Baked Oatmeal with Apples & Raisins

Baked Oatmeal is delicious for breakfast or as a snack bar (when cooled). Baking the oatmeal results in a spongy texture much like bread pudding. It’s easy to make and customize with your favorite non-dairy milk, fresh or dried fruits, and spices. Traditional baked oatmeal, an Amish creation, usually calls for eggs, butter, cow’s milk, […]

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Can We Fight the Blues With Greens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NF-Mar27 Can We Fight Blues with Greens?.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For other natural treatments for mental illness, check out:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image credit: liz west / Flickr

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Pumpkin Pie

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

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Nutmeg Toxicity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can Too Much Nutmeg Be Toxic?

The spice nutmeg appears to have a relatively narrow margin of safety.

In my research on cinnamon I ran across a peculiar paper entitled “Christmas Gingerbread and Christmas Cheer: Review of the Potential Role of Mood Elevating Amphetamine-like Compounds.” The author suggested that certain natural constituents of spices such as nutmeg may form amphetamine compounds within the body “sufficient to elevate the mood and help provide some added Christmas cheer” during the holiday season.

This hypothetical risk was raised as far back as the Sixties in the New England Journal of Medicine in an article called “Nutmeg Intoxication.” The paper pondered whether the age-old custom of adding nutmeg to eggnog arose from the psychopharmacological effects described in cases of nutmeg intoxication. Such cases evidently go back to the 1500s, when it was used as an abortifacient to induce a miscarriage and in the 1960s as a psychotropic drug.

Mental health professionals from the ’60s concluded that while nutmeg “is much cheaper for use and probably less dangerous than the habit-forming heroin, it must be stated that it is not free from danger and may cause death.”

The toxic dose of nutmeg is two to three teaspoons.

I assumed no one would ever come close to that amount unintentionally until I saw report in which a couple ate some pasta, collapsed, and were subsequently hospitalized. It was a big mystery until “On close questioning, the husband revealed that he had accidentally added one third of a 30g spice jar of nutmeg to the meal whilst cooking it.” That’s about 4 teaspoons–I don’t know how they could have eaten it! I imagine the poor wife just trying to be polite.

There are also potentially toxic compounds in certain types of cinnamon. See my video Update on Cinnamon for Blood Sugar Control.

We can also overdo other healthful plant foods if we consume too much of the yellow curry spice turmeric, drink too much tea, or eat too much soytoo much seaweedtoo many broccoli sprouts, and even too many raw cruciferous vegetables.

The final video in this three part series on the latest on spice safety is The Safety of Tarragon.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image credit: Simo ubuntu / Wikimedia Commons

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Cinnamon for Diabetes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does Cinnamon Help Lower Blood Sugars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image credit: CINNAMON VOGUE / Flickr

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