April 2008 Newsletter

Acupuncture helps migraines
Soy foods reduce breast cancer
Trans fats increase breast cancer
Vitamins C and E and dementia
Exercise prevents breast cancer
Mushroom inhibits breast cancer
DASH diet for heart and stroke protection

Acupuncture helps migraines

In a study of 160 migraine headache patients, those treated with traditional acupuncture had greater relief of their symptoms and needed less medication than those who received sham treatment. The patients were evaluated at the beginning of the study and again at three and six months after starting treatment.

At three months both the sham and real acupuncture showed some benefit, but at the end of the study, only the real acupuncture produced persistent benefits. (Facco E, et al., Traditional acupuncture in migraine: a controlled, randomized study. Headache 2008 Mar;48(3):398-407.)

It has sometimes been difficult to study acupuncture in a controlled fashion because the mock treatment might also have some benefits. Also, migraines can be quite variable independent of treatment. Acupuncture has been used for more than 2000 years, and while the mechanism by which it works is not clear, a number of studies show that it does work to relieve many conditions. Since it is virtually risk free, it is worth trying for appropriate conditions.

Soy foods reduce breast cancer

In a Japanese study of 24,226 women aged 40 to 69 years, high levels of soy isoflavones in the diet and in the blood were associated with a significant reduction in breast cancer. The women provided blood samples from 1990 to 1995 and were then followed for an average of 10.6 years. (Iwasaki M, et al., Plasma isoflavone level and subsequent risk of breast cancer among Japanese women: a nested case-control study from the Japan Public Health Center-based prospective study group. J Clin Oncol. 2008 Apr 1;26(10):1677-83.)

The women with the highest level of the isoflavone genistein had 10 times as much in the plasma as those with the lowest. Those with the highest genistein level were 66 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those with the lowest plasma level.

While soy isoflavones have a mild estrogenic effect, it appears that they weakly bind with the estrogen receptors and block stronger estrogens from doing harm. Some practitioners appear to be afraid of soy because of this estrogenic effect, but this fear is misplaced, as high soy intake has frequently been shown to help reduce breast cancer and other tumors, including prostate cancer.

Genistein is also present in chick peas and other legumes, including red clover. Currants and raisins also contain significant amounts of genistein, though not as high as soy. In addition to cancer, isoflavones appear to help prevent arteriosclerotic heart disease and osteoporosis.

Trans fats increase breast cancer

Trans fats are produced when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, and they are found in most margarines and shortenings. Trans fats have been linked to increases in the risks of heart disease and cancer.

Recent research on 19,934 women in France has shown a 75 percent higher rate of breast cancer for those women with the highest levels of trans fats in their blood compared to those with the lowest levels. (Chajès V, et al., Association between Serum trans-Monounsaturated Fatty Acids and Breast Cancer Risk in the E3N-EPIC Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Apr 4 [Epub ahead of print])

The women were evaluated at the start of the study from 1995 to 1998 and followed for an average of seven years. The largest source of trans fats appeared to be highly processed foods, so it is possible that a high trans fat level is a marker for the consumption of industrially processed foods. However, other research shows that trans fats themselves are dangerous.

In this study, other sources of monounsaturated fats that occur naturally, such as olive oil, were unrelated to cancer incidence

Vitamins C and E and dementia

Some studies have shown that taking vitamins C and E, alone or in combination, can reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Now a study has been published purporting to show that taking these antioxidant vitamins did nothing to reduce the risks of either form of dementia. (Gray SL, et al., Antioxidant vitamin supplement use and risk of dementia or Alzheimer's disease in older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008 Feb;56(2):291-5. Epub 2007 Nov 27.)

The researchers evaluated 2969 participants who were at least 65 years old at the baseline, and they were followed for 5.5 years. The vitamins were apparently not associated with any change in the frequency of dementias, but there are some problems with the study. One of the main ones that appears to me (and I am not a statistician) is that participants were considered to be “vitamin users” if they took vitamins C and E for “at least one week during the month prior to the start of the study”.

The problem with this is that they did not do blood levels of the vitamins, so they do not know which participants who took vitamins C and E at the start stopped taking them during the course of the study or how consistently they were taking them. They also did not know which “non-users” started taking the supplements during the course of the study.

The authors do note that the synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha) that is most common might not be adequate for the full benefits of natural mixed tocopherols that contain beta, gamma, and delta in addition to the typical d-alpha tocopherol. They also note the deficiencies that I am pointing out in addition to the lack of information about the doses that the supplement takers were actually taking. Overall, this study is not one that you can rely on for information about the benefits of consistent high doses of natural supplements.

Exercise prevents breast cancer

In a study of 2176 breast cancer patients and 2326 matched controls, exercise reduced the risk of breast cancer from 20 to 40 percent. Women with the highest levels of physical activity through heavy work had the most benefit compared to the sedentary controls. (Peplonska B, et al., Adulthood lifetime physical activity and breast cancer. Epidemiology. 2008 Mar;19(2):226-36.)

Women who increased their activity during their 50s had some of the best reduction in risk (27 percent lower). The benefits were consistent even for women who were overweight or post-menopausal, or those who had a family history of breast cancer. The risk of larger and more advanced tumors was especially reduced.

Previous studies have shown the benefits of exercise in cancer prevention. One of the benefits of exercise is that it stimulates the production of coenzyme Q10, a valuable antioxidant.

Mushroom inhibits breast cancer

Mushrooms have a long history of both culinary and medicinal uses. A particular medicinal mushroom, (Phellinus linteus) used in China, Japan, and Korea, has been shown to have anti-tumor effects in prostate and other tissues, and a new study shows that it stops breast cancer cells from growing in laboratory culture studies. (Sliva D, et al., Phellinus linteus suppresses growth, angiogenesis and invasive behaviour of breast cancer cells through the inhibition of AKT signalling. Br J Cancer. 2008 Mar 25 [Epub ahead of print])

Extracts of this mushroom inhibit proliferation of breast cancer cells, block colony formation and adhesion of the cells, and reduce the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis). It appears to help by blocking certain enzymes and signaling mechanisms. Earlier studies have shown that these extracts also enhance immune function and encourage programmed cell death (apoptosis) of tumor cells.

Culinary mushrooms that have valuable health benefits include maitake and shiitake. These are also available as extracts in a variety of supplements.

DASH diet for heart and stroke protection

The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is the diet recommended by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to prevent and treat hypertension. It involves increasing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in the diet while lowering meat, chicken, and fish, and including nuts, seeds, and beans and some low-fat of non-fat dairy products.

A new study shows that adopting this eating pattern can not only lower blood pressure but also reduce the incidence of heart attacks and strokes. (Fung TT, et al., Adherence to a DASH-Style Diet and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke in Women. Arch Intern Med. 2008 Apr 14;168(7):713-20.)

Researchers followed 88,517 women for 24 years, and evaluated food frequency questionnaires seven times during that period. Lifestyle and medical information were collected every two years. Based on the food questionnaires, the subjects were assigned a score for how closely they followed the DASH diet.

The researchers noted a clear association of the strictness with which subjects followed the diet (a higher score) and a reduction in the incidence of heart attacks and strokes. Women with the highest scores (following the diet most closely) had a 24 percent lower risk of heart attacks and an 18 percent lower risk of strokes. (Had they left out the meat and chicken altogether they might have done even better, according to other research.)

A subgroup of the participants was evaluated with blood tests during the study. In this group, closer adherence to the diet also led to lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6, both of which are markers for increased cardiovascular risk. This mostly vegetarian diet is most likely to provide a range of other benefits.