Medical Compass

Recent research focuses on modest lifestyle changes

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Parkinson’s disease has burst into the public consciousness in recent years. It is a neurodegenerative (the breakdown of brain neurons) disease with the resultant effect of a movement disorder. 

Most notably, patients with the disease suffer from a collection of symptoms known by the mnemonic TRAP: tremors while resting, rigidity, akinesia/bradykinesia (inability/difficulty to move or slow movements) and postural instability or balance issues. It can also result in a masked face, one that has become expressionless, and potentially dementia, depending on the subtype. There are several different subtypes; the diffuse/malignant phenotype has the highest propensity toward cognitive decline (1).

The part of the brain most affected is the basal ganglia, and the prime culprit is dopamine deficiency that occurs in this brain region (2). Why not add back dopamine? Actually, this is the mainstay of medical treatment, but eventually the neurons themselves break down, and the medication becomes less effective.

Risk factors may include head trauma, reduced vitamin D, milk intake, well water, being overweight, high levels of dietary iron and migraine with aura in middle age.

Is there hope? Yes, in the form of medications and deep brain stimulatory surgery, but also with lifestyle modifications. Lifestyle factors include iron, vitamin D and CoQ10. The research, unfortunately, is not conclusive, though it is intriguing.

Let’s look at the research.

The role of iron

This heavy metal is potentially harmful for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis and, yes, Parkinson’s disease. The problem is that this heavy metal can cause oxidative damage.

In a small, yet well-designed, randomized controlled trial (RCT), researchers used a chelator to remove iron from the substantia nigra, a specific part of the brain where iron breakdown may be dysfunctional. An iron chelator is a drug that removes the iron. Here, deferiprone (DFP) was used at a modest dose of 30 mg/kg/d (3). This drug was mostly well tolerated.

The chelator reduced the risk of disease progression significantly on the Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS). 

Participants who were treated sooner had lower levels of iron compared to a group that used the chelator six months later. A specialized MRI was used to measure levels of iron in the brain. This trial was 12 months in duration.

The iron chelator does not affect, nor should it affect, systemic levels of iron, only those in the brain specifically focused on the substantia nigra region. The chelator may work by preventing degradation of the dopamine-containing neurons. It also may be recommended to consume foods that contain less iron.

CoQ10

When we typically think of using CoQ10, a coenzyme found in over-the-counter supplements, it is to compensate for depletion from statin drugs or due to heart failure. Doses range from 100 to 300 mg. However, there is evidence that CoQ10 may be beneficial in Parkinson’s at much higher doses. 

In an RCT, results showed that those given 1,200 mg of CoQ10 daily reduced the progression of the disease significantly based on UPDRS changes, compared to the placebo group (4). Other doses of 300 and 600 mg showed trends toward benefit but were not significant. This was a 16-month trial in a small population of 80 patients. Though the results for other CoQ10 studies have been mixed, these results are encouraging. Plus, CoQ10 was well tolerated at even the highest dose. Thus, there may be no downside to trying CoQ10 in those with Parkinson’s disease.

Vitamin D: Good or bad?

In a prospective (forward-looking) study, results show that vitamin D levels measured in the highest quartile reduced the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 65 percent, compared to the lowest quartile (5). This is quite impressive, especially since the highest quartile patients had vitamin D levels that were what we would qualify as insufficient, with blood levels of 20 ng/ml, while those in the lowest quartile had deficient blood levels of 10 ng/ml or less. There were over 3,000 patients involved in this study with an age range of 50 to 79.

When we think of vitamin D, we wonder whether it is the chicken or the egg. Let me explain. Many times we are deficient in vitamin D and have a disease, but replacing the vitamin does nothing to help the disease. Well, in this case it does. It turns out that vitamin D may play dual roles of both reducing the risk of Parkinson’s disease and slowing its progression.

In an RCT, results showed that 1,200 IU of vitamin D taken daily may have reduced the progression of Parkinson’s disease significantly on the UPDRS compared to a placebo over a 12-month duration (6). Also, this amount of vitamin D increased the blood levels by two times from 22.5 to 41.7 ng/ml. There were 121 patients involved in this study with a mean age of 72.

So, what have we learned? Though medication with dopamine agonists is the gold standard for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, lifestyle modifications can have a significant impact on both prevention and treatment of this disease. Each lifestyle change in isolation may have modest effects, but cumulatively they might pack quite a wallop. The most exciting part is that lifestyle modifications have the potential to slow the progression of the disease and thus have a protective effect. Iron chelators specific to the brain may also be very important in disease modification. This also brings vitamin D back into the fold as a potential disease modifier.

References:

(1) JAMA Neurol. 2015;72:863-873. (2) uptodate.com. (3) Antioxid Redox Signal. 2014;10;21(2):195-210. (4) Arch Neurol. 2002;59(10):1541-1550. (5) Arch Neurol. 2010;67(7):808-811. (6) Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(5):1004-1013.

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.

In recent studies, the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly. Stock photo
Many Americans are malnourished

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

It may come as a surprise, but most of us are malnourished. How could that be, when approximately 70 percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese? When we think of malnourishment, developing countries come to mind. However, malnourishment is not directly correlated with hunger; it is common at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. The definition of malnourished is insufficient nutrition, which in the U.S. results from low levels of much needed nutrients.

Over the last 30 years, the pace of increase in life expectancy has slowed substantially. In fact, a New England Journal of Medicine article noted that life expectancy may actually decline in the near future (1). 

According to the American Medical Association, almost half of Americans have at least one chronic disease, with 13 percent having more than three (2). The projection is that 157 million Americans will have more than one chronic disease by 2020. Most chronic diseases, including common killers, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, can potentially be prevented, modified and even reversed with a focus on nutrients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

I regularly test patients’ carotenoid levels. Carotenoids are nutrients that are incredibly important for tissue and organ health. They are measurable and give the practitioner a sense of whether the patient may lack potentially disease-fighting nutrients. Testing is often covered if the patient is diagnosed with moderate malnutrition. Because the standard American diet is very low in nutrients, classifying a patient with moderate malnutrition can be appropriate. A high nutrient intake approach can rectify the situation and increase, among others, carotenoid levels.

What is a high nutrient intake and why is it so important?

A high nutrient intake is an approach that focuses on micronutrients, which literally means small nutrients, including antioxidants and phytochemicals — plant nutrients. Micronutrients are bioactive compounds found mostly in foods and some supplements. While fiber is not considered a micronutrient, it also has significant disease modifying effects. Micronutrients interact with each other in synergistic ways, meaning the sum is greater than the parts. Diets that are plant rich raise the levels of micronutrients considerably in patients.

Let’s look at some examples.

A study showed olive oil reduces the risk of stroke by 41 percent (3). The authors attribute this effect at least partially to oleic acid, a bioactive compound found in olive oil. While olive oil is important, I recommend limiting olive oil to one tablespoon a day. There are 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil, all of them fat. If you eat too much, even of good fat, it defeats the purpose. The authors commented that the Mediterranean-type diet had only recently been used in trials with neurologic diseases and results suggest benefits in several disorders, such as Alzheimer’s. 

In a case-control (compare those with and without disease) study, high intake of antioxidants from food is associated with a significant decrease in the risk of early age-related macular degeneration (AMD), even when participants had a genetic predisposition for the disease (4). AMD is the leading cause of blindness in those 55 years or older. There were 2,167 people enrolled in the study with several different genetic variations that made them high risk for AMD. Those with a highest nutrient intake, including B-carotene, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, EPA and DHA, substances found in fish, had an inverse relationship with risk of early AMD. Nutrients, thus, may play a role in modifying gene expression. 

What can we do to improve life expectancy?

In the Greek EPIC trial, a large prospective (forward-looking) cohort study, the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly — the better the compliance, the greater the effect (5). 

The most powerful dietary components were the fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, legumes and moderate alcohol intake. Low consumption of meat also contributed to the beneficial effects. Dairy and cereals had a neutral or minimal effect.

Though many Americans are malnourished, nutrients that are effective and available can alter this predicament or epidemic. Hopefully, with a focus on a high nutrient intake, we can re-ignite the pace of increased life expectancy and improve quality of life for the foreseeable future.

References:

(1) N Engl J Med 2005; 352:1138-1145. (2) www.ama-assn.org. (3) Neurology June 15, 2011. (4) Arch Ophthalmol. 2011;129(6):758-766. (5) BMJ. 2009;338:b2337.

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.

Placing one foot in front of the other can lead to impressive mental and physical benefits. Stock photo
Benefits are seen with modest exercise

By Dr. David Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

There is great emphasis on exercise. We have heard it is good for us ever since we were children in gym class striving for the presidential fitness award. 

The average reaction, unfortunately, is an aversion to exercise. As kids, many of us tried to get out of gym class, and as adults, we “want” to exercise, but we “don’t have time.” The result of this is a nation of couch potatoes. I once heard that the couch is the worst deep-fried food. It perpetuates inactivity, especially when watching TV. Even sleeping burns more calories.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t know what type of exercise is best and how long and frequently to do it. 

Well, guess what? There is an easy way to get tremendous benefit with very little time involved. You don’t need expensive equipment, and you don’t have to join a gym. You can sharpen your wits with your feet.

Jane Brody has written in The New York Times’ Science Times about Esther Tuttle. Esther was 99 years old, sharp as a tack and was independently mobile, with no aids needed. She continued to stay active by walking in the morning for 30 minutes and then walking again in the afternoon. The skeptic might say that this is a nice story, but its value is anecdotal at best. 

Well, evidence-based medicine backs up her claim that walking is a rudimentary and simple way to get exercise that shows incredible benefits. One mile of walking a day will help keep the doctor away. 

Walking has a powerful effect on preserving brain function and even growing certain areas of the brain (1). Walking between six and nine miles a week, or just one mile a day, reduced the risk of cognitive impairment over 13 years and actually increased the amount of gray matter tissue in the brain over nine years.

Those participants who had an increase in brain tissue volume had a substantially reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment. Interestingly, the parts of the brain that grew included the hippocampus, involved with memory, and the frontal cortex, involved with short-term memory and executive decision making. There were 299 participants who had a mean age of 78 and were dementia free at the start of the trial. Imagine if you started earlier? 

In yet another study, moderate exercise reduced the risk of mild cognitive impairment with exercise begun in mid-to-late life (2). 

Even better news is that, if you’re pressed for time or if you’re building up your stamina, you can split a mile into two half-mile increments. How long does it take you to walk a half-mile? You’ll be surprised at how much better you will  feel — and how much sharper your thinking is.

If you ratchet up the exercise to running, a study showed that mood improves, mollifying anger (3). The act of running actually increases your serotonin levels, a hormone that, when low, can make people agitated or angry. So exercise may actually help you get your aggressions out.

Walking has other benefits as well. We’ve all heard about the importance of doing weight-bearing exercise to prevent osteoporosis and osteoporotic fractures. The movie “WALL-E” even did a spoof on this, projecting a future where people lived in their movable recliners. The result was a human skeletal structure that had receded over the generations from lack of use. Although it was tongue in cheek, it wasn’t too far from the truth; if you don’t use them, bones weaken and break. Walking is a weight-bearing exercise that helps strengthen your joints, bones and muscles. 

So remember, use your feet to keep your mind sharp. Activities like walking will help you keep a positive attitude, preserve your bones and help increase the plasticity of your brain.

References: 

(1) Neurology Oct 2010, 75 (16) 1415-1422. (2) Arch Neurol. 2010;67(1):80-86. (3) J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2010 Apr;32(2):253-261.

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.

We invite you to check out our new weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

There are serious side effects of NSAIDs and Tylenol

Dr. David Dunaief

Most of us keep a few key items in our medicine cabinets. In addition to aspirin, among these are usually NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and acetaminophen (Tylenol). We often use them for relief of pain, fever or inflammation. Familiar NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). It is estimated that more than 17 million people use NSAIDs on a daily basis. According to a poll of these regular users of over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs, a substantial number — 60 percent — were unaware of their dangerous side effects (1).

Acetaminophen is used frequently, as well. On a weekly basis, one quarter of Americans take it. 

We think of these drugs as relatively benign. In fact, I find that unless I specifically ask about their use, most patients don’t include them on a list of their medications on a patient registration form. 

NSAIDs: The statistics

Unfortunately, NSAIDs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are responsible for 7,600 deaths annually and 10 times that number in hospitalizations (2). These are not medications that should be taken lightly. NSAIDs increase the risk of several maladies, including erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, gastrointestinal bleeds, exacerbation of diverticular disease and chronic arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats). In some instances, the cardiovascular effects can be fatal. 

NSAIDs: Studies demonstrating adverse side effects

In a case control (epidemiologic, retrospective) study using the UK Primary Care Database, chronic users of NSAIDs have a significantly increased risk of a serious arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat) called atrial fibrillation (3). Patients were between 40 and 89 years of age. 

Interestingly, chronic users were defined as patients who took NSAIDs for more than 30 days. Those patients who used NSAIDs more than 30 days had a 57 percent increased risk of atrial fibrillation. A Danish study reinforces these results after the first month of use (4). This is not very long to have such a substantial risk. For patients who used NSAIDs longer than one year, the risk increased to 80 percent. Caution should be used when prescribing NSAIDs or when taking them OTC. Atrial fibrillation is not an easy disease to treat.

NSAIDs also increase the risk of mortality in chronic users. Older patients who have heart disease or hypertension (high blood pressure) and are chronic NSAIDs users are at increased risk of death, according to an observational study (5). Compared to those who never or infrequently used them over about 2.5 years, chronic users had a greater than twofold increase in death due to cardiovascular causes. High blood pressure was not a factor, since the chronic users actually had lower blood pressure. Yet I have seen with my patients that NSAIDs can increase blood pressure. 

Is acetaminophen the answer?

Acetaminophen does not cause gastrointestinal bleeds, arrhythmias and deaths due to cardiovascular events that NSAIDs can. However, the Food & Drug Administration announced in 2011 that acetaminophen should not exceed 325 mg every four to six hours when used as a prescription combination pain reliever (6). The goal is to reduce and avoid severe injury to the liver, which can potentially cause liver failure. 

There is an intriguing paradox with acetaminophen: Hospitals typically dispense regular-strength 325-mg doses of the drug, whereas OTC doses frequently are found in extra-strength 500-mg tablets, and often the suggested dose is two tablets, or 1 gram. Patients should not take more than 4 grams a day to lower their risk of liver damage. The 4-gram amount sounds like a significant quantity, but it translates into two pills of extra-strength Tylenol every six hours.

I have patients who have taken three pills at one time thinking that, since it is OTC, exceeding the dose is okay. Unfortunately, this is not true. 

The FDA’s recommendations for limiting the dose result from a conglomeration of data. For instance, one study that showed acute liver failure was due primarily to unintentional overdoses of acetaminophen (7). Accidental overdosing is more likely to occur when taking acetaminophen at the same time as a combination sinus, cough or cold remedy that also contains acetaminophen. Over-the-counter cold medications can contain acetaminophen. 

In order to be aware of potentially adverse events, you have to be your own best advocate and read labels. Remember to tell your physician if you are taking OTC medications. If you are a chronic user of NSAIDs because of underlying inflammation, you may find an anti-inflammatory diet, which is usually plant-based, is an effective alternative.

References: 

(1) J Rheumatol. 2005;32;2218-2224. (2) Annals of Internal Medicine, 1997;127:429-438. (3) Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(16):1450-1455. (4) BMJ 2011;343:d3450. (5) Am J Med. 2011 Jul;124(7):614-620. (6) FDA.gov. (7) Am J Gastroenterol. 2007;102:2459-2463. 

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.

٭We invite you to check out our new weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

The best protection against kidney stones is a combination of low sodium and high fluid intake. Stock photo
Calcium from supplements may increase risk of kidney stone formation

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Kidney stones are relatively common, occurring more often in men than women (1). I have seen many patients who have a history of forming these stones. Unfortunately, once a patient forms one stone, the incidence of another increases significantly over time. However, there are several ways to reduce your risk.

Kidney stones, or nephrolithiasis, can be asymptomatic (no symptoms at all) or may present with the classic symptoms of blood in the urine and colicky pain. Pain can be intermittent or constant, ranging from dull to extremely painful, described by some as being worse than giving birth or being shot or burned. 

The pain may radiate from the kidneys to the bladder and even to the groin in males, depending on the obstruction (2). Stones are usually diagnosed through clinical suspicion and abdominal X-rays and/or noncontrast CT scans.

Unfortunately, the first line treatment for passing kidney stones — at least small ones — involves supportive care. This means that patients are given pain medications and plenty of fluids until the stone(s) pass. Usually stones that are <4 mm pass spontaneously. Location is an important factor as well, with stones closest to the opening of the urethra more likely to pass (3).

Prevention is the way to go

The good news is there are lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of kidney stones. First, it is very important to stay hydrated, drinking plenty of fluids, especially if you have a history of stone formation (4).

One of the easiest methods is to significantly reduce your intake of calcium supplements, including foods fortified with calcium. There are two types of stones, with calcium oxalate being the dominant one, occurring approximately 80 percent of the time (5). Calcium supplements increase the risk of kidney stones. When physicians started treating women for osteoporosis with calcium supplements, the rate of kidney stones increased by 37 percent (6). 

According to findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, those who consumed highest amount of supplemental calcium were 20 percent more likely to have kidney stones than those who consumed the lowest amount (7). It did not matter whether participants were taking calcium citrate or calcium carbonate supplements.

Interestingly, calcium from dietary sources actually has the opposite effect, decreasing risk. In the same study, those participants who consumed the highest amount of dietary calcium had a 35 percent reduction in risk, compared to those who were in the lowest group. Calcium intake should not be too low, for that also increases kidney stone risk. However, the source of calcium is a key to preventing kidney stones. 

Another modifiable risk factor is sodium. It’s important to reduce sodium for many reasons, and this provides one more. Again, in the Nurses’ Health Study, participants who consumed 4.5 g sodium per day had a 30 percent higher risk of kidney stones than those who consumed 1.5 g per day (7). The reason is that increased sodium causes increased urinary excretion of calcium. When there is more calcium going through the kidneys, there is a higher chance of stones. 

Animal protein also seems to play a role. In a five-year, randomized clinical trial, men who consumed small amounts of animal protein, approximately two ounces per day, and lower sodium were 51 percent less likely to experience a kidney stone than those who consumed low amounts of calcium (8). These were men who had a history of stone formation. The reason that animal protein may increase the risk of calcium oxalate stones more than vegetable protein is that its higher sulfur content produces more acid, which is neutralized by release of calcium from the bone (9).

Some medical conditions may increase the likelihood of stone formation. For example, in a cross-sectional study (a certain population during a specific period) with Italian men, those with high blood pressure had a two times greater risk of kidney stones than those who had a normal blood pressure (10). Amazingly, it did not matter if the patients were treated for high blood pressure; the risk remained. This is just one more reason to treat the underlying cause of blood pressure, not the symptoms.

The most productive way to avoid the potentially excruciating experience of kidney stones is to make these relatively simple lifestyle changes. The more changes that you implement, the lower your risk of stones.

References: 

(1) Kidney Int. 1979;16(5):624. (2) emedicine Jan 1, 2008. (3) J Urol. 2006;175(2):575. (4) J Urol. 1996;155(3):839. (5) N Engl J Med. 2004;350(7):684. (6) Kidney Int 2003;63:1817–1823. (7) Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(7):497-504. (8) N Engl J Med. 2002 Jan 10;346(2):77-84. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1988;66(1):140. (10) BMJ. 1990;300(6734):1234. 

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.

٭We invite you to check out our new weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

One can maintain regular bowel movement and lessen the risk of inflamed hemorrhoids by including more fiber in his or her diet, about 30 g per day. Stock photo
Most Americans don’t get enough fiber

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many of us have suffered at one time or another from inflamed hemorrhoids. They affect men and women equally, though women have a higher propensity during pregnancy and child birth. For some reason, there’s a social stigma associated with hemorrhoids, although we all have them. They’re vascular structures that aid in stool control. When they become irritated and inflamed, we have symptoms — and often say we “have hemorrhoids” — when we really mean our hemorrhoids are causing us pain. 

When they’re irritated, hemorrhoids may alternate between itchy and painful symptoms, making it hard to concentrate and uncomfortable to sit. This is because the veins in your rectum are swollen. They usually bleed, especially during a bowel movement, which may scare most of us. Fortunately, hemorrhoids are not a harbinger of more serious disease. 

Treating external hemorrhoids

Fortunately, external hemorrhoids tend to be mild. Most of the time, they are treated with analgesic creams or suppositories that contain hydrocortisone, such as Preparation H, or with a sitz bath, all of which help relieve the pain. Thus, they can be self-treated and do not require an appointment with a physician. The most effective way to reduce bleeding and pain is to increase fiber through diet and supplementation (1). However, sometimes there is thrombosis (clotting) of external hemorrhoids, in which case they may become more painful, requiring medical treatment.

Treating internal hemorrhoids

Internal hemorrhoids can be a bit more complicated. The primary symptom is bleeding with bowel movement, not pain, since they are usually above the point of sensation in the colon, called the dentate line. If the hemorrhoids prolapse below this, there may be pain and discomfort, as well. Prolapse is when hemorrhoids fall out of place, due to weakening of the muscles and ligaments in the colon. 

The first step for treating internal hemorrhoids is to add fiber through diet and supplementation. Study after study shows significant benefit. For instance, in a meta-analysis by the Cochrane Systems Data Review 2005, fiber reduced the occurrence of bleeding by 53 percent (2). In another study, after two weeks of fiber and another two-week follow-up, the daily incidence of bleeding was reduced dramatically (3).

There are several minimally invasive options, including anal banding, sclerotherapy and coagulation. The most effective of these is anal banding, with an approximate 80 percent success rate (4). This is usually an office-based procedure where two rubber bands are place at the neck of each hemorrhoid. To avoid complications from constipation, patients should also take fiber supplementation. 

Side effects of the procedure are usually mild, and there is very low risk of infection. However, severe pain may occur if misapplication occurs with the band below the dentate line. If this procedure fails, hemorrhoidectomy (surgery) would be the next option.

How to prevent hemorrhoids

First, sitting on the toilet for long periods of time puts significant pressure on the veins in the rectum, potentially increasing the risk of inflammation. Though you may want private time to read, the bathroom is not the library. As soon as you have finished moving your bowels, it is important to get off the toilet.

Eating more fiber helps to create bulk for your bowel movements, avoiding constipation, diarrhea and undue straining. Thus, you should try to increase the amount of fiber in your diet, before adding supplementation. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and legumes have significant amounts of fiber. Grains, beans and nuts have among the highest levels of fiber. For instance, one cup of black beans has 12 g of fiber. 

Americans, on average, consume 16 g per day of fiber (5). For the average female or male between ages 31 and 50, the USDA recommends 25 and 30 g per day, respectively (6). I would recommend at least 40 g. My wife and I try to eat only foods that contain a significant amount of fiber, and we get approximately 65 g per day. You may want to raise your fiber level gradually; if you do it too rapidly, be forewarned — side effects are potentially gas and bloating for the first week or two.

Get plenty of fluids. It helps to soften the stool and prevent constipation. Exercise also helps to prevent constipation. It is important not to hold in a bowel movement; go when the urge is there or else the stool can become hard, causing straining, constipation and more time on the toilet. 

If you have rectal bleeding and either have a high risk for colorectal cancer or are over the age of 50, you should see your physician to make sure it is not due to a malignancy or other cause, such as inflammatory bowel disease. The message throughout this article is that Americans need to get more fiber, which is beneficial for inflamed hemorrhoid prevention and treatment.

References:

(1) Dis Colon Rectum. Jul-Aug 1982;25(5):454-456. (2) Cochrane.org. (3) Hepatogastroenterology 1996;43(12):1504-1507. (4) Dis Colon Rectum 2004 Aug;47(8):1364-1370. (5) emedicine.com 2010. (6) health.gov. 

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.

We invite you to check out our new weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

Symptoms of diverticular disease include lower abdominal pain and feeling bloated.
Fiber intake can affect results

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many patients say they have been diagnosed with diverticulitis, but this is a misnomer. Diverticulitis is actually a sequelae, or consequence, of diverticular disease. Diverticular disease is one of the most common maladies that affects us as we age. For instance, 10 percent of 40-year-olds are affected and, for those over the age of 60, more than 50 percent are affected (1).

The good news is that it is potentially preventable through modest lifestyle changes. My goal in writing this article is twofold: to explain simple ways to reduce your risk, while also debunking a myth that is pervasive — that fiber, or more specifically nuts and seeds, exacerbates the disease.

What is diverticular disease? It is a weakening of the lumen, or wall of the colon, resulting in the formation of pouches or out-pocketing referred to as diverticula. The cause of diverticula may be attributable to pressure from constipation. Its mildest form, diverticulosis may be asymptomatic. 

Symptoms of diverticular disease may include fever and abdominal pain, predominantly in the left lower quadrant in Western countries, or the right lower quadrant in Asian countries. It may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Diverticulitis affects 10 to 25 percent of those with diverticulosis. Diverticulitis is inflammation and infection, which may lead to a perforation of the bowel wall. If a rupture occurs, emergency surgery may be required.

Unfortunately, the incidence of diverticulitis is growing. Between 1998 and 2005, hospital admissions for acute diverticulitis increased 26 percent overall with a 73 percent increase in those between the ages of 18 and 44 (2).

Fiber, or more specifically nuts and seeds, does not exacerbate the disease.

How do you prevent diverticular disease and its complications? There are a number of modifiable risk factors, including fiber intake, weight and physical activity.

In terms of fiber, there was a prospective (forward-looking) study published online in the British Medical Journal that extolled the value of fiber in reducing the risk of diverticular disease (3). This was part of the EPIC trial, involving over 47,000 people living in Scotland and England. The study showed a 31 percent reduction in risk in those who were vegetarian. 

But more intriguing, participants who had the highest fiber intake saw a 41 percent reduction in diverticular disease. Those participants in the highest fiber group consumed >25.5 grams per day for women and >26.1 grams per day for men, whereas those in the lowest group consumed less than 14 grams per day. Though the difference in fiber between the two groups was small, the reduction in risk was substantial. 

Another study, which analyzed data from the Million Women Study, a large-scale, population-based prospective UK study of middle-aged women, confirmed the correlation between fiber intake and diverticular disease, and further analyzed the impact of different sources of fiber (4). The authors’ findings were that reduction in the risk of diverticular disease was greatest with high intake of cereal and fruit fiber.

Most Americans get <14 grams of fiber per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25 grams for women and 38.5 grams for men. Interestingly, their recommendations are lower for those who are over 50 years old.

Can you imagine what the effect is when people get at least 40 grams of fiber per day? This is what I recommend for my patients. Some foods that contain the most fiber include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. In a study in 2009, specifically those men who consumed the most nuts and popcorn saw a protective effect from diverticulitis (5).

Obesity plays a role, as well. In the large prospective male health professionals study, body mass index plays a significant role, as did waist circumference (6). Those who were obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) had a 78 percent increased risk of diverticulitis and a greater than threefold increased risk of a diverticular bleed compared to those who had a BMI in the normal range of <21 kg/m². For those whose waist circumference was in the highest group, they had a 56 percent increase risk of diverticulitis and a 96 percent increase risk of diverticular bleed. Thus, obesity puts patients at a much higher risk of the complications of diverticulosis.

Physical activity is also important for reducing the risk of diverticular disease, although the exact mechanism is not yet understood. Regardless, the results are impressive. In a large prospective study, those with the greatest amount of exercise were 37 percent less likely to have diverticular disease compared to those with the least amount (7). Jogging and running seemed to have the most benefit. When the authors combined exercise with fiber intake, there was a dramatic 256 percent reduction in risk of this disease. 

Thus, the prevention of diverticular disease is one based mostly on lifestyle modifications through diet and exercise.

References:

(1) Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. 2006;40:S108–S111. (2) Ann Surg. 2009;249(2):210. (3) BMJ. 2011; 343: d4131. (4) Gut. 2014 Sep; 63(9): 1450–1456. (5) AMA 2008; 300: 907-914. (6) Gastroenterology. 2009;136(1):115. (7) Gut. 1995;36(2):276.  

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 nutrient-dense, plant-based diet appears to prevent and help manage diseases that can affect vision including cataracts. Stock photo
Diet can have a significant impact on cataract risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Cataracts affect a substantial portion of the U.S. population. In fact, 24.4 million people in the U.S. over the age of 40 are currently afflicted, and this number is expected to increase approximately 58 percent by the year 2030 — only 12 years from now — according to estimates by the National Eye Institute (1).

Cataracts are defined as an opacity or cloudiness of the lens in the eye, which decreases vision over time, as it progresses. It’s very common for both eyes to be affected. We often think of cataracts as a symptom of age, but we can take an active role in preventing them.

There are enumerable modifiable risk factors including diet; smoking; sunlight exposure; chronic diseases, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome; steroid use; and physical inactivity. I am going to discuss the dietary factor.

Prevention

In a prospective (forward-looking) study, diet was shown to have substantial effect on the risk reduction for cataracts (2). This study was the United Kingdom group, with 27,670 participants, of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) trial. Participants completed food frequency questionnaires between 1993 and 1999. Then, they were checked for cataracts between 2008 and 2009.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of meat consumed and cataract risk. In other words, those who ate a great amount of meat were at higher risk of cataracts. “Meat” included red meat, fowl and pork. These results followed what is termed a dose-response curve. 

Compared to high meat eaters, every other group demonstrated a significant risk reduction as you progressed along a spectrum that included low meat eaters (15 percent reduction), fish eaters (21 percent reduction), vegetarians (30 percent reduction) and finally vegans (40 percent reduction). 

There really was not that much difference between high meat eaters, those having at least 3.5 ounces, and low meat eaters, those having less than 1.7 ounces a day, yet there was a substantial decline in cataracts. Thus, you don’t have to become a vegan to see an effect.

In my clinical experience, I’ve also had several patients experience reversal of their cataracts after they transitioned to a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. I didn’t think this was possible, but anecdotally, this is a very positive outcome and was confirmed by their ophthalmologists (eye doctors).

Mechanism of action

Oxidative stress is one of the major contributors to the development of cataracts. In a review article that looked at 70 different trials for the development of cataract and /or maculopathies, such as age-related macular degeneration, the authors concluded antioxidants, which are micronutrients found in foods, play an integral part in prevention (3). 

The authors go on to say that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as lifestyle modification with cessation of smoking and treatment of obesity at an early age, help to reduce the risk of cataracts. Thus, you are never too young or too old to take steps to prevent cataracts.

How do you treat cataracts?

The only effective way to treat cataracts is with surgery; the most typical type is phacoemulsification. Ophthalmologists remove the opaque lens and replace it with a synthetic intraocular lens. This is done as an outpatient procedure and usually takes approximately 30 minutes. Fortunately, there is a very high success rate for this surgery. So why is it important to avoid cataracts if surgery is able to remedy the situation?

Potential consequences of surgery

There are always potential risks with invasive procedures, such as infection, even though the chances of complications are low. However, more importantly, there is a greater than fivefold risk of developing late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after cataract surgery (4). This is wet AMD, which can cause significant vision loss. These results come from a meta-analysis (group of studies) looking at more than 6,000 patients. 

It has been hypothesized that the surgery may induce inflammatory changes and the development of leaky blood vessels in the retina of the eye. However, because this meta-analysis was based on observational studies, it is not clear whether undiagnosed AMD may have existed prior to the cataract surgery, since they have similar underlying causes related to oxida tive stress.

Therefore, if you can reduce the risk of cataracts through diet and other lifestyle modifications, plus avoid the potential consequences of cataract surgery, all while reducing the risk of chronic diseases, why not choose the win-win scenario?

References:

1. nei.nih.gov. 2. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May; 93(5): 1128-1135. 3. Exp Eye Res. 2007; 84: 229-245. 4. Ophthalmology. 2003; 110(10): 1960. 

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.

The effects of high sodium are insidious

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

By now, most of us have been hit over the head with the fact that too much salt in our diets is unhealthy. Still, we respond with “I don’t use salt,” “I use very little,” or “I don’t have high blood pressure, so I don’t have to worry.” Unfortunately, these are myths. All of us should be concerned about salt or, more specifically, our sodium intake.

Excessive sodium in the diet does increase the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension); the consequences are stroke or heart disease. Approximately 90 percent of Americans consume too much sodium (1).

Now comes the interesting part. Sodium has a nefarious effect on the kidneys. In the Nurses Health Study, approximately 3,200 women were evaluated in terms of kidney function, looking at the estimated glomerular filtration rate (GFR) as related to sodium intake (2). Over 14 years, those with a sodium intake of 2,300 mg had a much greater chance of an at least 30 percent reduction in kidney function, compared to those who consumed 1,700 mg per day.

Why is this study important? Kidneys are one of our main systems for removing toxins and waste. The kidneys are where many initial high blood pressure medications work, including ACE inhibitors, such as lisinopril; ARBs, such as Diovan or Cozaar; and diuretics (water pills). If the kidney loses function, it may be harder to treat high blood pressure. Worse, it could lead to chronic kidney disease and dialysis. Once someone has reached dialysis, most blood pressure medications are not very effective.

Ironically, the current recommended maximum sodium intake is 2,300 mg per day, or one teaspoon, the same level that led to negative effects in the study. However, Americans’ mean intake is twice that level.

Excessive sodium in one’s diet can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to a stroke or heart disease. Stock photo

If we reduced our consumption by even a modest 20 percent, we could reduce the incidence of heart disease dramatically. Current recommendations from the American Heart Association indicate an upper limit of 2,300 mg per day, with an “ideal” limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day (3).

If the salt shaker is not the problem, what is? Most of our sodium comes from processed foods, packaged foods and restaurants. There is nothing wrong with eating out on occasion, but you can’t control how much salt goes into your food. My wife is a great barometer of restaurant salt use. If food from the night before was salty, she complains of not being able to get her rings off.

Do you want to lose 5 to 10 pounds quickly? Decreasing your salt intake will allow you to achieve this goal. Excess sodium causes the body to retain fluids. 

One approach is to choose products that have 200 mg or fewer per serving indicated on the label. Foods labeled “low sodium” have fewer than 140 mg of sodium, but foods labeled “reduced sodium” have 25 percent less than the full-sodium version, which doesn’t necessarily mean much. Soy sauce has 1,000 mg of sodium per tablespoon, but low-sodium soy sauce still has about 600 mg per tablespoon. Salad dressings and other condiments, where serving sizes are small, add up very quickly. Mustard has 120 mg per teaspoon. Most of us use far more than one teaspoon of mustard. Caveat emptor: Make sure to read labels on all packaged foods very carefully.

Is sea salt better than table salt? High amounts of salt are harmful, and the type is not as important. The only difference between them is slight taste and texture variation. I recommend not buying either. In addition to the health issues, salt tends to dampen your taste buds, masking the flavors of food.

If you are working to decrease your sodium intake, become an avid label reader. Sodium hides in all kinds of foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, such as breads, soups, cheeses and salad dressings. I also recommend getting all sauces on the side, so you can control how much — if any — you choose to use.

As you reduce your sodium intake, you might be surprised at how quickly your taste buds adjust. In just a few weeks, foods you previously thought didn’t taste salty will seem overwhelmingly salty, and you will notice new flavors in unsalted foods.

If you have a salt shaker and don’t know what to do with all the excess salt, don’t despair. There are several uses for salt that are actually beneficial. According to the Mayo Clinic, gargling with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water significantly reduces symptoms of a sore throat from infectious disease, such as mononucleosis, strep throat and the common cold. Having had mono, I can attest that this works.

Remember, if you want to season your food at a meal, you are much better off asking for the pepper than the salt.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010;5:836-843. (3) heart.org.

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 diet high in fiber may help decrease the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes and has been linked to a lower incidence of some types of cancer. Stock photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many people worry about getting enough protein, when they really should be concerned about getting enough fiber. Most of us — except perhaps professional athletes or long-distance runners — get enough protein in our diets. Protein has not prevented or helped treat diseases in the way that studies illustrate with fiber. 

As I mentioned in my previous article, Americans are woefully deficient in fiber, getting between eight and 15 grams per day, when they should be ingesting more than 40 grams daily. 

In order to increase our daily intake, several myths need to be dispelled. First, fiber does more than improve bowel movements. Also, fiber doesn’t have to be unpleasant. 

The attitude has long been that to get enough fiber, one needs to eat a cardboard box. With certain sugary cereals, you may be better off eating the box, but on the whole, this is not true. Though fiber comes in supplement form, most of your daily intake should be from diet. It is actually relatively painless to get enough fiber; you just have to become aware of which foods are fiber rich.

Fiber has very powerful effects on our overall health. A very large prospective cohort study showed that fiber may increase longevity by decreasing mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and other infectious diseases (1). Over a nine-year period, those who ate the most fiber, in the highest quintile group, were 22 percent less likely to die than those in lowest group. Patients who consumed the most fiber also saw a significant decrease in mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and infectious diseases. The authors of the study believe that it may be the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects of whole grains that are responsible for the positive results. 

Along the same lines of the respiratory findings, we see benefit with prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with fiber in a relatively large epidemiologic analysis of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (2). The specific source of fiber was important. Fruit had the most significant effect on preventing COPD, with a 28 percent reduction in risk. Cereal fiber also had a substantial effect but not as great.

Does the type of fiber make a difference? One of the complexities is that there are a number of different classifications of fiber, from soluble to viscous to fermentable. Within each of the types, there are subtypes of fiber. Not all fiber sources are equal. Some are more effective in preventing or treating certain diseases. Take, for instance, a February 2004 irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) study (3). 

It was a meta-analysis (a review of multiple studies) study using 17 randomized controlled trials with results showing that soluble psyllium improved symptoms in patients significantly more than insoluble bran.

Fiber also has powerful effects on breast cancer treatment. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, soluble fiber had a significant impact on breast cancer risk reduction in estrogen negative women (4). Most beneficial studies for breast cancer have shown results in estrogen receptor positive women. This is one of the few studies that has illustrated significant results in estrogen receptor negative women. 

The list of chronic diseases and disorders that fiber prevents and/or treats also includes cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, diverticulosis and weight gain. This is hardly an exhaustive list. I am trying to impress upon you the importance of increasing fiber in your diet.

Foods that are high in fiber are part of a plant-rich diet. They are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Overall, beans, as a group, have the highest amount of fiber. Animal products don’t have fiber. Even more interesting is that fiber is one of the only foods that has no calories, yet helps you feel full. These days, it’s easy to increase your fiber by choosing bean-based pastas. Personally, I prefer those based on lentils. Read the labels, though; you want those that are solely made from lentils without rice added.

If you have a chronic disease, the best fiber sources are most likely disease dependent. However, if you are trying to prevent chronic diseases in general, I would recommend getting fiber from a wide array of sources. Make sure to eat meals that contain substantial amounts of fiber, which has several advantages, such as avoiding processed foods, reducing the risk of chronic disease, satiety and increased energy levels. Certainly, while protein is important, each time you sit down at a meal, rather than asking how much protein is in it, you now know to ask how much fiber is in it. 

References:

(1) Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(12):1061-1068. (2) Amer J Epidemiology 2008;167(5):570-578. (3) Aliment Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2004;19(3):245-251. (4) Amer J Clinical Nutrition 2009;90(3):664–671. 

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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