leafy vegetables, almonds, avocado, beans and raisins. We know potassium is critical for blood pressure control, but why is this important to diabetes?

In an observational study, results showed that the greater the excretion of potassium through the kidneys, the lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney dysfunction in those with diabetes (7). There were 623 Japanese participants with normal kidney function at the start of the trial. The duration was substantial, with a mean of 11 years of follow-up. Those who had the highest quartile of urinary potassium excretion were 67 percent less likely to experience a cardiovascular event or kidney event than those in the lowest quartile. The researchers suggested that higher urinary excretion of potassium is associated with higher intake of foods rich in potassium.

Where does this leave us for the prevention of diabetes and its complications? You guessed it: lifestyle modifications, the tried and true! Lifestyle should be the cornerstone, including diet, stress reduction and exercise, or at least mild to moderate physical activity.

References: (1) Diabetes Care, online Nov. 17, 2015. (2) cdc.gov. (3) Diabetes Care. online Dec. 1, 2015. (4) JAMA Surg. online Sept. 16, 2015. (5) Ann Intern Med. 2015;163(11):861-868. (6) JAMA. 2012;308(6):581-590. (7) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. online Nov. 12, 2015.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Rheumatoid arthritis typically begins with stiffness in the joints of the hands.
RA medications may increase other risks

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

We know that inflammation is a critical part of many chronic diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is no exception. With RA, inflammation is rampant throughout the body and contributes to painful joints, most commonly concentrating bilaterally in the smaller joints of the body, including the metacarpals and proximal interphalangeal joints of the hand, as well as the wrists and elbows. With time, this disease can greatly diminish our ability to function, interfering with our activities of daily living. The most basic of chores, such as opening a jar, can become a major hindrance.

In addition, RA can cause extra-articular, a fancy way of saying outside the joints, manifestations and complications. These can involve the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, kidneys, nervous system and blood vessels. This is where it gets a bit dicier. With increased complications comes an increased risk of premature mortality (1).

Four out of 10 RA patients will experience complications in at least one organ. Those who have more severe disease in their joints are also at greater risk for these extra-articular manifestations. Thus, those who are markedly seropositive for the disease, showing elevated biomarkers like rheumatoid factor (RF), are at greatest risk (2). They have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease events, such as heart attacks and pulmonary disease. Fatigue is also increased, but the cause is not well understood. We will look more closely at these complications.

Are there treatments that may increase or decrease these complications? It is a very good question because some of the very medications used to treat RA also may increase risk for extra-articular complications, while other drugs may reduce the risks of complications. We will try to sort this out, as well. The drugs used to treat RA are disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), including methotrexate; TNF (tumor necrosis factor) inhibitors, such as Enbrel (etanercept); oral corticosteroids; and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

It is also important to note that there are modifiable risk factors. We will focus on two of these, weight and sugar. Let’s look at the evidence.

Cardiovascular disease burden

We know that cardiovascular disease is very common in this country for the population at large. However, the risk is even higher for RA patients; these patients are at a 50 percent higher risk of cardiovascular mortality than those without RA (3). The hypothesis is that the inflammation is responsible for the RA-cardiovascular disease connection (4). Thus, oxidative stress, cholesterol levels, endothelial dysfunction and high biomarkers for inflammation, such as ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) and CRP (C-reactive protein), play roles in fostering cardiovascular disease in RA patients (5).

The yin and yang of medications

Although drugs such as DMARDs (including methotrexate and TNF inhibitors, Enbrel, Remicade and Humira), NSAIDs (such as celecoxib) and corticosteroids are all used in the treatment of RA, some of these drugs increase cardiovascular events and others decrease them. In meta-analysis (a group of 28 studies), results showed that DMARDs reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by up to 30 percent, while NSAIDs and corticosteroids increased the risk (6).

The oral steroids had the highest risk of heart complications, approximately a 50 percent rise in risk. This may be one reason rheumatologists encourage their RA patients to discontinue oral steroid treatments as quickly as possible.

In an observational study, the results reaffirm that corticosteroids increased the risk of a heart attack in RA patients, this time by 68 percent (7). The study involved over 8,000 patients with a follow-up of nine years. Interestingly, there was a dose-response curve. In other words, the results also showed that for every 5 mg increase in dosage, there was a corresponding 14 percent increase in heart attack risk.

Baffling disease complication

Most complications seem to have a logical connection to the original disease. Well, it was a surprise to researchers when the results of the Nurses’ Health Study showed that those with RA were at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and of respiratory disease (8). In fact, the risk of dying from respiratory disease was 106 percent higher in the women with RA, compared to those without, and the risk was even higher in women who were seropositive (had elevated levels of rheumatoid factor). The authors surmise that seropositive patients have greater risk of death from respiratory disease because they have increased RA severity compared to seronegative patients. The study followed approximately 120,000 women for a 34-year duration.

Why am I so tired?

While we have tactics for treating joint inflammation, we have yet to figure out how to treat the fatigue associated with RA. In a Dutch study, results showed that while the inflammation improved significantly, fatigue only changed minimally (9). The consequences of fatigue can have a negative impact on both the mental and physical qualities of life. There were 626 patients involved in this study for eight years of follow-up data. This study involved two-thirds women, which is significant; women in this and in previous studies tended to score fatigue as more of a problem.

Lifestyles of the painful and more debilitating

We all want a piece of the American dream. To some that means eating like kings of past times. Well, it turns out that body mass index plays a role in the likelihood of developing RA. According to the Nurses’ Health Study, those who are overweight or obese and are ages 55 and younger have an increased risk of RA, 45 percent and 65 percent, respectively (10). There is higher risk with increased weight, because fat has pro-inflammatory factors, such as adipokines, that may contribute to the increased risk. Weight did not influence whether they became seropositive or seronegative RA patients.

With a vegetable-rich, plant-based diet you can reduce inflammation and thus reduce the risk of RA by 61 percent (11). In my clinical practice, I have seen numerous patients able to reduce their seropositive loads to normal or near-normal levels by following this type of diet.

Sugar, sugar!

At this point, we know that sugar is bad for us. But just how bad is it? When it comes to RA, results of the Nurses’ Health Study showed that sugary sodas increased the risk of developing seropositive disease by 63 percent (12). In subset data of those over age 55, the risk was even higher, 164 percent. This study involved over 100,000 women followed for 18 years.

The just plain weird – infection for the better?

Every so often we come across the surprising and the interesting. I would call it a Ripley’s Believe It or Not moment. In one study, those who had urinary tract infections, gastroenteritis or genital infections were less likely to develop RA than those who did not (13). The study did not indicate a time period or potential reasons for this decreased risk. However, I don’t think I want an infection to avoid another disease. When it comes to RA, prevention with diet is your best ally. Barring that, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic medications are important for keeping inflammation and its progression in check. However, oral steroids and NSAIDs should generally be reserved for short-term use. Before considering changing any medications, discuss it with your physician.

References: (1) J Rheumatol 2002;29(1):62. (2) uptodate.com. (3) Ann Rheum Dis 2010;69:325–331. (4) Rheumatology 2014;53(12):2143-2154. (5) Arthritis Res Ther 2011;13:R131. (6) Ann Rheum Dis 2015;74(3):480-489. (7) Rheumatology 2013;52:68-75. (8) ACR 2014: Abstract 818. (9) RMD Open 2015.  (10) Ann Rheum Dis. 2014;73(11):1914-1922. (11) Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70(6),1077–1082. (12) Am J Clin Nutr 2014;100(3):959-967. (13) Ann Rheum Dis 2015;74:904-907.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

People who are considered metabolically healthy may still have a higher risk of developing heart problems if they are obese.
Obesity still increases risks of many chronic diseases

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Have we entered a fourth dimension where it’s possible to be obese and healthy? Hold on to your seats for this wild ride. This would be a big relief, since more than one-third of Americans are obese, another third are overweight and the numbers are on the rise (1). In one analysis referenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average medical cost for obesity alone is 41.5 percent higher than for those of normal weight, based on 2006 numbers (2). Still, there are several studies that suggest it’s possible to be metabolically healthy and still be obese.

What does metabolically healthy mean? It is defined as having no increased risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) because blood pressure, cholesterol levels and inflammatory biomarkers remain within normal limits.

However, read on before thinking that obesity can be equated with health. Though several studies may suggest metabolic health with obesity, there is a caveat: Some of these obese patients will go on to become metabolically unhealthy; but even more importantly, obesity will increase their risk significantly for a number of other chronic diseases. These include osteoarthritis, diverticulitis, rheumatoid arthritis and migraine. There is also a higher rate of premature mortality, or death, associated with obesity. In other words, the short answer is that obesity is NOT healthy.

Metabolically healthy obesity

Several published studies imply that there is such a thing as “metabolically healthy obesity,” or MHO. In the Cork and Kerry Diabetes and Heart Disease Phase 2 Study, results show that approximately one-third of obese patients may fall into the category of metabolically “healthy” (3). This means that they are not at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, based on five metabolic parameters, including LDL “bad” cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose and insulin resistance. The researchers compared three groups: MHO, metabolically unhealthy obese and nonobese participants. Both the MHO participants and the nonobese patients demonstrated these positive results.

There were over 2,000 participants involved in this study, with an equal proportion of men and women ranging in age from 45 to 75. The researchers believe that a beneficial inflammation profile, including a lower C-reactive protein and a lower white blood cell count, may be at the root of these results.

In the North West Adelaide Health Study, a prospective (forward-looking) study, the results show that one-third of obese patients may be metabolically healthy, but it goes further to say that this occurs in mostly younger patients, those less than 40 years old, and those with a lower waist circumference and more fat in the legs (4). The reason for the positive effects may have to do with how fat is transported through the body.

In metabolically unhealthy obese patients, fat is deposited in the organs, such as the liver and heart, potentially leading to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. A theory is that mitochondria, the cells’ energy source, are disrupted, potentially increasing inflammation.

However, the results also showed that over a 10-year period, one-third of “healthy” obese patients transitioned into the unhealthy category. Over a longer period of time, this number may increase.

Premature mortality

To hammer the nail into the coffin, so to speak, obesity may be associated with premature mortality. In one study, about 20 percent of American patient deaths were associated with being obese or overweight (5). The rates were highest among white men, white women and black women. The researchers found this statistic surprising; previous estimates were far lower. Researchers reviewed a registry of 19 consecutive National Health Interview Surveys, from 1986 to 2004, including more than 500,000 patients with ages ranging from 40 to 84.9 years old.

Interestingly, obesity seems to have more of an effect on mortality as we age: obesity raised mortality risk 100 percent in those who were 65 and over, compared to a 25 percent increased risk in those who were 45.

Osteoarthritis

It is unlikely that any group of obese patients would be able to avoid pressure on their joints. In an Australian study, those who were obese had a greater than two times increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the hip and a greater than seven times increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee (6). If this weren’t bad enough, obese patients complained of increased pain and stiffness, as well as decreased functioning, in the hip and knee joints. There were over 1,000 adults involved in this study. Patients who were 39 years or older demonstrated that obesity’s impact on osteoarthritis can affect those who are relatively young.

There is a solution to obesity and its impact on osteoarthritis of the knees and hips. In a randomized controlled trial of 454 patients over 18 months, those who lost just 10 percent of their body weight saw significant improvement in function and knee joint pain, compared to those who lost less than 10 percent of their body weight (7). So, if you are 200 pounds, this would mean you would experience benefits after losing only 20 pounds.

When diet and exercise together were utilized, patients saw the best outcomes, with reduced pain and inflammation and increased mobility, compared to diet or exercise alone. However, diet was superior to exercise in improving knee joint pressure. Also, inflammatory biomarkers were reduced significantly more in the combined diet and exercise group and in the diet alone group, compared to the exercise alone group.

The diet was composed of two shakes and a dinner that was vegetable rich and low in fat. The exercise component involved both walking with alacrity plus resistance training for a modest frequency of three times a week for one hour each time. Thus, if you were considering losing weight and did not want to start both exercise and diet regimens at once, focusing on a vegetable-rich diet may be most productive.

While it is interesting that some obese patients are metabolically healthy, this does not necessarily last, and there are a number of chronic diseases involved with increased weight. Though we should not be prejudiced or judgmental of obese patients, this disease needs to be treated to avoid increased risk of mortality and increased risk of developing other diseases.

References: (1) CDC.gov. (2) Health Aff. September/October 2009;vol. 28 no. 5 w822-w831. (3) J Clin Endocrinol Metab online. 2013 Aug. 26. (4) Diabetes Care. 2013;36:2388-2394. (5) Am J Public Health online. 2013 Aug. 15. (6) BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2012;13:254. (7) JAMA. 2013;310:1263-1273.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

Stress may increase cold virus severity

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

September marks the beginning of the academic calendar and noticeably shorter daylight hours. The pace of life tends to become more hectic. Although some stress is valuable to help motivate us and keep our minds sharp, high levels of constant stress can have detrimental effects on the body.

It is very likely that there is a mind-body connection when it comes to stress. In other words, it may start in the mind, but it can lead to acute or chronic disease promotion. Stress can also play a role with your emotions, causing irritability and outbursts of anger and possibly leading to depression and anxiety.

Stress symptoms are hard to distinguish from other disorders, but they can include stiff neck, headaches, stomach upset and difficulty sleeping. Stress may also be associated with cardiovascular disease, with an increased susceptibility to infection from viruses causing the common cold and with cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s (1).

A stress steroid hormone called cortisol is released from the adrenal glands and can have beneficial effects in small bursts. We need cortisol in order to survive. Some of cortisol’s functions include raising glucose (sugar) levels when they are low and helping reduce inflammation and stress levels (2). However, when cortisol gets out of hand, higher chronic levels may cause inflammation, leading to disorders such as cardiovascular disease, as research suggests. Let’s look at the evidence.

Inflammation 

Inflammation may be a significant contributor to more than 80 percent of chronic diseases, so it should be no surprise that it is an important factor with stress. In a meta-analysis (a group of two observational studies), high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker for inflammation, were associated with increased psychological stress (3).

What is the importance of CRP? It may be related to heart disease and heart attacks. This study involved over 73,000 adults who had their CRP levels tested. The research went further to suggest that increased levels of CRP may result in more stress and also depression. With CRP higher than 3.0 there was a greater than twofold increase in depression risk. The researchers suggest that CRP may heighten stress and depression risk by increasing levels of different proinflammatory cytokines, inflammatory communicators among cells (4).

In another study, results suggested that stress may influence and increase the number of hematopoietic stem cells (those that develop all forms of blood cells), resulting specifically in an increase in inflammatory white blood cells (5). The researchers suggest that this may lead to these white blood cells accumulating in atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, which ultimately could potentially increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Chronic stress overactivates the sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response — which may alter the bone marrow where the stem cells are found. This research is preliminary and needs well-controlled trials to confirm these results.

Infection

Stress may increase the risk of colds and infection. Cortisol over the short term is important to help suppress the symptoms of colds, such as sneezing, cough and fever. These are visible signs of the immune system’s infection-fighting response.

However, the body may become resistant to the effects of cortisol, similar to how a type 2 diabetes patient becomes resistant to insulin. In one study of 296 healthy individuals, participants who had stressful events and were then exposed to viruses had a higher probability of catching a cold. It turns out that these individuals also had resistance to the effects of cortisol. This is important because those who were resistant to cortisol had more cold symptoms and more proinflammatory cytokines (6).

Diabetes and heart disease

When we measure cortisol levels, we tend to test the saliva or the blood. However, these laboratory findings only give one point in time. Thus, when trying to determine if raised cortisol may increase cardiovascular risk, the results are mixed. However, in a study measuring cortisol levels from scalp hair was far more effective (7). The reason for this is that scalp hair grows slowly, and therefore it may contain three months’ worth of cortisol levels. The study showed that those in the highest quartile of cortisol levels were at a three times increased risk of developing diabetes and/or heart disease compared to those in the lowest quartile. This study involved older patients between the ages of 65 and 85.

Lifestyle changes can reduce effects of stress

Lifestyle plays an important role in stress at the cellular level, specifically at the level of the telomere, which determines cell survival. The telomeres are to cells what the plastic tips are to shoelaces; they prevent them from falling apart. The longer the telomere, the slower the cell ages and the longer it survives. In a study, those women who followed a healthy lifestyle — one standard deviation over the average lifestyle — were able to withstand life stressors better since they had longer telomeres (8).

This healthy lifestyle included regular exercise, a healthy diet and a sufficient amount of sleep. On the other hand, the researchers indicated that those who had poor lifestyle habits lost substantially more telomere length than the healthy lifestyle group. The study followed women 50 to 65 years old over a one-year period.

In another study, chronic stress and poor diet (high sugar and high fat) together increased metabolic risks, such as insulin resistance, oxidative stress and central obesity, more than a low-stress group eating a similar diet (9). The high-stress group members were caregivers, specifically those caring for a spouse or parent with dementia. Thus, it is especially important to eat a healthy diet when under stress.

Interestingly, in terms of sleep, the Evolution of Pathways to Insomnia Cohort (EPIC) study shows that those who deal with stressful events directly are more likely to have good sleep quality. Using medication, alcohol or, most surprisingly, distractors to deal with stress all resulted in insomnia after being followed for one year (10). Cognitive intrusions or repeat thoughts about the stressor also resulted in insomnia.

Psychologists and other health care providers sometimes suggest distraction from a stressful event, such as television watching or other activities, according to the researchers. However, this study suggests that this may not help avert chronic insomnia induced by a stressful event. The most important message from this study is that how a person reacts to and deals with stressors may determine whether they suffer from insomnia.

Constant stress is something that needs to be recognized. If it’s not addressed, it can lead to suppressed immune response or increased levels of inflammation. CRP is an example of an inflammatory biomarker that may actually increase stress. In order to address chronic stress and lower CRP, it is important to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes sleep, exercise and diet modifications. Good lifestyle habits may also be protective against the effects of stress on cell aging.

References: (1) Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2014 Aug. 29. (2) Am J Physiol. 1991;260(6 Part 1):E927-E932. (3) JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70:176-184. (4) Chest. 2000;118:503-508. (5) Nat Med. 2014;20:754-758. (6) Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109:5995-5999. (7) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013;98:2078-2083. (8) Mol Psychiatry Online. 2014 July 29. (9) Psychoneuroendocrinol Online. 2014 April 12. (10) Sleep. 2014;37:1199-1208.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.

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