Sunday, February 19, 2012

Seven Billion, and Counting - What to do about it?

We humans now number seven billion, and we are growing fast. Nearly 80 million people are added to the earth’s population each year. Relentless population growth affects many of our current problems, from food scarcity in poor countries, water shortages, pollution, habitat loss and species extinction, climate change, degradation of the oceans and lakes, and human & animal suffering. The welfare of humans is deeply linked to nature, and our propensity to ignore this has been disturbing.

Population Connection (formerly know as ZPG – for Zero Population Growth) is an organization working to understand the reasons for population growth. Its goal is to educate the public – including policy makers – on solutions to the problem, including access to voluntary family planning, education for girls as well as boys worldwide, and ensuring social justice for women and the poor.

In the February issue of The Reporter (the magazine of Population Connection) the theme is child marriage. Ten million young girls become brides every year throughout the world, having children while children. Child marriage is defined as the marriage of a person before the age of 18. The practice is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In Mali, 71% of girls are married before they turn 18. In Bangladesh, the median age of marriage for girls is 15, and 4 out of five girls first meet their husbands at their weddings, according to The Reporter. Child marriage can have serious health implications – in Africa, pregnancy related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15-19 year old girls. Many girls have sex before their first period. An estimated 100,000 girls each year develop a fistula, or opening, between the bladder and vagina because of obstructed labor in childbirth. The pelvis is too small, incompletely formed. As a result, they leak urine constantly and can become social outcasts. There are heroic doctors and nurses who spend their lives on surgical repair of this problem, but the hospitals and know-how for fistula repair are scarce.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is hopeful that the practice of child marriage can end in a generation. He has said “I am confident that change can happen very quickly. No woman who has had the benefit of staying at school and marrying later in life can inflict child marriage on her daughters.”

National Geographic published an article on child marriage in the June 2011 issue, with arresting photographs.

John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council and the National Academy of Sciences, calculates that if the average age of childbearing increased by 5 years, future population size could be reduced by 15-20 percent. This is a striking finding. If readers want to help with this issue, they can visit Population Connection on line, or call them at 800-767-1956. Population Connection has classroom curricula for teachers of social studies and environmental studies that are used in the US and all over the world.

The issue of access to voluntary family planning has been at the top of the news recently here at home, with Obama’s push to give women free access to birth control through their insurance policies. The pushback we have seen against voluntary family planning harks back to Margaret Sanger’s jailing in 1917 for distributing the diaphragm. In 2012, is this absurd, or what? Nicolas Kristof, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Feb. 12th, aptly called it ‘pelvic politics’. I see it as a woman’s issue, a man’s issue, and a big environmental issue as well. The Sierra Club has declined to take on US population growth directly and forcefully, fearing being criticized as racist. They see it as an issue about immigration. I prefer the stand of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is working to save a vast diversity of wild animals and plants, to secure a future for all species hovering on the brink of extinction. Toward this end, among other educational programs, they hand out endangered species condoms, and have a ‘hump smarter hotline’ (800-628-2399) to ‘make sure that this one roll in the sheets doesn’t push some poor creature into extinction’. Check it out - they have a great message. They point out that 50% of pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and more people conceive a child on New Year’s eve than any other time in the year. Obviously, there are ways to talk about population and the environment without being racist. Wake up, Sierra Club! We could all use some new thinking on these issues. Despite our smaller families, our resource heavy lifestyles make us part of the problem.
Sadja Greenwood, MD back issues on this blog!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Luteolin - Another fascinating compound in plants

Luteolin is a flavonoid – a compound in plants that gives yellow or red/blue pigments designed to attract pollinators. Flavonoids also fix nitrogen, regulate plant physiology and inhibit plant diseases. When we humans eat plants, the flavonoids therein may have many beneficial effects. Research on luteolin is an example.

Dr. Daniel Hwang is a molecular biologist at UC Davis. He has studied the ways in which luteolin (and other plant compounds – quercetin, eriodicytol, hesperidin, naringenin) apparently act as anti-inflammatory agents. These compounds target an enzyme in humans that can increase inflammation. Luteolin was found to be the most effective inhibitor of this enzyme. Since unchecked inflammation is associated with heart disease, cancer and problems of aging, this finding is a step on the way to prevention.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, led by Dr. Rodney Johnson, study anti-inflammatory compounds and their effects on the brain aging. They have found that luteolin can reduce inflammation in the brain as well as in other parts of the body. When infection occurs anywhere in the body, brain cells called microglia produce inflammatory chemical messengers that help to fight off the infection. This process is beneficial if it is limited to the acute infection. The inflammatory response is associated with sleepiness, loss of appetite, fever and lethargy, and sometimes a temporary diminishment of memory and learning. Some neurons may self-destruct in this process. Inflammation in the central nervous system can be serious if it goes on too long. Luteolin was found to diminish this inflammatory response, by shutting down a key component in the inflammatory pathway.
When aged mice were fed a diet supplemented with luteolin, they did better on tests of learning and memory tasks than the aged mice controls; the levels of inflammatory markers in their brains were similar to younger adult mice. The researchers concluded that natural compounds in fruits and vegetables, by being anti-inflammatory, could inhibit cognitive aging. Johnson thinks that his team’s results are applicable to other conditions with an inflammatory component, including diabetes and obesity.

Just published research by Professor Jung Park in Korea has shown that luteolin inhibits cell signaling pathways important for the growth of colon cancer cells. Blocking these pathways can stop colon cancer cells from dividing, and can lead to cancer cell death.

Dietary sources of luteolin include celery, green pepper, thyme, chamomile, carrots, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary and oregano. Luteolin is also being sold as a supplement, and should not be taken as such. You may remember the study showing that smokers taking beta-carotene supplements developed more lung cancer and had higher death rates than those without such a supplement. It was felt that taking an excess of one carotene may have inhibited the absorption of other carotenes from food. There are many flavonoids in plant foods, and they may act synergistically with each other. Taking any one of these as a supplement is unwise and untested. Earlier in this article I wrote about quercetin – found in apples, capers and onions, and eriodicytol, hesperidin, and naringenin - found in citrus fruits. The take home lesson from research on flavonoids is – keep eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Remember what Michael Pollan said: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Sadja Greenwood, MD,MPH back issues on this blog