Medical Compass

A thyroid nodule is an abnormal growth that forms a lump in the thyroid gland. Stock photo
Most identified incidentally are benign

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

More than 50 percent of people have thyroid nodules detectable by high-resolution ultrasound (1). Fortunately, most are benign. A small percent, 4 to 6.5 percent, are malignant, with the number varying depending on the study (2). Thyroid nodules are being diagnosed more often incidentally on radiologic exams, such as CT scans of the chest, MRI scans, PET scans and ultrasounds of the carotid arteries in the neck (3).

There is a conundrum of what to do with a thyroid nodule, especially when it is found incidentally. It depends on the size. If it is over one centimeter, usually it is biopsied by fine needle aspiration (FNA) (4). While most are asymptomatic, if there are symptoms, these might include difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, pain in the lower portion of the neck and a goiter (5).

FNA biopsy is becoming more common. In a study evaluating several databases, there was a greater than 100 percent increase in thyroid FNAs performed over a five-year period from 2006 to 2011 (6). This resulted in a 31 percent increase in thyroidectomies, surgeries to remove the thyroid partially or completely.

However, the number of thyroid cancers diagnosed with the surgery did not rise in this same period. Though the number of cancers diagnosed has increased, the mortality rate has remained relatively stable over several decades at about 1,500 patients per year (7). Thyroid nodules in this study were least likely to be cancerous when the initial diagnosis was by incidental radiologic exam.

Treating borderline results

As much as 25 percent of FNA biopsies are indeterminate. We are going to look at two modalities to differentiate between benign and malignant thyroid nodules when FNA results are equivocal: a PET scan and a molecular genetics test. A meta-analysis (a group of six studies) of PET scan results showed that it was least effective in resolving an unclear FNA biopsy. The PET scan was able to rule out patients who did not have malignancies, but did not do a good job of identifying those who did have cancer (8).

On the other hand, a molecular-based test was able to potentially determine whether an indeterminate thyroid nodule by FNA was malignant or benign (9).

Unlike in the PET scan study above, the researchers were able to not only rule out the majority of malignancies but also to rule them in. It was not perfect, but the percent of negative predictive value (ruled out) was 94 percent, and the positive predictive value (ruled in) was 74 percent. The combination test improved the predictive results of previous molecular tests by 65 to 69 percent. This is important to help decide whether or not the patient needs surgery to remove at least part of the thyroid.

Significance of calcification on ultrasound

Microcalcifications in the nodule can be detected on ultrasound. The significance of this may be that patients with microcalcifications are more likely to have malignant thyroid nodules than those without them, according to a small prospective study involving 170 patients (10). This does not mean necessarily that a patient has malignancy with calcifications, but there is a higher risk.

Good news

As I mentioned above, most thyroid nodules are benign. The results of one study go even further, showing that most asymptomatic benign nodules do not progress in size significantly after five years (11). The factors that did contribute to growth of about 11 percent of the nodules were age (<45 years old had more growth than >60 years old), multiple nodules, greater nodule volume at baseline and being male.

The authors’ suggestion is that, after the follow-up scan, the next ultrasound scan might be five years later instead of three years. However, they did discover thyroid cancer in 0.3 percent after five years.

Thyroid function may contribute to risk

In considering risk factors, it’s important to note that those who had a normal thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) were less likely to have a malignant thyroid nodule than those who had a high TSH, implying hypothyroidism. There was an almost 30 percent prevalence of cancer in the nodule if the TSH was greater than >5.5 mU/L (12).

The bottom line is that there is an urgent need for new guidelines regarding thyroid nodules. Fortunately, most nodules are benign and asymptomatic, but the number of cancerous nodules found is growing. Why the death rate remains the same year over year for decades may have to do with the slow rate at which most thyroid cancers progress, especially two of the most common forms, follicular and papillary.

References:

(1) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (2) Thyroid. 2005;15(7):708. (3) uptodate.com. (4) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (5) thyroid.org. (6) AAES 2013 Annual Meeting. Abstract 36. (7) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (8) Cancer. 2011;117(20):4582-4594. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. Online May 12, 2015. (10) Head Neck. 2008 Sep;30(9):1206-1210. (11) JAMA. 2015;313(9):926-935. (12) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006;91(11):4295.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.    

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

Fiber-rich foods, including whole grains, seeds and legumes, as well as some beverages, such as coffee and wine, contain measurable amounts of lignans. Stock photo
Lignans may reduce diabetes risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Type 2 diabetes is pervasive throughout the population, regardless of age. Yet, even with its prevalence, many myths persist about managing diabetes. Among these are: Fruit should be limited or avoided; soy has detrimental effects with diabetes; plant fiber provides too many carbohydrates; and bariatric surgery is an alternative to lifestyle changes.

All of these statements are false. Let’s look at the evidence.

Fruit

Fruit, whether whole fruit or fruit juice, has been thought of as taboo for those with diabetes. This is only partially true. Yes, fruit juice should be avoided because it does raise or spike glucose (sugar) levels. The same does not hold true for whole fruit. Studies have demonstrated that patients with diabetes don’t experience a spike in sugar levels whether they limit the number of fruits consumed or have an abundance of fruit (1). In another study, whole fruit was shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (2).

In yet another study, researchers looked at the impacts of different whole fruits on glucose levels. They found that berries reduced glucose levels the most, but even bananas and grapes reduced these levels (3). That’s right, bananas and grapes, two fruits people associate with spiking sugar levels and increasing carbohydrate load. The only fruit that seemed to have a mildly negative impact on sugars was cantaloupe.

Whole fruit is not synonymous with sugar. One of the reasons for the beneficial effect is the flavonoids, or plant micronutrients, but another is the fiber.

Fiber

In the Nurses’ Health Study and NHS II, two very large prospective observational studies, plant fiber was shown to help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (4). Researchers looked at lignans, a type of plant fiber, specifically examining the metabolites enterodiol and enterolactone. They found that patients with type 2 diabetes have substantially lower levels of these metabolites in their urine, compared to the control group without diabetes. There was a linear, or direct, relationship between the amount of metabolites and the reduction in risk for diabetes. The authors encourage patients to eat more of a plant-based diet to get this benefit.

Foods with lignans include flaxseed; sesame seeds; cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower; and an assortment of fruits and grains (5). The researchers believe the effect is from antioxidant activity.

Soy and kidney function

In diabetes patients with nephropathy (kidney damage or disease), soy consumption showed improvements in kidney function (6). There were significant reductions in urinary creatinine levels and reductions of proteinuria (protein in the urine), both signs that the kidneys are beginning to function better.

This was a small, but randomized controlled trial over a four-year period with 41 participants. The control group’s diet consisted of 70 percent animal protein and 30 percent vegetable protein, while the treatment group’s consisted of 35 percent animal protein, 35 percent textured soy protein and 30 percent vegetable protein.

This is very important since diabetes patients are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop nephropathy than those without diabetes (7). It appears that soy protein may put substantially less stress on the kidneys than animal protein. However, those who have hypothyroidism should be cautious or avoid soy since it may suppress thyroid functioning.

Bariatric surgery

In recent years, bariatric surgery has grown in prevalence for treating severely obese (BMI>35 kg/m²) and obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) diabetes patients. In a meta-analysis of bariatric surgery involving 16 RCTs and observational studies, the procedure illustrated better results than conventional medicines over a 17-month follow-up period in treating HbA1C (three-month blood glucose measure), fasting blood glucose and weight loss (8). During this time period, 72 percent of those patients treated with bariatric surgery went into diabetes remission and had significant weight loss.

However, after 10 years without proper management involving lifestyle changes, only 36 percent remained in remission with diabetes, and a significant number regained weight. Thus, whether one chooses bariatric surgery or not, altering diet and exercise are critical to maintain long-term benefits.

There is still a lot to be learned with diabetes, but our understanding of how to manage lifestyle modifications, specifically diet, is becoming clearer. The take-home message is: focus on a plant-based diet focused on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes. And if you choose a medical approach, bariatric surgery is a viable option, but don’t forget that you need to make significant lifestyle changes to accompany the surgery.

References:

(1) Nutr J. 2013 Mar. 5;12:29. (2) Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Apr.;95:925-933. (3) BMJ online 2013 Aug. 29. (4) Diabetes Care. online 2014 Feb. 18. (5) Br J Nutr. 2005;93:393–402. (6) Diabetes Care. 2008;31:648-654. (7) N Engl J Med. 1993;328:1676–1685. (8) Obes Surg. 2014;24:437-455.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. 

Zinc supplements (available as tablets, syrup or lozenges) should be taken within 24 hours of the onset of a cold. Stock photo
Supplements and exercise for the common cold

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

All of us have suffered at some point from the common cold. Most frequently caused by the notorious human rhinovirus, for many, it is an all too common occurrence. Amid folklore about remedies, there is evidence that it may be possible to reduce the symptoms — or even reduce the duration — of the common cold with supplements and lifestyle management.

I am constantly asked, “How do I treat this cold?” Below, I will review and discuss the medical literature, separating myth from fact about which supplements may be beneficial and which may not.

Zinc

You may have heard that zinc is an effective way to treat a cold. But what does the medical literature say?

The answer is a resounding, YES! According to a meta-analysis that included 13 trials, zinc in any form taken within 24 hours of first symptoms may reduce the duration of a cold by at least one day (1). Even more importantly, zinc may significantly reduce the severity of symptoms throughout the infection, thus improving quality of life. The results may be due to an anti-inflammatory effect of zinc.

One of the studies reviewed, which was published in the Journal of Infectious Disease, found that zinc reduced the duration of the common cold by almost 50 percent from seven days to four days, cough symptoms were reduced by greater than 60 percent and nasal discharge by 33 percent (2). All of these results were statistically significant. Researchers used 13 grams of zinc acetate per lozenge taken three to four times daily for four days. This translates into 50-65 mg per day.

The caveat is that not all studies showed a benefit. However, the benefits generally seem to outweigh the risks, except in the case of nasal administration, which the FDA has warned against.

Unfortunately, all of the studies where there was a proven benefit may have used different formulations, delivery systems and dosages, and there is no current recommendation or consensus on what is optimal.

Vitamin C

According to a review of 29 trials with a combined population of over 11,000, vitamin C did not show any significant benefit in prevention, reduction of symptoms or duration in the general population (3). Thus, there may be no reason to take mega-doses of vitamin C for cold prevention and treatment. However, in a subgroup of serious marathon runners and other athletes, there was substantial risk reduction when taking vitamin C prophylactically; they caught 50 percent fewer colds.

Echinacea

After review of 24 controlled clinical trials, according to the Cochrane Database, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of echinacea for treatment of duration and symptoms, but the results are disappointing presently and, at best, are inconsistent (4). There are no valid randomized clinical trials for cold prevention using echinacea.

In a randomized controlled trial with 719 patients, echinacea was no better than placebo for the treatment of the common cold (5).

Exercise

People with colds need rest — at least that was the theory. However, a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine may have changed this perception. Participants who did aerobic exercise at least five days per week, versus one or fewer days per week, had a 43 percent reduction in the number of days with colds over two 12-week periods during the fall and winter months (6). Even more interesting is that those who perceived themselves to be highly fit had a 46 percent reduction in number of days with colds compared to those who perceived themselves to have low fitness. The symptoms of colds were reduced significantly as well.

What does all of this mean?

Zinc is potentially of great usefulness the treatment and prevention of the common cold. Echinacea and vitamin C may or may not provide benefits, but don’t stop taking them, if you feel they work for you. And, if you need another reason to exercise, reduction of your cold’s duration may a good one.

References:

(1) Open Respir Med J. 2011;5:51-58. (2) J Infect Dis. 2008 Mar 15;197(6):795-802. (3) Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000980. (4) Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000530. (5) Ann Intern Med. 2010;153(12):769-777. (6) British Journal of Sports Medicine 2011;45:987-992.

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 weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

Fruit, like these Sumo Citrus, is a good source of fiber. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Modest lifestyle changes have a resounding effect

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

We can significantly reduce the occurrence of heart disease, the number one killer in the United States, by making modest lifestyle changes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 790,000 heart attacks annually and 210,000 of these occur in those who’ve already had a first heart attack (1). Here, I will provide specifics on how to make changes to protect you and your family from heart disease, regardless of family history.

The evidence continues to highlight lifestyle changes, including diet, as the most important factors in preventing heart disease. Changes that garner a big bang for your buck include the consumption of chocolate, legumes, nuts, fiber and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

Chocolate effect

Chocolate lovers, this study is for you! Preliminary evidence shows that two pieces of chocolate a week may decrease the risk of a heart attack by 37 percent, compared to those who consume less (2). However, the authors warned against the idea that more is better. In fact, high fat and sugar content and calorically dense aspects may have detrimental effects when consumed at much higher levels. There is a fine line between potential benefit and harm. The benefits may be attributed to micronutrients referred to as flavonols.

I usually recommend that patients have one to two squares – about one-fifth to two-fifths of an ounce – of dark chocolate daily. Who says prevention has to be painful?

Role of fiber

Fiber has a dose-response relationship to reducing risk. In other words, the more fiber intake, the greater the reduction in risk. In a meta-analysis of 10 studies, results showed for every 10-gram increase in fiber, there was a corresponding 14 percent reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular event and a 27 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease mortality (3). The authors analyzed data that included over 90,000 men and 200,000 women.

The average American consumes about 16 grams per day of fiber (4). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 14 grams of fiber for each 1,000 calories consumed, or roughly 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men (5). Therefore, we can significantly reduce our risk of heart disease if we increase our consumption of fiber to reach the recommended levels. Good sources of fiber are whole grains and fruits.

Omega-3 fatty acids

In a study with over 45,000 men, there were significant reductions in coronary heart disease with omega-3 PUFAs. Both plant-based and seafood-based omega-3s showed these effects (7). Good sources of omega-3s from plant-based sources include nuts, such as walnuts, and ground flaxseed.

Your ultimate goal should be to become “heart attack proof,” a term used by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and reinforced by Dr. Dean Ornish. This requires a plant-based diet. The more significant the lifestyle modifications you make, the closer you will come to achieving this goal. But even modest changes in diet will result in significant reductions in risk.

Legumes’ impact

In a prospective (forward-looking) cohort study, the First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Epidemiologic Follow-up Study (NHEFS), legumes reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by a significant 22 percent. Those who consumed four or more servings per week, compared to those who consumed less than one serving, saw this effect. The legumes used in this study included beans, peas and peanuts (6). There were over 9,500 men and women involved, spanning 19 years of follow-up. I recommend that patients consume at least one to two servings a day, or 7 to 14 a week. Imagine the impact that would have, compared to the modest four servings per week used to reach statistical significance.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) BMJ 2011; 343:d4488. (3) Arch Intern Med. 2004 Feb 23;164(4):370-376. (4) NHANES 2009-2010 Data Brief No. 12. Sep 2014. (5) eatright.org. (6) Arch Intern Med. 2001 Nov 26;161(21):2573-2578. (7) Circulation. 2005 Jan 18;111(2):157-164.

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.     

Too much milk may be bad for your health. Stock photo
Does dairy really build strong bones?

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

The prevalence of osteoporosis is increasing, especially as the population ages. Why is this important? Osteoporosis may lead to increased risk of fracture due to a decrease in bone strength (1). That is what we do know. But what about what we think we know?

For decades we have been told that if we want strong bones, we need to drink milk. This has been drilled into our brains since we were toddlers. Milk has calcium and is fortified with vitamin D, so milk could only be helpful, right? Not necessarily.

The data is mixed, but studies indicate that milk may not be as beneficial as we have been led to believe. Even worse, it may be harmful. The operative word here is “may.” We will investigate this further. Vitamin D and calcium are good for us. But do supplements help prevent osteoporosis and subsequent fractures? Again the data are mixed, but supplements may not be the answer for those who are not deficient.

Milk it’s not what you think

The results of a large, observational study involving men and women in Sweden showed that milk may be harmful (2). When comparing those who consumed three or more cups of milk daily to those who consumed less than one, there was a 93 percent increased risk of mortality in women between the ages of 39 and 74. There was also an indication of increased mortality based on dosage.

For every one glass of milk consumed there was a 15 percent increased risk of death in these women. There was a much smaller, but significant, 3 percent per glass increased risk of death in men. Women experienced a small, but significant, increased risk of hip fracture, but no increased risk in overall fracture risk. There was no increased risk of fracture in men, but there was no benefit either. There were higher levels of biomarkers that indicate oxidative stress and inflammation found in the urine.

This study was 20 years in duration and is eye-opening. We cannot make any decisive conclusions, only associations, since it is not a randomized controlled trial. But it does get you thinking. The researchers surmise that milk has high levels of D-galactose, a simple sugar that may increase inflammation and ultimately contribute to this potentially negative effect, whereas other foods have many-fold lower levels of this substance.

Ironically, the USDA recommends that, from 9 years of age through adulthood, we consume three cups of dairy per day (3). This is interesting, since the results from the previous study showed the negative effects at this recommended level of milk consumption. The USDA may want to rethink these guidelines.

Prior studies show milk may not be beneficial for preventing osteoporotic fractures. Specifically, in a meta-analysis that used data from the Nurses’ Health Study for women and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study for men, neither men nor women saw any benefit from milk consumption in preventing hip fractures (4).

Calcium disappointments

Unfortunately, it is not only milk that may not be beneficial. In a meta-analysis involving a group of observational studies, there was no statistically significant improvement in hip fracture risk in those men or women ingesting at least 300 mg of calcium from supplements and/or food on a daily basis (5).

The researchers did not differentiate the types of foods containing calcium. In a group of randomized controlled trials analyzed in the same study, those taking 800 to 1,600 mg of calcium supplements per day also saw no increased benefit in reducing nonvertebral fractures. In fact, in four clinical trials the researchers actually saw an increase in hip fractures among those who took calcium supplements. A weakness of the large multivaried meta-analyses is that vitamin D baseline levels, exercise and phosphate levels were not taken into account.

Vitamin D benefit

Finally, though the data is not always consistent for vitamin D, when it comes to fracture prevention, it appears it may be valuable. In a meta-analysis (involving 11 randomized controlled trials), vitamin D supplementation resulted in a reduction in fractures (6). When patients were given a median dose of 800 IUs (ranging from 792 to 2,000 IUs) of vitamin D daily, there was a significant 14 percent reduction in nonvertebral fractures and an even greater 30 percent reduction in hip fractures in those 65 years and over. However, vitamin D in lower levels showed no significant ability to reduce fracture risk.

Just because something in medicine is a paradigm does not mean it’s correct. Milk may be an example of this. No definitive statement can be made about calcium, although even in randomized controlled trials with supplements, there seemed to be no significant benefit. Of course, the patients in these trials were not necessarily deficient in calcium or vitamin D.

In order to get benefit from vitamin D supplementation to prevent fracture, patients may need at least 800 IUs per day, which is the Institute of Medicine’s recommended amount for a relatively similar population as in the study.

Remember that studies, though imperfect, are better than tradition alone. Prevention and treatment therefore should be individualized, and deficiency in vitamin D or calcium should usually be treated, of course. Please, talk to your doctor before adding or changing any supplements.

References:

(1) JAMA. 2001;285:785-795. (2) BMJ 2014;349:g6015. (3) health.gov. (4) JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(1):54-60. (5) Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;86(6):1780-1790. (6) N Engl J Med. 2012 Aug. 2;367(5):481.

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.      

Elimination diets may play a role in treating eczema. Stock photo
Broken bones are a common side effect of eczema

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Eczema is a common problem for both children and adults. In the United States, more than 10 percent of the adult population is afflicted (1), with twice as many females as males affected (2).

Referred to more broadly as atopic dermatitis, its cause is unknown, but it is thought that nature and nurture are both at play (3). Eczema is a chronic inflammatory process that involves symptoms of pruritus (itching) pain, rashes and erythema (redness) (4). There are three different severities: mild, moderate and severe. Adults tend to have eczema in the moderate-to-severe range.

Treatments for eczema run the gamut from over-the-counter creams and lotions to prescription steroid creams to systemic (oral) steroids and, now, injectable biologics. Some use phototherapy for severe cases, but the research on phototherapy is scant. Antihistamines are sometimes used to treat the itchiness. Also, lifestyle modifications may play an important role, specifically diet. Two separate studies have shown an association between eczema and fracture, which we will investigate further. Let’s look at the evidence.

Eczema doesn’t just scratch the surface

Eczema may also be related to broken bones. In an observational study, results showed that those with eczema had a 44 percent increased risk of injury causing limitation and an even more disturbing 67 percent risk of bone fracture and bone or joint injury for those 30 years and older (5). And if you have both fatigue or insomnia and eczema, you are at higher risk for bone or joint injury than having one or the other alone. One reason for increased fracture risk, the researchers postulate, is the use of corticosteroids in treatment.

Steroids may weaken bone, ligaments and tendons and may cause osteoporosis by decreasing bone mineral density. Chronic inflammation may also contribute to the risk of bone loss. There were 34,500 patients involved in the study, ranging in age from 18 to 85. For those who have eczema and have been treated with steroids, it may be wise to have a DEXA (bone) scan.

Are supplements the answer?

The thought of supplements somehow seems more appealing for some than medicine. There are two well-known supplements for helping to reduce inflammation, evening primrose oil and borage oil. Are these supplements a good replacement for – or addition to – medications? The research is really mixed, leaning toward ineffective.

In a meta-analysis (involving seven randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of studies), evening primrose oil was no better than placebo in treating eczema (6). The researchers also looked at eight studies of borage oil and found there was no difference from placebo in terms of symptom relief. One positive is that these supplements only had minor side effects. But don’t look to supplements for help.

Where are we on the drug front?

The FDA approved a biologic monoclonal antibody, dupilumab (7). In trials, this injectable drug showed good results, improving outcomes for moderate to severe eczema sufferers when topical steroids alone were not effective.

Do probiotics have a place?

When we think of probiotics, we think of taking a pill. However, there are also potentially topical probiotics with atopic dermatitis. In preliminary in-vitro (in a test tube) studies, the results look intriguing and show that topical probiotics from the human microbiome (gut) could potentially work as well as steroids (8). This may be part of the road to treatments of the future. However, this is in very early stage of development.

What about lifestyle modifications?

In a Japanese study involving over 700 pregnant women and their offspring, results showed that when the women ate either a diet high in green and yellow vegetables, beta carotene or citrus fruit there was a significant reduction in the risk of the child having eczema of 59 percent, 48 percent and 47 percent, respectively, when comparing highest to lowest consumption quartiles (9).

Elimination diets may also play a role. One study’s results showed when eggs were removed from the diet in those who were allergic, according to IgE testing, eczema improved significantly (10).

From an anecdotal perspective, I have seen very good results when treating patients who have eczema with dietary changes. My patient population includes about 15 to 20 percent of patients who suffer some level of eczema. For example, a young adult had eczema mostly on the extremities. When I first met the patient, these were angry, excoriated, erythematous and scratched lesions. However, after several months of a vegetable-rich diet, the patient’s skin had all but cleared.

I also have a personal interest in eczema. I suffered from hand eczema, where my hands would become painful and blotchy and then crack and bleed. This all stopped for me when I altered my diet many years ago.

Eczema exists on a spectrum from annoying to significantly affecting a patient’s quality of life (11). Supplements may not be the solution, at least not borage oil or evening primrose oil. However, there may be promising topical probiotics ahead and medications for the hard to treat. It might be best to avoid long-term systemic steroid use; it could not only impact the skin but also may impact the bone. Lifestyle modifications appear to be very effective, at least at the anecdotal level.

References:

(1) J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013;132(5):1132-1138. (2) BMC Dermatol. 2013;13(14). (3) Acta Derm Venereol (Stockh) 1985;117 (Suppl.):1-59. (4) uptodate.com. (5) JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(1):33-41. (6) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;4:CD004416. (7) Medscape.com. (8) ACAAI 2014: Abstracts P328 and P329. (9) Allergy. 2010 Jun 1;65(6):758-765. (10) J Am Acad Dermatol. 2004;50(3):391-404. (11) Contact Dermatitis 2008; 59:43-47.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. 

Studies have shown that eating less animal protein may prolong your life. Stock photo
Plant protein trumps animal protein

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

When asked what is more important, longevity or healthy aging (quality of life), more people choose the latter. Well, it turns out the two are not mutually exclusive.

The number of 90-year-olds is growing by leaps and bounds. According to the National Institutes of Health, those who were more than 90 years old increased by 2.5 times over a 30-year period from 1980 to 2010 (1). This group is among what researchers refer to as the “oldest-old,” which includes those aged 85 and older.

What do these people have in common? According to one study, they tend to have fewer chronic morbidities or diseases. Thus, they tend to have a better quality of life with a greater physical func-tioning and mental acuity (2).

In a study of centenarians, genetics played a significant role. Characteristics of this group were that they tended to be healthy and then die rapidly, without prolonged suffering (3).

Factors that predict one’s ability to reach this exclusive club may involve both genetics and lifestyle choices. Let’s look at the research.

We are told time and time again to exercise. But how much do we need, and how can we get the best quality? In a 2014 study, the results showed that 5 to 10 minutes of daily running, regardless of the pace, can have a significant impact on life span by decreasing cardiovascular mortality and all-cause mortality (4).

Amazingly, even if participants ran fewer than six miles per week at a pace slower than 10-minute miles, and even if they ran only one to two days a week, there was still a decrease in mortality compared to nonrunners. Here is the kicker: Those who ran for this very short amount of time potentially added three years to their life span. There were 55,137 participants ranging in age from 18 to 100 years old.

An accompanying editorial to this study noted that more than 50 percent of people in the United States do not meet the current recommendation of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day (5).

Diet

A long-standing paradigm is that we need to eat sufficient animal protein. However, there have been cracks developing in this façade, especially as it relates to longevity. In an observational study using NHANES III data, results show that those who ate a high-protein diet (greater than 20 percent from protein) had a twofold increased risk of all-cause mortality, a four times increased risk of cancer mortality and a four times increased risk of dying from diabetes (6). This was over a considerable duration of 18 years and involved almost 7,000 participants ranging in age at the start of the study from 50 to 65.

However, this did not hold true if the protein source was plants. In fact, a high-protein plant diet may reduce the risks, not increase them. The reason, according to the authors, is that animal protein may increase insulin growth factor-1 and growth hormones that have detrimental effects on the body.

Interestingly, those who are over age 65 may benefit from more animal protein in reducing the risk of cancer. However, there was a significantly increased risk of diabetes mortality across all age groups eating a high animal protein diet. The researchers therefore concluded that lower animal protein may be wise at least during middle age.

The Adventists Health Study 2 trial reinforced this data. It looked at Seventh-day Adventists, a group that emphasizes a plant-based diet, and found that those who ate animal protein up to once a week had a significantly reduced risk of dying over the next six years compared to those who were more frequent meat eaters (7). This was an observational trial with over 73,000 participants and a median age of 57 years old.

Inflammation

In the Whitehall II study, a specific marker for inflammation was measured, interleukin-6. The study showed that higher levels did not bode well for participants’ longevity (8). In fact, if participants had elevated IL-6 (>2.0 ng/L) at both baseline and at the end of the 10-year follow-up period, their probability of healthy aging decreased by almost half.

The takeaway from this study is that IL-6 is a relatively common biomarker for inflammation that can be measured with a simple blood test offered by most major laboratories. This study involved 3,044 participants over the age of 35 who did not have a stroke, heart attack or cancer at the beginning of the study.

The bottom line is that, although genetics are important for longevity, so too are lifestyle choices. A small amount of exercise, specifically running, can lead to a substantial increase in healthy life span. 

Protein from plants may trump protein from animal sources in reducing the risk of mortality from all causes, from diabetes and from heart disease. This does not necessarily mean that one needs to be a vegetarian to see the benefits. IL-6 may be a useful marker for inflammation, which could help predict healthy or unhealthy outcomes. Therefore, why not have a discussion with your doctor about testing to see if you have an elevated IL-6? Lifestyle modifications may be able to reduce these levels.

References:

(1) nia.nih.gov. (2) J Am Geriatr Soc. 2009;57:432-440. (3) Future of Genomic Medicine (FoGM) VII. Presented March 7, 2014. (4) J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64:472-481. (5) J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;64:482-484. (6) Cell Metab. 2014;19:407-417. (7) JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173:1230-1238. (8) CMAJ. 2013;185:E763-E770.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.  

Diet and exercise are the first line of defense for those living with diabetes. Stock photo

Taking your blood pressure medications at night has beneficial effects

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Not surprisingly, soda – with 39 grams of sugar per 12-ounce can – is associated with increased risk of diabetes. However, the drink with the lowest amount of sugar is wine, red or white. Even more surprising, it may have benefits in reducing complications associated with diabetes. Wine has about 1.2 grams of sugar in 5 ounces. Per ounce, soda has the most sugar, and wine has the least.

Why is this important? The prevalence of diabetes currently sits at 9.4 percent of the U.S. population, while another 84 million have prediabetes (HbA1C of 5.7-6.4 percent) (1).

For those with diabetes, cardiovascular risk and severity may not be equal between the sexes. In two trials, women had greater risk than men. In one study, women with diabetes were hospitalized due to heart attacks at a more significant rate than men, though both had substantial increases in risk, 162 percent and 96 percent, respectively (2). This was a retrospective (backward-looking) study.

What may reduce risks of disease and/or complications? Fortunately, we are not without options. Several factors may help. These include the timing of blood pressure medications, lifestyle modifications (diet and exercise) and, yes, wine.

Diet trumps drugs for prevention

All too often in the medical community, we are guilty of reaching for drugs and either overlooking lifestyle modifications or expecting that patients will fail with them. This is not only disappointing, but it is a disservice; lifestyle changes may be more effective in preventing this disease. In a head-to-head comparison study (Diabetes Prevention Program), diet plus exercise bests metformin for diabetes prevention (3). This study was performed over 15 years of duration in 2,776 participants who were at high risk for diabetes because they were overweight or obese and had elevated sugars.

There were three groups in the study: those receiving a low-fat, low-calorie diet with 15 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise; those taking metformin, 875 mg twice a day; and a placebo group. Diet and exercise reduced the risk of diabetes by 27 percent, while metformin reduced it by 18 percent over the placebo, both reaching statistical significance. While these are impressive results that speak to the use of lifestyle modification and to metformin, this is not the optimal diabetes diet.

Is wine really beneficial?

Alcohol in general has mixed results. Wine is no exception. However, the CASCADE trial, a randomized controlled trial, considered the gold standard of studies, shows wine may have heart benefits in well-controlled patients with type 2 diabetes by altering the lipid (cholesterol) profile (4).

Patients were randomized into three groups, each receiving a drink with dinner nightly; one group received 5 ounces of red wine, another 5 ounces of white wine, and the control group drank 5 ounces of water. Those who drank the red wine saw a significant increase in their “good cholesterol” HDL levels, an increase in apolipoprotein A1 (the primary component in HDL) and a decrease in the ratio of total cholesterol-to-HDL levels compared to the water-drinking control arm. In other words, there were significant beneficial cardiometabolic changes.

White wine also had beneficial cardiometabolic effects, but not as great as red wine. However, white wine did improve glycemic (sugar) control significantly compared to water, whereas red wine did not. Also, slow metabolizers of alcohol in a combined red and white wine group analysis had better glycemic control than those who drank water. This study had a two-year duration and involved 224 patients. All participants were instructed on how to follow a Mediterranean-type diet.

Does this mean diabetes patients should start drinking wine? Not necessarily, because this is a small, though well-designed, study. Wine does have calories, and these were also well-controlled type 2 diabetes patients who generally were nondrinkers.

Drugs (not diabetes drugs) show good results

Interestingly, taking blood pressure medications at night has an odd benefit, lowering the risk of diabetes (5). In a study, there was a 57 percent reduction in the risk of developing diabetes in those who took blood pressure medications at night rather than in the morning.

It seems that controlling sleep-time blood pressure is more predictive of risk for diabetes than morning or 48-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitoring. This study had a long duration of almost six years with about 2,000 participants.

The blood pressure medications used in the trial were ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers and beta blockers. The first two medications have their effect on the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) of the kidneys. According to the researchers, the drugs that blocked RAAS in the kidneys had the most powerful effect on preventing diabetes. 

Furthermore, when sleep systolic (top number) blood pressure was elevated one standard deviation above the mean, there was a 30 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, the RAAS blocking drugs are the same drugs that protect kidney function when patients have diabetes.

We need to reverse the trend toward higher diabetes prevalence. Diet and exercise are the first line for prevention. Even a nonideal diet, in comparison to medication, had better results, though medication such as metformin could be used in high-risk patients that were having trouble following the diet. A modest amount of wine, especially red, may have effects that reduce cardiovascular risk. Blood pressure medications taken at night, especially those that block RAAS in the kidneys, may help significantly to prevent diabetes.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (4) Journal of Diabetes and Its Complications 2015;29(5):713-717. (3) Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. Online Sept. 11, 2015. (4) Ann Intern Med. 2015;163(8):569-579. (5) Diabetologia. Online Sept. 23, 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.

Chronic heart failure increases the risk of heart attack and death. Stock photo
Reducing oxidative stress may reduce risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Heart attacks and heart disease get a lot of attention, but chronic heart failure is often overlooked by the press. The reason may be that heart failure is not acute like a heart attack.

To clarify by using an analogy, a heart attack is like a tidal wave whereas heart failure is like a tsunami. You don’t know it’s coming until it may be too late. Heart failure is an insidious (slowly developing) disease and thus may take years before it becomes symptomatic. It also increases the risk of heart attack and death.

There are about 5.7 million Americans with heart failure, and experts project that will increase to 8 million by 2030 (1). Not surprisingly, incidence of heart failure increases with age (2).

Heart failure (HF) occurs when the heart’s pumping is not able to keep up with the body’s demands and may decompensate. It is a complicated topic, for there are two types — systolic heart failure and diastolic heart failure. The basic difference is that the ejection fraction, the output of blood with each contraction of the left ventricle of the heart, is more or less preserved in diastolic HF, while it can be significantly reduced in systolic HF.

We have more evidence-based medicine, or medical research, on systolic heart failure. Fortunately, both types can be diagnosed with the help of an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of the heart. The signs and symptoms may be similar, as well, and include shortness of breath on exertion or when lying down, edema or swelling, reduced exercise tolerance, weakness and fatigue. The risk factors for heart failure include diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, heart attacks and valvular disease.

Typically, heart failure is treated with blood pressure medications, such as beta blockers, ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers. We are going to look at how diet, iron and the supplement CoQ10 impact heart failure.

Effect of diet

If we look beyond the usual risk factors mentioned above, oxidative stress may play an important role as a contributor to HF. Oxidative stress is thought to potentially result in damage to the inner lining of the blood vessels, or endothelium, oxidation of cholesterol molecules and a decrease in nitric oxide, which helps vasodilate blood vessels.

In a population-based, prospective (forward-looking) study, called the Swedish Mammography Cohort, results show that a diet rich in antioxidants reduces the risk of developing HF (3). In the group that consumed the most nutrient-dense foods, there was a significant 42 percent reduction in the development of HF, compared to the group that consumed the least. According to the authors, the antioxidants were derived mainly from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, coffee and chocolate. Fruits and vegetables were responsible for the majority of the effect.

This nutrient-dense approach to diet increased oxygen radical absorption capacity. Oxygen radicals have been implicated in cellular damage and DNA damage, potentially as a result of increasing chronic inflammation. What makes this study so impressive is that it is the first of its kind to investigate antioxidants from the diet and their impacts on heart failure prevention.

This was a large study, involving 33,713 women, with good duration — follow-up was 11.3 years. There are limitations to this study, since it is an observational study, and the population involved only women. Still, the results are very exciting, and it is unlikely there is a downside to applying this approach to the population at large.

CoQ10 supplementation

Coenzyme Q10 is a substance produced by the body that helps the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) produce energy. It is thought of as an antioxidant. 

Results of the Q-SYMBIO study, a randomized controlled trial, showed an almost 50 percent reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality and 50 percent fewer cardiac events with CoQ10 supplementation (4). This one randomized controlled trial followed 420 patients for two years who had severe heart failure. This involved using 100 mg of CoQ10 three times a day compared to placebo.

The lead author goes as far as to suggest that CoQ10 should be part of the paradigm of treatment. This the first new “drug” in over a decade to show survival benefits in heart failure. Thus, if you have heart failure, you may want to discuss CoQ10 with your doctor.

Iron deficiency

Anemia and iron deficiency are not synonymous, since iron deficiency can occur without anemia. A recent observational study that followed 753 heart failure patients for almost two years showed that iron deficiency without anemia increased the risk of mortality in heart failure patients by 42 percent (5).

In this study, iron deficiency was defined as a ferritin level less than 100 μg/L (the storage of iron) or, alternately, transferrin saturation less than 20 percent (the transport of iron) with a ferritin level in the range 100–299 μg/L.

The authors conclude that iron deficiency is potentially more predictive of clinical outcomes than anemia, contributes to the severity of HF and is common in these patients. Thus, it behooves us to try to prevent heart failure through dietary changes, including high levels of antioxidants, because it is not easy to reverse the disease. Those with HF should have their ferritin and iron levels checked, for these are correctable. 

I am not typically a supplement advocate; however, based on the latest results, CoQ10 seems like a compelling therapy to reduce risk of further complications and potentially death. Consult with your doctor before taking CoQ10 or any other supplements, especially if you have heart failure.

References:

(1) Card Fail Rev. 2017 Apr; 3(1):7–11. (2) J Am Coll Cardiol. 2003;41(2):21. (3) Am J Med. 2013 Jun:126(6):494-500. (4) JACC Heart Fail. 2014 Dec;2(6):641-649. (5) Am Heart J. 2013;165(4):575-582.

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.     

Smoking and salt consumption add to the risk of GERD. Stock photo
Simple lifestyle changes are among the most effective treatments

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

It seems like everyone is diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). I exaggerate, of course, but the pharmaceutical companies do an excellent job of making it appear that way with advertising. Wherever you look there is an advertisement for the treatment of heartburn or indigestion, both of which are related to reflux disease.

GERD, also known as reflux, affects as much as 40 percent of the U.S. population (1). Reflux disease typically results in symptoms of heartburn and regurgitation brought on by stomach contents going backward up the esophagus. For some reason, the lower esophageal sphincter, the valve between the stomach and esophagus, inappropriately relaxes. No one is quite sure why it happens with some people and not others. Of course, a portion of reflux is physiologic (normal functioning), especially after a meal (2).

GERD risk factors are diverse. They range from lifestyle — obesity, smoking cigarettes and diet — to medications, like calcium channel blockers and antihistamines. Other medical conditions, like hiatal hernia and pregnancy, also contribute (3). Diet issues include triggers like spicy foods, peppermint, fried foods and chocolate.

Smoking and salt’s role

One study showed that both smoking and salt consumption added to the risk of GERD significantly (4). Risk increased 70 percent in people who smoked. Surprisingly, people who used table salt regularly saw the same increased risk as seen with smokers.

Medications

The most common and effective medications for the treatment of GERD are H2 receptor blockers (e.g., Zantac and Tagamet), which partially block acid production, and proton pump inhibitors (e.g., Nexium and Prevacid), which almost completely block acid production (5). Both classes of medicines have two levels: over-the-counter and prescription strength. Here, I will focus on PPIs, for which more than 113 million prescriptions are written every year in the U.S. (6).

PPIs include Nexium (esomeprazole), Prilosec (omeprazole), Protonix (pantoprazole) and Prevacid (lansoprazole). They have demonstrated efficacy for short-term use in the treatment of Helicobacter pylori-induced (bacteria overgrowth in the gut) peptic ulcers, GERD symptoms and complication prevention and gastric ulcer prophylaxis associated with NSAID use (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) as well as upper gastrointestinal bleeds.

However, they are often used long-term as maintenance therapy for GERD. PPIs used to be considered to have mild side effects. Unfortunately, evidence is showing that this may not be true. Most of the data in the package inserts is based on short-term studies lasting weeks, not years. The landmark study supporting long-term use approval was only one year, not 10 years. However, maintenance therapy usually continues over many years.

Side effects that have occurred after years of use are increased risk of bone fractures and calcium malabsorption; Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection in the intestines; potential vitamin B12 deficiencies; and weight gain (7).

Bacterial infection

The FDA warned that patients who use PPIs may be at increased risk of a bacterial infection called C. difficile. This is a serious infection that occurs in the intestines and requires treatment with antibiotics. Unfortunately, it only responds to a few antibiotics and that number is dwindling. In the FDA’s meta-analysis, 23 of 28 studies showed increased risk of infection. Patients need to contact their physicians if they develop diarrhea when taking PPIs and the diarrhea doesn’t improve (8).

B12 deficiencies

Suppressing hydrochloric acid produced in the stomach may result in malabsorption issues if turned off for long periods of time. In a study where PPIs were associated with B12 malabsorption, it usually took at least three years’ duration to cause this effect. B12 was not absorbed properly from food, but the PPIs did not affect B12 levels from supplementation (9). Therefore, if you are taking a PPI chronically, it is worth getting your B12 and methylmalonic acid (a metabolite of B12) levels checked and discussing possible supplementation with your physician if you have a deficiency.

Lifestyle modifications

A number of modifications can improve GERD, such as raising the head of the bed about six inches, not eating prior to bedtime and obesity treatment, to name a few (10). In the same study already mentioned with smoking and salt, fiber and exercise both had the opposite effect, reducing the risk of GERD (5). This was a prospective (forward-looking) trial. The analysis by Journal Watch suggests that the fiber effect may be due to its ability to reduce nitric oxide production, a relaxant for the lower esophageal sphincter (11).

Obesity

In one study, obesity exacerbated GERD. What was interesting about the study is that researchers used manometry, which measures pressure, to show that obesity increases the pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter significantly (12). Intragastric (within the stomach) pressures were higher in both overweight and obese patients on inspiration and on expiration, compared to those with normal body mass index. This is yet another reason to lose weight.

Eating prior to bed — myth?       

Though it may be simple, it is one of the most powerful modifications we can make to avoid GERD. A study that showed a 700 percent increased risk of GERD for those who ate within three hours of bedtime, compared to those who ate four hours or more prior to bedtime. Of note, this is 10 times the increased risk of the smoking effect (13). Therefore, it is best to not eat right before bed and to avoid “midnight snacks.”

Although there are a number of ways to treat GERD, the most comprehensive have to do with modifiable risk factors. Drugs have their place in the arsenal of choices, but lifestyle changes are the first — and most effective — approach in many instances. Consult your physician before stopping PPIs since there may be rebound hyperacidity (high acid produced) if they are stopped abruptly.

References:

(1) Gut 2005;54(5):710. (2) Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 1996;25(1):75. (3) emedicinehealth.com. (4) Gut 2004 Dec.; 53:1730-1735. (5) Gastroenterology. 2008;135(4):1392. (6) JW Gen Med. Jun. 8, 2011. (7) World J Gastroenterol. 2009;15(38):4794–4798. (8) www.FDA.gov/safety/medwatch/safetyinformation. (9) Linus Pauling Institute; lpi.oregonstate.edu. (10) Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:965-971. (11) JWatch Gastro. Feb. 16, 2005. (12) Gastroenterology 2006 Mar.; 130:639-649. (13) Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec.;100(12):2633-2636.

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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