Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Good, the Bad, the Chocolate

Ohhh, how we love our chocolate. Little kids, big kids, adults. Chocolate is king -- usually considered the ultimate dietary addiction... and sin. But is it?

A new study from the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, Italy, has found that mice will tolerate electric shocks to get a fix of chocolate. The scientists in the study took a pool of mice and divided them into two groups. One group got fed well, and the other was deprived food until the mice lost considerable weight. After a while, the scientists started feeding the deprived group again, until they recovered normal weight. But apparently, the deprivation left a mark. The researchers put chocolate at the end of a maze. To get to it, the mice had to endure a mild shock. The mice who had always been fed well stayed away from the chocolate, but the formerly hungry critters put up with the shock in exchange for the treat.

How do the results translate to humans? Perhaps chocolate cravings really do come from some primeval need to soothe memories of deprivation and if so, "knowing better" simply doesn't hold enough sway to discourage the addicted. But if you count yourself among those who, like the mice, simply can't say "no" in spite of consequences, there is a silver lining. A new study has found that eating dark chocolate inhibits the risk of having a stroke or dying from one. (Isn't it heartwarming when one of these rare studies comes along that touts a benefit associated with a formerly forbidden treat?)

The study, from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, reviewed three studies examining the correlation between chocolate and strokes. One of the studies, involving 44,489 people, found that those who enjoyed one serving of dark chocolate a week had a 22 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who abstained. Another study found that those who ate 50 grams (about two ounces) of chocolate a week were 46 percent less likely to die after having a stroke than those who didn't eat chocolate at all.

Some spoilsport experts don't make much of the findings. For instance, Dr. Patrick Lyden, who chairs the Neurology Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said the findings were probably a "statistical fluke" because the amount of chocolate was so small. And Dr. David Katz of the Yale University School of Medicine said, "This [study] does not establish cause and effect. It might simply be that, for example, people who enjoy life have a lower risk of stroke and are more prone to eat chocolate." Others point to the high amount of saturated fat in chocolate, and caution that it isn't a health food item.

But others have a far sunnier view, noting that dark chocolate, which is high in cocoa content, is one of the richest sources of flavonoids. According to Keith-Thomas Ayoob, who directs the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, "There are a few studies that indicate that even small amounts of dark chocolate can improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure." A 2006 study, for instance, found that small amounts of chocolate daily helped pre-hypertensive subjects to lower their blood pressure. Another study published in 2006 found, after following 500 men for 15 years, that those over age 65 who had been eating chocolate regularly reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by half, no matter their diet. And a 2009 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine concluded that those heart attack survivors who ate chocolate twice weekly were less likely to have a second heart attack. Dr. Ayoob attributes the cardiovascular benefits of chocolate to the fact that it "keeps your bad cholesterol from misbehaving and causing plaque build-up [in the arteries]."

The director of the current study, Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, wants to do a follow-up to investigate how different types and amounts of chocolate fare in promoting health. He says, "In years past, the message was that chocolate consumption might be associated with higher LDL [bad] cholesterol or perhaps higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Today, we know that all chocolates are not the same."

And that may be the key to whether chocolate benefits or harms you. If you're going to eat chocolate, nearly all the researchers agree that dark is best. You also will do far better to use only organic, and even better, avoid the added fat by using pure cacao or cocoa powder. In fact, pure cacao has a far higher antioxidant content than green tea, red wine, or even dark chocolate. So for now, until and unless the next report comes out debunking all this good news about chocolate, enjoy!

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Lycopene: A Little Known Powerful Antioxidant

Lycopene, is an antioxidant compound and the natural pigment that is responsible for the deep color of several fruits like tomatoes and watermelon. Derived as a supplement primarily from tomatoes (cooked, not raw), lycopene appears to be one of the best defenses against prostate cancer and bladder cancer. When used in conjunction with vitamin E and green tea extract, studies indicate that it inhibits prostate cancer proliferation by some 90%.

While a member of the carotenoid family, lycopene does not get converted into vitamin A as does beta carotene. This means the health benefits of lycopene are attributed to its powerful antioxidant actions. In fact, laboratory experiments indicate that lycopene is a more effective antioxidant than other carotenoids, including beta-carotene.

We may have been eating tomatoes for centuries; however, our fascination with lycopene is fairly recent comparatively. In spite of the short history, scientists have been able to amass quite a significant amount of research that supports the role of lycopene in human health. Its more specific roles include helping the prevention of cancers of the prostate, pancreas, stomach, breast, cervix and lung, as well as in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cataracts. As an antioxidant, lycopene's primary benefit is its ability to help protect your cells from free radicals. So if you want to add another powerful antioxidant to your diet, reach for your favorite red fruits! Although tomatoes may have the highest dose of lycopene, you'll also find it in pink grapefruit, watermelon, and guava.

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Staring at a Screen Before Bed

Remember how your parents used to put you to bed when you were a small child? The routine probably involved a bedtime story and a kiss. Now, as an adult, it might not be so bad to revisit that childhood tradition instead of all of the media activity most of us have come to rely on late into the night. Because, according to the 2011 Sleep in America poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation, most of us are not getting a good night's sleep on most nights... and one of the main reasons why, it turns out, is that we are staring at a screen before bed.

The poll respondents ranged in age from 13 to 64 years old. Sixty percent of them claim to have sleep issues either every night or nearly every night. These can include waking up during the night, not feeling well rested upon waking in the morning, waking up earlier than planned, and so on. And most people reported not getting enough total hours of sleep. During the week seems to be especially bad, with people rising early for work or school, resulting in 63 percent not receiving the amount of sleep they need. The average on a weeknight for adults was 6 hours and 55 minutes per night. But approximately 15 percent of adults and seven percent of 13-to-18-year-olds said they regularly sleep for less than six hours on weeknights.

A large part of the problem stems from the fact that almost everyone is making use of media in the hour before going to bed. At least several nights a week, 95 percent of the participants report engaging in some form of screen-based technology close to bedtime. Depending upon the age and particular preferences of the person, the type of electronics varied between watching television, using a smart phone, going on the computer, and playing a video game. Approximately two-thirds of those over the age of 30, and half of those under 30, watch TV before going to sleep.

Any type of screen time right before bed is a no-no, say the sleep experts. The proximity to so much artificial light after sundown messes with our internal clocks and causes the body to not release enough melatonin, which is the hormone that helps us feel sleepy. It also increases feelings of alertness, probably starting a vicious cycle in which we say, if I'm not feeling tired, I'll just watch one more show or play one more game.

And sadly, televisions are probably the least of our problems. They are considered a "passive" form of media entertainment in which we really do not have to engage ourselves or do anything. Surfing the web, playing video games, chatting up a friend, or texting all use more "interactive" skills that will do even more to heighten our alertness and wakefulness at bedtime. So the 61 percent of participants of all ages who spend the last hour of their night on the computer and the 36 percent of teens and 28 percent of young adults who spend it playing video games are in an even less drowsy state than the TV watchers when bedtime rolls around.

Lack of sleep, even for a short-term period, has been linked in research to numerous health issues. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation increases your likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes due to lowered glucose tolerance and increased insulin levels. This causes the body to store fat, which jives with other studies that have found that lack of sleep promotes obesity. Other research has found connections between a lack of sleep and acceleration of the aging process, mental disturbances relating to exhaustion and an over-emotional state, and reduced immune system function, which can put you at increased risk for everything from colds to cancer.

If you want to start getting a better night's sleep, turn your technology off. Use it all you want throughout the day, but in the evening -- well in advance of bedtime -- stay away from the screens. Try some good, old-fashioned fun before bed to prepare yourself for slumber. Read a book (but not on your Nook), stretch out each different part of your body in bed for relaxation, or spend the time with your significant other talking with the lights off. Chances are good that your lack of sleep will catch up with you, and you'll be falling asleep in no time!

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Junk-Food Addiction is REAL

When Homer Simpson first uttered the word "D'oh!' (which 300 linguists have agreed is The Simpson's most important contribution to the English language), he might as well have had in mind the recent announcement by researchers that junk food actually is addictive. As anyone who ever finished a bag of Doritos three days into a diet knows, "D'oh!!! Of course the stuff is addictive." The researchers made their announcement in response to a new study led by the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida. All joking aside, the study actually did contain some genuine surprises, particularly in revealing just how extraordinarily addictive junk food actually is. In essence, the researchers found that junk foods exert an addictive pull as powerful as that conferred by the most highly addictive narcotic drugs.

Dr. Kenny and his colleagues divided rats into three groups and then headed to the grocery store. "We basically bought all of the stuff that people really like -- Ding-Dongs, cheesecake, bacon, sausage, [chocolate frosting, pound cake] -- the stuff that you enjoy, but you really shouldn't eat too often," he said. They also bought healthy food. Each group of rats followed a different diet for 40 days. The rats in the first group ate healthy, regular rat food only. In the second group, the rats got healthy rat food plus an hour of access daily to junk food. The third group had unlimited access to both health food and junk -- like most humans do.

The rats that had access to the treats only an hour a day managed to cram most of their eating into that blissful hour, eschewing the rat food the rest of the time. Meanwhile, the third group of rats -- those who had round-the-clock access to treats -- quickly turned obese and demonstrated a strong preference for Ding Dongs and cheesecake and the like. But their food preferences weren't the only change the rats experienced. The researchers found that the brain circuitry in the junk-food-gorging rats actually changed. The more high-fat treats the rats ate, the more they craved treats in the future -- the more treats it took on subsequent feedings for them to experience satisfaction. In other words, they developed "tolerance," just the way junkies and alcoholics do, needing more and more of the "junk-food substance" in order to achieve a pleasure "rush."

"It was quite profound," says study author Paul Kenny. "The reward-response effects in the junk-food rats were "very similar to what we see with animals that use cocaine and heroin." The response became even more pronounced as the rats gained more weight. The fatty treats also seemed to lower levels of a dopamine receptor in the brain of the rats. In humans, lowered levels of dopamine receptors lead to increased pleasure-seeking behavior. Under normal conditions, dopamine deprivation excites normal desire or motivation, but in the case of the rats, eating junk foods made the deprivation severe enough to drive the mild desire to pathological levels.

The biggest surprise in the study was in the extreme behaviors that the compulsive cravings led to. The sadistic researchers launched a nasty plan. Every time the rodents--who by now were addicted to fatty treats -- approached their pleasure buffet, they got a painful shock to their feet. Amazingly, this shock did not stop them from going to the junk food spread and continuing to eat, in spite of a bright light that warned them before each shock was issued, and even though they had the option of choosing a shock-free healthy meal instead. The other two groups of rats, including the group allowed only an hour of eating junk foods daily, opted for the healthy meal rather than the shock-laden foods. In other words, the more treats the rats enjoyed, the more hooked on treats they became, to the point where they would endure extreme punishment in order to get a fix, like junkies who behave in dangerous, self-destructive ways for a fix of drugs. And again, this behavior became more pronounced as the rats gained increasing amounts of weight.

Perhaps the most shocking tidbit of all, though, was the finding that the addicted rats absolutely refused regular food, even after their treats were taken away. They chose to starve rather than return to rat kibble. "They actually voluntarily starved themselves," Kenny said.

What does all this information add up to, other than a good excuse for the zipper that no longer closes? While it's understood that what's true for rats isn't necessarily true for humans, the behavioral response is close enough for at least some experts to suggest that obesity should be reclassified as a psychiatric disorder. "Once we start to consider obesity and pathological overeating as a psychiatric illness, we're going to move a lot closer towards understanding how to come up with therapies or treatments," says addiction biologist Jon Davis of the University of Ohio. He doesn't mention the fact that addiction therapies certainly aren't fail-proof. Even after completing drug-addiction recovery programs both in prison and in the community, male addicts have a recidivism rate of over 40 percent. Drug addiction is an extremely hard nut to crack.

On the other hand, 40 percent is a far lower failure rate than dieters experience, given that 95 percent of all diets ultimately fail (and that two-thirds of all adults in the US are now overweight). The Scripps Institute study certainly throws cold water on the cold turkey theory of dieting -- the "just stop eating junk and go healthy" prescription. If people respond like the rats in the study -- if they'd be willing to suffer extreme punishment for chocolate chip cheesecake -- mere willpower probably will continue to fail while obesity statistics continue to rise. Here's yet more evidence that food manufacturers need to be financially pressured to start migrating their product lines away from high-fat foods, high-fructose corn syrup, and processed junk and be prevented from having carte blanche to advertise their narcotic edibles on media frequented by children.

The bottom line is that merely offering healthy alternatives is not enough. As we just learned, addicted rats will starve themselves rather than eat healthy alternatives. Instead, manufacturers must be financially induced to steadily offer fewer and fewer addictive foods until people really have no choice but to eat healthier diets. In the meantime, keep in mind that if the addicted can manage to break their unhealthy routines long enough to lose substantial weight, they can rewire their brains back to normalcy enough to break the addictive cycle. As it is, five percent of people already manage to do that on their own.

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Cancer-Causing Deodorant?

Back when puberty first hit all those years ago, you probably started a regimen of good hygiene that included washing your face regularly to prevent pimples, shaving when necessary (yes, girls too), and using deodorant to keep body odor at bay. Now we have to start wondering about the price we may pay for good grooming since a new study has found one of the components of deodorant in breast cancer tissues. And no, I'm not talking about aluminum.

There has been a lot of suspicion about parabens, xenoestrogenic preservatives commonly used in not only deodorants but also cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, and even some foods, since more than a decade's worth of research has found links between them and breast cancer. Parabens are estrogenic in nature and estrogen is an essential factor in breast cancer occurrences.

In this study, which took place at the University of Reading in England, the scientists tested tissue samples from 40 women in England between 2005 and 2008 who were being treated for breast cancer and having mastectomies. They took four samples from each participant, for a total of 160 overall samples to work with. There was at least one paraben present in an astounding 99 percent of the samples. And 60 percent of the samples contained a whopping five parabens.

Parabens are prevalent in many deodorants, but it is possible that deodorants are not the only -- or even the main -- culprit. Some of the women who volunteered for the study told the researchers they were not deodorant users. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they never used deodorant. It's possible that they stopped some time ago because of potential risk factors, which would suggest the parabens made their way into the tissue and stuck around for quite some time to do their damage.

However, another possibility is that the parabens are coming from another source. More research is clearly required on the subject, but it may be difficult to pin down exactly what is leaching parabens into our bodily tissue, since they are a component of practically everything these days. Aside from deodorant, they are also present in many moisturizers, shaving creams, toothpastes, shampoos, and makeup products. We also ingest parabens when we eat certain processed meats such as sausages. Yet another reason to stay away from processed foods. And even if you use paraben free products, you're not safe. When somebody else uses paraben shampoo or toothpaste or whatever, it washes down the drain and into your municipal water supply. Unfortunately, unless your municipal water department uses ozonation, they're not treating for parabens when cleaning up your water.

How do we keep ourselves safe from this seemingly ubiquitous chemical? For starters, look for all natural products labeled paraben-free. The less of it we are swiping and slathering onto our bodies, the better. But until manufacturers decide that safety should come before profits, chemicals such as parabens will always be around to some extent. We need to protect ourselves as best we can to avoid accumulation of high potency estrogen-mimicking xenoestrogens, such as parabens, and balance out the hormones in our bodies before they can promote the unrestrained cell growth that leads to cancer.

From the onset of puberty, every woman should consider supplementation with a natural progesterone creme. Virtually every woman who lives in an industrialized country is at high risk of estrogen dominance because of exposure to xenoestrogens since they are now present in massive amounts in our food chain, water supply, and environment.

The only natural balancer to excessive estrogen in the body is natural progesterone. But what about the synthetic "progestins" that your doctor may recommend? Progesterone is a natural substance, and as such cannot be patented. The pharmaceutical companies, therefore, have to modify it slightly. They create a new molecule that does not exist in nature. This modified, synthetic form of progesterone carries a whole range of serious side effects including depression, birth defects, increased body hair, acne, and more. On the other hand, supplementation with natural progesterone has no known side effects. It is equally important for women menstruating and those post-menopausal.

We all have to do what we can to improve our chances against potentially harmful additives such as parabens. Another good pre-emptive strike includes avoiding products that contain them, cutting back on all of our synthetic makeup and creams, and balancing out the hormones in our bodies naturally with supplementation. And make sure to treat the water coming into your house. Distillers, reverse osmosis systems, and activated charcoal filters can all remove parabens from your drinking water. But only a whole house filter will remove them from your bath and shower. If you don't have a whole house filter, you want to add a location specific shower or bath filter at each tub. Hopefully this combination will do the job, thwarting major health hazards in the future.

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Hearing Loss Epidemic

Signs of hearing loss can be very subtle, especially at its outset. Maybe that is why hearing loss is a much more widespread problem than most people realize. In fact, recent research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has found that 20 percent of Americans 12 and older already have some level of hearing loss.

Hearing loss is defined by the World Health Organization as the point at which daily communication starts to become impaired. That means the 48 million Americans determined in the study to have hearing loss in one or both ears are experiencing at least some difficulty just having regular conversations when there is background noise. And approximately 30 million people, or one in eight Americans 12 or older, have that level of hearing loss in both ears.

The researchers based their findings on an analysis of the 2001 through 2008 National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (NHANES). Participants had been given hearing tests, so this data was more realistic than previous findings of between 21 and 29 million Americans with hearing loss that were based purely on self reporting or only reflected the results for certain segments of the population.

The study uncovered some unsurprising facts, such as that hearing loss gets more prevalent as we age. But the amount is astounding: with each subsequent decade, hearing loss practically doubles. Also, women and black people are less likely to experience hearing loss at any age than the rest of the population. While the researchers cannot pinpoint the reasons for that, it may have something to do with genetics or lower sensitivities to noise-induced damage.

In a separate study that took place at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, scientists determined that college students tend to listen to the music on their iPods and other listening devices at levels that are dangerous to their hearing. The scientists surveyed 384 students, of whom 92 percent used listening devices.

Men and minority students of both genders were the worst culprits, frequently listening to their music at between 75 and 100 percent of maximum volume. They don't actually seem to realize just how loud the volumes they are listening to are, either. The students raise the volume levels when in a noisy place to make listening more comfortable, then leave the levels there once their hearing has adjusted. When they turn the devices back on later, they are shocked at how loud the music is playing. More than 75 percent of the participants use ear buds, and previous studies have found that their use is associated with louder listening volumes as well.

Hearing loss, especially starting at such a young age is troubling in itself. But what makes the issues we've been discussing especially disturbing are the links recently discovered between hearing impairment and the risk of developing dementia. A study that took place last year at Johns Hopkins University found that those participants with a mild amount of hearing loss, who might have trouble following a conversation in a noisy atmosphere, had almost twice the risk of developing dementia as compared to those with no hearing loss. For those with moderate hearing loss, who may experience difficulty keeping up with a conversation even in a quiet setting, that risk was three times greater. And for those with severe hearing loss, who typically must rely heavily on lip-reading, the risk was five times higher. Even after the researchers took into account other factors that are associated with risk of dementia including diabetes, high blood pressure, age, sex and race, hearing loss and dementia were still strongly connected.

No one is suggesting that hearing loss directly causes dementia. On the other hand, it is true that a significant portion of the brain is used to process auditory stimuli. Having a conversation with someone exercises significant and vital sections of the brain. Active listening stimulates large areas of the brain optimizing auditory and language processes. With un-treated hearing loss this connection weakens, and it becomes more difficult for a hearing impaired individual to process and understand what is heard even when using hearing aids. In effect, the brain gets much, much less exercise.

So it's clearly essential to get your hearing tested on a regular basis and use hearing aids if you do have some level of hearing loss. But try to do what you can to prevent that loss in the first place. Stay out of super noisy environments such as clubs and rock concerts as much as possible. The ringing in your ears that happens when you leave those places means damage has been done to your hearing. It will heal, but the damage accumulates over time and eventually becomes permanent.

When you plug into your iPod, keep the volume set low. Try starting it at the lowest and just increase to where you can listen comfortably. You are less likely to push it up too high if you start out very quietly.

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