Monday, January 28, 2013

Go to Health: Tomatoes All Year!

You might not expect that the latest on the benefits of tomatoes would come from the Lapland Central Hospital in Finland. Despite their short growing season, Finns are said to love tomatoes when they can get them. Finnish researchers studied what blood factors (from diet) were associated with a lowered risk of stroke in men, expecting to find correlations with levels of vitamins E and A. Instead, they found that men in the highest quartile of serum lycopene had a 55- 59% lower risk of stroke than those in the lowest quartile. Alpha and beta carotene, vitamin E and A were not associated with stroke risk.

Researchers at the College of Nursing, University of Kentucky, found that patients with heart failure who had the highest intake of tomatoes in their diet had longer times between adverse cardiac events.

Studies from Chungbuk National University in Korea found that tomato extract added to the diets of mice caused weight loss, despite a high-fat diet. Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol were also reduced.

Studies from the University of Talca in Argentina found that rats supplemented with tomato extract had a reduction of platelet clumping, which would reduce blood clotting and improve blood flow.

Recent Canadian studies have looked at post menopausal women between 50 and 60 who were given lycopene-rich tomato juice, lycopene supplements or a placebo for 4 months. They were tested for blood markers of osteoporosis. Those taking tomato juice or lycopene were found to have reduced levels of bone breakdown compared to those given placebo. Subsequently, these researchers studied women who were told to restrict their intake of tomatoes or lycopene; in this study bone markers for osteoporosis were significantly increased.

U.S. studies from the 1990’s looking at male health professionals showed that frequent intake of tomato products was associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Because further studies could not confirm this finding, Harvard researchers did a careful re-analysis in 2002 and again found a moderately reduced risk.

Tomatoes, which originated in South America and were first cultivated in Mexico, are clearly loved all around the world. Enjoy them! Do not start taking a lycopene supplement after reading this column. Excess intake of single carotenes may be counterproductive. There are many factors in tomatoes besides lycopene that can be healthy. Do start eating more tomato products while waiting for the ripe ones to come back into season. Tomato paste and low sodium organic Very Veggie are great choices – you can find them in our local stores in glass containers – free of BPA (Bisphenol A) and other chemicals. You can preserve homemade tomato sauce when they are in season; people lacking the time or expertise for home canning can simply freeze them. Here’s a great website from the University of Nebraska on easy ways to preserve tomatoes -

The beneficial compounds in tomatoes are best absorbed when eaten with fat, so include a healthy oil, such as olive oil, in your cooking or on your salad. Be careful of the high sodium content in many commercial tomato soups and sauces. You probably know that watermelon is also a good source of lycopene.

Next month I’m going to write about the amazing abilities of silkworm cocoons to keep vaccines and antibiotics cool, even in areas of extreme summer heat. This could be a great boon to immunization programs in Africa and Southeast Asia. Stay tuned!

Sadja Greenwood MD back issues

Friday, January 4, 2013

What Is the Microbiome?

Writing in The New Yorker on Oct. 22nd, Michael Specter explains the amazing new discoveries about the bacteria, viruses and fungi that colonize our bodies and affect our health. His article, Germs are Us, starts out with a discussion of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori), found in the stomach of half the people on earth. While on the one hand it is a principal cause of gastric and peptic ulcers, and is associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer, its longevity in the human species, at least 200,000 years, makes it likely that it also plays a positive role in human evolution. Specter explains that we are inhabited from birth (the birth canal, mother’s skin, other people, all our surroundings) with a hundred trillion or more microorganisms. These microbes are in our mouths, digestive tracts, and skin – some 10,000 bacterial species, with a weight of about 3 pounds. They help us digest our food, manufacture vitamins in the colon (biotin and Vitamin K), and help our immune systems prevent infections. While the genes we inherit play a role in our health and disease, so does the microbiome. The human body can be seen more as a ‘vast, highly mutable ecosystem …. than like an individual assembled from a rulebook of genetic instructions’. Streptococcus mutans, in the mouth, is a principal cause of tooth decay, releasing acid when we eat sugar. Dentists are working on a number of measures to control this bacterium, including chlorhexidine and xylitol chewing gum. The bacterium Lactobacillus sakei may be capable of warding off sinusitis; this bacterium is destroyed by antibiotics. While antibiotics are ‘the signature medical achievement of the 20th century, and have saved millions of lives’, there is a downside to their use in terms of our microbiome. People without H. Pylori in their gut seem to be more sensitive to allergens, and are more likely to have had asthma as children. Children born by C-section lack many microbes transferred in the birth canal. Research from Finland and Germany indicate that these children may have more allergies. There is also a strong relationship between the presence of H. Pylori and two stomach hormones that control appetite. Ghrelin induces eating, and leptin suppresses the appetite. People whose stomachs have H. pylori have less ghrelin after a meal and stop eating; people without it may not get the message to stop and become obese. The reason that animals (poultry, cows and pigs) fed with antibiotics gain weight faster may have more to do with this mechanism than with treatment of illness. About 40% of children treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics develop diarrhea – and treatment with a probiotic (good bacteria for the gut) may prevent this disease. About 10% of people carry a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), which is normally held in check by other bacteria in the gut. When given antibiotics, people with C. difficile can develop severe, life threatening diarrhea and gut inflammation. Researchers are now using a technique called fecal transplant, in which they take intestinal bacteria from healthy donors and place them in the patient’s intestines. Cures have occurred with this treatment when nothing else has worked.

Specter ends his article with cautionary advice on probiotics, which he considers over-advertised without backup research. In the future we may know more about beneficial bacteria, but at present he thinks there is insufficient knowledge to say which bacteria should be used. After reading this, I did a search of current medical research on the use of probiotics. There are considerable findings on the use of beneficial bacteria to decrease antibiotic induced diarrhea, in decreasing childhood allergy, in improving the outcome of patients undergoing surgery for colon cancer, in vaginal infections in women, in the management of adult-onset diabetes, and in many other areas. My own conclusion is that a daily probiotic capsule from a reputable supplement company, with or without the ingestion of high-quality unsweetened yogurt, can help to prevent many gastro-intestinal infections. Use antibiotics when they are needed for serious bacterial infections, but always be mindful of your own beneficial bacteria.

Sadja Greenwood M.D., MPH back issues on this blog