Foods Linked to ALS

Foods Linked to ALS.jpeg

As explored in my video ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease): Fishing for Answers, there may be a link in the consumption of the neurotoxin BMAA, produced by algae blooms, and increased risk of ALS. It now appears that BMAA could be found in high concentrations in aquatic animals in many areas of the world.

This could explain ALS clustering around lakes in New Hampshire--up to 25 times the expected rate of ALS with some families eating fish several times a week. Or in Wisconsin, where the most significant ALS risk factor was the past consumption of fish out of Lake Michigan. Or clustering in Finland's Lakeland district, or seafood eaters in France, or around the Baltic sea, building up particularly in fish, mussels and oysters.

When I think of algae blooms I think of the Chesapeake bay near where I live, that gets choked off thanks in part to the poultry industry pollution. And indeed there was a recent report linking BMAA exposure to ALS in Maryland. The ALS victims, all of whom ate Chesapeake Bay blue crabs every week, lived within a half mile of each other, which raised some eyebrows at the Hopkins ALS center. And so researchers tested a few crabs, and two out of three tested positive for BMAA, indicating that the neurotoxin is present in the aquatic food chain of the Chesapeake Bay and is a potential route for human exposure.

To bring the story full circle, things in Guam, where the link between BMAA consumption and ALS was first discovered, are looking up. The ALS epidemic there may have been triggered by their acquisition of guns. Now though, the epidemic appears to be over thanks to near-extinction of the fruit bats they were eating due to over-hunting. But while the rates decline in Guam, neurodegenerative diseases like ALS around the rest of the world are on the rise.

It's plausible that humans have been exposed to some level of BMAA throughout their evolutionary history, but the increase in algae blooms as a result of human activities is probably increasing this exposure. There is a general consensus that harmful algal blooms are increasing worldwide thanks in part to industrialized agriculture (as shown in my video Diet & Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis-ALS). More people means more sewage, fertilizer, and manure, which can mean more algae, which may mean more exposure to this neurotoxin, leading to a possible increased incidence of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS.

BMAA is considered a strong contender as the cause of, or at least a major contributor to the cause of both endemic and sporadic ALS and Alzheimer's disease, and possibly conferring risk for Parkinson's diseases as well. The ramifications of this discovery are enormous.

As researchers from Australia stated, "With substantial and ever growing evidence that BMAA does play a role in the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, the most important question is, what mode of activity does BMAA exert?" Huh? That's not the most important question we should be asking. The most important question is "How can we reduce our risk?"

We know that the presence of BMAA in aquatic food chains could be a significant human health hazard. There may even be a synergistic toxicity between mercury and BMAA, making certain fish even riskier. Until more is known about the possible link of BMAA to Alzheimer's and ALS, it may be prudent to limit exposure of BMAA in the human diet.

For other neurotoxins found in the food supply, see Amnesic Seafood Poisoning, Essential Tremor and Diet, Ciguatera Poisoning & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Other toxic substances can also build up in the aquatic food chain, for example:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Peter Miller / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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Foods Linked to ALS

Foods Linked to ALS.jpeg

As explored in my video ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease): Fishing for Answers, there may be a link in the consumption of the neurotoxin BMAA, produced by algae blooms, and increased risk of ALS. It now appears that BMAA could be found in high concentrations in aquatic animals in many areas of the world.

This could explain ALS clustering around lakes in New Hampshire--up to 25 times the expected rate of ALS with some families eating fish several times a week. Or in Wisconsin, where the most significant ALS risk factor was the past consumption of fish out of Lake Michigan. Or clustering in Finland's Lakeland district, or seafood eaters in France, or around the Baltic sea, building up particularly in fish, mussels and oysters.

When I think of algae blooms I think of the Chesapeake bay near where I live, that gets choked off thanks in part to the poultry industry pollution. And indeed there was a recent report linking BMAA exposure to ALS in Maryland. The ALS victims, all of whom ate Chesapeake Bay blue crabs every week, lived within a half mile of each other, which raised some eyebrows at the Hopkins ALS center. And so researchers tested a few crabs, and two out of three tested positive for BMAA, indicating that the neurotoxin is present in the aquatic food chain of the Chesapeake Bay and is a potential route for human exposure.

To bring the story full circle, things in Guam, where the link between BMAA consumption and ALS was first discovered, are looking up. The ALS epidemic there may have been triggered by their acquisition of guns. Now though, the epidemic appears to be over thanks to near-extinction of the fruit bats they were eating due to over-hunting. But while the rates decline in Guam, neurodegenerative diseases like ALS around the rest of the world are on the rise.

It's plausible that humans have been exposed to some level of BMAA throughout their evolutionary history, but the increase in algae blooms as a result of human activities is probably increasing this exposure. There is a general consensus that harmful algal blooms are increasing worldwide thanks in part to industrialized agriculture (as shown in my video Diet & Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis-ALS). More people means more sewage, fertilizer, and manure, which can mean more algae, which may mean more exposure to this neurotoxin, leading to a possible increased incidence of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS.

BMAA is considered a strong contender as the cause of, or at least a major contributor to the cause of both endemic and sporadic ALS and Alzheimer's disease, and possibly conferring risk for Parkinson's diseases as well. The ramifications of this discovery are enormous.

As researchers from Australia stated, "With substantial and ever growing evidence that BMAA does play a role in the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, the most important question is, what mode of activity does BMAA exert?" Huh? That's not the most important question we should be asking. The most important question is "How can we reduce our risk?"

We know that the presence of BMAA in aquatic food chains could be a significant human health hazard. There may even be a synergistic toxicity between mercury and BMAA, making certain fish even riskier. Until more is known about the possible link of BMAA to Alzheimer's and ALS, it may be prudent to limit exposure of BMAA in the human diet.

For other neurotoxins found in the food supply, see Amnesic Seafood Poisoning, Essential Tremor and Diet, Ciguatera Poisoning & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Other toxic substances can also build up in the aquatic food chain, for example:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Peter Miller / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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Children’s Supplements Found Contaminated With Pollutants

NF-May19 PCBs in Children's Fish Oil Supplements.jpeg

A number of case-control studies have found that giving kids cod liver oil supplements may increase their risk of asthma later in life. Case-control studies are done by asking about past behavior in cases (those with asthma) versus controls (those without asthma) to see if certain past behaviors are more likely among the disease group. The problem is that asking people to remember what they were doing years ago, when most people can't remember what they had for breakfast last week, is unreliable. When interpreting the results from case-control studies, we also can't rule out something called reverse causation. Maybe cod liver oil doesn't lead to asthma, but asthma led to the use of cod liver oil.

It would therefore be nice to see a cohort study. In a cohort study, researchers would take people without asthma and follow them over time to see if those taking cod liver oil are more likely to develop it. Because people without the disease and their diets are followed over time, cohort studies bypass the problems of recall bias and reverse causation.

In 2013, we finally got one such study. 17,000 people free of asthma were followed over 11 years. Researchers knew who was taking cod liver oil and who wasn't, and then sat back and watched to see who got asthma over the subsequent 11 years. The researchers found that cod liver oil intake was indeed significantly associated with the development of asthma. They thought it might be the excessive vitamin A in the cod liver oil that was causing the problem, but there are also a number of substances in fish oil we may not want our children exposed to.

Researchers from Philadelphia University, highlighted in my video PCBs in Children's Fish Oil Supplements, recently looked at 13 over-the-counter children's dietary supplements containing fish oil to assess potential exposure to PCBs, toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans. PCBs were detected in all products. Could we just stick to the supplements made from small, short-lived fish like anchovies instead of big predator fish like tuna to reduce the impact of biomagnification? Or use purified fish oils? No, the researchers found no significant difference in PCB levels whether the supplements were labeled as molecularly distilled or how high up the food chain the fish were.

The researchers concluded that while children's dietary supplements containing the long-chain omega-3's from fish oils may claim to benefit young consumers, "daily ingestion of these products may provide a vector for contaminant exposure that may off-set the positive health effects." What positive health benefits are they talking about?

Researchers publishing in the journal, Early Human Development, found that infants given DHA-fortified formula may have better development of their eyes and brains compared to infants getting non DHA-fortified formula. What was the source of the DHA? Not fish, but algae-derived DHA. In that way we can get the benefits of omega 3's without the contaminant risks. But of course, breast milk is the gold standard, significantly better than either of the formula fed infants. So the best source of omega-3's is mom.

It's bad enough when supplement manufacturers exploit adults when they're sick and vulnerable with pills that are often useless or worse, but taking advantage of our parental drive to do what's best for our children with contaminated products that may make them sick, makes me sick.

More on supplements in:

And speaking of which, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?

Also check out these videos on fish oil and DHA: Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale and Should We Take EPA and DHA Omega-3 For Our Heart?

What about omega 3's for our child's growing brain? See my video Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development

We can also be exposed to PCBs in food. See Food Sources of PCB Chemical Pollutants.

More on the polluted aquatic food chain in:

What can we do to lower the risk of childhood asthma and other allergic-type diseases? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Lars Plougmann / Flickr

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Should We Take Chlorella to Boost Natural Killer Cell Activity?

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Dr. Greger’s 2015 Live Year-in-Review Presentation

Food as Medicine

View my new live presentation here: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet

Every year I scour the world's scholarly literature on clinical nutrition, pulling together what I find to be the most interesting, practical, and groundbreaking science on how to best feed ourselves and our families. I start with the thousands of papers published annually on nutrition (27,000 this year--a new record!) and, thanks to a crack team of volunteers (and now staff!), I'm able to whittle those down (to a mere 8,000 this year). They are then downloaded, categorized, read, analyzed, and churned into the few hundred short videos. This allows me to post new videos and articles every day, year-round, to NutritionFacts.org. This certainly makes the site unique. There's no other science-based source for free daily updates on the latest discoveries in nutrition. The problem is that the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Currently I have more than a thousand videos covering 1,931 nutrition topics. Where do you even begin? Many have expressed their appreciation for the breadth of material, but asked that I try to distill it into a coherent summary of how best to use diet to prevent and treat chronic disease. I took this feedback to heart and in 2012 developed Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, which explored the role diet may play in preventing, arresting, and even reversing our top 15 killers. Not only did it rise to become one of the Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2012, it remains my single most viewed video to date, watched over a million times (NutritionFacts.org is now up to more than 1.5 million hits a month!).

In 2013 I developed the sequel, More Than an Apple a Day, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most common conditions. I presented it around the country and it ended up #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2013. Then in 2014 I premiered the sequel-sequel, From Table to Able, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most disabling diseases, landing #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2014.

Every year I wonder how I'm going to top the year before. Knowing how popular these live presentations can be and hearing all the stories from folks about what a powerful impact they can have on people's lives, I put my all into this new 2015 one. I spent more time putting together this presentation than any other in my life. It took me an entire month, and when you see it I think you'll appreciate why.

This year, I'm honored to bring you Food as Medicine, in which I go through our most dreaded diseases--but that's not even the best part! I'm really proud of what I put together for the ending. I spend the last 20 minutes or so (starting at 56:22) going through a thought experiment that I'm hoping everyone will find compelling. I think it may be my best presentation ever. You be the judge.

You can watch it at no cost online, but it is also available on DVD through my website or on Amazon. If you want to share copies with others, I have a five for $40 special (enter coupon code 5FOR40FAM). All proceeds from the sales of all my books, DVDs, downloads, and presentations go to the 501c3 nonprofit charity that keeps NutritionFacts.org free for all, for all time. If you want to support this initiative to educate millions about eradicating dietary diseases, please consider making a donation.

After you've watched the new presentation, make sure you're subscribed to get my video updates daily, weekly, or monthly to stay on top of all the latest.

-Michael Greger

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How Seafood Can Impact Brain Development

NF-Oct30 How Seafood Can Impact Brain Development.jpg

In my video Fish Intake Associated With Brain Shrinkage, I discussed evidence suggesting that mercury exposure through fish intake during pregnancy may decrease the size of the newborn's brain. However, just because fish-eating mothers may give birth to children with smaller brains doesn't necessarily mean their children will grow up with neurological defects. In the video, Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development, you can see real-time functional MRI scans of teens whose moms ate a lot of seafood when pregnant. Because these kinds of scans can measure brain activity, as opposed to just brain size, we can more accurately determine if exposure to mercury and PCBs affected these kids. You can see an MRI of what a normal brain looks like when you flash a light in someone's eyes, but the MRI is significantly different for the mercury and PCB exposed brains, suggesting toxicant related damage to the visual centers in brain. (For more on the effect of mercury on teens, see Nerves of Mercury). Fish consumption may also increase the risk of our children being born with epilepsy.

So does maternal fish consumption have an effect on how smart our kids turn out? The DHA in fish--a long chain omega 3 fatty acid--is good for brain development, but mercury is bad for brain development. So a group of researchers looked at 33 different fish species to see what the net effect of these compounds would have on children's IQ. For most fish species, they found that "the adverse effect of mercury on the IQ scores of children exceeded the beneficial effects of DHA." In fact, so much brainpower may be lost from fish consumption that the United States may actually lose $5 billion in economic productivity every year.

For example, if pregnant women ate tuna every day, the DHA would add a few IQ points. But the mercury in that very same tuna would cause so much brain damage that the overall effect of eating tuna while pregnant would be negative, wiping out an average of eight IQ points. The only two fish that were more brain-damaging than tuna were pike and swordfish.

At the other end of the spectrum, the brain boosting effect of DHA may trump the brain damaging effects of mercury in salmon by a little less than one IQ point. Unfortunately, IQ only takes into consideration the cognitive damage caused by mercury, not the adverse effects on motor function and attention and behavior deficits. We think that attention span may be particularly vulnerable to developmental mercury exposure, probably due to damage to the frontal lobes of the brain.

And the IQ study didn't take into account the relatively high levels of PCBs in salmon and the accompanying concerns about cancer risk. Sustainability concerns are another wrinkle, as farm-raised salmon are considered a "fish to avoid." While king mackerel is considered a best choice for sustainability, the mercury levels are so high as to warrant avoiding consumption--exceeding both the FDA and EPA action levels for mercury contamination. But why risk any loss in intelligence at all when pregnant women can get all the DHA they want from microalgae supplements without any of the contaminants? We can then get the brain boost without the brain damage.

More on PCBs in:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Images thanks to Dion van Huyssteen / Flickr

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Toxin Contamination of Spirulina Supplements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toxin Contamination of Spirulina Supplements

On his first day of life, an infant was hospitalized with seizures. Researchers concluded that his mother’s daily spirulina use starting in the fourth month of pregnancy was likely to blame. I’ve talked previously about the liver and nerve toxins present in many spirulina supplements, but the supplement companies swear up and down that spirulina doesn’t produce those toxins, and they may be right (See my video Infant Seizures Linked to Mother's Spirulina Use).

But if spirulina doesn’t produce toxins, how is it that toxins are found in spirulina supplements on store shelves? It appears to be contamination of spirulina with toxin-producing blue-green algae.

For example, if we look at the new U.S. Pharmacopeia safety evaluation of spirulina, researchers conclude that “the available evidence does not indicate a serious risk to health or other public health concern when spirulina is properly identified, formulated, and used.” Ah, but that’s the catch. Spirulina is often grown and collected in open lakes and we have no idea what other algae are going to crop up.

The researchers reported a range of adverse reactions of people taking spirulina products, ­­but they attribute these issues to non-spirulina algae toxin contaminants within spirulina supplements. So unless there’s third-party testing of each batch (which no company could presumably afford to do), I continue to encourage people to avoid spirulina (and blue-green algae) products.

If one still wants something green to sprinkle on their popcorn, I’d recommend chlorella instead (Is Chlorella Good for You?).

I’ve previously addressed green powders in:

Pregnancy is a very vulnerable time and requires an even higher level of dietary vigilance:

Some supplements may be risky for everyone though. See, for example Safety of Noni and Mangosteen Juice.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: SurFeRGirl30 / Flickr

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Should Carrageenan Be Avoided?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Carrageenan Be Avoided?

Six hundred years ago, people living along the coast of Carragheen County Ireland started using a red algae, which came to be known as Irish moss, to make a jellied dessert. This moss is now the source of carrageenan, a fat substitute (perhaps most famously used in the failed McLean Deluxe) and a food additive used as a thickener in dairy and nondairy products.

In 2008 I raised a concern about carrageenan. We had known for decades that it had harmful effects on laboratory animals, but in 2008 the first study on human cells to “suggest that carrageenan exposure may have a role in development of human intestinal pathology” was conducted. This was all five years ago, though. What’s the update? (See Is Carrageenan Safe?)

After the activation of inflammatory pathways was demonstrated in actual human colon tissue samples, Europe pulled it from infant formula, concerned that infants might be getting too much at such a vulnerable age. The latest suggests carrageenan consumption could possibly lead to a leaky gut by disrupting the integrity of the tight junctions that form around the cells lining our intestine—the barrier between our bloodstream and the outside world. This was just an in vitro study, though, done in a Petri dish. We still don’t know what effects, if any, occur in whole human beings. Some researchers advise consumers to select food products without carrageenan, accusing the FDA of “ignoring [its] harmful potential.”

Personally, after having reviewed the available evidence, I continue to view carrageenan the way I view acrylamide, another potential, but unproven hazard. Acrylamide is a chemical formed by cooking carbohydrates at high temperatures. So should we avoid eating such foods, like the EPA suggests? Well, “Food safety concerns must also be considered [in the context of dietary] consequences.” Where’s it found the most? Foods that are already unhealthy.

So sure, we can use our concern about the probable carcinogen,acrylamide as yet another reason to avoid potato chips and French fries, but until we know more I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods like whole grain bread. (For more on Acrylamide, see my video Acrylamide in French Fries).

Similarly, I’d use potential concerns about carrageenan as additional motivation to avoid unhealthy foods like cream cheese, but I wouldn’t cut out healthful foods until we know more. I would, however, suggest that those with inflammatory bowel syndrome or other gastrointestinal problems try cutting out carrageenan at least temporarily to see if symptoms improve.

Titanium dioxide is another additive used in nondairy substitutes. See Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease for the latest on its safety.

Other videos on food additives include:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image credit: cafemama / Flickr

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