Tag Archives: cardiovascular disease

Is Coffee Good for You?

I remember when I was growing up many people who were trying to live a “healthy” lifestyle avoid all caffeine, even that in chocolate. Of course, our idea of what is healthy changes over the years. It used to be that fat was the culprit to avoid. Now, it is carbohydrates. Next it will be….your guess is as good as mine.

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With coffee, there is actually some strong evidence that it is a healthy choice for most people. Many studies have shown coffee to be a brain protector that could help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies indicating that coffee might decrease the risk of diabetes. And there are compounds in coffee besides caffeine that could be beneficial. For instance, chlorogenic acid is the active ingredient in the popular weight loss supplement Green Coffee Bean Extract.

For a small percentage of the population, these benefits might be outweighed by some potential health concerns. About 12% of us have a genetic variation in a caffeine-detoxifying enzyme, known as cytochrome p450 1A2, which leads to slower breakdown of caffeine. One study indicated an increased risk of heart attack among individuals with these genes who drank coffee. The risk increased with higher coffee intake. Likewise, coffee drinkers with these variations had higher risk of breast cancer in another study. The study seemed to indicate that if they didn’t drink coffee they had a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than the rest of the population.

So how do you know if you are in this 12%? Genetic testing is now a viable option since it has become inexpensive. Many people with this genetic variation can tell because caffeine will affect them longer or even cause strange symptoms. They might notice that a cup of coffee with supper or even lunch or breakfast keeps them awake at night.

For everyone else, some caffeine seems like a safe and possible protective part of the diet, but to quote one of my herbal medicine instructors, “the proper dose for this herbal medicine is 1-2 cups per day.” Over reliance on coffee to keep us energized might be masking underlying health issues to need to be addressed.

Is Vitamin K2 the New Vitamin D?

Vitamin D has received a lot of interest in the last few years as an essential nutrient to possibly help prevent serious health issues. Not as much thought has been given to its helper Vitamin K, but I think this is going to change. Several of the conditions that are thought to be associated with vitamin D deficiency, such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as also linked with vitamin K deficit.

Like vitamin D, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that occurs in several forms. The most commonly known form is vitamin K1, which is necessary for proper blood clotting. Vitamin K2 is the form that is gaining interest right now for its importance in bone and heart health. Sources of vitamin K2 are natto (fermented soybeans), tempeh, grass fed butter and beef, eggs, cheese, and possibly sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. It is also sold as a dietary supplement under the name MK-7, which stands for menaquinone-7 the scientific name for vitamin K2.

Swiss cheese

Most of what vitamin K does in the body is help different protein handle calcium, but it is through the appropriate use of calcium that vitamin K has so many benefits.
Vitamin K helps certain proteins hold on to calcium. For instance in bone formation, a protein called osteocalcin needs vitamin K to be able to deposit calcium in the bones. This is why the combination of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K was superior for helping improve bone density than was calcium and vitamin D alone in a 2012 study.

Some recent studies have linked calcium intake to increased hardening of the arteries. My hypothesis is that if we don’t have adequate vitamin K2, taking calcium may be an issue for heart health. Vitamin K2 is an essential part of a protein in our artery walls that helps prevent calcium from being deposited in the arteries. Indeed, a few studies have demonstrated that higher vitamin K2 intake is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. So I always tell my patients if they take calcium, make sure they also have adequate levels of vitamin D and vitamin K2 to help ensure the calcium is going to the bones where we want it and not to the arteries.

New Hope for Migraine Sufferers

Migraines are not all the same. People can have different symptoms and different triggers, but the misery and disruption they can cause is pretty consistent.

headache

Another thing that many migraine sufferers have in common is an inability to process certain vitamins. Recent studies have revealed that people with migraines, especially with auras, are more likely to have genetic variations in the enzymes that activate folic acid. They are more likely to have elevated homocysteine, a compound that can be a marker for a lack of appropriate B vitamins that our nervous systems need. Elevated homocysteine can be toxic to nerve cells and is associated with increased risk of heart disease.

One still needs to determine and reduce migraine triggers, but there is hope that regular intake the active form folate, known as methyltetrahydrofolate or methylfolate, can reduce the sensitivity to those triggers. For people with this genetic variation, it is also important to avoid the common form of folic acid added to some supplements and many processed foods. And always take B12, again the methyl form of B12, when you take any form of folate.

I am already seeing good results with this approach with my patients. Just a month ago, I had a patient try a new product called Eye Folate, made by a local eye doctor that contains these vitamins plus others for nerve and eye health. Her recent report to me was, “I’ve essentially had no migraines since I started it! So it looks like it’s working, thank you!”

For many migraine sufferers, products like these could be an important part the solution to help prevent this common and debilitating issue.

Grain-free Nachos: A delicious way to eat your veggies

I created this recipe less because I wanted to avoid grains and more because I wanted to find another delicious way of eating more vegetables. When it comes to health, we seem to get more benefit from adding healthy foods to our diet as opposed to cutting out the bad ones. Increased vegetable consumption is one of the more important things we can do for our health, along with eating fruit, nuts, legumes, reduced-fat dairy, whole grains, and fish.
A recent Swedish study found that men who ate healthier diets reduced their risk of heart attack by 18%. When combined with 4 other healthy habits, they reduced their risk by 80% compared to men who did none of these things. These healthy habits were drinking alcohol in moderation, not smoking, exercising, and avoiding excess belly fat.
This study only included Swedish men, but clearly we can guess that these healthy choices could make a huge difference for anyone.

This recipe uses several of the foods on the list of healthful foods used in this study. Eating peppers in particular has been linked to lower rates of Parkinson’s disease.

Grainless nachos #1

Grain-free Nachos

3-4 peppers (I used poblanos, but bell peppers are fine)
1 cup cooked beans
1-2 cups reduced fat Monterey Jack or other cheese
½ – 1 cup onions, chopped
½ cup sliced black olives
1-4 jalapenos, sliced (I use Jalapenos En Excabeche that I make from this recipe)
1 cup tomato, chopped
1 avocado, chopped

Optional additinal toppings: sour cream, guacamole, seasoned meat, chopped green onions, cilantro, shredded lettuce or other greens, salsa or pico de gallo, or whatever else sounds good

Cut peppers in half and remove the cores.
Flatten with your hand onto a baking sheet.
Toss on the beans, cheese, onions, black olives, and jalapenos.
Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes until the cheese starts to brown and peppers get a little bit soft.
Sprinkle tomatoes and avocado and anything that you like on top and serve.
Note: In these pictures, I was making a double batch because they make awesome leftovers when reheated.

Grainfree nachos finished

Potassium Powerhouse Foods for Stroke Prevention and More

I frequently recommend foods high in potassium to my patients with high blood pressure. A recent study has me thinking I need to recommend these foods to more patients. This new study revealed that postmenopausal women who consumed the most potassium reduced their chance of stroke by 12% compared to those who ate the least. Women who didn’t have high blood pressure noticed an even better outcome from eating more potassium with a 27% reduction in strokes. Potassium is thought to improve the functioning of small blood vessels in the brain and throughout the body, partially by improving nitric oxide formation which can help open up blood vessels.

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard

In truth, I recommend high potassium diets to most of my patients by encouraging them to eat a lot of vegetables. I believe that one of the reasons we need to get our 5-7 servings of veggies and fruit every day is to make sure we get adequate potassium. The average adult needs about 4700 mg of potassium a day. Many of the best potassium-rich foods are vegetables. For instance, a cup of cooked Swiss chard offers around 900 mg of potassium. Other high potassium foods include spinach, bok choy, beets, nuts, and dried beans. For a great list of potassium-rich foods, I like the chart available from World’s Healthiest Foods. My husband and I additionally take an electrolyte mixture that includes potassium when we work on the farm during these hot summers. Another good choice might be coconut water to help replace some of the potassium lost through sweating.

By emphasizing potassium intake, we get all of the benefits offered by this crucial mineral. Potassium is essential for nerve function throughout the body and especially in the heart. Getting adequate potassium can help preserve bone density and prevent the formation of kidney stones. Potassium deficiency might contribute to premenstrual issues and possibly the development of diabetes. As I mentioned above, eating high potassium foods can be one of the steps to help people reach a healthy blood pressure goal. And when we eat high potassium foods, we also get the full range of powerhouse nutrients that these foods provide. It is likely that these additional minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants from fruits and veggies contribute to some of the cardiovascular protection seen in these studies.

So figure out what high potassium foods you love to eat, and if you want some tips on getting more vegetables in your family’s life, check out my blog on getting kids to eat veggies.

Bulletproof Turmeric: An Herbal Alternative to Bulletproof Coffee

Bulletproof coffee isn’t the only way to have a delicious brain-boosting beverage. You can boost your cognitive function with curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. Curcumin protects the brain from cognitive deterioration caused by stress. But I don’t know anyone who is dealing with stress! Especially not the law students who are popularizing the bulletproof coffee recipe in this area.

For my bulletproof turmeric, I have used coconut oil, butter, honey, and spices to optimize digest and the absorption of curcumin. Curcumin is notoriously difficult to absorb, but fats and spices, particularly the black pepper in the garam masala, greatly increase our absorption of curcumin into the blood stream.

Turmeric and Garam Masala

Bulletproof Turmeric

1 cup water

1 tsp turmeric powder or 1 Tablespoon fresh turmeric root, grated
(optionally add one capsule of turmeric extract that is 95% curcumin)

¼ tsp garam masala

1 tsp maca (optional, but delicious)

1 Tbs grass fed butter

1 Tbs coconut oil or MCT oil

1 tsp honey

Simmer water with turmeric, garam masala, coconut oil, and butter for 10 minutes.
Strain through a fine mesh strainer.
Add remaining ingredients and whirl in blender or with immersion blender until foamy.

Bulletproof turmeric

Bulletproof turmeric before and after blending

There are many possible variations to this recipe. Add coffee if you like that boost or cinnamon if you are working on blood sugar issues. Since this recipe doesn’t have caffeine, it can be drunk later in the day than bulletproof coffee.

This turmeric drink is also an excellent choice for people dealing with inflammation, pain, or elevated cholesterol. A recent study has confirmed that curcumin reduces knee pain associated with osteoarthritis. Curcumin is helping others achieve healthier cholesterol levels. In addition to having some nootropic benefits, turmeric might also help clear Alzheimer’s plaques from the brain.

The benefits of turmeric are numerous, and while you might not feel the same jolt you would from a cup of coffee, turmeric provides long-term protection to the mind and body on multiple levels.

P.S. For those of you who follow my blog, my bulletproof turmeric tea recipe originated from my healthy food experiment . Turmeric is the second food I chose. I wanted to try it in tea form and came up with this recipe. For a simpler tea recipe, try this one from Dr. Weil.

A Connection between Depression and Heart Disease

In popular culture, the heart is often considered to be the seat of our emotions. We love and grieve with our hearts. From a biological point of view, we understand the heart as the organ that pumps blood through our bodies. But there is something more than that to the heart. I know I am not the only one who has experienced chest pain due to a stressful situation. I was too young to really worry that it was heart disease, but did still consider that possibility because of my family history. Ultimately, I made some changes in my life and the chest pains went away completely. The reason for this phenomenon is that stress changes the signals that the heart gets from the brain. While theses signals might be useful if we need to run from a bear, they can be detrimental when we are sitting at a desk.

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Not only can stress affect our hearts, but depression can too. A large study examining English civil servants showed found participants that showed signs of depression were more likely to have heart attacks. Another study demonstrated that using therapy to depression helped prevent the development of heart disease. In fact, the participants who did not have heart disease at the beginning of the study and received counseling where 47% less likely to have a major cardiovascular event compared to those who didn’t get the same treatment for depression.

This connection between heart disease and depression might explain why some supplements are good for both the brain and the heart. A prime example is fish oil, which is probably one of the most popular cardiovascular health supplements. Countries that consume more fish and have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have lower rates of coronary artery disease. Another major use of fish oil is to help treat mood issues and depression. Could this last benefit contributing to the cardiovascular advantages of taking fish oil? And to learn more about one possible genetic contribution to both depression and heart disease, check out my recent blog on methylfolate.

An important consideration for depression is that not everyone manifests the same symptoms. Generally the signs to look for are feeling sad, hopeless, anxious and sleeping or eating too much or too little, but some people’s depression manifests as tiredness, irritability or even angry. While there are different causes of depression from situational issues like loss of a loved one to genetic and brain chemistry variations, some of these symptoms seem to be connected to lack of fulfillment in life. It can be hard to find truly fulfilling roles and careers in our modern world and too many people end up working at a job just because that is the one available. I am not saying quit your job, but if you can, weigh these possible long term health concerns when choosing a career. And know that counseling and learning stress coping skills can be genuinely useful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Methylfolate for You?

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about methylfolate for a while since the genetic variation in how we process folic acid can sometimes have a huge impact on heart, mood, and overall health. I’ve been delaying because it is not a simple topic, but here is a basic introduction to it.

Our bodies use several active forms of folic acid, one of these being methylfolate, or more scientifically 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Methylfolate is necessary to activate B12 and make SAMe, which in turn is necessary for some detoxification processes, neurotransmitter production, and proper genetic expression. Methylfolate is also used to neutralize of homocysteine, an amino acid derivative that is possibly implicated in heart disease. B12 is also needed for this last process.

DNA image courtesy of Svilen Milev

DNA photo courtesy of Svilen Milev

Between 10-20% of the population has a genetic variation in their ability to make methylfolate. Most people with this genetic variation will still have one gene that is functional and probably make adequate methylfolate. Other people have two bad copies of the genes and will be deficient in this active form of folate.

Especially with this last case, these genetic variations can lead to very serious health conditions. These can range from common mood issues like depression to serious mental health disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I also see these genetic differences more commonly in my patients with ADD and autism. Because of the reduced ability to neutralize toxins, people with these genetic issues can have increased rates of autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Another variant in this gene can lead to an increase in conditions that are caused by blood clots like heart attacks and strokes. Finally, this genetic variation can cause an increase in birth defects and miscarriages.

So the solution to this genetic issue can be simple sometimes and more complex for others. Since the eventual end product of this gene is methylfolate (or more precisely 5-methyltetrahydrofolate), we can take this as a supplement and bypass the problem. The dosage can depend on the person so I start low unless there has been adequate testing. Where this gets challenge is that this genetic variation isn’t always the only one. Taking methylfolate can help us make epinephrine, an excitatory brain chemical. For some types of depression, this can be very useful, but others have trouble breaking down epinephrine due to other genetic mutations. For these people, they can build up too much of this stimulating epinephrine and experience anxiety.

For people who are really curious about these possible genetic variations, the good news is that genetic testing in now really inexpensive. For $119, you can get a full panel from 23andme.com, which is then translated by the Sterling App. This approach can help you and your doctor better understand how to balance your supplements for your genes.

Healthy Hints for Holiday Happiness

The holidays can be a time to relax and enjoy time with your family. And they can be a time to run yourself ragged trying to make holiday magic happen for others. On top of this, some struggle with seasonal depression from reduced sunlight and fewer opportunities to exercise. While winter can be an enchanting time, the additional stress to take a toll on our health. Stress reduces our ability to fight off infections making us more susceptible to winter colds and flu. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk for diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. Stress can also contribute to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

So as the holiday season gets into full swing, it is time to come up with a plan to reduce the negative impact so you can enjoy the good parts of the season.

First, give yourself some “me” time. As I mentioned in my last blog, you deserve the time to be healthy.

Practice your stress coping skills. Choose what works for you and make some time for it. Laughter, journaling, reading, prayer, meditation, imagery, writing, exercise, deep breathing, cultivating positive attitudes, and physical expressions of emotions are some of the more common techniques people have found to creatively manage their stress.

lavender

Try calming herbs. Herbs taken as supplements or teas can help calm the mind. Popular calming herbs like kava, skullcap, and California poppy can be found in capsules or liquid tinctures. Or make your own tea blends from relaxing herbs like lemon balm, catnip, passionflower, lavender, st. john’s wort, and chamomile.

Here is my recipe:

¼ cup chamomile flowers

¼ cup lemon balm leaves

¼ cup passionflower leaves

2 Tbs catnip leaves

2 Tbs lavender leaves

Mixes these together. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of the blend in one cup of water that was just boiling. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably covered. Strain the tea, or remove the tea ball if you were using one. Sweeten with honey or stevia if desired.

You can also try your own creation. You might like it so much that you decide to share it with someone on your gift list. Include a tea ball or strainer and a recipe card so they can make more for themselves.

If all else fails, buy yourself a present.

New Insights into Natural Diabetes Prevention

I recently cut fruit juice out of my husband’s diet. I told him I wasn’t going to buy it anymore for him because of a recent study that correlated the consumption of 3 servings of fruit juice per week with a 10% increased risk of diabetes. Even before reading this study, I hadn’t been a fan of juice because it contains the sugar of the fruit without the fiber that slows the absorption of sugar. On the flip side, consuming 3 servings of fruit per week can help reduce the risk of diabetes by 3%. Certain fruits like blueberries, grapes, and apples had an increased protective effect, due to antioxidant compounds located in the skin of these fruits.

So why are antioxidants helpful at preventing diabetes? Excessive consumption of carbohydrates and calories in general causes an overabundance of energy on a cellular level. Unless we are active enough to be burning this excess energy, it actually contributes to the production of free radicals that damage our cells. To protect themselves from this excess energy and subsequent damage, our cells reduce the number of insulin receptors on their surfaces. The result of this is insulin resistance, a prediabetic condition where the body makes extra insulin to try to get cells to remove excessive sugar from the blood stream, but the cells ignore this message.  This protective measure of the cells saves the cells from damage and possible destruction, but long term, insulin resistance can contribute to the development of not just diabetes, but also high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.

The solution is not to force the cells to take up the excess sugar from the blood stream, but to reduce the consumption of excess sugar, carbohydrates, and overall calories. Viewing insulin resistance as a defensive mechanism of cells helps us see why these dietary changes are so vital to preventing diabetes. Additionally, exercise increases the energy needs of cells and allows them to metabolize sugar without excessive damage from free radicals.

Finally, looking at insulin resistance in this way helps us understand why a number of antioxidants have been found to be useful in diabetes and insulin resistance. For instance, alpha lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight insulin resistance as well as having the potential to help diabetic neuropathy. Intake of minerals like zinc, copper, and manganese are commonly helpful to diabetics and prediabetics because they help the body make superoxide dismutase enzymes to neutralize free radicals. Understanding these mechanisms can help us make and stick to healthier dietary choices, especially at this time of the year when there are so many sugary temptations.

blueberries