Friday, October 30, 2009

"Energy Healings" - Hype or Healthy?

I live in Sedona, Arizona, a somewhat new-age community where there is an "energy healer" on every block. But in the off-chance that you may not have this luxury, let me describe what I'm talking about. There's a new study just published in a respected scientific journal that reviews the science behind a growing, worldwide interest in what the authors call "biofield therapies." These therapies are often practiced under common names such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch.

Biofield therapies, which claim to use subtle energy to stimulate the body's healing process, are promising complementary interventions for pain reduction in a number of conditions, reducing anxiety for hospitalized patients and reducing agitated behaviors in dementia, over and above what standard treatments can achieve. However, longer-term effects are less clear. Dr. Shamini Jain (UCLA) and Dr. Paul Mills (University of California, San Diego) published their review of the science behind biofield therapies in this week's Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

A significant number of patients use Reiki, Therapeutic Touch or Healing Touch despite very little which proves that they work. These techniques have been used over millennia in various cultural communities to heal physical and mental disorders. They have only recently been under the scrutiny of current Western scientific methods.

Jain and Mills did a detailed review of 66 clinical studies looking at biofield therapies in different patient populations with a range of ailments. They examine the strength of the evidence for the efficacy of these complementary therapies. While they consider the published work on this science to be of average quality, in scientific terms, they do indeed find strong evidence that biofield therapies reduce pain intensity in free-living populations, and moderate evidence that they are effective at lowering pain in hospitalized patients as well as in patients with cancer.

There is also moderate evidence that these therapies ease agitated behaviors in dementia and moderate evidence that they reduce anxiety in hospitalized patients. The authors found inconclusive evidence for biofield therapies on symptoms of fatigue and quality of life in cancer patients, as well as for overall pain reduction, and anxiety management in cardiovascular patients. It is clear from this analysis of the data that something is going on with Biofield therapy work, and that some people can benefit greatly from the practice.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The War over Hormone Replacement Therapy Evens Out

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat menopausal estrogen deficiency has been in widespread use for over 60 years. Several observational studies over the years have shown that HRT use by younger postmenopausal women has been associated with a significant reduction in total mortality. Until 2002 and the publication of a large and negative study, HRT was supported by the available evidence because it appeared to increase longevity in postmenopausal women.

That changed after the publication of the "Women’s Health Initiative" or WHI study, which received a great deal of publicity. This trial indicated increased risk for negative outcomes in older women. Since then, there has been rigorous debate regarding whether Hormone Replacement Therapy is beneficial or harmful. Now, in an article published in the November 2009 issue of The American Journal of Medicine, researchers write about a very large review of all the available data using a scientific method of analysis called "Bayesian methods." During this new research it was concluded that HRT almost certainly decreases mortality in younger postmenopausal women.

The authors pooled results from 19 randomized trials that included age-specific data from the earlier WHI trial, with 16,000 younger postmenopausal women (mean age 55 years) followed for 83,000 patient-years, and showed that the mortality relative risk was much less than had been earlier stated.

Shelley R. Salpeter, MD, says in the article, “It is clear that these findings need to be interpreted in the light of potential benefits and harms of hormone therapy. The available evidence indicates that hormone therapy in younger postmenopausal women increases the risk of breast cancer and pulmonary embolism and reduces the risk of cardiovascular events, colon cancer, and hip fracture."

The reduction in deaths from coronary heart disease, fracture, and colon cancer outweighed the increase in deaths from breast cancer, stroke and pulmonary embolism. Is it a wash in your case? Talk to your doctor. He or she may tell you that in addition to this mortality benefit, hormone therapy in younger women provides an improvement in quality-of-life measures, at least in the first few years of treatment.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Propolis Products with Many Benefits

There has been a lot written about certain functional foods which prevent or reduce the risk of suffering from certain illnesses. One of them, propolis, has been known about for ages and was just recently written up in a review published by Basque Research. The identification and extraction of propolis from beehives is an industry in Basque country (Spain) and it enables the development of high value products worldwide -- products with uniquely high concentrations of biologically active compounds.

Propolis is the resinous substance that bees gather from the leaf buds of trees and certain vegetables. They transform it and use it to disinfect the beehive, seal cracks, or to build panels. Propolis is also used by bees as an anti-microbial agent and embalming substance for intruders. Propolis is directly responsible for guaranteeing the aseptic nature of the beehive. Were it not for propolis, beehives would develop viruses and bacteria given their conditions of temperature and humidity.

Most of the promising biologically active compounds (those with proven pharmacological abilities) come from the fractions of resins and balsams this compound contains. Due to the great number of active ingredients, a tincture (alcoholic extract) of propolis is the most often-used delivery form for its therapeutic properties. Notable amongst its properties are its antioxidant and anti-microbial action; in Basque country, it has been shown to have healing, analgesic, anaesthetic and anti-inflammatory activities.

Testing in Basque country showed strong antioxidant properties for propolis. The antioxidant activity trials provided knowledge about the capacity of the product for neutralizing free radicals. These radicals represent damaged molecules and are capable of causing damage at cell level --causing the onset of future degenerative illnesses, such as cancer, Alzeheimer, and so on.

Propolis also shows strong antimicrobial properties, and was tested against a variety of microbes. Microbial growth was shown to be inhibited in the presence of different concentrations of propolis. The minimum inhibitory concentrations were produced at very low concentrations of propolis, thus corroborating the high antimicrobial potential of the product.

It is my belief that propolis is another of nature's tools to protect humankind from the continued onslaught of new and nastier microorganisms.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hepatitis: Drinking Coffee Slows Progression of Liver Disease

Patients with chronic hepatitis C and advanced liver disease who drink three or more cups of coffee per day have a 53% lower risk of liver disease progression than non-coffee drinkers. This research has been published in a new study led by Neal Freedman, Ph.D., MPH (National Cancer Institute). The study found that patients with hepatitis C-related bridging fibrosis or cirrhosis who did not respond to standard disease treatment benefited from increased coffee intake. An effect on liver disease was not observed in patients who drank black or green tea. Findings of the study appear in the November issue of Hepatology, a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infects approximately 2.2% of the world’s population (with more than 3 million Americans infected). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites HCV as the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S. and accounts for 8,000 to 10,000 deaths in the country annually. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 3 to 4 million persons contract HCV each year with 70% becoming chronic cases that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

That's why this major study is important, as it shows a very significant effect for a very common beverage. This study included 766 participants who had hepatitis C-related bridging fibrosis or cirrhosis and failed to respond to standard treatment of the common anti-viral drugs. At the onset of the study, patients were asked to report their typical frequency of coffee intake and portion size over the past year.

Results showed that participants who drank 3 or more cups of coffee per day had a relative risk of .47 for reaching one of the clinical outcomes. Researchers did not observe any association between tea intake and liver disease progression, though tea consumption was low in the study. “Given the large number of people affected by HCV it is important to identify modifiable risk factors associated with the progression of liver disease,” said Dr. Freedman. “Although we cannot rule out a possible role for other factors that go along with drinking coffee, results from our study suggest that patients with high coffee intake had a lower risk of disease progression.”


Friday, October 23, 2009

Hookworms as an Allergy Cure?

A study conducted in Vietnam has added further weight to the view that parasitic gut worms, such as hookworm, may be able to help researchers develop new therapies for the prevention and treatment of asthma and allergies.

Dr Carsten Flohr (The University of Nottingham) and Dr Luc Nguyen Tuyen (Khanh Hoa Provincial Health Service, Vietnam) collaborated on this study, which is the largest double-blind placebo controlled clinical trial to date looking at the potential links between hookworm and other gut worm infections and allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema.

This research does not suggest that we all run out and find some gut parasites to infect us -- instead, it points out that in certain populations where poor hygiene practices allow the citizenry to catch these parasites, the amount of allergies and asthma is much lower than in more "developed" nations. In countries such as Vietnam, scientists find that as these hygienic practices improve, the incidence of allergies and asthma goes up. Experts believe that over millions of years of co-evolution worms have found methods to dampen down host immune responses to prolong their own survival inside humans. This relationship seems to have become so intertwined that without gut worms or other parasites, our immune system can become unbalanced, which in turn could contribute to the development of asthma and other allergies.

Dr Flohr’s study was conducted in a rural area of central Vietnam where two out of three children have hookworm and other gut parasite infections and where allergies are extremely rare. More than 1,500 schoolchildren aged 6-17 took part.

The team investigated whether repeated tablet treatments to clear the body of gut worms made it more likely for children to develop allergic conditions. The treated children were found to have a significantly increased risk of a positive allergy skin test to house-dust mites and cockroach. This suggests that gut worms have the potential to tone down human immune responses, and as a result further research is now needed to identify precisely how gut parasite infection can prevent allergic sensitization.

Dr Carsten Flohr of The University of Nottingham adds: “The next step is to understand exactly how and when gut parasites program the human immune system in a way that protects against allergic sensitization, and for such studies, follow-up from birth will be essential.”

We may someday soon discover something about the way that hookworms adapt our immune system which will allow us to develop a therapy to mimic that action, saving countless millions from the agony of allergies and asthma.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Social Isolation Actually Spurs Growth of Cancer

My apologies for the absence of new blog posts over the first part of October. My travel schedule was rough; at one point, I delivered one presentation each day while traveling to various universities on the East Coast, from the University of Maryland (Baltimore) to Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech, Duke and UNC Chapel Hill. The Sham vs. Wham publication schedule at this point will go back to normal.

Recently a study was published in Cancer Prevention Research (a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research) which explored the health dangers of being isolated socially. It turns out that one's social environment can play an important role in the biology of disease, including breast cancer, and lead to significant differences in health outcomes.

"This study uses an elegant preclinical model and shows that social isolation alters expression of genes important in mammary gland tumor growth,” said the journal’s Deputy Editor, Dr. Caryn Lerman. The studies were done in mice, in a "model system" set up to mimic what happens in the human body.

Previous results from clinical studies have indicated that social support can improve the health outcome of patients with breast cancer. Epidemiological studies have suggested that social isolation increases the mortality risk from several chronic diseases, and not just breast cancer.

Author Suzanne D. Conzen, M.D. (University of Chicago) along with colleagues from the Institute of Mind and Biology at the same university, evaluated whether an unfavorable social environment could influence tumor growth in mice that are genetically predisposed to mammary gland cancer. They found that female mice that were chronically stressed because of social isolation (from the time they were first separated from their mothers) developed significantly larger mammary gland tumors compared to those mice that were group-housed. Additionally, the isolated mice developed a heightened corticosterone stress hormone response.

“... Living in the stressful environment was associated with greater tumor size, suggesting that the social environment may in fact alter the biology of cancer growth," Conzen said. Further research is needed to focus on which specific cell types the changes in gene expression are taking place. This knowledge could potentially lead to interventions that block similar pathways favoring the growth of human breast cancer.