Are Sugar Pills Better than Antidepressant Drugs?

Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work.jpg

We've learned that exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression (in my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression). But how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place?

A recent meta-analysis sparked huge scientific and public controversy by stating that the placebo effect can explain the apparent clinical benefits of antidepressants. But aren't there thousands of clinical trials providing compelling evidence for antidepressant effectiveness? If a meta-analysis compiles together all the best published research, how could it say they don't work much better than sugar pills?

The key word is "published."

What if a drug company decided only to publish studies that showed a positive effect, but quietly shelved and concealed any studies showing the drug didn't work? If you didn't know any better, you'd look at the published medical literature and think "Wow, this drug is great." And what if all the drug companies did that? To find out if this was the case, researchers applied to the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, and what they found was shocking.

According to the published literature, the results of nearly all the trials of antidepressants were positive, meaning they worked. In contrast, FDA analysis of the trial data showed only roughly half of the trials had positive results. In other words, about half the studies showed the drugs didn't work. Thus, when published and unpublished data are combined, they fail to show a clinically significant advantage for antidepressant medication over a sugar pill. Not publishing negative results undermines evidence-based medicine and puts millions of patients at risk for using ineffective or unsafe drugs, and this was the case with these antidepressant drugs.

These revelations hit first in 2008. Prozac, Serzone, Paxil and Effexor worked, but so did sugar pills, and the difference between the drug and placebo was small. That was 2008. Where were we by 2014? Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveals that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect. And what's even worse, Freedom of Information Act documents show the FDA knew about it but made an explicit decision to keep this information from the public and from prescribing physicians.

How could drug companies get away with this?

The pharmaceutical industry is considered the most profitable and politically influential industry in the United States, and mental illness can be thought of as the drug industry's golden goose: incurable, common, long term and involving multiple medications. Antidepressant medications are prescribed to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. It's a multi-billion dollar market.

To summarize, there is a strong therapeutic response to antidepressant medication; it's just that the response to placebo is almost as strong. Indeed, antidepressants offer substantial benefits to millions of people suffering from depression, and to cast them as ineffective is inaccurate. Just because they may not work better than fake pills doesn't mean they don't work. It's like homeopathy--just because it doesn't work better than the sugar pills, doesn't mean that homeopathy doesn't work. The placebo effect is real and powerful.

In one psychopharmacology journal, a psychiatrist funded by the Prozac company defends the drugs stating, "A key issue is disregarded by the naysaying critics. If the patient is benefiting from antidepressant treatment does it matter whether this is being achieved via drug or placebo effects?"

Of course it matters!

Among the side effects of antidepressants are: sexual dysfunction in up to three quarters of people, long-term weight gain, insomnia, nausea and diarrhea. About one in five show withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. And perhaps more tragically, the drugs may make people more likely to become depressed in the future. Let me say that again: People are more likely to become depressed after treatment by antidepressants than after treatment by other means - including placebo.

So if doctors are willing to give patients placebo-equivalent treatments, maybe it'd be better for them to just lie to patients and give them actual sugar pills. Yes, that involves deception, but isn't that preferable than deception with a side of side effects? See more on this in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

If different treatments are equally effective, then choice should be based on risk and harm, and of all of the available treatments, antidepressant drugs may be among the riskiest and most harmful. If they are to be used at all, it should be as a last resort, when depression is extremely severe and all other treatment alternatives have been tried and failed.

Antidepressants may not work better than placebo for mild and moderate depression, but for very severe depression, the drugs do beat out sugar pills. But that's just a small fraction of the people taking these drugs. That means that the vast majority of depressed patients--as many as nine out of ten--are being prescribed medications that have negligible benefits to them.

Too many doctors quickly decide upon a depression diagnosis without necessarily listening to what the patient has to say and end up putting them on antidepressants without considering alternatives. And fortunately, there are effective alternatives. Physical exercise, for example can have lasting effects, and if that turns out to also be a placebo effect, it is at least a placebo with an enviable list of side effects. Whereas side effects of antidepressants include things like sexual dysfunction and insomnia, side effects of exercise include enhanced libido, better sleep, decreased body fat, improved muscle tone and a longer life.


There are other ways meta-analyses can be misleading. See The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public and The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

More on the ethical challenges facing doctors and whether or not to prescribe sugar pills in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

I've used the Freedom of Information Act myself to get access to behind the scenes industry shenanigans. See, for example, what I found out about the egg industry in Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe? and Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims.

This isn't the only case of the medical profession overselling the benefits of drugs. See How Smoking in 1956 is Like Eating in 2016, The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs and Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure (though if you're worried about your mood they might make you even more depressed!)

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: GraphicStock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Are Sugar Pills Better than Antidepressant Drugs?

Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work.jpg

We've learned that exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression (in my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression). But how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place?

A recent meta-analysis sparked huge scientific and public controversy by stating that the placebo effect can explain the apparent clinical benefits of antidepressants. But aren't there thousands of clinical trials providing compelling evidence for antidepressant effectiveness? If a meta-analysis compiles together all the best published research, how could it say they don't work much better than sugar pills?

The key word is "published."

What if a drug company decided only to publish studies that showed a positive effect, but quietly shelved and concealed any studies showing the drug didn't work? If you didn't know any better, you'd look at the published medical literature and think "Wow, this drug is great." And what if all the drug companies did that? To find out if this was the case, researchers applied to the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, and what they found was shocking.

According to the published literature, the results of nearly all the trials of antidepressants were positive, meaning they worked. In contrast, FDA analysis of the trial data showed only roughly half of the trials had positive results. In other words, about half the studies showed the drugs didn't work. Thus, when published and unpublished data are combined, they fail to show a clinically significant advantage for antidepressant medication over a sugar pill. Not publishing negative results undermines evidence-based medicine and puts millions of patients at risk for using ineffective or unsafe drugs, and this was the case with these antidepressant drugs.

These revelations hit first in 2008. Prozac, Serzone, Paxil and Effexor worked, but so did sugar pills, and the difference between the drug and placebo was small. That was 2008. Where were we by 2014? Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveals that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect. And what's even worse, Freedom of Information Act documents show the FDA knew about it but made an explicit decision to keep this information from the public and from prescribing physicians.

How could drug companies get away with this?

The pharmaceutical industry is considered the most profitable and politically influential industry in the United States, and mental illness can be thought of as the drug industry's golden goose: incurable, common, long term and involving multiple medications. Antidepressant medications are prescribed to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. It's a multi-billion dollar market.

To summarize, there is a strong therapeutic response to antidepressant medication; it's just that the response to placebo is almost as strong. Indeed, antidepressants offer substantial benefits to millions of people suffering from depression, and to cast them as ineffective is inaccurate. Just because they may not work better than fake pills doesn't mean they don't work. It's like homeopathy--just because it doesn't work better than the sugar pills, doesn't mean that homeopathy doesn't work. The placebo effect is real and powerful.

In one psychopharmacology journal, a psychiatrist funded by the Prozac company defends the drugs stating, "A key issue is disregarded by the naysaying critics. If the patient is benefiting from antidepressant treatment does it matter whether this is being achieved via drug or placebo effects?"

Of course it matters!

Among the side effects of antidepressants are: sexual dysfunction in up to three quarters of people, long-term weight gain, insomnia, nausea and diarrhea. About one in five show withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. And perhaps more tragically, the drugs may make people more likely to become depressed in the future. Let me say that again: People are more likely to become depressed after treatment by antidepressants than after treatment by other means - including placebo.

So if doctors are willing to give patients placebo-equivalent treatments, maybe it'd be better for them to just lie to patients and give them actual sugar pills. Yes, that involves deception, but isn't that preferable than deception with a side of side effects? See more on this in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

If different treatments are equally effective, then choice should be based on risk and harm, and of all of the available treatments, antidepressant drugs may be among the riskiest and most harmful. If they are to be used at all, it should be as a last resort, when depression is extremely severe and all other treatment alternatives have been tried and failed.

Antidepressants may not work better than placebo for mild and moderate depression, but for very severe depression, the drugs do beat out sugar pills. But that's just a small fraction of the people taking these drugs. That means that the vast majority of depressed patients--as many as nine out of ten--are being prescribed medications that have negligible benefits to them.

Too many doctors quickly decide upon a depression diagnosis without necessarily listening to what the patient has to say and end up putting them on antidepressants without considering alternatives. And fortunately, there are effective alternatives. Physical exercise, for example can have lasting effects, and if that turns out to also be a placebo effect, it is at least a placebo with an enviable list of side effects. Whereas side effects of antidepressants include things like sexual dysfunction and insomnia, side effects of exercise include enhanced libido, better sleep, decreased body fat, improved muscle tone and a longer life.


There are other ways meta-analyses can be misleading. See The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public and The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

More on the ethical challenges facing doctors and whether or not to prescribe sugar pills in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

I've used the Freedom of Information Act myself to get access to behind the scenes industry shenanigans. See, for example, what I found out about the egg industry in Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe? and Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims.

This isn't the only case of the medical profession overselling the benefits of drugs. See How Smoking in 1956 is Like Eating in 2016, The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs and Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure (though if you're worried about your mood they might make you even more depressed!)

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: GraphicStock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Two Most Active Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet

Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life.jpg

Olives and nuts are plant foods, and as such, are packed with antioxidants, raising the antioxidant level of our bloodstream resulting in lower fat oxidation and free radical DNA damage, but what's happening inside people's arteries?

Researchers measured the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the neck arteries going to the brain in folks who for years were eating added nuts, added extra virgin olive oil or neither to their daily diets. In the control group, the plaque got worse, which is what happens when one continues to eat an artery-clogging diet, but there were no significant changes in the added extra virgin olive oil group, and the plaque in the added nut group appeared to get better. The nuts appeared to induce a regression of the disease, or at least a significant delay in the progression. The nut group was still suffering strokes, but only half as many, perhaps because the reduction in plaque height within the arteries on extra nuts was indicating a stabilization of the plaque, rendering them less likely to rupture. You can see these results in my video Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life?

Adding nuts to our diet may also improve endothelial function, boosting the ability of our arteries to dilate naturally by about 30 percent. If you look at the baseline adherence to Mediterranean diet principles and control for things like smoking and exercise, there were only two factors significantly associated with reduced heart attack and stroke risk: more vegetables and more nuts. No significant association with the olive oil, wine, fish or cutting back on soda and cookies. Among the individual components, only increased consumption of vegetables and nuts were related to reduced cardiovascular events.

On the one hand, cutting stroke risk in half just by eating a handful of nuts a day is pretty amazing, but those in the added nut group didn't appear to live any longer overall. This is in contrast to other studies that suggested that frequent nut consumption may extend life. For example, the Harvard health professionals studies, involving a whopping three million person-years of follow-up over decades, found nut consumption associated with fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and most importantly fewer deaths overall. This was confirmed by all the other big major prospective studies in a recent review.

So what's going on here with the study showing no longevity benefit from nuts? Did they just not wait long enough? Just because people were randomized to the nut group didn't mean they actually ate more nuts, and those randomized to the other groups didn't necessarily stay away.

If you re-analyze the data comparing the death rates of those who actually ate more nuts to those who actually didn't, nut consumption was indeed associated with significantly reduced risk of death. If you do the same kind of post hoc analysis with olive oil, even with the extra virgin, there is no benefit in terms of living longer. This is consistent with how Ancel Keys, the so-called Father of the Mediterranean diet, viewed olive oil. He thought of its benefit more as a way of just replacing animal fats; anything to get people to eat less lard and butter.

What is the best kind of nut? The greatest benefits were attributed to walnuts, particularly for preventing cancer deaths. Those eating more than three servings of walnuts a week appeared to cut their risk of dying from cancer in half.

Now it's just a matter of communicating the research to the public. All the major cancer groups emphasize a more plant-based diet, remarkably consistent with the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy eating. The far-reaching positive effects of a plant-based diet--including walnuts--may be the most critical message for the public.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

Think the effects of adding a few nuts to one's daily diet are too good to believe? Check out my video Four Nuts Once a Month. For more on Walnuts and Artery Function check out the video, and for more on nuts and cancer prevention, see Which Nut Fights Cancer Better?

Nuts May Help Prevent Death and so may beans; see Increased Lifespan from Beans. What about Fruits and Longevity: How Many Minutes per Mouthful?

More on protecting ourselves from "brain attacks" in Preventing Strokes with Diet.

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: garlandcannon / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Two Most Active Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet

Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life.jpg

Olives and nuts are plant foods, and as such, are packed with antioxidants, raising the antioxidant level of our bloodstream resulting in lower fat oxidation and free radical DNA damage, but what's happening inside people's arteries?

Researchers measured the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the neck arteries going to the brain in folks who for years were eating added nuts, added extra virgin olive oil or neither to their daily diets. In the control group, the plaque got worse, which is what happens when one continues to eat an artery-clogging diet, but there were no significant changes in the added extra virgin olive oil group, and the plaque in the added nut group appeared to get better. The nuts appeared to induce a regression of the disease, or at least a significant delay in the progression. The nut group was still suffering strokes, but only half as many, perhaps because the reduction in plaque height within the arteries on extra nuts was indicating a stabilization of the plaque, rendering them less likely to rupture. You can see these results in my video Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life?

Adding nuts to our diet may also improve endothelial function, boosting the ability of our arteries to dilate naturally by about 30 percent. If you look at the baseline adherence to Mediterranean diet principles and control for things like smoking and exercise, there were only two factors significantly associated with reduced heart attack and stroke risk: more vegetables and more nuts. No significant association with the olive oil, wine, fish or cutting back on soda and cookies. Among the individual components, only increased consumption of vegetables and nuts were related to reduced cardiovascular events.

On the one hand, cutting stroke risk in half just by eating a handful of nuts a day is pretty amazing, but those in the added nut group didn't appear to live any longer overall. This is in contrast to other studies that suggested that frequent nut consumption may extend life. For example, the Harvard health professionals studies, involving a whopping three million person-years of follow-up over decades, found nut consumption associated with fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and most importantly fewer deaths overall. This was confirmed by all the other big major prospective studies in a recent review.

So what's going on here with the study showing no longevity benefit from nuts? Did they just not wait long enough? Just because people were randomized to the nut group didn't mean they actually ate more nuts, and those randomized to the other groups didn't necessarily stay away.

If you re-analyze the data comparing the death rates of those who actually ate more nuts to those who actually didn't, nut consumption was indeed associated with significantly reduced risk of death. If you do the same kind of post hoc analysis with olive oil, even with the extra virgin, there is no benefit in terms of living longer. This is consistent with how Ancel Keys, the so-called Father of the Mediterranean diet, viewed olive oil. He thought of its benefit more as a way of just replacing animal fats; anything to get people to eat less lard and butter.

What is the best kind of nut? The greatest benefits were attributed to walnuts, particularly for preventing cancer deaths. Those eating more than three servings of walnuts a week appeared to cut their risk of dying from cancer in half.

Now it's just a matter of communicating the research to the public. All the major cancer groups emphasize a more plant-based diet, remarkably consistent with the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy eating. The far-reaching positive effects of a plant-based diet--including walnuts--may be the most critical message for the public.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

Think the effects of adding a few nuts to one's daily diet are too good to believe? Check out my video Four Nuts Once a Month. For more on Walnuts and Artery Function check out the video, and for more on nuts and cancer prevention, see Which Nut Fights Cancer Better?

Nuts May Help Prevent Death and so may beans; see Increased Lifespan from Beans. What about Fruits and Longevity: How Many Minutes per Mouthful?

More on protecting ourselves from "brain attacks" in Preventing Strokes with Diet.

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: garlandcannon / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Help Reduce Brain Loss

Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer's.jpg

Each of us has about six billion miles of DNA. How does our body keep it from getting all tangled up? There are special proteins called histones, which act like spools with DNA as the thread. Enzymes called sirtuins wrap the DNA around the histones and by doing so, silence whatever genes were in that stretch of DNA, hence their name SIRtuins, which stands for silencing information regulator.

Although they were discovered only about a decade ago, the study of sirtuins "has become one of the most promising areas of biomedicine," since they appear to be involved in promoting healthy aging and longevity. Suppression of this key host defense is considered a central feature of Alzheimer's disease, as shown in Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer's.

Autopsies of Alzheimer's victims reveal that loss of sirtuin activity is closely associated with the accumulation of the plaques and tangles in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. Sirtuin appears to activate pathways that steer the brain away from the formation of plaque and tangle proteins. "Because a decrease in sirtuin activity can clearly have deleterious effects" on nerve health, researchers are trying to come up with drugs to increase sirtuin activity, but why not just prevent its suppression in the first place?

Glycotoxins in our food suppress sirtuin activity, also known as advanced glycation end products, or AGE's. Our modern diet includes excessive AGE's, which can be neurotoxic. High levels in the blood may predict cognitive decline over time. If you measure the urine levels of glycotoxins flowing through the bodies of older adults, those with the highest levels went on to suffer the greatest cognitive decline over the subsequent nine years.

As we age, our brain literally shrinks. In our 60's and 70's, we lose an average of five cubic centimeters of total brain tissue volume every year, but some people lose more than others. Brain atrophy may be reduced in very healthy individuals, and a few people don't lose any brain at all. Normally we lose about 2% of brain volume every year, but that's just the average. Although the average brain loss for folks in their 70's and 80's was 2.1%, some lost more, some lost less, and some men and women lost none at all over a period of four years.

Researchers in Australia provided the first evidence linking AGEs with this kind of cerebral brain loss. So, limiting one's consumption of these compounds may end up having significant public health benefits. Because sirtuin deficiency is both preventable and reversible by dietary AGE reduction, a therapeutic strategy that includes eating less AGE's may offer a new strategy to combat the epidemic of Alzheimer's.

Some glycotoxins are produced internally, particularly in diabetics, but anyone can get them from smoking and eating, particularly foods high in fat and protein cooked at high temperatures. In my video, Avoiding a Sugary Grave, I listed the 15 foods most contaminated with glycotoxins; mostly chicken, but also pork, beef, and fish, which may help explain why those that eat the most meat may have triple the risk of getting dementia compared to long-time vegetarians. Note there are some relatively high fat and protein plant foods such as nuts and soy products, so I no longer recommend toasting nuts and would steer clear from roasted tofu.

I've covered advanced glycation end-products in Glycotoxins, Bacon, Eggs, and Gestational Diabetes During Pregnancy, and Why is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes?.

More on slowing brain aging in How to Slow Brain Aging By Two Years.

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: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Help Reduce Brain Loss

Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer's.jpg

Each of us has about six billion miles of DNA. How does our body keep it from getting all tangled up? There are special proteins called histones, which act like spools with DNA as the thread. Enzymes called sirtuins wrap the DNA around the histones and by doing so, silence whatever genes were in that stretch of DNA, hence their name SIRtuins, which stands for silencing information regulator.

Although they were discovered only about a decade ago, the study of sirtuins "has become one of the most promising areas of biomedicine," since they appear to be involved in promoting healthy aging and longevity. Suppression of this key host defense is considered a central feature of Alzheimer's disease, as shown in Reducing Glycotoxin Intake to Prevent Alzheimer's.

Autopsies of Alzheimer's victims reveal that loss of sirtuin activity is closely associated with the accumulation of the plaques and tangles in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. Sirtuin appears to activate pathways that steer the brain away from the formation of plaque and tangle proteins. "Because a decrease in sirtuin activity can clearly have deleterious effects" on nerve health, researchers are trying to come up with drugs to increase sirtuin activity, but why not just prevent its suppression in the first place?

Glycotoxins in our food suppress sirtuin activity, also known as advanced glycation end products, or AGE's. Our modern diet includes excessive AGE's, which can be neurotoxic. High levels in the blood may predict cognitive decline over time. If you measure the urine levels of glycotoxins flowing through the bodies of older adults, those with the highest levels went on to suffer the greatest cognitive decline over the subsequent nine years.

As we age, our brain literally shrinks. In our 60's and 70's, we lose an average of five cubic centimeters of total brain tissue volume every year, but some people lose more than others. Brain atrophy may be reduced in very healthy individuals, and a few people don't lose any brain at all. Normally we lose about 2% of brain volume every year, but that's just the average. Although the average brain loss for folks in their 70's and 80's was 2.1%, some lost more, some lost less, and some men and women lost none at all over a period of four years.

Researchers in Australia provided the first evidence linking AGEs with this kind of cerebral brain loss. So, limiting one's consumption of these compounds may end up having significant public health benefits. Because sirtuin deficiency is both preventable and reversible by dietary AGE reduction, a therapeutic strategy that includes eating less AGE's may offer a new strategy to combat the epidemic of Alzheimer's.

Some glycotoxins are produced internally, particularly in diabetics, but anyone can get them from smoking and eating, particularly foods high in fat and protein cooked at high temperatures. In my video, Avoiding a Sugary Grave, I listed the 15 foods most contaminated with glycotoxins; mostly chicken, but also pork, beef, and fish, which may help explain why those that eat the most meat may have triple the risk of getting dementia compared to long-time vegetarians. Note there are some relatively high fat and protein plant foods such as nuts and soy products, so I no longer recommend toasting nuts and would steer clear from roasted tofu.

I've covered advanced glycation end-products in Glycotoxins, Bacon, Eggs, and Gestational Diabetes During Pregnancy, and Why is Meat a Risk Factor for Diabetes?.

More on slowing brain aging in How to Slow Brain Aging By Two Years.

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: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

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Medical Care: The Third Leading Cause of Death

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but a pound isn't that heavy. Why change our diet and lifestyle when we can just wait and let modern medicine fix us up? In my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs, I noted that patients tend to wildly overestimate the ability of cancer screening and cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent disease. Surveyed patients report they were told the truth about how little they'd benefit, 90% said they wouldn't even bother.

The reason we should eat healthier, rather than just counting on a medical technofix, is that we may hold this same overconfidence for treatment, too. In a massive study of more than 200,000 trials, researchers discovered that pills and procedures can certainly help, but genuine, very large effects with extensive support from substantial evidence appear to be rare in medicine. Further, large benefits for mortality--making people live significantly longer--are almost entirely nonexistent. Modern medicine is great for acute conditions--broken bones and curing infections--but for chronic disease, our leading causes of death and disability, we don't have much to offer. In fact, we sometimes do more harm than good.

In my Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death presentation, I noted that side-effects from prescription drugs kill an estimated 100,000 Americans every year, making medical care the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are another 7,000 deaths from getting the wrong medicine by mistake and 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals. Hospitals are dangerous places. An additional 99,000 of us die from hospital-acquired infections. But can we really blame doctors for those deaths, though? We can when they don't wash their hands.

We've known since the 1840's that the best way to prevent hospital-acquired infections is through handwashing, yet compliance rates among healthcare workers rarely exceeds 50%, and doctors are the worst, as highlighted in my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Even in a medical intensive care unit with a "contact precautions" sign, signaling a particularly high risk patient, less than a quarter of doctors were found to wash their hands. Many physicians greeted the horrendous mortality data due to medical error with disbelief and concern that the information would undermine public trust. But if doctors still won't even wash their hands, how much trust do we deserve?

We could go in for a simple operation and come out with a life-threatening infection, or not come out at all. 12,000 more die from surgeries that were unnecessary in the first place. For those keeping score, that's 225,000 people dead from iatrogenic ("relating to medical care") causes. And that's mostly just for patients in a hospital. In an outpatient setting, side-effects from prescription drugs send millions to the hospital and result in perhaps 199,000 additional deaths. This is not including all those non-fatally injured (such as the case where doctors accidentally amputated the tip of a man's penis. Oops).

These estimates are on the low end. The Institute of Medicine estimated that deaths from medical errors may kill up to 98,000 Americans. That would bump us up to 284,000 dead. Even if we use the lower estimate, the medical profession constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States. It goes heart disease, cancer, then... me.

One respondent pointed out that it was misleading to call medicine the third leading cause of death since many of those we kill also had heart disease or cancer. It's not like doctors are out there gunning down healthy people. Only people on medications are killed by medication errors or side-effects. You have to be in the hospital to be killed by a hospital error.

To which I respond: Exactly.

That's why lifestyle medicine is so important. The most common reasons people are on drugs and in hospitals is for diseases that can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle. The best way to avoid the adverse effects of medical care is to not get sick in the first place.

For more background on how scandalous our handwashing history has been, see my Q&A: What about Semmelweis and medicine's shameful handwashing history? It's truly an unbelievable story.

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:

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How May Eating Plants Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Intake of saturated fats and added sugars, two of the primary components of a modern Western diet, is linked with the development of Alzheimer's disease. There has been a global shift in dietary composition, from traditional diets high in starches and fiber, to what has been termed the Western diet, high in fat and sugar, low in whole, plant foods. What's so great about fruits and vegetables?

Plant-derived foods contain thousands of compounds with antioxidant properties, some of which can traverse the blood-brain barrier and may have neuroprotective effects by assisting with antioxidant defense. There's this concept of "brain rust," that neurodegenerative diseases arise from excess oxidative stress. But Nature has gifted humankind with a plethora of plants--fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and the diverse array of bioactive nutrients present in these natural products may play a pivotal role in prevention and one day, perhaps, even the cure of various neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Accumulated evidence suggests that naturally occurring plant compounds may potentially hinder neurodegeneration, and even improve memory and cognitive function, as I've shared in my videos Preventing Alzheimer's Disease with Plants and How to Slow Brain Aging By Two Years) and treating Alzheimer's with spices such as saffron or turmeric (See Saffron for the Treatment of Alzheimer's and Treating Alzheimer's with Turmeric).

Vegetables may be particularly protective, in part because of certain compounds we eat that concentrate in the brain, found in dark green leafy vegetables, the consumption of which are associated with lower rates of age-related cognitive decline.

Yet when you look at systemic reviews on what we can do to prevent cognitive decline, you'll see conclusions like this: "The current literature does not provide adequate evidence to make recommendations for interventions." The same is said for Alzheimer's, "Currently, insufficient evidence exists to draw firm conclusions on the association of any modifiable factors with risk of Alzheimer's disease." Doctors cite the lack of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as the basis for their conclusions. RCTs are the gold standard used to test new medicines. This is where researchers randomize people into two groups, half get the drug and half don't, to control for confounding factors. The highest level of evidence is necessary because drugs may kill a hundred thousand Americans every year - not medication errors or illicit drugs, just regular, FDA-approved prescription drugs, making medication alone the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. So, you better make absolutely sure the benefits of new drugs outweigh the often life-threatening risks.

But we're talking about diet and exercise--the side effects are all good, so we don't need the same level of rigorous evidence to prescribe them.

A "modest proposal" was published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, an editorial calling for a longitudinal study of dementia prevention. They agreed that definitive evidence for the effectiveness of dementia prevention methods was lacking, so we need large-scaled randomized trials. They suggested we start with 10,000 healthy volunteers in their 20's and split them into five groups. There's evidence, for example, that traumatic brain injury is a risk factor for Alzheimer's, because people with head injuries appear more likely to get the disease, but it's never been put to the test. So, they say, let's take two thousand people and beat half of them in the head with baseball bats, and the other half we'll use Styrofoam bats as a control. Afterall, until we have randomized controls, how can't physicians recommend patients not get hit in the head? They go further saying we should probably chain a thousand people to a treadmill for 40 years, and a thousand people to a couch before recommending exercise. A thousand will be forced to do crossword puzzles; another thousand forced to watch Jerry Springer reruns, lots of meat and dairy or not prescribed for another group for the next 40 years, and we can hook a thousand folks on four packs a day just to be sure.

We help our patients to quit smoking despite the fact that there's not a single randomized controlled trial where they held people down and piped smoke into their lungs for a few decades. It is time to realize that the ultimate study in regard to lifestyle and cognitive health cannot be done. Yet the absence of definitive evidence should not restrict physicians from making reasonable recommendations based on the evidence that is available.

I've discussed how drug-centric approaches to evidence-based medicine may neglect some of the most convincing data: Evidence-Based Medicine or Evidence-Biased?

To see how and why I built NutritionFacts.org on evidence-based principles, see my recent introductory videos:

A sampling of some of my Alzheimer's videos:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Michael Heim / 123rf

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