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Echinacea benefits the immune system

echinaceaEchinacea is one of the most popular herbs used by people in the Western world and many people swear by it. However, a tour around what is written about Echinacea on the web can leave you a bit confused. There is no agreement on how to use the herb and how long to use it for. Some also question the effectiveness of the herb.

Well, for the many people who rely on Echinacea to keep them healthy and free from colds and flu each year, data from research published recently will be of great interest and reassurance that they have been right all along!

How does Echinacea work?

We have long known that Echinacea has the ability to influence the functioning of the body’s immune system. The herb has been used by herbalists to strengthen the body’s defence mechanism, protecting against invading organisms such as viruses in particular and also bacteria. The theory is that with a strong immune system, bugs are far less likely to overcome the body’s own natural defences, preventing us from catching colds and flu.

Well, this new research has confirmed that the benefits of Echinacea are not merely theoretical or in the mind. Scientists from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland set up a series of experiments to work out how Echinacea benefits the body’s immune system and came up with some very interesting findings.(1)

Firstly, they were able to confirm that using Echinacea can indeed improve the way the body’s immune system functions. Long-standing advocates of the herb will say ‘I told you so!’

However, what was most interesting was the finding that Echinacea benefited people in different ways. Those with well-functioning immune systems only saw mild or moderate benefits when using the herb. On the other hand, the scientists found that people whose immune systems were weakest benefited the most from using Echinacea – those who were under stress, overworked, or with a history of being prone to cold and flu infections.

So what does this all mean?

If your immune system needs help, Echinacea can help improve its effectiveness. However, it will not over-stimulate your immune system – this is one of the theoretical reasons why in the past, it has been said that you should only take Echinacea for short periods of time (ranging from 7 to 14 days). Research now tells us that this is untrue.

For those using Echinacea, it is confirmation that what they have been doing all along to support their immune system has been correct. In addition, this research indicates that regular or even daily use of the herb will not lead to problems.

For those yet to be convinced, this new research provides us with another layer of scientific proof that using Echinacea can improve the way the immune system functions – it is a key bit of research which helps us better understand how Echinacea works in the body.

For the career sceptics – well, in truth, I am not sure anything will help.

The 3 ways of using Echinacea

No matter what your opinion is of Echinacea, you may find it useful to consider the 3 ways in which herbalists use Echinacea. These are:

Prevention of infections – If your immune system is below par because of stress, too much work, worry or responsibility, poor diet or a combination of these factors, it is likely that you will be more prone to colds, flu and other infections. Using Echinacea can help to prevent infection by supporting the way the immune system functions.(2,3)

Staying healthy when others around you have the cold – We have all been in places we would rather not be in. In the tube, on a bus, at work or at a party and sitting next to someone who is coughing, sneezing and merrily spluttering away. No matter how strong your immune system is, you can lay bets that one of these nasty bugs will reach out and grab you by the throat. In these situations, Echinacea can provide ‘short term’ prevention.(4)

Fighting the misery of colds and flu – It happens to all of us at some point or another, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. If you do catch the cold or flu, research has confirmed that Echinacea has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties which help to reduce the severity of symptoms and help recovery from colds and flu.(5,6)

Choosing your Echinacea carefully

There are many types of Echinacea products available and it is sometimes difficult to know which one to choose. Do you simply go by price, or are you drawn to a familiar name?

The truth is, not all Echinaceas products are equal. Some are of poor or inconsistent quality. So how do you know which Echinacea product to take?

The UK law governing herbal remedies has changed recently and one way for you to know if a product is of good and consistent quality is to see if it is licensed by the Department of Health. In addition to this, the internet makes it so much easier for you to look ‘behind the scenes’ – how the manufacturer makes its products and what other people say about the brand you choose to use.

Remember that, if an Echinacea product does not do what it says it should do, it could be that the quality of the product may not be up to scratch.

(1)         Ritchie MR, et al. Phytomedicine 2011;18:826-31

(2)         Schoop R, et al. Clinical Therapeutics 2006;28(2):174-183

(3)         Shah SA, et al. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 2007;7(7):473-480

(4)         HMPC Monograph on Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench, herb recens, 8 May 2006, EMEA/HMPC/104945/2006Corr

(5)         Sharma SM, et al. Phytomedicine 2009; doi10.1016/j-phymed.2009.10.022

(6)         Brinkeborn RM et al. Phytomedicine 1999;6(1):1-5

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More woman in heels, but it comes with a cost

If  women seem to be getting taller these days, they are.  Look around at any trendy shoe store and you’ll see five inch heels everywhere.  But doctors say they come at a high cost.  Not in money, but with pain.

  37-year-old Luz Vargas says the higher the heel.  The better she feels.    “They make me actually walk straighter, like confident I think,” said Vargas.   But after a bad spin on the dance floor in these high heel boots a few months ago,  she was sidelined.  Her foot became so swollen and bruised, she ended up in a brace and in physical therapy for months.    “Lots of women love to dress up and they love to go dancing and they love to go partying.  However, you mix that with alcohol and late nights and dancing and loud music.  Before you know it you’re getting a lot of injuries and I’m seeing people that, number one will fall and break their ankle and they fall and break their foot,” said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Steven Neufeld.    It’s not just sprains and breaks.  High heels also lead to other foot problems.   “I’m seeing people with a lot more pain on the ball of their foot.  I’m seeing a lot more bunions and a lot more hammer toes, a lot more nerve pain.  Calluses that are becoming a problem, corns are becoming a problem,” said Dr. Neufeld.   In fact, Dr. Steven Neufeld says shoes with a heel more than two inches high puts anywhere from five to eight times your body weight on the ball of your foot.  Vargas says her sprained ankle is still healing, but she’s already back in her high heels and she says she’s not giving them up any time soon.    “Who knows if it’s ever going to fully be the same again, but you get used to it,” said Vargas.    Dr. Neufeld says if you can’t give up your heels, go for an open-toe style that takes a little pressure off the ball of your foot. 

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UC nurses approve contract

Registered nurses at University of California hospitals and student health centers have ratified a new collective bargaining agreement that protects existing standards for nurses at a time when many public-sector employees are scaling back benefits.

The 26-month agreement between UC management and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United took effect Friday and extends through June 30, 2013. It covers more than 11,000 nurses statewide, including 2,000 at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Pay increases will average at least 11 percent over the life of the contract. Senior nurses won an extra step to the salary scale, a big plus for those who have been frozen out of pay raises because they are at the top of the scale.

Other highlights include assurances that registered nurses can take meal and rest breaks during shifts and stronger contract provisions that allow nurses elected by their peers to address patient safety issues with managers.

This is the first multi-year agreement since 2002. Disputes and short-term fixes have prompted almost continuous collective bargaining for almost a decade.

One of the reasons for the stand-off was UC reluctance to provide guarantees about future health premiums, according to Shirley Toy, a registered nurse and member of the bargaining team at UC Davis. This time, the union won a limit on out-of-pocket employee costs related to health insurance and a complicated formula that ties the increase to nurses’ pay hike. UC also promised to pay half the increased costs, Toy said. …

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Can Clothing Make You Sick?

 

I admit that I am somewhat of a germaphobe. it all started when I had kids. It is amazing how often you think about germs when you have kids. I feel like I am in a war.

Of course, I don’t win every battle, but I do my best to keep on the winning side of the war. I carry antibacterial gel in the car and encourage hand washing. I disinfect the doorknobs and toys during flu season. I don’t let the kids eat things that fall on the ground.

But one thing I really haven’t thought about is germs on clothes. I mean I know about bacteria on clothes, anyone who has ever smelled dirty laundry knows that there is bacteria on clothing, but what about viruses and other germs? Do I have to worry about them as well?

To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about germs on clothing until I was asked the question the other day: “Do you worry about germs on clothing?” Huh? Can you catch a cold from a sweatshirt?

With that question unanswered, I did a little research. There are a couple studies out there that show that neckties worn by doctors and their assistants at a New York hospital harbored disease causing bacteria that could be passed from patient to patient. There is also information about clothing carrying mold spores.

Another study showed that new clothing was teaming with all sorts of bacteria, including bacteria that is normally associated with feces, armpits and well, parts down below. That same study that was conducted at New York University Langone Medical Center found that at least one bug, the Norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal illness, can live on dry clothing for several days. All it takes is for someone to touch the clothing in a store with their hands to deposit the nasties. Another reason to wash all new clothing.

Still no information on the cold thing, but this warrants further investigation. Look for future posts about preventing illness from your clothing.

Is H1N1 Still a Threat?

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Studies Tout Alternative HIV Regimens for Women, Babies

New research suggests that alternative drug regimens in poor countries could help HIV-infected mothers and their infants more effectively fight off the virus that causes AIDS.

Currently, doctors lower the risk of transmission of mother-to-baby HIV infection by giving a drug to mothers right before birth and to babies right after. About half of the babies avoid getting HIV, but mothers and babies who do get infected often develop resistance to the drug, which is typically given to them later in life.

Enter the alternatives. “We now have a very effective treatment for women who’ve taken a specific drug and for babies at risk,” said Dr. Shahin Lockman, lead author of one of two studies about the regimens in the Oct. 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

There’s a big hitch, however: the alternative regimens are much more expensive than the current drug regimen, although the study authors weren’t able to give an estimate of the difference in costs between the regimens.

At stake are the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of women who are infected with HIV, said Lockman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

In many cases, HIV-positive women in poor countries such as those in Africa receive treatment with the inexpensive anti-HIV drug nevirapine shortly before they give birth. The idea is that the drug will reduce the risk that the baby will become infected with HIV during labor and delivery.

The problem is that in some cases, the AIDS virus develops resistance to the drug and the drug then doesn’t work as well after an initial treatment. Even so, nevirapine is still used to treat both mothers and infected babies after birth.

Researchers have been looking for alternative treatments that have less risk of failing because the virus can escape the drug’s effects. In the new studies, they tested different regimens, trying to find the ones that will allow more mothers or babies to push the level of HIV in their blood to zero. (They won’t be cured if that happens, but they will stave off the development of the disease.)

In one study, researchers gave either of two treatments to 241 African women who’d taken a single dose of nevirapine at least six months earlier. Twenty-six percent of those who took a regimen that included nevirapine either died or failed to beat back the virus, compared to 8 percent of those who took the other regimen. The regimens were nevirapine plus tenofovir-emtricitabine or ritonavir-boosted lopinavir plus tenofovir-emtricitabine.

In the other study, researchers tested two regimens zidovudine and lamivudine plus nevirapine, or zidovudine and lamivudine plus ritonavir-boosted lopinavir in HIV-infected babies aged 6 months to 3 years. Only about 60 percent of the babies on the nevirapine regimen managed to both beat back the virus and survive, compared to about 78 percent of the other babies.

The results in the babies were so clear that the researchers ended their study early. Another study, which hopes to determine the best treatment for infected babies who didn’t get nevirapine at birth, is continuing.

Nevirapine by itself is inexpensive, but many pregnant mothers in poor countries still aren’t given it to prevent transmission to their babies, said Dr. Paul E. Palumbo, lead author of the second study and director of the International Pediatric HIV Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

The cost will be a big challenge to providing the alternative regimens, both researchers say. “When you’re already struggling to provide drugs and then you goose the cost dramatically by changing the regimen, it really requires a lot of creativity and problem-solving,” Palumbo said. “It could take years for even the beginning of implementation, and many years before it’s more comprehensively implemented.”

Still, Lockman the lead author of the study of mothers said there’s a “moral and ethical obligation to try to help the mothers who put their health on the line to prevent their babies from getting infected.”

As for nevirapine, it is problematic but remains “a very useful drug, and there are many solutions to this problem,” said Dr. Marc Lallemant, an AIDS specialist at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of a commentary accompanying the study. “The bottom line is that it is an absolute priority to avoid HIV infection in children in the first place.”

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Are GMO’s an eco-friendly choice?

Is it possible to go green and eat genetically modified foods? Does “eco-friendly cuisine” correspond with cross-contaminated organisms? Let’s get the facts straight.

We’re quick to broadly label food as being either “healthy” or “unhealthy”.  As an example, the Papaya fruit would most likely get a stamp of approval in the Healthy Food Category. Hawaiian Papayas, however, are now affected by alterations in their genetic composition. While Hawaiian Papayas may have once been considered healthy food in their natural state with the ability to contribute to one’s wellness, they now have the potential to damage it.

A savvy, proactive and concerned populace who recognizes Genetically Modified Foods as a serious health and environmental threat (especially without proper labeling) can avert the rise of preventable diseases and environmental damage for generations to come.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is produced when genes from one species are inserted into another, in order to obtain a desired characteristic through the process of Genetic Engineering [aka Genetic Modification (GM)].  Those in favor of GM foods claim that this technology will allow decreased pesticide use along with increased food production in an effort to feed the world.

Environmental Damage1

  • Genetically engineered organisms cannot be cleaned up or recalled once released into the environment, unlike chemical and nuclear contamination, which can at least be contained. We cannot isolate and separate Genetic pollution from the environment in which it is spreading
  • New species with genetic modifications could develop through birds, insects or wind that carry genetically altered pollen to other lands thereby pollinating plants and arbitrarily creating these new GM species.

1SustainableTable.org

Health Hazards

  • The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) calls for a moratorium on GM food as it poses serious health risks in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health without any clear benefit. The AAEM recommends immediate long-term independent safety testing and appropriate labeling requirements, which is essential for the health and safety of consumers.
  • The Cancer Prevention Coalition highlights the risk of increased Breast, Colon and Prostate cancer from Genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in milk.
  • The Institute for Responsible Technology released a publication that exposed several health risks, which include allergic reactions, liver problems, reproductive problems and infant mortality, based on laboratory studies in animals.
  • Potential for Antibiotic Resistance in humans due to antibiotic-resistant marker genes in GM foods. This poses a great public health threat; as treatment with currently available antibiotics would not be sufficient to cure the infection.

What Can You Do Today?

  • Understand the reasons for buying Organic Food, as organic foods are grown in harmony with nature and would not allow Genetic Modification.
  • Look for “Non-GMO” labeling. Dairy products should have the label ‘No rBGH or rBST,” or “artificial hormone-free.”
  • Download the Non-GMO project Iphone App or print Dr. Mercola’s non-GMO shopping Guide.

Once you’ve understood the importance of eating non-GMO foods in your own life, you can then make a greater impact on a global level (which in turns make things easier on yourself) by supporting the removal of GMO in the marketplace.

It’s becoming impossible to avoid every environmental and health threat within our food supply.  Imagine eating at a restaurant or going grocery shopping without GM Foods available in the first place. Therefore, advocating on the grassroots level is worthwhile.

Check out the following organizations to get involved: Organic Consumers Association, True Food Network, and Sustainable Table.Org.

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Work Cut Out for Us

One of the higher profile medical stories of the past week was the news that work is increasingly workless- in the physical sense, that is.  Physics defines work as force times distance, and we apply ever less of the former, as electrons traverse ever more of the latter on our behalf.

 

Specifically, the study published in PLoS One, and the media coverage published everywhere else, tell us that the average man expends roughly 142 fewer calories per day at work, and the average woman expends 124 fewer, based on an analysis of Department of Labor statistics from the 1960s to 2008.

The theoretical importance of this finding is that it helps to explain the obesity epidemic, and a bit of number crunching quickly shows why.  Assume that everything other than energy expenditure at work stayed constant over the past 4 decades (nonsense, of course, and we’ll come to that shortly- but go with it for now).

 

A man burning 142 fewer calories each of roughly 240 work days per year would burn just shy of 34,000 fewer calories annually.  Using the standard, if somewhat inaccurate, 3500 calories per pound of body fat gained or lost, that translates to about 9.7 lbs of weight gain in just one year!  A comparable calculation with the woman’s 124 fewer calories burned translates to 8.5 lbs. 

 

That this one finding, if even remotely accurate, could account for much of the modern obesity epidemic all on its own goes a long way toward demonstrating how truly unmysterious the epidemic is!  We really don’t need a lot of exotic theories to account for rampant obesity in the modern age.  We just need what we have: a massive shift in energy balance.

 

That we’re burning fewer calories at work is about as surprising as a report telling us we’re using more cell phones.  And, in fact, the two are separate halves of the same, obvious truth.  We have ever more technology in our lives doing what muscles used to do at work, and at play.  This is another one of those times when a careful analysis of a lot of data demonstrates what the average person would quickly conclude merely by not living under a rock.

 

And this obvious truth about energy expenditure is just part of an equally obvious, larger truth- also accessible to all with an above-rock-bottom view of the world.  We are eating more, too.

 

You may already know my refrain on this topic: throughout all of human history until very recently, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get and physical activity was unavoidable.  We have devised a modern world in which physical activity is increasingly scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable.

 

Nothing relevant to energy balance has stayed constant over the time span in question!  The number of processed foods has increased by tens of thousands.  The use of food chemicals has gone up.  Portion sizes have increased.  Fast food has become a fixture.  Time and knowledge for food preparation have gone down.  Factory farming has emerged, and surged.  The use of hormones in animal husbandry has expanded.  The Internet was invented.

 

The proximal explanation for epidemic obesity is less use of our feet, less prudent use of our forks.  The root explanation is everything about modern living that makes it modern.  Workless work is an example. 

 

What, then, are the take-away messages from this study, and the media attention to it?

 

First, the obesity epidemic is hard to fix, but not hard to explain.  We tend to act as if the first requires the second, and so keep doing studies to re-verify the obvious. 

 

Second, since obesigenic influences have been engineered into the structure of the work day, it is indeed silly as well as wrong to blame the victims of rampant obesity.  The amount of physical work demanded of you by your job is not a matter of will power.  It is a fundamental change at the societal level, far larger than the personal choices and personal responsibility of any individual employee.

 

Third, the fact that the obesity epidemic is easily explained does not mean that every individual’s struggle with weight is quite so clear.  There are cases of extreme susceptibility to weight gain, and unusual resistance to weight loss- a topic I have recently addressed.

 

Fourth, if we engineered the causes of obesity into the typical day and are reaping the consequences, logic suggests that we should engineer the remedy back into daily routine if we hope ever to reap the reward.  Our recently launched A-B-E for Fitness program is a timely example; hourly 5-minute activity bursts it is designed to fit into a work day would allow the average adult to burn 100 calories or more each day. 

 

Work has been cut out of our play, and our work.  We now have our work cut out for us: engineering it back in!

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