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was the case, researchers applied to the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, and what they found was shocking.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 Thus, when published and unpublished data are combined, they fail to show a clinically significant advantage for antidepressant medication over a sugar pill.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 Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveals that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect.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

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

 Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression.jpg

We've known for decades that even a single bout of exercise can elevate our mood, but could it be enough to be used as a treatment for major depression?

We've known that physical activity has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression. For example, if you look at a cross-section of 8,000 people across the country, those that exercised regularly were less likely to have a major depression diagnosis. That's just a snapshot in time, though. In that study, the researcher openly acknowledges this may be a case of reverse causation. Maybe exercise didn't cut down on depression, maybe depression cut down on exercise. The reason depression may be associated with low physical activity is that people may feel too lousy to get out of bed. What we've needed was an interventional study where you take people who are already depressed and randomize them into an exercise intervention.

That is what researchers from Duke University Medical Center did. They randomized men and women over age 50 with major depression to two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. In my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression you can see a graph of their changes. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (anything over seven is considered depressed). Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which are exactly what the drugs are supposed to do. What about the exercise-only group, though? Exercise had the same powerful effect.

The researchers concluded that an exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons, given that they've shown that a group program of aerobic exercise is a feasible and effective treatment for depression, at least for older people.

Not so fast, though.

A "group program?" They had the exercise group folks come in three times a week for a group class. Maybe the only reason the exercise group got better is because they were forced to get out of bed and interact with people--maybe it was the social stimulation and had nothing to do with the actual exercise? Before you could definitively say that exercise can work as well as drugs, what we would need to see is the same study, but with an additional group who exercised alone with no extra social interaction. And those same Duke researchers did just that,

They created the largest exercise trial of patients with major depression conducted to date, and not just including older folks, but other adults as well with three different treatment groups this time: a home exercise group in addition to the supervised group exercise and the drug group as before.

And they all worked about just as well in terms of forcing the depression into remission. So we can say with confidence that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.

Putting all the best studies together, researchers indicate that exercise at least has a moderate antidepressant effect, and at best, exercise has a large effect on reductions in depression symptoms and could be categorized as a very useful and powerful intervention. Unfortunately, while studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise is rarely prescribed as a treatment for this common and debilitating problem.

Exercise may compare favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression, but how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place? Check out my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

For dietary interventions that may improve mood, see:

Exercise can also help with ADHD (Treating ADHD Without Stimulants) and improve immunity (Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast), not to mention extend our lives (Longer Life Within Walking Distance). But what we eat matters: Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

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

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

 Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression.jpg

We've known for decades that even a single bout of exercise can elevate our mood, but could it be enough to be used as a treatment for major depression?

We've known that physical activity has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression. For example, if you look at a cross-section of 8,000 people across the country, those that exercised regularly were less likely to have a major depression diagnosis. That's just a snapshot in time, though. In that study, the researcher openly acknowledges this may be a case of reverse causation. Maybe exercise didn't cut down on depression, maybe depression cut down on exercise. The reason depression may be associated with low physical activity is that people may feel too lousy to get out of bed. What we've needed was an interventional study where you take people who are already depressed and randomize them into an exercise intervention.

That is what researchers from Duke University Medical Center did. They randomized men and women over age 50 with major depression to two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. In my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression you can see a graph of their changes. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (anything over seven is considered depressed). Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which are exactly what the drugs are supposed to do. What about the exercise-only group, though? Exercise had the same powerful effect.

The researchers concluded that an exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons, given that they've shown that a group program of aerobic exercise is a feasible and effective treatment for depression, at least for older people.

Not so fast, though.

A "group program?" They had the exercise group folks come in three times a week for a group class. Maybe the only reason the exercise group got better is because they were forced to get out of bed and interact with people--maybe it was the social stimulation and had nothing to do with the actual exercise? Before you could definitively say that exercise can work as well as drugs, what we would need to see is the same study, but with an additional group who exercised alone with no extra social interaction. And those same Duke researchers did just that,

They created the largest exercise trial of patients with major depression conducted to date, and not just including older folks, but other adults as well with three different treatment groups this time: a home exercise group in addition to the supervised group exercise and the drug group as before.

And they all worked about just as well in terms of forcing the depression into remission. So we can say with confidence that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.

Putting all the best studies together, researchers indicate that exercise at least has a moderate antidepressant effect, and at best, exercise has a large effect on reductions in depression symptoms and could be categorized as a very useful and powerful intervention. Unfortunately, while studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise is rarely prescribed as a treatment for this common and debilitating problem.

Exercise may compare favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression, but how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place? Check out my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

For dietary interventions that may improve mood, see:

Exercise can also help with ADHD (Treating ADHD Without Stimulants) and improve immunity (Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast), not to mention extend our lives (Longer Life Within Walking Distance). But what we eat matters: Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

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

Medical Care: The Third Leading Cause of Death

NF-Nov10 Why Prevention is Worth.jpg

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:

Image Credit: Portal PBH / Flickr

Original Link

How Well Do Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Actually Work?

NF-Nov8 The Actual Benefit  copy.jpg

One of the reasons people may undervalue diet and lifestyle changes is an overconfidence in the ability of pills and procedures to prevent disease. For example, people tend to wildly overestimate the power of things like mammograms and colonoscopies to prevent deaths from breast and bowel cancer, or the power of drugs like Fosamax to prevent hip fractures, or the power of cholesterol drugs to prevent fatal heart attacks. Patients believe statin drugs like Lipitor are about 100 times more effective than they actually are in preventing heart attacks. Studies show most people wouldn't take multiple blood pressure medications if they knew the truth.

For most people, the chance of benefit is normally less than 5 percent over five years for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood thinning drugs. Patients don't want to take drugs unless they have at least a one in five chance--even those who just had a heart attack. It's no wonder, then, that doctors seldom share these figures. Informing patients of the percentage chance of benefit from preventive drug strategies would likely substantially reduce the likelihood that patients would agree to take the drugs every day for the rest of their lives.

For the individual, this is unlikely to be detrimental; after all, there's a 95 percent chance it won't do anything for them. But for the population at large, it would make a difference, so doctors and drug companies oversell the benefits by conveniently not mentioning how tiny they actually are, knowing most patients wouldn't take them if doctors divulged the truth. To practice non-lifestyle medicine is to practice deceptive medicine.

The best that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs appear to do is an absolute risk reduction of 3.1 percent over six years. If Dr. Esselstyn's work can be replicated in a randomized, controlled trial, then a whole foods plant-based diet will have been shown to work twenty times better, an absolute risk reduction of 60 percent after less than four years. In Esselstyn's study, 99.4 percent of high-risk patients that stuck with the diet avoided major cardiac events, such as death from heart attack.

When we have to decide whether we want to go diet versus drugs, we're not making a choice between eating healthy to prevent a heart attack or taking a pill to prevent a heart attack. Because in 97 percent of cases in the near-term, pills don't do anything. We're risking side effects for nothing, whereas if we treat the underlying root cause of the disease by eating a healthy, cholesterol-free diet, we may even reverse the progression of the disease, as seen in my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs.

If we stop eating an artery-clogging diet, our bodies can start dissolving that plaque away, opening up arteries in some cases without drugs or surgery. A healthy whole food plant-based diet by itself may work 20 times better than drugs to combat our #1 killer.

Now that's something doctors may want to tell their patients.

Yes, 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? Turns out we overestimate the efficacy of treatment as well, the subject of my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure.

Sometimes preventive medicine procedures can even be harmful. See Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation and Do Dental X-Rays Cause Brain Tumors?

I've previously noted how an honest physician-patient interaction might go in Fully Consensual Heart Disease Treatment, Optimal Diet: Just Give it To Me Straight, Doc and Disclosing Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research. What should we be saying? See: What Diet Should Physician's Recommend?

So why don't more doctors do it? See Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Find Out If Your Doctor Takes Drug Company Money.

More on Dr. Esselstyn's heart disease reversal study in: Evidence-Based Medicine or Evidence-Biased?

Of course then there's just the brute force method: Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape.

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: [akz] © 123RF.com

Original Link

Flax Seeds Can Have Profound Effect on Hypertension

NF-Nov1 Flax Seeds for Hypertension copy.jpg

A recent article in the journal, Meat Science, acknowledged that a sector of the population perceives meat as a food that is detrimental to their health because of studies associating meat consumption with heart disease and cancer. So, the article continues, meat consumers may look for healthier food alternatives as a means to maintain good health, which represents a good opportunity for the meat industry to develop some new products. The industry felt that natural foods could be added to meat to reach those health-oriented consumers by boosting antioxidants levels, for example. Foods like flax seeds and tomatoes are healthy, associated with reduced risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. So by making flax-y tomato burgers, they figure they can reduce saturated fat intake and maybe eat less sugar somehow. Wouldn't it be easier to just cut out the middle-cow and eat flax seeds ourselves?

Flax seeds have been described as a "miraculous defense against some critical maladies." I'm a fan of flax, but this title seemed a bit over-exuberant; I figured something just got lost in translation, but then I found a prospective, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized trial--you know how hard that is in a nutrition study? For drugs, it's easy: you have two identical looking pills, one's active, one's placebo, and until the end of the study, neither the researcher nor the patient has any idea which is which, hence "double blind." But people tend to notice what they're eating. So how did they sneak a quarter cup of ground flax seeds into half of the people's diets without them knowing? They created all these various flax or placebo containing foods, and even added bran and molasses to match the color and texture, so it was all a big secret until six months later when they broke the code to see who ate which.

Why test it on hypertension? Because having a systolic blood pressure over 115--that's the top number--may be the single most important determinant for death in the world today. If you take a bunch of older folks, most of them on an array of blood pressure pills, and don't improve their diet at all, despite the drugs, they may start out on average hypertensive and stay hypertensive six months later. But those who were unknowingly eating ground flaxseeds every day, dropped their systolic blood pressure about ten points, and their diastolic, the lower number, by about seven points. That might not sound like a lot, but a drop like that could cut stroke risk 46 percent and heart disease 29 percent, and that ten point drop in the top number could have a similar effect on strokes and heart attacks. And for those that started out over 140, they got a 15-point drop.

In summary, flaxseed induced one of the most potent antihypertensive effects ever achieved by a dietary intervention. In other words, the magnitude of this decrease in blood pressure demonstrated by dietary flaxseed, is as good or better than other nutritional interventions and comparable to many drugs, which can have serious side effects. And they're not exaggerating about the comparable to drugs bit. The flax dropped systolic and diastolic up to 15 and 7. Compare that to powerful ACE inhibitors like Vasotec, which may only drop pressures five and two, and calcium channel blockers like Norvasc or Cardizem which drop pressures eight and three. Side effects of these drugs include a large list of serious medical issues, as seen in my video Flax Seeds for Hypertension, compared to the side effect of flax seeds, "its pleasant nutty flavor."

During the six-month trial there were strokes and heart attacks in both groups, though. Even if the flax seeds can cut risk in half, any avoidable risk is unacceptable. Isn't high blood pressure just inevitable as we get older? No - the prevalence of hypertension does increase dramatically with age, but not for everyone. People who eat more plant-based diets or keep their salt intake low enough tend not to exhibit any change in blood pressure with advancing age. It's always better to prevent the disease in the first place.

And that's not all flax can do. Check out:

Hibiscus tea may help with high blood pressure as well: Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension

Diet can also play an important role in preventing heart disease (How Not to Die from Heart Disease and One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic) and diabetes (How Not to Die from Diabetes and Plant-Based Diets and Diabetes). In some cases diet can even reverse some of the worst ravages of high blood pressure: How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure and Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape.

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: Veganbaking.net / Flickr

Original Link

How May Eating Plants Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

NF-Oct27 Preventing Alzheimers Disease with Plants.jpeg

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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Why are Chickens Fed Prozac?

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Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would "help prevent miscarriages." Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it became clear that DES was not only ineffective but potentially harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow "abnormally tall." As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap ... it provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess; and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners."

What most people don't know is that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, used to improve "feed conversion" in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval, DES was fed to millions of farm animals. Although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, DES used in meat production was not completely banned until 1979. (Now, the meat industry just uses different synthetic estrogen implants.) Even decades after DES was banned, we're still seeing its effects--an elevation of birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic not only ends up in the meat (as I've talked about previously in Arsenic in Chicken and How Many Cancers Caused by Arsenic Laced Chicken?), but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. Because a third of the bird is inedible, the industry takes billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers and uses them as fertilizer and animal feed. This feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Straight feathers are not particularly nutritious; so guts, heads, and feet may be added for a little extra protein, and manure added for minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat. This gave researchers at John Hopkins University and Arizona State an idea. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. In their study, "Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products," (highlighted in my video, Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers) they found that all feather samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs (between two and ten different kinds in each sample), including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. Either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff, or it's being used in other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when feather meal is fed back to chickens, they are getting exposed to this drug that is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers contained a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, an antihistamine, a fungicide, a sex hormone, and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently, the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so they eat more and grow faster.

The drugs fed to chickens are one reason used to explain why poultry has been tied to increased cancer risk. See Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?.

The most concerning drugs currently in the U.S. poultry supply are the antibiotics, though. See, for example:

Ironically, not only may antibiotics in chicken contribute to antibiotic resistant infections, but to the infections in the first place. Check out my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections.

Then as if adding potentially harmful chemicals to the chickens themselves wasn't bad enough, more are added in the processing plant: Phosphate Additives in Chicken.

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: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Starch-Blocking Foods for Diabetics?

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How did doctors treat diabetes before insulin? Almost a thousand medicinal plants are known antidiabetic agents, including beans, most of which have been used in traditional medicine. Of course, just because something has been used for centuries doesn't mean it's safe. Other treatments for diabetes in the past included arsenic and uranium. Thankfully many of these other remedies fell by the wayside, but scientific interest in the antidiabetic potential of beans was renewed in the past decade.

Diabetes is a global public health epidemic. Although oral hypoglycemic medications and injected insulin are the mainstay of treatment of diabetes and are effective in controlling high blood sugars, they have side effects such as weight gain, swelling, and liver disease. They also are not shown to significantly alter the progression of the disease. Thankfully, lifestyle modifications have proven to be greatly effective in the management of this disease. And if there is one thing diabetics should eat, it's legumes (beans, chickpeas, split peas, and lentils).

Increased consumption of whole grains and legumes for health-promoting diets is widely promoted by health professionals. One of the reasons is that they may decrease insulin resistance, the defining trait of type 2 diabetes. The European Association for the Study of Diabetes, the Canadian Diabetes Association and the American Diabetes Association all recommend the consumption of dietary pulses as a means of optimizing diabetes control. What are pulses? They're peas and beans that come dried, and are therefore a subset of legumes. They exclude green beans and fresh green peas, which are considered more vegetable crops, and the so-called oil seeds--soybeans and peanuts.

A review out of Canada (highlighted in my video, Diabetes Should Take Their Pulses) compiled 41 randomized controlled experimental trials, totaling more than a thousand patients, and corroborated the diabetes association nutrition guidelines recommending the consumption of pulses as a means of optimizing diabetes control. They discovered that some pulses are better than others. Some of the best results came from the studies that used chickpeas. In terms of beans, pintos and black beans may beat out kidney beans. Compared to the blood sugar spike of straight white rice, the combination of black or pinto beans with rice appeared to reduce the spike more than kidney beans and rice.

Dark red kidney beans may not be as effective because they have lower levels of indigestible starch. One of the reasons beans are so healthy is they contain compounds that partially block our starch-digesting enzyme, which allows some starch to make it down to our colon to feed our good gut bacteria. In fact, the inhibition of this starch-eating enzyme amylase, just by eating beans, approximates that of a carbohydrate-blocking drug called acarbose (sold as Precose), a popular diabetes medication. The long-term use of beans may normalize hemoglobin A1C levels (which is how you track diabetes) almost as well as the drug.

What about avoiding metabolic derangements in the first place? See my video Preventing Prediabetes By Eating More.

What else may help?

What may hurt?

-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: Emily Carlin / Flickr

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