Benefits of Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold

Benefits of Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold.jpeg

Natural immunomodulators that can help regulate our immune system without side-effects have been sought for centuries, and all the while they've been sitting in the produce aisle. Plants produce thousand of active compounds, many of which modulate our immune system, but we can't forget the fungi (see Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation).

Mushrooms have used for centuries as folk remedies, and for good reason. Some have been shown to boost immune function, so much so that a type of fiber found in shiitake mushrooms is approved for use as adjunct chemotherapy, injected intravenously to help treat a variety of cancers by rallying our immune defenses.

More than 6,000 papers have been published on these so-called beta glucans, but almost all of the data about preventing infections had come from petri dish or lab animal studies, until a few years ago when a series of experiments on athletes showed beneficial effects in marathon runners (see Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast). What about the rest of us? We didn't know... until now.

As I explore in my video, Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold, beta glucan fiber found in baker's, brewer's and nutritional yeast helps to maintain our body's defense against pathogens even in nonathletes, according to a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. The recurrence of infections with the common cold was reduced by 25% in those that ate the equivalent of about a spoonful of nutritional yeast a day, and had fewer cold-related sleeping difficulties when they did get sick.

What about half a spoonful a day? Still worked! Subjects experienced a big drop in common cold incidence and a reduction in symptoms as well. Why is this? This study found that not only were upper respiratory infection symptoms diminished, but that mood states appeared to improve, for example a significant boost in feelings of "vigor." So the researchers suggest that maybe the yeast fiber is able to counteract the negative effects of stress on the immune system.

In terms of side-effects, two folks reported stomachaches, but they were both in the placebo group.

Unlike antibiotics and antivirals, which are designed to kill the pathogen directly, these yeast compounds instead appear to work by stimulating our immune defenses, and as such don't share the same antibiotic side effects. They stimulate our immune defenses presumably because our body recognizes them as foreign. But if it's treated like an invader, might it trigger an inflammatory response? Turns out these fiber compounds may actually have an anti-inflammatory effect, suggesting nutritional yeast may offer the best of both worlds, boosting the infection fighting side of the immune system while suppressing inflammatory components.

Yeast is high in purines, so those with gout, uric acid kidney stones, and new organ transplant recipients may want to keep their intake to less than a teaspoon a day. But is there any downside for everyone else? In California some packages of nutritional yeast are slapped with prop 65 warning stickers, suggesting there's something in it exceeding cancer or birth defect safety limits. I called around to the companies and it turns out the problem is lead. California state law says a product cannot contain more than half of a microgram of lead per daily serving, so I contacted the six brands I knew about and asked them how much lead was in their products.

KAL originally said "<5 ppm," but when we called back they said "<3 ppm." Even if it's 3, that translates into less than 45 micrograms per serving, nearly a 100 times more than the California limit. But perhaps that's better than Bob's Red Mill or Frontier Coop, who evidently don't test at all. But at least they got back to me. Redstar brand failed to respond to multiple attempts to contact them. Now Foods said they test for lead and claim that at least their recent batches meet the less than a half a microgram California standard. Unfortunately, despite repeated requests they would not provide me with documentation to substantiate their numbers. My favorite response was from Bragg's who sent me the analysis certificate from the lab showing less than 0.01 ppm, which means at most less than half the California standard, which I believe is the most stringent in the world. To put the numbers in context, in determining how much lead manufacturers can put into candy likely to be frequently consumed by small children, the Food and Drug Administration would allow about 2 micrograms a day in the form of lollipops, but as far as I'm concerned the less lead the better.

I was so frustrated by the lack of transparency I decided to test them for lead myself. NutritionFacts.org hired an independent lab to conduct our own tests for lead and shipped out 8 samples of nutritional yeast in their original package. The lab used standard practices for lead testing known as Official Methods of Analysis set by AOAC International. Lab technicians determined the lead values based on California Prop 65 standards. Here are the results from the brands we tested:

Bob's Red Mill - Test report shows no detectable lead (<0.01 ppm).

Bragg - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Dr. Fuhrman - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Frontier Coop - Test report shows lead levels at 0.021 ppm. It would take six tablespoons a day (based on the manufacture's listed density) to exceed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) for chemicals causing reproductive toxicity.*

KAL - Test report shows lead levels at 0.011 ppm. It would take seven tablespoons a day to exceed the MADL.*

NOW Foods - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Red Star - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Whole Foods - Test report shows lead levels at 0.012 ppm. It would take six tablespoons a day to exceed the MADL.*

So what do all those numbers mean? None of the brands tested exceeded California prop 65 standards. No matter what brand, consuming a typical serving (2 tablespoons) per day is still well within safe limits.

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:

* The Maximum Allowable Dose Level for lead as a developmental toxin is 0.5 micrograms a day. How are MADL's calculated? Basically scientists figure out what the "no observable effect level" is, the level at which no birth defects or reproductive toxicity can be found, and then introduce a 1000-fold safety buffer. So for example, let's say there's some chemical that causes birth defects if expectant moms are exposed to two drops of the chemical a day, but there's no evidence that one drop a day is harmful. Do they set the Maximum Allowable Dose Level at one drop? No, they set it at 1/1000th of a drop to account for scientific uncertainty and to err on the side of caution. So by saying six tablespoons a day of nutritional yeast may exceed the MADL is in effect saying that the level of lead found in 6,000 tablespoons of nutritional yeast may cause birth defects. Like mercury, though, as far as I'm concerned the less lead exposure the better. I hope this will inspire companies to do further testing to see if the levels we found were just flukes.

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

Original Link

Benefits of Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold

Benefits of Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold.jpeg

Natural immunomodulators that can help regulate our immune system without side-effects have been sought for centuries, and all the while they've been sitting in the produce aisle. Plants produce thousand of active compounds, many of which modulate our immune system, but we can't forget the fungi (see Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation).

Mushrooms have used for centuries as folk remedies, and for good reason. Some have been shown to boost immune function, so much so that a type of fiber found in shiitake mushrooms is approved for use as adjunct chemotherapy, injected intravenously to help treat a variety of cancers by rallying our immune defenses.

More than 6,000 papers have been published on these so-called beta glucans, but almost all of the data about preventing infections had come from petri dish or lab animal studies, until a few years ago when a series of experiments on athletes showed beneficial effects in marathon runners (see Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast). What about the rest of us? We didn't know... until now.

As I explore in my video, Nutritional Yeast to Prevent the Common Cold, beta glucan fiber found in baker's, brewer's and nutritional yeast helps to maintain our body's defense against pathogens even in nonathletes, according to a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. The recurrence of infections with the common cold was reduced by 25% in those that ate the equivalent of about a spoonful of nutritional yeast a day, and had fewer cold-related sleeping difficulties when they did get sick.

What about half a spoonful a day? Still worked! Subjects experienced a big drop in common cold incidence and a reduction in symptoms as well. Why is this? This study found that not only were upper respiratory infection symptoms diminished, but that mood states appeared to improve, for example a significant boost in feelings of "vigor." So the researchers suggest that maybe the yeast fiber is able to counteract the negative effects of stress on the immune system.

In terms of side-effects, two folks reported stomachaches, but they were both in the placebo group.

Unlike antibiotics and antivirals, which are designed to kill the pathogen directly, these yeast compounds instead appear to work by stimulating our immune defenses, and as such don't share the same antibiotic side effects. They stimulate our immune defenses presumably because our body recognizes them as foreign. But if it's treated like an invader, might it trigger an inflammatory response? Turns out these fiber compounds may actually have an anti-inflammatory effect, suggesting nutritional yeast may offer the best of both worlds, boosting the infection fighting side of the immune system while suppressing inflammatory components.

Yeast is high in purines, so those with gout, uric acid kidney stones, and new organ transplant recipients may want to keep their intake to less than a teaspoon a day. But is there any downside for everyone else? In California some packages of nutritional yeast are slapped with prop 65 warning stickers, suggesting there's something in it exceeding cancer or birth defect safety limits. I called around to the companies and it turns out the problem is lead. California state law says a product cannot contain more than half of a microgram of lead per daily serving, so I contacted the six brands I knew about and asked them how much lead was in their products.

KAL originally said "<5 ppm," but when we called back they said "<3 ppm." Even if it's 3, that translates into less than 45 micrograms per serving, nearly a 100 times more than the California limit. But perhaps that's better than Bob's Red Mill or Frontier Coop, who evidently don't test at all. But at least they got back to me. Redstar brand failed to respond to multiple attempts to contact them. Now Foods said they test for lead and claim that at least their recent batches meet the less than a half a microgram California standard. Unfortunately, despite repeated requests they would not provide me with documentation to substantiate their numbers. My favorite response was from Bragg's who sent me the analysis certificate from the lab showing less than 0.01 ppm, which means at most less than half the California standard, which I believe is the most stringent in the world. To put the numbers in context, in determining how much lead manufacturers can put into candy likely to be frequently consumed by small children, the Food and Drug Administration would allow about 2 micrograms a day in the form of lollipops, but as far as I'm concerned the less lead the better.

I was so frustrated by the lack of transparency I decided to test them for lead myself. NutritionFacts.org hired an independent lab to conduct our own tests for lead and shipped out 8 samples of nutritional yeast in their original package. The lab used standard practices for lead testing known as Official Methods of Analysis set by AOAC International. Lab technicians determined the lead values based on California Prop 65 standards. Here are the results from the brands we tested:

Bob's Red Mill - Test report shows no detectable lead (<0.01 ppm).

Bragg - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Dr. Fuhrman - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Frontier Coop - Test report shows lead levels at 0.021 ppm. It would take six tablespoons a day (based on the manufacture's listed density) to exceed the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) for chemicals causing reproductive toxicity.*

KAL - Test report shows lead levels at 0.011 ppm. It would take seven tablespoons a day to exceed the MADL.*

NOW Foods - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Red Star - Test report shows no detectable lead (< 0.01 ppm).

Whole Foods - Test report shows lead levels at 0.012 ppm. It would take six tablespoons a day to exceed the MADL.*

So what do all those numbers mean? None of the brands tested exceeded California prop 65 standards. No matter what brand, consuming a typical serving (2 tablespoons) per day is still well within safe limits.

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:

* The Maximum Allowable Dose Level for lead as a developmental toxin is 0.5 micrograms a day. How are MADL's calculated? Basically scientists figure out what the "no observable effect level" is, the level at which no birth defects or reproductive toxicity can be found, and then introduce a 1000-fold safety buffer. So for example, let's say there's some chemical that causes birth defects if expectant moms are exposed to two drops of the chemical a day, but there's no evidence that one drop a day is harmful. Do they set the Maximum Allowable Dose Level at one drop? No, they set it at 1/1000th of a drop to account for scientific uncertainty and to err on the side of caution. So by saying six tablespoons a day of nutritional yeast may exceed the MADL is in effect saying that the level of lead found in 6,000 tablespoons of nutritional yeast may cause birth defects. Like mercury, though, as far as I'm concerned the less lead exposure the better. I hope this will inspire companies to do further testing to see if the levels we found were just flukes.

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. 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

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

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

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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

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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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Caloric Restriction vs. Plant-Based Diets

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Hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States every year are attributed to obesity, now overtaking smoking as perhaps the main preventable cause of illness and premature death. In particular, excess body fatness is an important cause of most cancers, according to a meta-analysis of studies done to date. For some cancers, about half of the cases may be attributable to just being overweight or obese.

What's the connection, though? Why do individuals who are obese have increased cancer risk? To answer this question we must consider the biochemical consequences of obesity, like IGF-1; insulin like growth factor one is a cancer-promoting growth hormone associated with a variety of common cancers in adults, as well as children. Kids who got cancer had about four times the levels of IGF-1 circulating in their bloodstream, whereas people growing up with abnormally low levels of IGF-1 don't seem to get cancer at all.

I've talked about this cancer-proofing mutation (See Cancer-Proofing Mutation), the role animal protein intake plays in boosting IGF-1 production from our liver (Protein Intake & IGF-1 Production), which may explain plant-based protection from cancer (The Answer to the Pritikin Puzzle), and how plant-based one has to eat (How Plant-Based to Lower IGF-1?), but our liver is not the only tissue that produced IGF-1, fat cells produce IGF-1 too. That may help explain this "twenty-first century cancer epidemic caused by obesity."

So of course drug companies have come up with a variety of IGF-1 blocking chemo agents, with cute names like figitumamab, but with not-so-cute side effects "such as early fatal toxicities." So perhaps better to lower IGF-1 the natural way, by eating a plant-based diet, as vegan women and men have lower IGF-1 levels. Maybe, though, it's just because they're so skinny. The only dietary group that comes close to the recommended BMI of 21 to 23 were those eating strictly plant-based diets, so maybe it's the weight loss that did it. Maybe we can eat whatever we want as long as we're skinny.

To put that to the test, we'd have to find a group of people that eat meat, but are still as slim as vegans. And that's what researchers did - long-distance endurance runners, running an average of 48 miles a week for 21 years were as slim as vegans. If we run 50,000 miles we too can maintain a BMI of even a raw vegan. So what did they find?

If we look at blood concentrations of cancer risk factors among the groups of study subjects, we see that only the vegans had significantly lower levels of IGF-1. That makes sense given the role animal protein plays in boosting IGF-1 levels.

But the vegan group didn't just eat less animal protein, they ate fewer calories. And in rodents at least, caloric restriction alone reduces IGF-1 levels. So maybe low IGF-1 among vegans isn't due to their slim figures, but maybe the drop in IGF-1 in vegans is effectively due to their unintentional calorie restriction. So we have to compare vegans to people practicing severe calorie restriction.

To do this, the researchers recruited vegans from the St. Louis Vegetarian Society, and went to the Calorie Restriction Society to find folks practicing severe caloric restriction. What did they find?

Only the vegan group got a significant drop in IGF-1. These findings demonstrate that, unlike in rodents, long-term severe caloric restriction in humans does not reduce the level of this cancer-promoting hormone. It's not how many calories we eat, but the protein intake that may be the key determinant of circulating IGF-1 levels in humans, and so reduced protein intake may become an important component of anti-cancer and anti-aging dietary interventions.

That same data set that compared plant eaters to marathon runners was also featured in Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension and Arteries of Vegans vs. Runners.

These studies are highlighted in my video Caloric Restriction vs. Plant-based Diets.

More on the caloric consumption and longevity:

What exactly is IGF-1 and what is the relationship to animal protein consumption?:

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: Heather Hammond / Flickr

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Treating Pancreatic Cancer with Turmeric Curcumin

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Pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive forms of human cancer, characterized by a very high mortality rate. It represents the fourth leading cause of cancer death in United States, killing 32,000 people annually. With a five-year survival rate of only three percent and a median survival rate of less than six months, pancreatic cancer carries one of the poorest prognoses. The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is one of the worst things a doctor ever has to tell a patient. The only FDA-approved therapies for it, Gemcitabine and Erlotinib, produce objective responses in less than ten percent of patients, while causing severe side-effects in the majority. There is a desperate need for new options.

Clinical research to test new treatments is split into phases. Phase I trials are just to make sure the treatment is safe, to see how much you can give before it becomes toxic. Curcumin, the natural yellow pigment in the spice turmeric has passed a number of those. In fact, there was so little toxicity, the dosing appeared limited only by the number of pills patients were willing to swallow.

Phase II trials are conducted to see if the drug actually has an effect. Curcumin did, in 2 of the 21 patients that were evaluated. One patient had a 73 percent tumor reduction, but the effect was short-lived. One lesion remained small, but a curcumin-resistant tumor clone emerged. The other patient, who had a stable disease for over 18 months, showed slow improvement over a year. The only time that patient's cancer markers bumped up was during a brief three-week stint where the curcumin was stopped.

So curcumin does seem to help some patients with pancreatic cancer, and most importantly, there appears to be little downside. No curcumin-related toxic effects were observed in up to doses of eight grams per day. What happens after eight grams? We don't know because no one was willing to take that many pills. The patients were willing to go on one of the nastiest chemotherapy regimens on the planet, but didn't want to be inconvenienced with swallowing a lot of capsules.

The only surefire way to beat pancreatic cancer is to prevent it in the first place. In 2010 I profiled a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the largest such study in history, which found that dietary fat of animal origin was associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk.

Which animal fat is the worst? The second largest study (highlighted in my video: Turmeric Curcumin and Pancreatic Cancer) has since chimed in to help answer that question. Researchers found that poultry was the worst, with 72 percent increased risk of pancreatic cancer associated with every 50 grams of daily poultry consumption. Fifty grams is just about a quarter of a chicken breast. The reason white meat came out worse than red may be because of the cooked meat carcinogens in chicken, the heterocyclic amines that build up in grilled and baked chicken. These mutagenic chemicals have been associated with a doubling of pancreatic cancer risk (See Estrogenic Cooked Meat Carcinogens).

Meat has been associated with significantly increased risk, whereas fake meat is associated with significantly less risk. Those who eat plant-based meats like veggie burgers or veggie dogs three or more times a week had less than half the risk of fatal pancreatic cancer. Legumes and dried fruit appear to be similarly protective.

My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. By the time the first symptom arose, a dull ache in his gut, it was too late. That's why we need to work on preventing it.

I previously touched on pancreatic cancer prevention in Poultry Exposure Tied to Liver and Pancreatic Cancer and attempts at pancreatic cancer treatment in Gerson Therapy for Cancer and Gerson-style Therapy vs. Chemotherapy.

For more on the heterocyclic amine cooked meat carcinogens:

I've done a bunch of videos on turmeric and various cancers:

And more on this amazing spice (and more to come):

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: Sara Marlowe / Flickr

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