The Top Four Anti-Inflammatory Spices

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

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

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

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

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

  • cloves
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • turmeric

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michael Greger, M.D

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

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

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Add Beans, Berries, and Greens to More Meals

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After we eat, our bodies create free radicals in the process of breaking down our food. That's why we need to eat antioxidant-rich foods with every meal to counteract this oxidation caused by metabolism. We can't just have berries on our oatmeal in the morning to meet our Minimum Recommended Daily Allowance of Antioxidants and call it a day. Each and every meal should contain high antioxidant foods, which means that each and every meal should contain whole plant foods. Antioxidant rich foods originate from the plant kingdom, due to the thousands of different natural antioxidant compounds naturally created by the plants we eat.

Consuming fruits--which are high in phenolic phytonutrients--increases the antioxidant capacity of the blood. When fruits are consumed along with high fat and refined carbohydrate "pro-oxidant and pro-inflammatory" meals, they may help counterbalance their negative effects. Given the content and availability of fat and sugars in the Western diet, regular consumption of phenolic-rich foods, particularly in conjunction with meals, appears to be a prudent strategy to maintain oxidative balance and health.

And of all fruits, berries may be the best source of phytonutrients. In the video, How to Reach the Antioxidant "RDA", you can see an example of the spike in oxidation caused by a Mediterranean meal of pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil, and fried fish. Obviously, given the spike of oxidation, there were not enough tomatoes. Add a glass of red wine, which contains berry phytonutrients from grapes, and we can bring down, but not blunt completely, the level of oxidation. So the meal needs even more plants.

In a study I profile in the video, researchers gave subjects standard breakfast items, resulting in lots of oxidized cholesterol in their bloodstream one to six hours after the meal. But all it took was a cup of strawberries with that same breakfast to at least keep the meal from contributing to further oxidation. In my Food Antioxidants and Cancer video, you can see a comparison of breakfast with berries versus breakfast without.

If we don't consume high-antioxidant plants with breakfast, by lunch we'll already be in oxidative debt. Let's say we ate a standard American breakfast at 6 a.m. If we didn't eat that cup of strawberries with breakfast, by the time lunch rolls around we'd already be starting out in the hyper-oxidized state, and lunch could just make things worse. Since western eating patterns include eating multiple meals a day, including snacks, one can only speculate on the level of biological unrest.

If we have some berries for breakfast, at least we'd be starting out at baseline for lunch. This acute protection is likely due to the antioxidant effects of the strawberry phytonutrients. What if, by lunch, we could be even better than baseline? How about our meals actually improving our antioxidant status?

If, for example, we eat a big bunch of red grapes with our meal, the antioxidant level of our bloodstream goes up and our bodies are in positive antioxidant balance for a few hours. We get the same result after eating enough blueberries. And imagine if in these ensuing hours before our next meal we were sipping green tea, hibiscus tea or even whole cranberries? (See Pink Juice with Green Foam). We'd have a nice antioxidant surplus all day long.

One group of researchers conclude: "These data provide an interesting perspective for advising individuals on food choice when consuming a moderate- to high-fat meal is unavoidable." (Unavoidable? So what, if we're locked in a fast food joint or something?) They suggest chasing whatever we're forced to eat with some berries. Reminds me of those studies I've talked about suggesting that smokers should eat lots of kale and broccoli to reduce the oxidative damage to their DNA. Of course, they could also just not smoke.

In a single day, the systemic stress of all the fat in our blood and "redox imbalance" (being in a mild pro-oxidant state after meals) may seem trivial. Over time, however, these daily insults can lead to problems such as heart disease, contributing to the hundreds of thousands of deaths a year (See The Power of NO).

I strive to eat berries every day and so should everyone. If we are going to drink wine, red is preferable (See Breast Cancer Risk: Red Wine vs. White Wine).

See how quickly stress can eat our antioxidants in: Antioxidant Level Dynamics.

I used a similar meal-components technique to illustrate the potent antioxidant power of spices. See Antioxidants in a Pinch.

All fruits and veggies aren't the same. I make this point in different ways in videos like Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better? and Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants.

I have a series of videos on which foods have the most antioxidants. See Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods and Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods. Note these are measured based on test tube tests. There are more sophisticated ways to measure antioxidant activity. See Anti Up on the Veggies.

What's the cheapest common source of whole food antioxidants? See Superfood Bargains for a dollar per dollar comparison. What's the cheapest uncommon source? See Dragon's Blood.

Are there diminishing returns to getting too many antioxidants? See Maxing Out on Antioxidants.

So if we have that bowl of berries in the morning to meet our minimum daily antioxidant needs can we just call it a day?. Hint: the title of my follow-up video is: Antioxidant Rich Foods With Every Meal.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: Vegan Feast Catering / Flickr

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How to Get Enough Antioxidants Each Day

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We need to get a daily minimum of 8-11,000 antioxidant units a day in our food just to stay out of oxidative debt (see my video on The Reason We Need More Antioxidants). To reach that minimum, all we have to do is eat lots of fruits and vegetables, right? Not exactly. Let's say I ate a whole banana during breakfast (in addition to whatever else). For lunch I eat a typical American salad-- iceberg lettuce, half cup of cucumber slices, and canned peaches for dessert. Supper included a side serving of peas and carrots and half a cup of snap peas along with yet another salad. And, finally, let's say I had a cup of watermelon for dessert. I just ate nine servings of fruits and vegetables and am feeling all good about myself. However, I only made it up to 2700 units, less than a quarter of the way to my minimum daily recommended intake. What am I supposed to do, eat 36 servings a day? (For a cool visual of this, check out my video, How to Reach the Antioxidant "RDA").

What if instead of that banana, I had a single serving of blueberries? And instead of iceberg lettuce for that afternoon salad, I ate four leaves of red leaf lettuce, maybe some kidney beans on top, and a teaspoon of dried oregano as a bonus? For a snack, I had an apple and some dates. It's not even suppertime, only had five servings, yet I've left the minimum recommended daily intake of antioxidants in the dust (topping 28,000 units!). That's why it's not just quantity of fruits and veggies that matters, but also the quality. All fruits and veggies aren't the same. I make this point in different ways in videos like Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better? and Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants. If possible, we should try to choose the healthiest options out there.

Now that it's midday and I've reached my daily minimum of antioxidants with those five super servings, can I just eat whatever I want for dinner? That's probably not a good idea. The estimated minimum antioxidant need of 8,000-11,000 units does not take into account the added amounts needed if other oxidant stressors--"such as illness, cigarette smoke, meat consumption, air pollution, sleep deprivation"--are present. If we had to deal with these stressors we'd need to consume more fruits and veggies just to stay out of the red.

In my video Antioxidant Level Dynamics, I profiled a study that used an argon laser to measure human antioxidant levels in real time. The study's most important finding was that antioxidant levels can plummet within two hours of a stressful event, but it may take up to three days to get our levels back to normal. The take-home message is that, especially when we're sick, stressed, or tired, we should try to go above and beyond the antioxidant food minimum. Ideally, we need to be constantly soaking our bloodstream with antioxidants, meaning that we should consume high-powered fruits and vegetables--like berries, beans, and green tea or hibiscus--all day long.

Unsure of which foods have the most antioxidants? I have a series of videos on this very topic. See Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods and Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods. (Note these are measured based on test tube tests. There are more sophisticated ways to measure antioxidant activity. See Anti Up on the Veggies). Spices in particular present a powerful source of antioxidants. See Antioxidants in a Pinch.

What's the cheapest common source of whole food antioxidants? See Superfood Bargains for a dollar per dollar comparison. What's the cheapest uncommon source? See Dragon's Blood.

Are there diminishing returns to getting too many antioxidants? See Maxing Out on Antioxidants. So if we have that bowl of berries in the morning to meet our minimum daily antioxidant needs can we just call it a day? See: Antioxidant Rich Foods With Every Meal.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: Mr.TinDC / Flickr

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Enchilada Casserole

This hearty casserole is easier to make than enchiladas since you don’t need to roll tortillas or make a separate sauce. Corn tortillas are added in with the beans and vegetables to thicken the casserole; a dish that everyone at the table will enjoy! Ingredients 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups) 1 medium […]

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Enchilada Casserole

This hearty casserole is easier to make than enchiladas since you don’t need to roll tortillas or make a separate sauce. Corn tortillas are added in with the beans and vegetables to thicken the casserole; a dish that everyone at the table will enjoy! Ingredients 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups) 1 medium […]

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Can We Fight the Blues With Greens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For other natural treatments for mental illness, check out:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image credit: liz west / Flickr

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Polenta Pizza

Pizza is the ultimate comfort food, and this pizza delivers! The herbed polenta crust is topped with easy-to-make sauce, as well as onions, mushrooms, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, and rosemary. Now you can have your pizza and feel good, too! I hesitate to say that this pizza is “easy,” since you need to prepare three recipes: […]

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Southwest Stew

This chunky, satisfying stew is full of beans, greens, corn, mushrooms, bell pepper, and plenty of herbs and spices to please your taste buds and fill your belly. This recipe makes 12 cups of stew, perfect for leftovers throughout the week! Ingredients 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped 6 medium […]

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Chickpea & Avocado Spread

This Chickpea & Avocado Spread is easy to make and is dreamy atop baked potatoes and yams, corn tortillas, green salads, or as a dip for vegetables. Fresh oregano and Meyer lemon combine in a unique flavor for a little something special. Ingredients 2 medium ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and diced 1 tablespoon Dijon or […]

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