Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Potent Berries for Eye Health

Bilberry, known as Vaccinium myrtillus, is a shrubby perennial plant one to two feet in height and can be found in the mountains and forests of Europe and the northern United States. The berries and leaves are used medicinally, but the berries have been found to be most beneficial for eye health. Historical uses include military soldiers in the field that ate the jam of the berries to help with night vision. The sweet and tart tasting berries of the plant are commonly used in supplements and tinctures. The berries contain vitamin C and anthyocyanins, giving them potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Common eye concerns include glaucoma and cataracts. Glaucoma is a condition that damages the optic nerve that sends signals from the eye to the brain. It is the second leading cause of blindness in the United States. The condition is a result of increased intraocular pressure (IOP) in the eye. Depending on the reason for the increased IOP, the condition can be asymptomatic or can cause symptoms such as pain in the eye, cloudy vision, nausea or vomiting, halos around light, or a swollen feeling. Visual deficits are usually in the peripheral fields. The best way to diagnose glaucoma is with an eye exam and a series of testing to check not only for eye pressure changes, but for other signs of damage.

Cataracts are common in the aging population. The lens of the eye becomes clouded, causing blurry vision, colors that appear faded, glaring, impaired night vision, and double vision. Compared to glaucoma, the blurring usually occurs in the central line of sight. Changes take place slowly over time. People with metabolic disorders and unstable blood sugar, such as diabetes, are especially at risk for developing cataracts.

Bilberry helps the eye by strengthening collagen cross linking and increasing the integrity of the vascular system.  It is also anti-oxidant leading to decreased damage to the vascular system generated by free radicals. One recent study published by researchers in Japan, found that anthocyanin-rich bilberry extract has a protective effect on visual function during retinal inflammation. They also found that bilberry extract prevented the impairment of ocular photoreceptor cell function.

The berries reduce damage to the vascular supply to the eyes and are utilized to treat cataracts. Significant improvements have been seen with both diabetic retinopathy, damage to the retina as a result of diabetes, and hypertensive retinopathy, damage to the retina as a result of high blood pressure, in patients supplemented with Vaccinium extracts.  One specific study examined patients taking 115 mg anthocyanins per day for one month and found beneficial improvements in eye health.

Bilberry is generally safe, but should be discussed with a healthcare professional. Bilberry is in the same family as other commonly consumed berries such as blueberries and cranberries. Stock up on berries this fall and eat your way to better eye health! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Outsmart Your Genetics

Our brains are wired to perform very important tasks, some that we control consciously and some unconsciously. When it comes to brain health, addictions can be a difficult problem to correct. The American Society of Addiction Medicine issued a policy statement that defines addiction as "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry." This is not a novel statement based on decades of research that have been spent studying addiction. The new definition does, however, bring to light the fact that addiction may not be a matter of simple self- control. The statement defines addiction as a disease, just as any other brain, heart, musculoskeletal or other organ functional problem may be defined. If addiction were simply a matter of will power, there may be more success stories of smoking cessation, ending bad eating habits or giving up alcohol addictions. Not many people want or choose to be controlled by these substances, but somehow they are. The statement also defines characteristics of addiction that may include inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, a craving for drugs or other substances, diminished recognition of significant problems with behaviors or relationships and a dysfunctional emotional response. 

What substances or behaviors can be addicting? Drugs (illegal or prescription), alcohol, gambling, shopping and food are considered common addictives. Perhaps the increasing epidemic of obesity may be somewhat related to a food addiction. Food is often used as a motivator or source pleasure as opposed to being considered a fuel for the body. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a leading expert on functional medicine, industrially processed, sugar-, fat- and salt-laden food, food that is made in a plant rather than grown on a plant is biologically addictive. Not many folks would eat a 2 pound bag of broccoli or a 5 pound bag of apples. But imagine a bag or potato chips, a plate of cookies, or an extra large pizza? The latter is easy to see vanishing unconsciously. Broccoli is not addictive, but chemically processed and refined foods will train our brain to unconsciously crave and consume them to excess. 

The research also points to genetic factors as a reason for addiction. The likelihood that an individual will become addicted can be accounted for by genetics in approximately fifty percent of cases. This implies that if a person has a known family history of addictive behavior, they can be aware of their resulting risk and work to modify their genetic tendency by changing things like environmental influences and life experiences. Changing environmental influence may mean relocating to an area without emotional triggers, avoiding specific activities that cause addictive behaviors and focusing on creating positive life experiences that are free of potential habit forming substances. A comparison can be drawn between family history of cardiovascular disease and family history of alcoholism. A person may decide to modify diet and lifestyle, go for regular cholesterol checks and take medicines or supplements to lower cardiovascular risk. We wouldn’t want this person eating fast food every day, living a sedentary lifestyle, and avoiding regular doctor visits. The same goes for a family history of alcoholism. A person may focus on a diet and lifestyle that avoids activities and situations where drinking alcohol is a form of entertainment, motivation and reward. They may instead choose to focus on other activities of motivation and reward such as creative projects, recreation, or other activities that can be enjoyed socially, without potential addiction concerns.

Unfortunately, re-wiring the brain and changing genetic tendencies can be a process. Recognizing genetics and current habits is a way to start considering the risk for addiction. For those struggling with addiction, having the support of friends, family and loved ones can be a critical element of recovery. There are also many support groups available for individuals and friends and family members of those struggling with addiction.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Potato Chip Study

Is a calorie just a calorie? The conventional  notion that weight loss really a simple equation of calorie intake vs energy expenditure may not be completely true. Especially in the long term.  Recent research suggests that avoidance of specific foods may lead to a more stable weight pattern.

What is the potato chip study? The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in June 2011  titled “changes in diet and lifestyle and long term weight gain in women and men.” The study looked at weight changes at regular intervals in three study groups. The data was pooled and evaluated for dietary intake patterns and weight change.

The participants who ate either potato chips, French fries, or potatoes (prepared another way) had the most weight gain over the four year period. The greatest weight loss was seen in groups that consumed low fat yogurt and nuts.

What does this mean? You can simplify this data to mean that consuming high levels of simple carbohydrates lead to weight gain. The other foods looked at in the study confirm what we already know about foods: consuming a diet high in vegetables, fruits,  nuts, and minimally processed grains may be the best for long term metabolic health. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Forward to Seasonal Allergies

Allergies can be year round or seasonal. In the Midwest, the first major allergy reaction season begins when trees begin to release pollen. Trees with little or no visible flower actually release the highest amount of pollen because they rely on wind rather than insects for pollination. Another source of potential allergens is in the form of fungal spores. Spores are high all times of the year when there is no snow cover. Other allergens include grasses or crops in more rural areas.

Why do some people react to common allergens and others don’t? It has to do with genetics and immune system tolerance. Having certain types of immune cells in the body can help shift the response. The body’s immune system can be supported in a variety of ways! The gastrointestinal tract makes up a whopping 60-80% of the mechanisms responsible for immune response and therefore supporting gut function is of particular importance when combating allergies.

Easy steps to take to reduce exposure include using a dehumidifier to reduce humidity and reduce indoor allergens such as dust mites or mold spores. Also reducing the number of dust collecting items in the home like carpets, curtains, cloth furniture can be beneficial. Removing shoes in the home is another way to keep outdoor allergens away.

There are many natural alternatives to the common over the counter meds that most folks turn to for relief. Options can include dietary modification, supplementation, plant medicines or even homeopathy. One particular supplement that I have used with success is Quercetin. Dosing depends on the person but it generally well tolerated. Combine this nutritional supplement with dietary change and gut support and most of my allergic patients can finally get relief for the spring and fall. With naturopathic medicine, there is no “one size fits all” approach for allergies! So put a little more spring in your step this allergy season and find a natural alternative and lasting solution to allergies. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hormone Balancing Act

One of the most frequent concerns I've seen in my office within the past few weeks is that of weight gain. The new year has (once again) prompted people to seek help with one of the most common New Years resolutions-- lose weight! 

I have successfully helped many folks lose weight over the years. There are some key factors that I have found that need to be modified before weight loss can be successful and maintained for the long term. 

Stress reduction! Stress does not just come from work, your boss or driving in traffic. Inflammation in the body,  chronic disease, excessive worry or emotional problems, or environmental toxins are all perceived by the body as stress. Some develop coping mechanisms to stress and some become chronically maladapted to stress leading to imbalances in cortisol. Stress reduction techniques such as yoga, tai chi, breathing or meditation, and massage can all be useful strategies. It is important, however, to measure the amount of cortisol that the body is making in order to support underlying imbalances. 

Sex Hormones! The hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone play an important role in both males and females. In both men and women, estrogen excess is often to blame for inability to lose weight. Estrogen excess can come from many sources in our environment. Certain foods can mimic estrogen (soy), pesticides used on non- organic foods can disrupt sex hormones, and plastics (BPA specifically) can also have estrogen like effects.Many women have a history of or are currently taking  birth control pills-- which puts excess estrogen into the body on a daily basis! 

Thyroid! The thyroid is often blamed for weight problems, although treating the thyroid alone often does not lead to weight loss. Thyroid health can be supported by a variety of methods and in combination with sex hormone and adrenal hormone support can optimize weight loss results. 

As you can see, weight loss can be more than just diet and exercise. A comprehensive hormonal evaluation can  uncover underlying causes of weight can and be the first step on the road to weight loss. 

Happy New Year!