Peach Pie-lets

These single-serving peach pies (“pie-lets”) are delicious and very cute, ideal for a special end to any meal. I don’t use butter, shortening, sugar, salt, or white flour in my recipes, so I’m using a cookie crust, which I like even better than traditional crust. Print Peach Pie-lets Prep time:  30 mins Cook time:  25 mins...

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Apple Crisp

This apple crisp is a perfect “anytime” dessert. I like to use Granny Smith apples because they soften nicely but still retain their shape. However, others may be used as well, such as a Gala, Fuji, or Pink Lady. Using a mix of apples is also fun. Print Apple Crisp Prep time:  30 mins Cook time:  30 mins...

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Granola

Finding a granola that doesn’t contain oil is nearly impossible. This is another food that can be perfectly delicious (and still crunchy) without added oil. Making your own homemade granola is very easy, and you don’t even need a food dehydrator. Print Granola Prep time:  15 mins Cook time:  60 mins Total time:  1 hour...

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The Top Three DNA Protecting Spices

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In my video Which Spices Fight Inflammation? I profile a landmark study that compared the ability of different spices to suppress inflammation. The study also compared the spices' ability to protect DNA. Cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric were able to significantly stifle the inflammatory response, but can they also protect DNA?

If a tissue sample is taken from a random person, about 7% of their cells may show evidence of DNA damage, actual breaks in the strands of their DNA. If we then blast those cells with free radicals, we can bring that number up to 10%. But if the person has been eating ginger for a week, DNA damage drops to just 8%. In the video, Spicing Up DNA Protection, you can see a comparison of DNA damage in cells from people eating different spices. Those who hadn't been eating any herbs or spices were vulnerable to DNA damage from oxidative stress. But just including ginger in our diet may cut that damage by 25%--the same with rosemary.

Turmeric is even more powerful--DNA damage was cut in half. And this was not just mixing turmeric with cells in some petri dish: This is comparing what happens when you expose the cells of spice eaters versus the cells of non-spice eaters to free radicals and count the DNA fracture rates.

And not only did the turmeric work significantly better, but it did so at a significantly smaller dose. One and a third teaspoons a day of ginger or rosemary was compared to practically just a pinch of turmeric (about an eighth of a teaspoon a day)--that's how powerful the stuff is. I encourage everyone to cook with this wonderful spice. It tastes great and may protect every cell in our body, with or without the added stress. Counting the DNA breaks in people's cells before and after a week of spices without the free radical blast revealed no significant intrinsic protection in the ginger or rosemary groups. However, the turmeric still appeared to reduce DNA damage by half.

This may be because curcumin is not just an antioxidant--it also boosts the activity of the body's own antioxidant enzymes. Catalase is one of the most active enzymes in the body: each one can detoxify millions of free radicals per second. If we consume the equivalent of about three quarters of a teaspoon of turmeric a day, the activity of this enzyme in our bloodstream gets boosted by 75%!

I suggest cooking with it rather than, for example, just throwing it in a smoothie. Why? Because this effect was found specifically for heat-treated turmeric. In practice, many herbs and spices are only consumed after cooking, so the researchers tested turmeric and oregano in both raw and cooked forms. In terms of DNA damage, the results from raw turmeric did not reach statistical significance. However, the opposite was found for its anti-inflammatory effects. So we might want to eat it both ways.

"Practical recommendations for obtaining curcumin in the diet might be to add turmeric to sweet dishes containing cinnamon and ginger." I add it to my pumpkin pie smoothies (a can of pumpkin, frozen cranberries, pitted dates, pumpkin pie spice and some nondairy milk). We can also cook with curry powder or turmeric itself. The researchers suggest something called "turmeric milk," which is a traditional Indian elixir made with milk, turmeric powder, and sugar. I'd suggest substituting a healthier sweetener and a healthier milk. Soy milk, for example, might have a double benefit. If you're taking turmeric to combat inflammation, osteoarthritis sufferers randomized to soy protein ended up with significantly improved joint range of motion compared to dairy protein.

For some other extraordinary benefits of spices, see:

There are a few herb and spice caveats. See, for example:

Too much turmeric may also not be a good idea for those at risk for kidney stones (See Oxalates in Cinnamon).

Feel free to check out my Healthy Pumpkin Pie recipe for another way to spice up your diet.

-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.

Image Credit: Todd Huffman / Flickr

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The Top Four Anti-Inflammatory Spices

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Once in a while I come across a study that's so juicy I have to do a whole video about it (Which Spices Fight Inflammation?).

A group of researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville and Pennsylvania State set up a brilliant experiment. We've known that ounce per ounce, herbs and spices have some of the greatest antioxidant activities known. But that's only ever been tested in a test tube. Before we can ask if an herb or spice has real health benefits, it is first necessary to determine whether it is bioavailable -- whether the active ingredients are even absorbed. This had never been done, until now.

The researchers could have taken the easy route and just measured the change in antioxidant level in one's bloodstream before and after consumption, but the assumption that the appearance of antioxidant activity in the blood is an indication of bioavailability has a weakness. Maybe more gets absorbed than we think but doesn't show up on antioxidant tests because it gets bound up to proteins or cells. So the researchers attempted to measure physiological changes in the blood. They were interested in whether absorbed compounds would be able to protect white blood cells from an oxidative or inflammatory injury--whether herb and spice consumption would protect the strands of our DNA from breaking when attacked by free radicals. I cover the DNA findings in my video, Spicing Up DNA Protection. They also wondered if the consumption might alter cellular inflammatory responses in the presence of a physiologically relevant inflammatory insult. What does this all mean?

The researchers took a bunch of people and had each of them eat different types of spices for a week. There were many truly unique things about this study, but one was that the quantity of spices that study subjects consumed was based on the usual levels of consumption in actual food. For example, the oregano group was given a half teaspoon a day--a practical quantity that people might actually eat once in a while. At the end of the week, they drew blood from the dozen or so people they had adding, for example, black pepper to their diets that week, and compared the effects of their blood to the effects of the blood of the dozen subjects on cayenne, or cinnamon, or cloves, or cumin. They had about ten different groups of people eating about ten different spices. Then they dripped their plasma (the liquid fraction of their blood) onto human white blood cells in a Petri dish that had been exposed to an inflammatory insult. The researchers wanted to pick something really inflammatory, so they chose oxidized cholesterol (which is what we'd get in our bloodstream after eating something like fried chicken. If oxidized cholesterol is a new concept for you, please check out its role in heart disease progression in my video Arterial Acne). So they jabbed the white blood cells with oxidized cholesterol and measured how much tumor necrosis factor (TNF) they produced in response.

TNF is a powerful inflammatory cytokine, infamous for the role it plays in autoimmune attacks like inflammatory bowel disease. Compared to the blood of those who ate no spices for a week, black pepper was unable to significantly dampen the inflammatory response. What about any of the other spices? The following significantly stifled the inflammatory response:

  • cloves
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • turmeric

And remember, they weren't dripping the spices themselves on these human white blood cells, but the blood of those who ate the spices. So the results represents what might happen when cells in our body are exposed to the levels of spices that circulate in our bloodstream after normal daily consumption--not megadoses in some pill. Just the amount that makes our spaghetti sauce, pumpkin pie, or curry sauce taste good.

There are drugs that can do the same thing. Tumor necrosis factors are such major mediators of inflammation and inflammation-related diseases that there are TNF-blocking drugs on the market for the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis, which collectively rake in more than $20 billion a year ($15,000-$20,000 per person per year). At that price, the side effects better be hugs and rainbows. But no, the drugs carry a so-called "black box warning" because they can cause things like cancer and heart failure. If only there was a cheaper, safer solution.

The spice curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, is substantially cheaper and safer, but does it work outside of a test tube? There's evidence that it may help in all of the diseases for which TNF blockers are currently being used. So with health-care costs and safety being such major issues, this golden spice turmeric may help provide the solution.

See Antioxidants in a Pinch and How to Reach the Antioxidant RDA to see the extent to which even small amounts of spices can affect one's antioxidant intake.

Another elegant series of "ex vivo" experiments exploring the cancer fighting power of lifestyle changes can be seen in the videos starting with Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay.

Mushrooms (Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation), nuts (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell), and purple potatoes (Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Purple Potatoes) may also reduce inflammation (along with plant foods in general, see Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants and Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods). In fact so well that plant-based diets can be used to treat inflammatory conditions. See, for example, Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease, Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Potassium and Autoimmune Disease. Animal products on the other hand may increase inflammation through a variety of mechanisms, including endotoxins (How Does Meat Cause Inflammation?), arachidonic acid (Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation), and Neu5Gc (The Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5Gc).

-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.

Image Credit: jo-marshall (was Jo-h) / Flickr

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Can We Fight the Blues With Greens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why does frequent consumption of vegetables appear to cut one’s odds of depression by more than half? And "frequent" was defined as eating vegetables not 3 or more times a day, but just 3 or more times a week.

A 2012 study was found that eliminating animal products improved mood within two weeks. The researchers blamed arachidonic acid, found primarily in chicken and eggs, which might adversely impact mental health via a cascade of brain inflammation. More on this inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid in:

But better moods on plant-based diets could also be from the good stuff in plants—a class of phytonutrients that cross the blood brain barrier into our heads. A recent review in the journal, Nutritional Neuroscience, suggests that eating lots of fruits and vegetables “may present a noninvasive natural and inexpensive therapeutic means to support a healthy brain.” But how?

To understand the latest research, we need to understand the underlying biology of depression—the so-called monoamine theory of depression. It's the idea that depression may arise out of a chemical imbalance in the brain. In my video Fighting the Blues with Greens? I run through an oversimplified version.

One of the ways the billions of nerves in our brain communicate with one another is through chemical signals called neurotransmitters. Two nerve cells don’t actually touch—there’s a physical gap between them. To bridge that gap, when one nerve wants to tap the other on the shoulder it releases chemicals into that gap, including three monoamines: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters then float over to the other nerve to get its attention. The first nerve then sucks them back in to be reused the next time it wants to talk. It’s also constantly manufacturing more monoamines, and an enzyme, monoamine oxidase, is constantly chewing them up to maintain just the right amount.

The way cocaine works is by acting as a monoamine re-uptake inhibitor. It blocks the first nerve from sucking back up these three chemicals and so there’s a constant tapping on the shoulder—constant signaling—to the next cell. Amphetamines work in the same way but also increase the release of monoamines. Ecstasy works like speed, but just causes comparatively more serotonin release.

After awhile, the next nerve may say “enough already!” and down-regulate its receptors to turn down the volume. It puts in earplugs. So we need more and more of the drug to get the same effect, and then when we’re not on the drug we may feel crappy because normal volume transmission just isn’t getting through.

Antidepressants are thought to work along similar mechanisms. People who are depressed appear to have elevated levels of monoamine oxidase in their brain. That’s the enzyme that breaks down those neurotransmitters. In the video mentioned previously, I show the levels of monoamine oxidase in the brains of depressed individuals versus healthy individuals. If the levels of our neurotransmitter-eating enzyme is elevated, then our levels of neurotransmitters drops, and we become depressed (or so the theory goes).

So a number of different classes of drugs have been developed. The tricyclic antidepressants, named because they have three rings like a tricycle, appear to block norepinephrine and dopamine re-uptake, and so even though our enzymes may be eating these up at an accelerated rate, what gets released sticks around longer. Then there were the SSRIs (the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like Prozac. Now we know what that means—they just block the re-uptake of serotonin. Then there are drugs that just block the re-uptake of norepinephrine, or block dopamine re-uptake, or a combination. But if the problem is too high levels of monoamine oxidase, why not just block the enzyme? Make a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. They did, but monoamine oxidase inhibitors are considered drugs of last resort because of serious side effects—not the least of which is the dreaded “cheese effect,” where eating certain foods while on the drug can have potentially fatal consequences. If only there was a way to dampen the activity of this enzyme without the whole bleed-into-our-brain-and-die thing.

Now we can finally talk about the latest theory as to why fruits and vegetables may improve our mood. There are inhibitors of the depression-associated enzyme in various plants. There are phytonutrients in spices, such as clove, oregano, cinnamon, and nutmeg, that inhibit monoamine oxidase, but people don’t eat enough spices to get enough into the brain. A certain dark green leafy has a lot, but its name is tobacco, which may actually be one of the reasons cigarettes make smokers feel so good. OK, but what if we don’t want brain bleeds or lung cancer? Well, there is a phytonutrient found in apples, berries, grapes, kale, onions, and green tea that may indeed affect our brain biology enough to improve our mood, which may help explain why those eating plant-based diets tend to have superior mental health.

For other natural treatments for mental illness, check out:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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: liz west / Flickr

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Pumpkin Pie

It’s time for some good ol’ pumpkin pie! Serve this at any holiday table, and people will ask for more. The filling is sweetened with dates and thickened with a bit of oat flour. The pecan-date crust is like a sweet, crumbly cookie. Grab a fork and dig in! Pecan-Date Pie Crust See below for […]

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Cinnamon for Diabetes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does Cinnamon Help Lower Blood Sugars?

The use of cinnamon to help treat diabetes remains controversial. We know that cinnamon is so good at controlling one’s blood sugar that you can cheat on a diabetes test by consuming two teaspoons of cinnamon the night before your glucose tolerance test. That’s where they make you drink some sugar water to see how well your body can keep your blood sugar levels under control, and if you eat those two teaspoons right when the test starts or 12 hours before you can significantly blunt the spike. Even a teaspoon a day appears to make a significant difference. A review of the best studies done to date found that the intake of cinnamon by type 2 diabetics or prediabetics does lower their blood glucose significantly. So what’s the controversy?

Well, as I described in my video The Safer Cinnamon, cassia cinnamon, also known as Chinese cinnamon (probably what you’re getting at the store if it just says “cinnamon”) contains a compound called coumarin which may be toxic to the liver at high doses. Originally the concern was mainly for kids during Christmas-time where they might get an above average exposure, but more recently some researchers suggest that kids just sprinkling some cassia cinnamon on their oatmeal a few times a week might exceed the recommended safety limit.

As you can see in my 5-min video Update on Cinnamon for Blood Sugar Control just a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon a few times a week may be too much for little kids, and if they’re eating that cinnamon-sprinkled oatmeal more like every day they can bump up against the limit for adults. So a teaspoon a day of cassia cinnamon might be too much for anyone, but can’t we just switch from cassia cinnamon to Ceylon cinnamon and get the benefits without the potential risks? Without the risks, yes, but we’re no longer so sure about the benefits.

Nearly all of the studies showing blood sugar benefits of cinnamon have been done on cassia. We’ve just assumed that the same would apply for the safer cinnamon, Ceylon, but only recently was it put to the test. That nice blunting of blood sugars we saw in response to cassia cinnamon disappeared when the researchers tried Ceylon cinnamon instead.  In fact, it may actually be the potentially toxic coumarin that was the active ingredient in the cassia cinnamon all along. Thus, sidestepping the toxin by switching may sidestep the benefit.

So should we just give up on going out of our way to add cinnamon to our diet? No, I think it’s still a good idea to shoot for a teaspoon a day of Ceylon cinnamon since there are a bunch of other benefits linked to cinnamon besides blood sugar control, not the least of which is it’s potent antioxidant content (as I show in my one of my favorite videos Antioxidants in a Pinch). In my Superfood Bargains video, where I rank foods in terms of antioxidants per unit cost, cinnamon comes out as one of the cheapest food sources of antioxidants, beating out cloves and coming in just under purple cabbage. What about the Oxalates in Cinnamon? Not a problem, but the oxalates in too much turmeric may be a concern. As you’re making a Healthy Pumpkin Pie with all that cinnamon, don’t accidentally add too much nutmeg, though, the subject of my follow-up video Don’t Eat Too Much Nutmeg.

Ultimately cinnamon can no longer be considered a safe and effective treatment for diabetes. Either you’re using cassia cinnamon, and it’s effective, but may not be safe, or you’re using Ceylon cinnamon, which is safe, but does not appear effective. Note that even the cassia cinnamon only brought down blood sugars modestly (in other words, only as good as the leading diabetes drug in the world, metformin, sold as Glucophage). So yes, it may work as good as the leading drug, but that’s not saying much. The best way to treat diabetes is to attempt to cure it completely, reversing diabetes with a healthy diet.  Books I would recommend (in order of publication) are Defeating DiabetesDr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, and The End of Diabetes.

I talk more about the potential potency of plants in general in Power Plants and more about spices in particular in videos such as:

Amla Versus Diabetes explores the use of Indian gooseberries as a way to help control blood sugar, though, again, the best way to deal with diabetes is to prevent and treat it with a healthy diet.

-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: CINNAMON VOGUE / Flickr

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