Medical Compass

It is important to stay hydrated if you have a history of stone formation. Stock photo
High sodium and hypertension can increase probability

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Kidney stones, or nephrolithiasis, can be asymptomatic (no symptoms at all) or may present with the classic symptoms of blood in the urine and colicky pain. Pain can be intermittent or constant, ranging from dull to extremely painful, described by some as being worse than giving birth, shot or burned. The pain may radiate from the kidneys to the bladder and even to the groin in males, depending on the obstruction (1). 

Lifetime risk of kidney stones is about 19 percent in men and 9 percent in women (2). Once you form one stone, your risk of another within five to seven years is approximately 50 percent.

Stones are usually diagnosed through clinical examination and abdominal x-rays and/or non-contrast CT scans.

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

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

Calcium supplementation’s impact

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

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

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

Sodium’s effect

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

Animal protein

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

Hypertension

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

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

References:

(1) emedicine January 1, 2008. (2) kidney.org. (3) J Urol. 2006;175(2):575. (4) J Urol. 1996;155(3):839. (5) N Engl J Med. 2004;350(7):684. (6) Kidney Int 2003;63:1817–23. (7) Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(7):497-504. (8) N Engl J Med. 2002 Jan 10;346(2):77-84. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1988;66(1):140. (10) BMJ. 1990;300(6734):1234. 

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

 

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Increasing fiber can reduce hemorrhoid inflammation

By David Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

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

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

There are two types of hemorrhoids: external, occurring outside the anus, and internal, occurring within the rectum. 

How do you treat external hemorrhoids? 

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

How do you treat internal hemorrhoids?

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

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

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

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

How do you prevent hemorrhoids?

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

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

Americans, on average, consume 16 g per day of fiber (5). The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25 to 38 g, depending on gender and age (6). I typically recommend at least 40 g. My wife and I try to eat only foods that contain a significant amount of fiber, and we get approximately 65 g per day. You may want to raise your fiber level gradually; if you do it too rapidly, be forewarned – side effects are potentially gas and bloating for the first week or two.

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

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

References:

(1) Dis Colon Rectum. Jul-Aug 1982;25(5):454-456. (2) Cochrane.org. (3) Hepatogastroenterology 1996;43(12):1504-1507. (4) Dis Colon Rectum 2004 Aug;47(8):1364-1370. (5) usda.gov. (6) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1):80–85.

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.    

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Increasing fiber may reduce risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many patients say they have been diagnosed with diverticulitis, but this is a misnomer. Diverticulitis is actually a consequence of diverticular disease, or diverticulosis. Diverticulosis is one of the most common maladies that affects us as we age. For instance, 35 percent of U.S. 50-year-olds are affected and, for those over the age of 60, approximately 58 percent are affected (1). Many will never experience symptoms.

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

What is diverticular disease? 

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

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

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

Unfortunately, the incidence of diverticulitis is growing. As of 2010, about 200,000 are hospitalized for acute diverticulitis each year, and roughly 70,000 are hospitalized for diverticular bleeding (2).

How to prevent diverticular disease

There are a number of modifiable risk factors, including fiber intake, weight and physical activity, to prevent diverticular disease.

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

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

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

Most Americans get about 16 grams of fiber per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25-26 grams for women and 31-38 grams for men (5). Interestingly, their recommendations are lower for those who are over 50 years old.

Can you imagine what the effect is when people get at least 40 grams of fiber per day? This is what I recommend for my patients. Some foods that contain the most fiber include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. In a study in 2009, specifically those men who consumed the most nuts and popcorn saw a protective effect from diverticulitis (6).

Obesity plays a role, as well. In the large, prospective male Health Professionals Follow-up Study, body mass index played a significant role, as did waist circumference (7). Those who were obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) had a 78 percent increased risk of diverticulitis and a greater than threefold increased risk of a diverticular bleed compared to those who had a BMI in the normal range of <21 kg/m². For those whose waist circumference was in the highest group, they had a 56 percent increase risk of diverticulitis and a 96 percent increase risk of diverticular bleed. Thus, obesity puts patients at a much higher risk of the complications of diverticulosis.

Physical activity is also important for reducing the risk of diverticular disease, although the exact mechanism is not yet understood. Regardless, the results are impressive. In a large prospective study, those with the greatest amount of exercise were 37 percent less likely to have diverticular disease compared to those with the least amount (8). Jogging and running seemed to have the most benefit. When the authors combined exercise with fiber intake, there was a dramatic 256 percent reduction in risk of this disease. 

Thus, preventing diverticular disease is based mostly on lifestyle modifications through diet and exercise.

References:

(1) www.niddk.nih.gov. (2) Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016; 14(1):96–103.e1. (3) BMJ. 2011; 343: d4131. (4) Gut. 2014 Sep; 63(9): 1450–1456. (5) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 80–85. (6) AMA 2008; 300: 907-914. (7) Gastroenterology. 2009;136(1):115. (8) Gut. 1995;36(2):276.  

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

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Lowering your meat intake may reduce cataract risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Cataracts affect a substantial portion of the U.S. population. In fact, 24.4 million people in the U.S. over the age of 40 are currently afflicted, and this number is expected to increase approximately 61 percent by the year 2030 — only 10 years from now — according to estimates by the National Eye Institute (1).

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

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

Prevention

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanism of action

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

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

How do you treat cataracts?

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

Potential consequences of surgery

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Kidneys are one of our main stystems for removing toxins and waste. Stock photo
High sodium’s impact extends beyond hypertension

By David Dunaief, M.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the salt shaker is not the problem, what is?

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

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

One approach is to choose products that have 200 mg or fewer per serving indicated on the label. Foods labeled “low sodium” have fewer than 140 mg of sodium, but foods labeled “reduced sodium” have 25 percent less than the full-sodium version, which doesn’t necessarily mean much. 

Soy sauce has 1,000 mg of sodium per tablespoon, but low-sodium soy sauce still has about 600 mg per tablespoon. Salad dressings and other condiments, where serving sizes are small, add up very quickly. Mustard has 120 mg per teaspoon. Most of us use far more than one teaspoon of mustard. Caveat emptor: Make sure to read labels on all packaged foods very carefully.

Is sea salt better than table salt? 

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Lifestyle modifications, including getting more exercise, can lower blood pressure. Stock photo
Left untreated, high blood pressure has long-term health consequences

By David Dunaief, M.D.

We have focused a large amount of effort on the treatment and prevention of hypertension (high blood pressure) in the U.S. This insidious disorder includes prehypertension —defined as a systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 120-139 mmHg and/or a diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 80-89 mmHg. Prehypertension is pervasive in the United States, affecting approximately one-third of people (1).

The consequences of prehypertension are significant, even though there are often no symptoms. For example, it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack dramatically: in an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found a 3.5-fold increase in the risk of heart attack and a 1.7-fold increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease among those with prehypertension (2). This is why it’s crucial to treat it in these early stages, even before it reaches the level of hypertension.

Another study, the Women’s Health Initiative, which followed more than 60,000 postmenopausal women for an average of 7.7 years, showed an increase in heart attack deaths, heart attacks and strokes compared to those with normal blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg). In the Strong Heart Study, prehypertension independently increased the risk for cardiovascular events at 12 years significantly (3).

Furthermore, according to the Framingham Heart Study, the risk of sustained hypertension increases substantially the higher the baseline blood pressure (4).

This may or may not impact mortality, but it certainly does impact morbidity (sickness). Quality of life may be dramatically reduced with heart disease, heart attack and hypertension.

Treatment of prehypertension

In my view, it would be foolish not to treat prehypertension. Recommendations for treatment, according to the Joint National Commission (JNC) 7, the association responsible for guidelines on the treatment of prehypertension and hypertension, are lifestyle modifications (5). These involve a Mediterranean-type diet called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), with a focus on fruits, vegetables, reduction in sodium to a maximum of 1,500 mg (⅔ of a teaspoon on a daily basis), exercise, weight loss and no more than moderate amounts of alcohol (1 or fewer drinks for women and 2 or fewer drinks for men on a daily basis). 

Some studies have also shown that a diet rich in potassium helps to reduce blood pressure (6). Fortunately, foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes have significant amounts of potassium. However, do not take potassium supplements unless instructed for other reasons by a physician; high potassium can be very dangerous and may precipitate a heart attack.

The danger in treating prehypertension comes only when medication is used, due to side effects. 

Unfortunately, the Trial of Preventing Hypertension (TROPHY) suggests the use of a hypotensive agent, the blood pressure drug Atacand (candesartan) to treat prehypertensive patients (7). The drug reduced the incidence of hypertension significantly compared to placebo over two years. However, after stopping therapy, the following two years showed only a small benefit over placebo. Yet the authors implied that this may be a plausible treatment. The study was funded by Astra-Zeneca, the makers of the drug. 

In an editorial, Dr. Jay I. Meltze, a clinical specialist in hypertension at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, noted that the results were interpreted in an unusually favorable way (8). 

Prehypertension is an asymptomatic disorder that has been shown to respond well to lifestyle changes — why create symptoms with medication? Therefore, I don’t recommend treating prehypertension patients with medication. Thankfully, the JNC7 agrees.

However, it should be treated -— and treated with lifestyle modifications. The side effects from this approach are only better overall health. Please get your blood pressure checked at least on an annual basis.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) Stroke 2005; 36: 1859–1863. (3) Hypertension 2006;47:410-414. (4) Lancet 2001;358:1682-6. (5) nhlbi.nih.gov. (6) Archives of Internal Medicine 2001;161:589-593. (7) N Engl J Med. 2006;354:1685-1697. (8) Am J Hypertens. 2006;19:1098-1100.

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.     

All fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans contain some fiber. Stock photo
Fiber has powerful effects on disease prevention and reversal

By David Dunaief, M.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have a chronic disease, the best fiber sources are most likely disease dependent. However, if you are trying to prevent chronic diseases in general, I would recommend getting fiber from a wide array of sources. 

Make sure to eat meals that contain substantial amounts of fiber, which has several advantages, such as avoiding processed foods, reducing the risk of chronic disease, satiety and increased energy levels. Certainly, while protein is important, each time you sit down at a meal, rather than asking how much protein is in it, you now know to ask how much fiber is in it. 

References:

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

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

Stocking the fridge with healthy foods is a great way to start off the New Year. Stock photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

It is now the second week in January, and most of us have made a New Year’s resolution – or many of them. You’ve taken the first step, but how do you increase the “stickiness factor,” a term used by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “The Tipping Point”?

Setting a goal that is simple and singular helps. We often overdo it by focusing on multiple resolutions, like eating better, exercising more and sleeping better. While these are all admirable, their complexity diminishes your chances of success. Instead, pick one to focus on, and make the desired impact part of your goal. For example, improve health by losing weight and reversing disease. 

Changing habits is always hard. There are some things that you can do to make it easier, though. 

Your environment is very important. According to Dr. David Katz, director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, it is not as much about willpower as it is about your environment. Willpower, Katz notes, is analogous to holding your breath underwater; it is only effective for a short timeframe. Thus, he suggests laying the groundwork by altering your environment to make it conducive to attaining your goals. Recognizing your obstacles and making plans to avoid or overcome them reduces stress and strain on your willpower. 

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.

Support is another critical element. It can come from within, but it is best when reinforced by family members, friends and co-workers. 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.

Automaticity: Forming new habits

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 to 254 days (2). The good news is that, though there was a wide variance, the average time to reach this automaticity was 66 days, or about two months.

Lifestyle modification: Choosing a diet

U.S. News & World Report released its annual ranking of diets last 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, and the DASH diet was ranked second. Both the Ornish and the DASH diets ranked in the top six. 

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.

For instance, in a randomized crossover trial, which means patients, after a prescribed time, can switch to the more effective group, showed that the DASH diet is not just for patients with high blood pressure. The DASH diet was more efficacious than the control diet in terms of diabetes (decreased hemoglobin A1C 1.7 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively), weight loss (5 kg/11 lb vs. 2 kg/4.4 lb), as well as in HDL (“good”) cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure (4). 

Interestingly, patients still lost weight, although caloric intake and the percentages of fats, protein and carbohydrates were the same between the DASH and control diets. However, the DASH diet used different sources of macronutrients. The DASH diet also contained food with higher amounts of fiber, calcium and potassium and lower sodium. 

Therefore, diets high in nutrient-dense foods may be an effective way to lose weight while treating and preventing disease. 

I will share one more tip: Take it day by day, rather than obsessing on the larger picture. Health and weight loss can – and should – go together.

References:

(1) J Pers Soc Psychol. 2012;102:22-31. (2) European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998–1009. (3) www.usnews.com. (4) Diabetes Care. 2011;34:55-57.

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.   

Stock photo
Maintaining your mobility is crucial
Dr. David Dunaief

We have made great strides in reducing mortality from heart attacks. When we compare cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke — mortality rates from 1975 to the present, there is a substantial decline of approximately one-quarter. However, if we look at these rates since 1990, the rate of decline has slowed (1). We need to reduce our risk factors to improve this scenario.

Some risk factors are obvious. Others are not. Obvious ones include age (men at least 45 years old and women at least 55 years old), family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and smoking. Less obvious ones include gout, atrial fibrillation and osteoarthritis. Lifestyle modifications, including a high-fiber diet and exercise, may help allay the risks.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Obesity

Obesity continually gets play in discussions of disease risk. But how substantial a risk factor is it?

In the Copenhagen General Population Study, results showed an increased heart attack risk in obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) individuals with or without metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high sugar) and in those who were overweight (BMI >25 kg/m²) (2). The risk of heart attack increased in direct proportion to weight. Specifically, there was a 26 percent increase in heart attack risk for those who were overweight and an 88 percent increase in risk for those who were obese without metabolic syndrome. This study had a follow-up of 3.6 years.

It is true that those with metabolic syndrome and obesity together had the highest risk. But, it is quite surprising that obesity, by itself, can increase heart attack risk when a person is “metabolically healthy.” Since this was an observational trial, we can only make an association, but if it is true, then there may not be such a thing as a “metabolically healthy” obese patient. Therefore, if you are obese, it is really important to lose weight.

Sedentary lifestyle

If obesity were not enough of a wake-up call, let’s look at another aspect of lifestyle: the impact of being sedentary. An observational study found that activity levels had a surprisingly high impact on women’s heart disease risk (3). Of four key factors — weight, blood pressure, smoking and physical inactivity — age was the determinant as to which one had the most negative effect. Those under the age of 30 saw smoking as most negatively impactful. For those over the age of 30, lack of exercise became the most dominant risk factor for heart disease, including heart attacks.

For women over the age of 70, the study found that increasing physical activity may have a greater positive impact than addressing high blood pressure, losing weight or even quitting smoking. However, since high blood pressure was self-reported and not necessarily measured in a doctor’s office, it may have been underestimated as a risk factor. Nonetheless, the researchers indicated that women should make sure they exercise on a regular basis to most significantly reduce heart disease risk.

Osteoarthritis

The prevailing thought with osteoarthritis is that it is best to suffer with hip or knee pain as long as possible before having surgery. But when do we cross the line and potentially need joint replacement? Well, in a study, those with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee joints that caused difficulty walking on a flat surface were at substantially greater risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack. (4) Those who had surgery for the affected joint saw a substantially reduced heart attack risk. It is important to address the causes of osteoarthritis to improve mobility, whether with surgery or other treatments.

Fiber

There have been studies showing that fiber decreases the risk of heart attacks. However, does fiber still matter when someone has a heart attack? In a recent analysis using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-up Study, results showed that higher fiber plays an important role in reducing the risk of death after a heart attack (5).  

Those who consumed the most fiber, compared to the least, had a 25 percent reduction in post-heart attack mortality. Even more impressive is that those who increased their fiber after the cardiovascular event had a 31 percent reduction in mortality risk. In this analysis, it seemed that more of the benefit came from fiber found in cereal. The most intriguing part of the study was the dose-response. For every 10-g increase in fiber consumption, there was a 15 percent reduction in the risk of post-heart attack mortality. Since we get too little fiber anyway, this should be an easy fix.

Lifestyle modifications are so important. In the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 120,000 women for 20 years, those who routinely exercised, ate a quality diet, did not smoke and were a healthy weight demonstrated a whopping 84 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks (6).

What have we learned? We can substantially reduce the risk of heart attacks and even potentially the risk of death after sustaining a heart attack with lifestyle modifications that include weight loss, physical activity and diet — with, in this case, a focus on fiber. While there are a number of diseases that contribute to heart attack risk, most of them are modifiable. With disabling osteoarthritis, addressing the causes of difficulty with mobility may also help reduce heart attack risk.

References:

(1) Heart. 1998;81(4):380. (2) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(1):15-22. (3) Br J Sports Med. 2014, May 8. (4) PLoS ONE. 2014, Mar 14, 2014 [https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091286]. (5) BMJ. 2014;348:g2659. (6) N Engl J Med. 2000;343(1):16.

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.    

The main symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. Stock photo
As many as 35 percent of heart attacks may present without chest pain

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Heart disease is the most common chronic disease in America. When we refer to heart disease, it is an umbrella term; heart attacks are one component. 

Fortunately, the incidence of heart attacks has decreased over the last several decades, as have deaths from heart attacks. However, there are still 790,000 heart attacks every year, and almost three-quarters of these are first heart attacks (1).

If you think someone is having a heart attack, call 911 as quickly as possible and have the patient chew an adult aspirin (325 mg) or four baby aspirins. While the Food & Drug Administration does not recommend aspirin for primary prevention of a heart attack, the use of aspirin here is for treatment of a potential heart attack, not prevention.

Heart attack symptoms

The main symptom is chest pain, which most people don’t have trouble recognizing. However, there are a number of other, more subtle, symptoms such as discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, back, arms and epigastric, or upper abdominal areas. Others include nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, light-headedness and tachycardia (racing heart rate). One problem is that less than one-third of people know these other major symptoms (2). About 10 percent of patients present with atypical symptoms — without chest pain — according to one study (3).

It is not only difficult for the patient but also for the medical community, especially the emergency room, to determine who is having a heart attack. Fortunately, approximately 80 to 85 percent of chest pain sufferers are not having a heart attack. More likely, they have indigestion, reflux or other non-life-threatening ailments.

There has been a raging debate about whether men and women have different symptoms when it comes to heart attacks. Several studies speak to this topic.

Men vs. women

There is data showing that, although men have heart attacks more commonly, women are more likely to die from a heart attack (4). In a Swedish prospective (forward-looking) study, after having a heart attack, a significantly greater number of women died in hospital or near-term when compared to men. The women received reperfusion therapy, artery opening treatment that consisted of medications or invasive procedures, less often than the men.

However, recurrent heart attacks occurred at the same rate, regardless of sex. Both men and women had similar findings on an electrocardiogram; they both had what we call ST elevations. This was a study involving approximately 54,000 heart attack patients, with one-third of them being women.

One theory about why women are treated less aggressively when first presenting in the ER is that they have different and more subtle symptoms — even chest pain symptoms may be different. Women’s symptoms may include pain in the lower portion of the chest or upper portion of the abdomen and may have significantly less severe pain that could radiate or spread to the arms. But, is this true? Not according to several studies.

In one observational study, results showed that, though there were some subtle differences in chest pain, on the whole, when men and women presented with this main symptom, it was of a similar nature (5). There were 34 chest pain characteristic questions used to determine if a difference existed. These included location, quality or type of pain and duration. Of these, there was some small amount of divergence: The duration was shorter for a man (2 to 30 minutes), and pain subsided more for men than for women. The study included approximately 2,500 patients, all of whom had chest pain. The authors concluded that determination of heart attacks with chest pain symptoms should not factor in the sex of patients.

This trial involved an older population; patients were a median age of 70 for women and 59 for men, with more men having had a prior heart attack. The population difference was a conspicuous weakness of an otherwise solid study, since age and previous heart attack history are important factors.

In the GENESIS-PRAXY study, another observational study, but with a younger population, the median age of both men and women was 49. Results showed that chest pain remained the most prevalent presenting symptom in both men and women (6). However, of the patients who presented without distinct chest pain and with less specific EKG findings (non-ST elevations), significantly more were women than men. Those who did not have chest pain symptoms may have had some of the following symptoms: back discomfort; weakness; discomfort or pain in the throat, neck, right arm and/or shoulder; flushing; nausea; vomiting; and headache.

If the patients did not have chest pain, regardless of sex, the symptoms were diffuse and nonspecific. The researchers were looking at acute coronary syndrome, which encompasses heart attacks. In this case, independent risk factors for disease not related to chest pain included both tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and being female. The authors concluded that there need to be better ways to calibrate non-chest pain symptoms.

Some studies imply that as much as 35 percent of patients do not present with chest pain as their primary complaint (7).

Let’s summarize

So what have we learned about heart attack symptoms? The simplest lessons are that most patients have chest pain, and that both men and women have similar types of chest pain. However, this is where the simplicity stops and the complexity begins. The percentage of patients who present without chest pain seems to vary significantly depending on the study — ranging from less than 10 percent to 35 percent.

Non-chest pain heart attacks have a bevy of diffuse symptoms, including obscure pain, nausea, shortness of breath and light-headedness. This is seen in both men and women, although it occurs more often in women. When it comes to heart attacks, suspicion should be based on the same symptoms for both sexes. Therefore, know the symptoms, for it may be your life or a loved one’s that depends on it.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) MMWR. 2008;57:175–179. (3) Chest. 2004;126:461-469. (4) Int J Cardiol. 2013;168:1041-1047. (5) JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Feb. 1;174:241-249. (6) JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173:1863-1871. (7) JAMA 2012;307:813-822.

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.