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Sleep clears toxins from the brain. METRO photo
Exercise and sleep are crucial to clearing the clutter

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Considering the importance of our brain to our functioning, it’s startling how little we know about it. 

We do know that certain drugs, head injuries and lifestyle choices negatively impact the brain. There are also numerous disorders and diseases that affect the brain, including neurological (dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke), infectious (meningitis), rheumatologic (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), cancer (primary and secondary tumors), psychiatric mood disorders (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia), diabetes and heart disease.

Although these diseases vary widely, they generally have three signs and symptoms in common: they either cause altered mental status, physical weakness or change in mood — or a combination of these.

Probably our greatest fear regarding the brain is a loss of cognition. Fortunately, there are several studies that show we may be able to prevent cognitive decline by altering modifiable risk factors. They involve rather simple lifestyle changes: sleep, exercise and possibly omega-3s.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Clutter slows us down as we age

The lack of control over our mental capabilities as we age frightens many of us. Those who are in their 20s seem to be much sharper and quicker. But are they really?

In a study, German researchers found that educated older people tend to have a larger mental database of words and phrases to pull from since they have been around longer and have more experience (1). When this is factored into the equation, the difference in terms of age-related cognitive decline becomes negligible.

This study involved data mining and creating simulations. It showed that mental slowing may be at least partially related to the amount of clutter or data that we accumulate over the years. The more you know, the harder it becomes to come up with a simple answer to something. We may need a reboot just like a computer. This may be possible through sleep, exercise and omega-3s.

Get enough sleep

Why should we dedicate 33 percent of our lives to sleep? There are several good reasons. One involves clearing the mind, and another involves improving our economic outlook.

For the former, a study done in mice shows that sleep may help the brain remove waste, such as those all-too-dangerous beta-amyloid plaques (2). When we have excessive plaque buildup in the brain, it may be a sign of Alzheimer’s. When mice were sleeping, the interstitial space (the space between brain gyri, or structures) increased by as much as 60 percent.

This allowed the lymphatic system, with its cerebrospinal fluid, to clear out plaques, toxins and other waste that had developed during waking hours. With the enlargement of the interstitial space during sleep, waste removal was quicker and more thorough, because cerebrospinal fluid could reach much farther into the spaces. A similar effect was seen when the mice were anesthetized.

In another study, done in Australia, results showed that sleep deprivation may have been responsible for an almost one percent decline in gross domestic product for the country (3). The reason? People are not as productive at work when they don’t get enough sleep. They tend to be more irritable, and concentration may be affected. We may be able to turn on and off sleepiness on short-term basis, depending on the environment, but we can’t do this continually.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four percent of Americans reported having fallen asleep in the past 30 days behind the wheel of a car (4). And “drowsy driving” led to 83,000 crashes in a four-year period ending in 2009, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Prioritize exercise

How can I exercise, when I can’t even get enough sleep? Well there is a study that just may inspire you.

In the study, which involved rats, those that were not allowed to exercise were found to have rewired neurons in the area of their medulla, the part of the brain involved in breathing and other involuntary activities. There was more sympathetic (excitatory) stimulus that could lead to increased risk of heart disease (5). In rats allowed to exercise regularly, there was no unusual wiring, and sympathetic stimuli remained constant. This may imply that being sedentary has negative effects on both the brain and the heart.

This is intriguing since we used to think that our brain’s plasticity, or ability to grow and connect neurons, was finite and stopped after adolescence. This study’s implication is that a lack of exercise causes unwanted new connections. Human studies should be done to confirm this impact.

Consume omega-3 fatty acids

In the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study, results showed that those postmenopausal women who were in the highest quartile of omega-3 fatty acids had significantly greater brain volume and hippocampal volume than those in the lowest quartile (6). The hippocampus is involved in memory and cognitive function.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in red blood cell membranes. The source of the omega-3 fatty acids could either have been from fish or supplementation.

It’s never too late to improve brain function. Although we have a lot to learn about the functioning of the brain, we know that there are relatively simple ways we can positively influence it.

References:

(1) Top Cogn Sci. 2014 Jan.;6:5-42. (2) Science. 2013 Oct. 18;342:373-377. (3) Sleep. 2006 Mar.;29:299-305. (4) cdc.gov. (5) J Comp Neurol. 2014 Feb. 15;522:499-513. (6) Neurology. 2014;82:435-442.

Dr. David 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. 

Start the year out right by substituting green leafy vegetables for breads and other baked goods. METRO photo
Simple modifications can help you achieve your health goals

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

2020 has been a most unusual year. In some ways, it’s been a case study in new habit formation, as many of us altered our routines to adapt to a COVID-19 world.

As our thoughts turn to a brighter 2021, many of us will make resolutions to develop healthy new habits – and in some cases to undo bad habits we’ve picked up during the past year. If this is you, cheers!

Changing habits can be incredibly difficult. You can make it easier on yourself, though. 

Set a goal that is simple and singular. Don’t overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions, like eating better, exercising more and sleeping better. Complexity will diminish your chances of success. Instead, pick one to focus on, and make the desired impact part of your goal, for example: improve your health by substituting green leafy vegetables for breads and other baked goods.

Manage your environment. According to a study, people with the most self-control utilize the least amount of willpower, because they take a proactive role in minimizing temptation (1). Start by changing the environment in your kitchen. In our example resolution above, that means eliminating or reducing the breads and baked goods in your home and keeping a refrigerator stocked with leafy greens you like.

If one obstacle is the time available to cook when you’re hungry, consider in advance the ways you can make in-the-moment food preparation simpler. This could be as simple as pre-washing and chopping greens when you arrive home from the store or while watching your favorite TV program, or it could be as detailed as precooking meals.

The latter is my personal favorite, and it’s easily accomplished by cooking more than you need for a single meal. For example, rather than chop and roast just the tray of broccoli we’ll eat tonight, we’ll prepare two trays at a time – one to eat today, and one to have in the fridge. I try to always have at least one prepared healthy meal at the ready for reheating, in case we don’t have the time or energy to cook later.

Rally your support network. Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and coworkers. In my practice, I find that patients who are most successful with lifestyle changes are those where household members are encouraging or, even better, when they participate in at least some portion of the intervention, such as eating the same meals.

One reason so many have turned to baking during their at-home time is that it provides a fun group activity with a shared outcome. You can produce the same experience by experimenting with new greens-intensive recipes together. Making pots of vegetable stews and chilis, vegan spinach lasagnas with bean noodles, bean-and-green tacos, and cheeseless eggplant/spinach rollatini can be more fun as a group – with the same delicious outcomes. Bonus: if you double the recipes, you can refrigerate or even freeze the leftovers for reheating later.

Be consistent. When does a change become a new habit? The rule of thumb used to be it takes approximately three weeks. However, the results of a study at the University of London showed that the time to form a habit, such as exercising, ranged from 18 days to 254 days (2). The good news is that the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.

Choose a diet that targets your health needs. U.S. News and World Report released its annual ranking of diets this week (3). Three of the diets highlighted include the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Ornish diet and the Mediterranean diet. These were the top three for heart health. The Mediterranean diet was ranked number one overall – for the fourth consecutive year – and the DASH diet tied for second overall with the Flexitarian diet. The Flexitarian and Mediterranean diets tied for the top spot for diets that help manage diabetes.

What do all of the top diets have in common? They focus on nutrient-dense foods. In fact, the lifestyle modifications I recommend are based on a combination of the top diets and the evidence-based medicine that supports them.

Of course, if you’ve tried to change your diet in the past, you probably know that not every diet is easy to follow, even after you get beyond the “changing my eating habits” part of the equation. Choosing a diet that works for both you and others in your household can be tricky. And, let’s face it, no one wants to make two meals – or more – to accommodate everyone’s needs.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the easiest to follow are the Mediterranean diet, which took the top spot, the recently redesigned WW (Weight Watchers) diet, which took second place, and the Flexitarian diet, which came in third. If you’re not familiar with a Flexitarian diet, which we noted also tied for the second-best diet overall, its name is a combination of “flexible” and “vegetarian,” and its focus is on increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables and minimizing – but not necessarily eliminating – your intake of animal products. For many, this lack of rigidity can help, whether the goal is to transition to a complete vegetarian lifestyle eventually or to manage different palates around the table.

I encourage you to read more about each of these diets and select one, in consultation with your physician, that will help you meet your personal health goals – from both nutritional and manageability standpoints.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2021!

References:

(1) J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31. (2) European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. (3) www.usnews.com.

Dr. David 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. 

Statins may be overprescribed for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Stock photo
Do primary prevention benefits outweigh the risks?

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Statins were first approved in the U.S. over 30 years ago. Today, they are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. Yet, many in the medical community still disagree about who should be taking a statin and for what purpose; some believe that more patients should be on this class of drugs, while others think it is overprescribed. This is one of the most polarizing issues in medicine — probably rightly so.

The biggest debate is over primary prevention with statins. Primary prevention is treating people with high cholesterol and/or inflammation who may be at risk for a cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack. Currently, recommendations of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association do not align with those of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is currently reviewing its own recommendations because of data updates.

Most physicians agree that statins have their place in secondary prevention — treating patients who have had a stroke or heart attack already or who have coronary artery disease.

We will examine benefits and risks for the patient population that could take statins for primary prevention. On one side are those who point to statins’ benefits: reduced cancer risk, improved quality of life and lowered glaucoma risk. On the other, we have those who note statins’ side effects: increased diabetes risk, fatigue and cataracts, to name a few. Let’s look at some of the evidence.

Effect on cancer

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine involved 300,000 Danish participants and investigated 13 cancers. It showed that statin users may have a 15 percent decreased risk of death from cancer (1). As you can imagine, this news was greeted with excitement.

However, there were major limitations with the study. First, researchers did not control for smoking, which we know is a large contributor to cancer. Second, it was unknown which of the statin-using population might have received conventional cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy. Third, the dose of statins did not correlate to risk reduction. In fact, those who took 1 to 75 percent of prescribed statin levels showed more benefit in terms of cancer mortality risk than those who took more. We need a better-designed trial to determine whether there really is an effect.

Another study, a meta-analysis of 13 observational studies, showed that statins may play a role in reducing the risk of esophageal cancer. This is important, since esophageal cancer, especially adenocarcinoma that develops from Barrett’s esophagus, is on the rise. The results showed a 28 percent risk reduction in this type of cancer. The authors of the study surmise that statins may have a protective effect (2).

Although there is an association, these results need to be confirmed with randomized controlled trials. Aspirin has about the same 30 percent reduction in colorectal cancer, yet is not recommended solely for this use because of side effects.

Eye diseases: mixed results

In two common eye diseases, glaucoma and cataracts, statins have vastly different results. In one study, statins were shown to decrease the risk of glaucoma by five percent over one year and nine percent over two years (3). It is encouraging that the longer the duration of statin use, the greater the positive effect on preventing glaucoma.

Statins also help to slow glaucoma progression in patients suspected of having early-stage disease at about the same rate. This was a retrospective study analyzing statin use with patients at risk for open-angle glaucoma. We need prospective (forward-looking) studies. With cataracts, it is a completely different story. Statins increase the risk of cataracts by over 50 percent, as shown in the Waterloo Eye Study (4). Statins exacerbate the risk of cataracts in an already high-risk group, diabetes patients.

Quality of life and longevity: a mixed bag

In a meta-analysis involving 11 randomized controlled trials, statins did not reduce the risk of all-cause mortality in moderate to high-risk primary prevention participants (5). This study analysis involved over 65,000 participants with high cholesterol and at significant risk for heart disease.

However, in this same study, participants at high risk of coronary heart disease saw a substantial improvement in their quality of life with statins. In other words, the risk of a nonfatal heart attack was reduced by more than half and nonfatal strokes by almost half, avoiding the potentially disabling effects of these events.

Fatigue effect

Some of my patients who are on statins ask if statins can cause fatigue. A randomized controlled trial published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reinforces the idea that statins increase the possibility of fatigue (6).

Women, especially, complained of lower energy levels, both overall and on exertion, when they were blindly assigned to a statin-taking group. The trial had three groups: two that took statins, simvastatin 20 mg and pravastatin 40 mg; and a placebo group. The participants were at least 20 years old and had LDL (bad) cholesterol of 115 to 190 mg/dl, with less than 100 mg/dl considered ideal.

In conclusion, some individuals who are at high risk for cardiovascular disease may need a statin, but with the evidence presented, it is more likely that statins are overprescribed in primary prevention. Evidence of the best results points to lifestyle modification, with or without statins, and all patients with elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol should make changes that include a nutrient-dense diet and a reduction in fat intake, as well as exercise.

References:

(1) N Engl J Med 2012;367:1792-1802. (2) Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013 Jun; 11(6):620–629. (3) Ophthalmology 2012;119(10):2074-2081. (4) Optom Vis Sci 2012;89:1165-1171. (5) Arch Intern Med 2010;170(12):1024-1031. (6) Arch Intern Med 2012;172(15):1180-1182.

Dr. David 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. 

METRO photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dear Santa,

Dr. David Dunaief

I know this is a busy time of year for you. I’m sure it’s all you can do to field all the requests you’re receiving through email, Twitter, WhatsApp, and old-fashioned, handwritten letters. Still, I’d like to suggest that you can provide far more value by becoming a model for good health than you can with any wrapped package tucked under a tree.

Think about the example you’re setting for all those people whose faces light up when they imagine you shimmying down their chimneys. With your abnormally high BMI (body mass index), I know you can do better.

We already have an epidemic of overweight kids, leading to an ever-increasing number of type 2 diabetics at younger and younger ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2018, more than 100 million U.S. adults are living with diabetes or prediabetes. It complicates the issue that approximately two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight and/or obese. You can help change this.

Obesity has a much higher risk of shortening a person’s life span, not to mention affecting their quality of life. The most dangerous type of obesity is an increase in visceral adipose tissue, which means central belly fat. An easy way to tell if someone is too rotund is if a waistline, measured from the navel, is greater than or equal to 40 inches for a man, and is greater than or equal to 35 inches for a woman. The chances of diseases such as pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer and heart disease increase dramatically with this increased fat.

Santa, here is a chance for you to lead by example (and, maybe by summer, to fit into those skinny jeans you hide in the back of your closet). Think of the advantages to you of being slimmer and trimmer. Your joints wouldn’t ache with the winter cold, and you would have more energy. Plus, studies show that with a plant-based diet, focusing on fruits and vegetables, you can reverse atherosclerosis, clogging of the arteries.

The importance of a good diet not only helps you lose weight, but avoid strokes, heart attacks and peripheral vascular diseases, among other ailments. You don’t have to be vegetarian; you just have to increase your fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods significantly. With a simple change, like eating a handful of raw nuts a day, you can reduce your risk of heart disease significantly. Santa, future generations need you. Losing weight will also change your center of gravity, so your belly doesn’t pull you forward. This will make it easier for you to keep your balance on those steep, icy rooftops.

Exercise will help, as well. Maybe for the first continent or so, you might want to consider walking or jogging alongside the sleigh. As you exercise, you’ll start to tighten your abs and slowly see fat disappear from your midsection. Your fans everywhere leave you cookies and milk when you deliver presents. It’s a tough cycle to break, but break it you must. You — and your fans — need to see a healthier Santa.

You might let slip that the modern Santa enjoys fruits, especially berries, and veggies, with an emphasis on cruciferous veggies like broccoli florets dipped in hummus, which have substantial antioxidant qualities and can help reverse disease. And, of course, skip putting candy in the stockings. No one needs more sugar, and I’m sure that, over the long night, it’s hard to resist sneaking a piece, yourself.

As for your loyal fans, you could place fitness videos under the tree. You and your elves could make workout videos for those of us who need them, and we could follow along as you showed us “12 Days of Workouts with Santa and Friends.” Who knows, you might become the next Shaun T!

You could gift athletic equipment, such as baseball gloves, footballs and basketballs, instead of video games. Or wearable devices that track step counts and bike routes. Or stuff gift certificates for dance lessons into people’s stockings. These might influence the recipients to be more active. By doing all this, you might also have the kind of energy that will make it easier for you to steal a base or two during the North Pole Athletic League’s softball season. The elves don’t even bother holding you on base anymore, do they?

As you become more active, you’ll find that you have more energy all year round, not just on Christmas Eve. If you start soon, Santa, maybe by next year, you’ll find yourself parking the sleigh farther away and skipping from chimney to chimney.

The benefits of a healthier Santa will ripple across the world. Your reindeer won’t have to work so hard. You might fit extra presents in your sleigh. And Santa, you will be sending kids and adults the world over the right message about taking control of their health through nutrition and exercise. That’s the best gift you could give!

Wishing you good health in the coming year,

David.

P.S. If you have a little extra room in your sleigh, I’d love a new baseball glove.

Dr. David 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.

Stock photo
With vitamin D supplementation, more is not necessarily better.

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Here in the Northeast, we are quickly approaching the point in the year when we have the least daylight hours. This is the point at which many reach for vitamin D, one of the most important supplements, to compensate for a lack of vitamin D from the sun. Let’s explore what we know about vitamin D supplementation.

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

At the 70th annual American Academy of Dermatology meeting in 2012, Dr. Richard Gallo, who was involved with the Institute of Medicine recommendations, spoke about how, in most geographic locations, sun exposure will not correct vitamin D deficiencies. Interestingly, he emphasized getting more vitamin D from nutrition. Dietary sources include cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines and tuna.

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

There is no consensus on the ideal blood level for vitamin D. For adults, the Institute of Medicine recommends between 20 ng/ml and 50 ng/ml, and The Endocrine Society recommends at least 30 ng/ml.

Cardiovascular mixed results

Several observational studies have shown benefits of vitamin D supplements with cardiovascular disease. For example, the Framingham Offspring Study showed that those patients with deficient levels were at increased risk of cardiovascular disease (1).

However, a small randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of studies, called the cardioprotective effects of vitamin D into question (2). This study of postmenopausal women, using biomarkers such as endothelial function, inflammation or vascular stiffness, showed no difference between vitamin D treatment and placebo. The authors concluded there is no reason to give vitamin D for prevention of cardiovascular disease.

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

Most trials relating to vitamin D are observational, which provides associations, but not links. However, the VITAL study was a large, five-year RCT looking at the effects of vitamin D and omega-3s on cardiovascular disease and cancer (3). Study results were disappointing, finding that daily vitamin D3 supplementation at 2000 IUs did not reduce the incidence of cancers (prostate, breast or colorectal) or of major cardiovascular events.

Mortality decreased

In a meta-analysis of a group of eight studies, vitamin D with calcium reduced the mortality rate in the elderly, whereas vitamin D alone did not (5). The difference between the groups was statistically important, but clinically small: nine percent reduction with vitamin D plus calcium and seven percent with vitamin D alone.

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

Weight benefit

There is good news, but not great news, on the weight front. It appears that vitamin D plays a role in reducing the amount of weight gain in women 65 years and older whose blood levels are more than 30 ng/ml, compared to those below this level, in the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures (4).

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

USPSTF recommendations

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends against giving “healthy” postmenopausal women vitamin D, calcium or the combination of vitamin D 400 IUs plus calcium 1,000 mg to prevent fractures, and it found inadequate evidence of fracture prevention at higher levels (6). The supplement combination does not seem to reduce fractures, but does increase the risk of kidney stones. There is also not enough data to recommend for or against vitamin D with or without calcium for cancer prevention. But as I mentioned previously, the VITAL study did not show any benefit for cancer prevention.

When to supplement?

It is important to supplement to optimal levels, especially since most of us living in the Northeast have insufficient to deficient levels. While vitamin D may not be a cure-all, it may play an integral role with many disorders. But it is also important not to raise the levels too high. The range that I tell my patients is between 32 and 50 ng/ml, depending on their health circumstances.

References:

(1) Circulation. 2008 Jan 29;117(4):503-511. (2) PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36617. (3) NEJM. 2018 published online Nov. 10, 2018. (4) J Women’s Health (Larchmt). 2012 Jun 25. (5) J Clin Endocrinol Metabol. online May 17, 2012. (6) JAMA. 2018;319(15):1592-1599.

Dr. David 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.

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A good pace and mindset may improve your outcomes

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Medical professionals (including me!) often press you to exercise. This sage advice seems simple enough; however, the type, intensity level and frequency of exercise may not be well-defined. For instance, any type of walking is beneficial, right? Well, as one study that quantifies walking pace notes that some types of walking are better than others.

We know exercise is beneficial for prevention and treatment of chronic disease. But another very important aspect of exercise is the impact it has on specific diseases, such as diabetes and osteoarthritis. Also, certain supplements and drugs may decrease the beneficial effects of exercise. They are not necessarily the ones you think. They include resveratrol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen). Let’s look at the evidence.

Walk with a spring in your step

While pedometers give a sense of how many steps you take on a daily basis, this number isn’t all that’s important. Intensity, rather than quantity or distance, may be the primary indicator of walking’s benefit.

In the National Walkers’ Health Study, results showed that those who walk with more pace are more likely to decrease their mortality from all causes and to increase their longevity (1). This is one of the first studies to quantify specific speed and its impact. In the study, there were four groups. The fastest group was almost jogging, walking at a mean pace of less than 13.5 minutes per mile, while the slowest group was walking at a pace of 17 minutes or more per mile.

The slowest walkers had a higher probability of dying, especially from dementia and heart disease. Those in the slowest group stratified even further: those whose pace equaled 24-minute miles or greater had twice the risk of death, compared to those who walked with greater speed.

However, the most intriguing aspect of the study was that there were big differences in mortality reduction in the second slowest category compared to the slowest, which might only be separated by a minute-per-mile pace. So, don’t fret: you don’t have to be a speedwalker to realize significant benefit.

Align your mind and body

The mind also plays a significant role in exercise. The results of one study note that a positive mindset while exercising makes a big difference in the exercise’s impact (2). Researchers created two groups. The first was told to find four positive phrases, chosen by the participants, to motivate them while on a stationary bike and repeat these phrases consistently for the next two weeks while exercising.

Members of the group who repeated these motivating phrases consistently throughout each workout were able to increase their stamina for intensive exercise after only two weeks, while the same could not be said for the control group, which did not use reinforcing phrases.

‘Longevity’ supplement may negate exercise benefits

Resveratrol is a substance that is thought to provide increased longevity through proteins called Sirtuin 1. So how could it negate some benefit from exercise? Well it turns out that we need acute inflammation to achieve some exercise benefits, and resveratrol has anti-inflammatory effects. Acute inflammation is short-term inflammation and is different from chronic inflammation, the basis for many diseases.

In a small randomized controlled study, treatment group participants were given 250 mg supplements of resveratrol and saw significantly less benefit from aerobic exercise over an eight-week period, compared to those who were in the control group (3). Participants in the control group had improvements in both cholesterol and blood pressure that were not seen in the treatment group. This was a small study of short duration, although it was well-designed.

Impact on diabetes complications

The majority of Type 2 diabetes patients suffer from cardiovascular disease. The good news is that exercise may improve outcomes. In a prospective (forward-looking) observational study, results show that diabetes patients who exercise less frequently, once or twice a week for 30 minutes, are at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and almost a 70 percent greater risk of dying from it than those who exercised at least three times a week for 30 minutes each session. In addition, those who exercised only twice a week had an almost 50 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality (4).

The study followed more than 15,000 men and women with a mean age of 60 for five years. The authors stressed the importance of exercise and its role in reducing diabetes complications.

Calculate your fitness age

You can calculate your fitness age without the use of a treadmill, according to the HUNT study (5). An online calculator utilizes basic parameters – age, gender, height, weight, waist circumference and frequency and intensity of exercise – to help you judge where you stand with exercise health. This calculator can be found at www.ntnu.edu/cerg/vo2max. Your results may surprise you.

Even in winter, you can walk and talk yourself to improved health by increasing your intensity while repeating positive phrases that help you overcome premature exhaustion. Exercise can also have a significant impact on complications of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and resulting death with diabetes. As a bonus, getting outside during the day may also help you avoid the effects of the “winter blues.”

References:

(1) PLoS One. 2013;8:e81098. (2) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Oct. 10. (3) J Physiol Online. 2013 July 22. (4) Eur J Prev Cardiol Online. 2013 Nov. 13. (5) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43:2024-2030.

Dr. David 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.

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By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

There are some compelling studies that show exercise’s powerful effects in altering our genes. Recent studies show its impact on specific diseases. Exercise has effects on diabetes and a host of other chronic diseases, including kidney stones, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease and breast, colorectal and endometrial cancers (1).

There are also studies on simple ways to motivate yourself during exercise. One showed that those who repeat positive mantras like “feels good” while exercising were able to persist in their exercise routines for longer periods (2).

Why is this so important and why am I harping on exercise during the holidays? Because we are too sedentary, and this is the time of the year when we are inclined to overeat. According to data from the 2015-2016 National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, we spend 6.4 hours a day sedentary (3). And this percentage is trending up.

Exercise and your genes

While you may be waiting for gene therapy to cure our chronic illnesses, it turns out that exercise may have a significant impact on our genes.

No waiting required; this is here and now.

Photo from Pixabay

In a study, results showed that thousands upon thousands of genes in fat cells were affected when participants exercised (4). The study involved sedentary men and asked them to exercise twice a week at a one-hour spin class. According to the researchers, the genes impacted were those involved most likely in storing fat and in risk for subsequent diabetes and obesity development. Participants’ gene expression was altered by DNA methylation, the addition of a methyl group made up of a carbon and hydrogens. These participants also improved their biometrics, reducing fat and subsequently shrinking their waist circumferences, and improved their cholesterol and blood-pressure indices.

The effect is referred to as epigenetics, where lifestyle modifications can ultimately lead to changes in gene expression, turning them on and off. This has been shown with dietary changes, but this is one of the first studies to show that exercise also has significant impacts on our genes. It took only six months to see these numerous gene changes with modest amounts of cardiovascular exercise.

If this was not enough, another study showed substantial gene changes in muscle cells after one workout on a stationary bike (5).

Exercise versus drug therapy

We don’t think of exercise as being a drug, but what if it had similar benefits to certain drugs in cardiovascular diseases and mortality risk? A meta-analysis — a group of 57 studies that involved drugs and exercise — showed that exercise potentially has equivalent effects to statins in terms of mortality with secondary prevention of coronary heart disease (6).

This means that, in patients who already have heart disease, both statins and exercise reduce the risk of mortality by similar amounts. The same was true with prediabetes and the use of metformin vs. exercise. It didn’t matter which one was used, the drug or the lifestyle change.

Don’t change your medication without consulting your physician.

Kidney stones and exercise

Anyone who has tried to pass a kidney stone knows it can be an excruciating experience. Most of the treatment revolves around pain medication, fluids and waiting for the stone to pass. However, the best way to treat kidney stones is to prevent them. In the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, exercise reduced the risk of kidney stones by as much as 31 percent (7).

Even better, the intensity of the exercise was irrelevant to its beneficial effect. What mattered more was exercise quantity. One hour of jogging or three hours of walking got the top results. But lesser amounts of exercise also saw substantial reductions. This study involved 84,000 postmenopausal women, the population most likely to suffer from kidney stones.

Sex as exercise

We have heard that sex may be thought of as exercise, but is this myth or is there actual evidence? Try to keep a straight face. Well, it turns out this may be true. In a study published in the PLoS One journal, researchers found that young healthy couples exert 6 METs — metabolic energy, or the amount of oxygen consumed per kilogram per minute — during sexual activity (8).

How does this compare to other activities? Well, we exert about 1 MET while sitting and 8.5 METs while jogging. Sexual activity falls between walking and jogging, in terms of the energy utilized, and thus may be qualified as moderate activity. Men and women burned slightly less than half as many calories with sex as with jogging, burning a mean of 85 calories over about 25 minutes. Who says exercise can’t be fun?

I can’t stress the importance of exercise enough. It not only influences the way you feel, but also may influence gene expression and, ultimately, affects the development and prevention of disease. In certain circumstances, it may be as powerful as drugs and, in combination, may pack a powerful punch. Therefore, make exercise a priority — part of the fabric of your life. It may already be impacting the fabric of your body: your genes.

References:

(1) JAMA. 2009;301(19):2024. (2) Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Oct 10. (3) JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(7):e197597. (4) PLoS Genet. 2013 Jun;9(6):e1003572. (5) Cell Metab. 2012 Mar 7;15(3):405-11. (6) BMJ 2013; 347. (7) JASN online 2013, Dec. 12. (8) PLoS One 8(10): e79342.

Dr. David 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.

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Diet choices trump exercise for weight loss

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

To quash guilt about Thanksgiving meal indiscretions, many of us will resolve to exercise to burn off the calories from this seismic meal and the smaller, calorically dense aftershock meals, whether with a vigorous family football game or with a more modest walk.

Unfortunately, exercise without dietary changes may not actually help many people lose weight, no matter what the intensity or the duration (1). If it does help, it may only modestly reduce fat mass and weight for the majority of people. However, it may be helpful with weight maintenance. Ultimately, it may be more important to reconsider what you are eating than to succumb to the rationalization that you can eat with abandon during the holidays and work it off later.

Don’t give up on exercise just yet, though. There is very good news: Exercise does have beneficial effects on a wide range of conditions, including chronic kidney disease, cognitive decline, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, fatigue, insomnia and depression.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exercise for weight loss

The well-known weight-loss paradigm is that when more calories are burned than consumed, we will tip the scale in favor of weight loss. The greater the negative balance with exercise, the greater the loss. However, study results say otherwise. They show that in premenopausal women there was neither weight nor fat loss from exercise (2). This involved 81 women over a short duration, 12 weeks. All of the women were overweight to obese, although there was great variability in weight.

However, more than two-thirds of the women (55) gained a mean of 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of fat mass by the end of the study. There were a few who gained 10 pounds of predominantly fat. A fair amount of variability was seen among the participants, ranging from significant weight loss to substantial weight gain. These women were told to exercise at the American College of Sports Medicine’s optimal level of intensity (3). This is to walk 30 minutes on a treadmill three times a week at 70 percent VO2max — maximum oxygen consumption during exercise — or, in other words, a moderately intense pace.

The good news is that the women were in better aerobic shape by the end of the study. Also, women who had lost weight at the four-week mark were more likely to continue to do so by the end of the study. This was a preliminary study, so no definitive conclusions can be made.

Other studies have shown modest weight loss. For instance, in a meta-analysis involving 14 randomized controlled trials, results showed that there was a disappointing amount of weight loss with exercise alone (4). In six months, patients lost a mean of 1.6 kilograms, or 3.5 pounds, and at 12 months, participants lost 1.7 kilograms, or about 3.75 pounds.

Exercise and weight maintenance

However, exercise may be valuable in weight maintenance, according to observational studies. Premenopausal women who exercised at least 30 minutes a day were significantly less likely to regain lost weight (5). When exercise was added to diet, women were able to maintain 30 percent more weight loss than with diet alone after a year in a prospective study (6).

Exercise and disease

As just one example of exercise’s impact on disease, let’s look at chronic kidney disease (CKD), which affects 15 percent, or one in seven, adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (7).

Trial results showed that walking regularly could reduce the risk of kidney replacement therapy and death in patients who have moderate to severe CKD, stages 3-5 (8). Yes, this includes stage 3, which most likely is asymptomatic. There was a 21 percent reduction in the risk of kidney replacement therapy and a 33 percent reduction in the risk of death when walkers were compared to non-walkers.

Walking had an impressive impact; results were based on a dose-response curve. In other words, the more frequently patients walked during the week, the better the probability of preventing complications. Those who walked between one and two times per week had 17 and 19 percent reductions in death and kidney replacement therapy, respectively, while those who walked at least seven times per week saw 44 and 59 percent reductions in death and kidney replacement. These are substantial results. The authors concluded that the effectiveness of walking on CKD was independent of kidney function, age or other diseases.

Therefore, while it is important to enjoy the holidays, remember that food choices will have the greatest impact on our weight and body composition. However, exercise can help maintain weight loss and is extremely beneficial for preventing progression of chronic diseases, such as CKD.

So, by all means, exercise during the holidays, but also focus on more nutrient-dense foods. At a minimum, strike a balance rather than eating purely calorically dense foods. You won’t be able to exercise them away.

References:

(1) uptodate.com. (2) J Strength Cond Res. Online Oct. 28, 2014. (3) ACSM.org. (4) Am J Med. 2011;124(8):747. (5) Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010;18(1):167. (6) Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1997;21(10):941. (7) cdc.gov. (8) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2014 Jul;9(7):1183-1189.

Dr. David 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.

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Simple strategies can improve health for everyone around the table

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many of us give thanks for good health on Thanksgiving. This is especially relevant this year. While eating healthy may be furthest from our minds during the holidays, it is so important.

Instead of making Thanksgiving a holiday of regret, eating foods that cause weight gain, fatigue and that increase your risk for chronic diseases, you can reverse this trend while maintaining the traditional theme of a festive meal.

What can we do to turn Thanksgiving into a bonanza of good health? Phytochemicals (plant nutrients) called carotenoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and are found mostly in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids make up a family of more than 600 different substances, such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin (1).

Carotenoids help to prevent and potentially reverse diseases, such as breast cancer; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; age-related macular degeneration; and cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke. Foods that contain these substances are orange, yellow and red vegetables and fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables. Examples include sweet potato, acorn squash, summer squash, spaghetti squash, green beans, carrots, cooked pumpkin, spinach, kale, papayas, tangerines, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Breast cancer

We know that breast cancer risk is high among U.S.-born women, where the average lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is 12.8 percent (2). In a meta-analysis (a group of eighteen prospective studies), results show that women who consumed higher levels of carotenoids, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lutein and zeaxanthin, had significantly reduced risk of developing estrogen-negative breast cancer (3).

Lou Gehrig’s disease

ALS is a disabling and feared disease. Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments for reversing this disease. Therefore, we need to work double time in trying to prevent its occurrence. In a meta-analysis of five prestigious observational studies, including The Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, results showed that people with the greatest amount of carotenoids in their blood from foods like spinach, kale and carrots had a decreased risk of developing ALS and/or delaying the onset of the disease (4). This study involved over 1 million people with more than 1,000 who developed ALS.

Those who were in the highest carotenoid level quintile had a 25 percent reduction in risk, compared to those in the lowest quintile. According to the authors, the beneficial effects may be due to antioxidant activity and more efficient function of the power source of the cell: the mitochondrion.

Strategies for healthy holiday eating

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Despite the knowledge that healthy eating has long-term positive effects, there are obstacles to healthy eating. Two critical factors are presentation and perception.

Vegetables are often prepared in either an unappetizing way — steamed to the point of no return – or smothered in cheese, negating their benefits, but clearing our consciences.

Many consider Thanksgiving a time to indulge and not think about the repercussions. Plant-based foods like whole grains, leafy greens and fruits are relegated to side dishes or afterthoughts. Why is it so important to change our mindsets? There are significant short-term consequences of gorging ourselves.

Not surprisingly, people tend to gain weight from Thanksgiving to New Year. This is when most gain the predominant amount of weight for the entire year. However, most do not lose the weight they gain during this time (5). If you can fend off weight gain during the holidays, think of the possibilities for the rest of the year.

Also, if you are obese and sedentary, you may already have heart disease. Overeating at a single meal increases your risk of heart attack over the near term, according to the American Heart Association (6). However, with a little Thanksgiving planning, you can reap significant benefits:

Make healthy, plant-based dishes part of the main course. You don’t have to forgo signature dishes, but add to tradition by adding mouthwatering vegetable-based dishes.

Improve vegetable options. Most people don’t like grilled chicken without any seasoning. Why should vegetables be different? In my family, we season vegetables and make sauces to drizzle over them. Good resources for appealing dishes can be found at PCRM.org, DrFuhrman.com, mouthwateringvegan.com, and many other resources.

Replace refined grains. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that replacing wheat or refined grains with whole wheat and whole grains significantly reduced central fat, or fat around the belly (7). Not only did participants lose subcutaneous fat found just below the skin, but also visceral adipose tissue, the fat that lines organs and causes chronic diseases such as cancer. For even better results, consider substituting riced or mashed cauliflower for rice or potatoes.

Create a healthy environment. Instead of putting out creamy dips, cheese platters and candies as snacks, choose whole grain brown rice crackers, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and healthy dips like hummus and salsa. Help people choose wisely.

Offer healthy dessert options. Options might include dairy-free pumpkin pudding and fruit salad.

The goal should be to increase your nutrient-dense choices and decrease your empty-calorie foods. You don’t have to be perfect, but improvements during this time period have a tremendous impact — they set the tone for the coming year and put you on a path to success. Why not turn this holiday into an opportunity to de-stress, rest, and reverse or prevent chronic disease?

References:

(1) Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2010;50(8):728–760. (2) SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975–2016, National Cancer Institute. (3) Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar; 95(3): 713–725. (4) Ann Neurol 2013;73:236–245. (5) N Engl J Med 2000; 342:861-867. (6) www.heart.org. (7) Am J Clin Nutr 2010 Nov;92(5):1165-71.

Dr. David 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.

Out of every 100 American men, about 13 will get prostate cancer during their lifetime. METRO photo
What you consume may have a dramatic effect on your risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Happy “Movember!” The Movember Foundation is in its 17th year of raising awareness and research money for men’s health issues (1). What better time to discuss prostate cancer prevention?

The best way to avoid prostate cancer is through lifestyle modifications. There are a host of things that may increase your risk and others that may decrease your likelihood of prostate cancer, regardless of family history.

What may increase the risk of prostate cancer? Contributing factors include obesity, animal fat and supplements, such as vitamin E and selenium. Equally as important, factors that may reduce risk include vegetables, especially cruciferous, and tomato sauce or cooked tomatoes.

Vitamin E and selenium

In the SELECT trial, a randomized clinical trial (RCT), a dose of 400 mg of vitamin E actually increased the risk of prostate cancer by 17 percent (2). Though significant, this is not a tremendous clinical effect. It does show that vitamin E should not be used for prevention of prostate cancer. Interestingly, in this study, selenium may have helped to reduce the mortality risk in the selenium plus vitamin E arm, but selenium trended toward a slight increased risk when taken alone. I would not recommend that men take selenium or vitamin E for prevention.

Obesity and aggressive disease risk

Obesity showed conflicting results, prompting the study authors to analyze the results further. According to a review of the literature, obesity may slightly decrease the risk of nonaggressive prostate cancer, however increase risk of aggressive disease (3). The authors attribute the lower incidence of nonaggressive prostate cancer to the possibility that it is more difficult to detect the dis-ease in obese men, since larger prostates make biopsies less effective. What the results tell us is that those who are obese have a greater risk of dying from prostate cancer when it is diagnosed.

Animal fat and meat intake

It seems there is a direct effect between the amount of animal fat we consume and incidence of prostate cancer. In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a large observational study, those who consumed the highest amount of animal fat had a 63 percent increased risk, compared to those who consumed the least (4).

Here is the kicker: It was not just the percent increase that was important, but the fact that it was an increase in advanced or metastatic prostate cancer. Also, in this study, red meat had an even greater, approximately 2.5-fold, increased risk of advanced disease. If you are going to eat red meat, I recommend decreased frequency, like lean meat once every two weeks or once a month.

In another large, prospective observational study, the authors concluded that red and processed meats increase the risk of advanced prostate cancer through heme iron, barbecuing/grilling and nitrate/nitrite content (5).

Unexpected Omega-3 findings

When we think of omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil, we often think “protective” or “beneficial.” However, these may increase the risk of prostate cancer, according to one epidemiological study (6). This study, called the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, involving a seven-year follow-up period, showed that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a form of omega-3 fatty acid, increased the risk of high-grade disease 2.5-fold. This finding was unexpected.

If you choose to eat fish, salmon or sardines in water with no salt are among the best choices.

Lycopene from tomato sauce

Tomato sauce has been shown to potentially reduce the risk of prostate cancer. However, uncooked tomatoes have not shown the same beneficial effects. It is believed that lycopene, which is a type of carotenoid found in tomatoes, is central to this benefit. Tomatoes need to be cooked to release lycopene (7).

In a prospective study involving 47,365 men who were followed for 12 years, the risk of prostate cancer was reduced by 16 percent with higher lycopene intake from a variety of sources (8). When the authors looked at tomato sauce alone, they saw a reduction in risk of 23 percent when comparing those who consumed at least two servings a week to those who consumed less than one serving a month. The reduction in severe, or metastatic, prostate cancer risk was even greater, at 35 per-cent. There was a statistically significant reduction in risk with a very modest amount of tomato sauce.

In the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, the results were similar, with a 21 percent reduction in the risk of prostate cancer (9). Again, tomato sauce was the predominant food responsible for this effect.

Although tomato sauce may be beneficial, many brands are loaded with salt. I recommend to patients that they either make their own sauce or purchase a sauce made without salt.

Cruciferous vegetables

Vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables, reduce the risk of prostate cancer significantly. In a case-control study, participants who consumed at least three servings of cruciferous vegetables per week, versus those who consumed less than one per week, saw a 41 percent reduction in prostate cancer risk (10). What’s even more impressive is the effect was twice that of tomato sauce, yet the intake was similarly modest. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, kale and arugula, to name a few.

When it comes to preventing prostate cancer, lifestyle modification, including making dietary changes, can reduce your risk significantly.

References:

(1) www.movember.com. (2) JAMA. 2011; 306: 1549-1556. (3) Epidemiol Rev. 2007;29:88. (4) J Natl Cancer Inst. 1993;85(19):1571. (5) Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170(9):1165. (6) Am J Epidemiol. 2011 Jun 15;173(12):1429-1439. (7) Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2002; 227:914-919. (8) J Natl Cancer Inst. 2002;94(5):391. (9) Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2002; 227:852-859; Int. J. Cancer. 2007;121: 1571–1578. (10) J Natl Cancer Inst. 2000;92(1):61.

Dr. David 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.