It’s a strange time to be writing our health news wrap-up, since health and wellness news — actually all news — is currently dominated by one topic: the COVID-19 (or coronavirus) pandemic. Like everyone else, we’re closely following the developments and doing everything we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy. We hope that you’re feeling well and hanging in there during this unprecedented and uncertain time.
But beyond reading all the daily news updates about the novel coronavirus, we’re also taking a step back and thinking about how this crisis fits into a more holistic health context. The COVID-19 outbreak stresses to us, once again, the importance of avoiding chronic conditions and maintaining a robust immune system. After all, all indications seem to be that if you’re an otherwise healthy person, you’ll be perfectly fine if you get the virus. It’s when you have pre-existing conditions, or a weakened immune system, that things get scary.
Unfortunately, a lot of the health news we read shows evidence that many of us are not keeping ourselves healthy. In fact, new projections from experts predict that half of American adults will be obese by 2030 (which is just 10 years away!), a prediction that’s especially concerning given all the health risks associated with obesity.
Still, we know that poor health isn’t inevitable. We know that by staying informed and having the one hundred daily choices we make prevent disease rather than contribute to it, we can all feel our best and capably fight off whatever viruses we come in contact with. With that said, paying attention to the latest in health research and wellness news is more important than ever. If studies are showing certain foods or medicines or activities are raising our chronic disease risk, it’s a free heads up to make different choices and easily miss hitting the iceberg, or whatever analogy you’d like to use. So, let’s get into it!
Our February & March 2020 wrap-up covers these topics (click to skip to one):
- Pregnancy Health Roundup: Vitamin D Improves Bone Density, Breastfeeding Prevents Early Menopause, and Environmental Exposures Impact Lung Function
- Brain Health Roundup: Depression Raises Alzheimer’s Risk, Alcohol and Flavonols Lower It
- Pharma Roundup: Fentanyl Maker Sent to Prison, Pharmaceutical Lobbying Highest of All Industries Again in 2019
- Smartphone Addiction Physically Changes Our Brains
- There’s a Scientific Link Between Stress and Gray Hair
- Pesticide Damages Baby Bees’ Brains, Ominous for Humans
1. Pregnancy Health Roundup: Vitamin D Improves Bone Density, Breastfeeding Prevents Early Menopause, and Environmental Exposures Impact Lung Function
What: Three new studies revealed insights into how various lifestyle choices before and after childbirth impact the health of both mothers and babies. One found that children of women who took vitamin D during pregnancy had better bone density, another found that both pre- and postnatal environmental exposures can negatively impair children’s lung function, while the third found that pregnancy and breastfeeding reduces the risk of early menopause.
The Details: In the vitamin D study, 517 women were assigned to take either a 2,800-unit vitamin D supplement or a placebo every day from 24 weeks of pregnancy until one week after birth. In the ensuing years, researchers conducted periodic bone scans on the children, recording both bone density and fractures.
The results showed that children of mothers who took the 2,800-unit supplements had significantly higher bone density than children whose mothers took the placebo. Children in the placebo group also had an 11% rate of fractures, compared with 6% for children of mothers who took the vitamin D. The results were most pronounced for women who had a vitamin D deficiency before the study, and for those who gave birth in the winter (when there’s less sunlight, and thus less vitamin D).
In the second study, researchers looked at data from 1,033 mother-child pairs, comparing 85 prenatal and 125 postnatal environmental exposures with lung function in children between 6 and 12 years old. The environmental exposures included indoor, outdoor, chemical, and lifestyle factors. Lung function was measured by spirometry, a test that assess pulmonary capacity by how much air a person breathes out, and how quickly.
Their results suggest that several environmental exposures, mostly chemicals, negatively impacted lung function. Specifically, they found that prenatal exposure to perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS (which are found in food packaging, nonstick pans, water-repellent fabrics, among other places) impaired lung function. After children were born, the most damaging exposures were ethyl-paraben (found in many sunscreens, cosmetics, and skincare products) and phthalate metabolites (which are used in the manufacture of solvents, plastics, and personal care products).
The early menopause study looked at health data from 108,887 (that’s a lot!) women over the course of 26 years, and found that both having children and breastfeeding reduces the risk of going into menopause before age 45. Compared with women who had no babies, those who had one baby had an 8% reduced risk, those who had two had a 16% reduced risk, and those who had three had a 22% lower risk (What about four? Five? Eleven??).
Regardless of the number of pregnancies, among the women who had children, the longer they breastfed the less likely they were to experience early menopause. Women who breastfed exclusively for 1 to 6 months had a 5% reduced risk, while 7 to 12 months was associated with a 28% reduced risk, and 13 to 18 months was associated with a 20% reduced risk.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: The first two studies really drive home, once again, how important and formative the pre- and postnatal period is for a new human’s health in the long-term. Bone density can seriously impact life quality and a person’s ability to be physically active (which has its own health repercussions), while lung development in kids is a key factor in long-term respiratory function (which, in turn, is linked to cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as longevity). Coronavirus has shown us that good lung function is important for so many reasons.
This is all to say, the small choices an expectant mother makes really matter for the baby, so taking vitamin D, keeping your indoor space free of contaminants, and reading up on harmful chemicals in your cleaning and personal care products are all important.
The third study is also a reminder that this period of time is incredibly formative for the mother’s health as well! By the way, early menopause means more than just annoying hot flashes — it’s linked with osteoporosis, depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.
It also affects 10% of women in the U.S., so if breastfeeding for longer lowers your risk, we say try to breastfeed as long as you can. Looking at the numbers from the study it seems 7-12 months of breastfeeding is the sweet spot, which corresponds to the American Academy of Pediatrics breastfeeding recommendations. Oh, and have a ton of kids!! Or at least 3! Jk, unless you already want to do that…
2. Brain Health Roundup: Depression Raises Alzheimer’s Risk, Alcohol and Flavonols Lower It
What: Lots of brain health news! One study shows that men and women with depression are far more likely than those without depression to develop dementia, while two other studies suggest that both flavonols and moderate drinking may lower Alzheimer’s risk.
The Details: The depression study comes out of Sweden, where researchers looked at 119,386 (that’s a lot!) people over 50 with a depression diagnosis, as well as an equal number of people over 50 without a depression diagnosis, and tracked their risk of developing dementia. What they found was a significant correlation between depression and dementia, with 5.7% of those in the depressed group developing dementia, compared with just 2.6% in the non-depressed group.
In the first six months after being diagnosed, those with depression were 15 times more likely to develop dementia than their non-depressed counterparts. The study also compared depressed and non-depressed sibling pairs, and found that those with depression were 20 times as likely as their sibling to be diagnosed with dementia in the first six months after being diagnosed with depression.
Now for the good news! In a study of 921 men and women over 81, the results showed that eating a diet rich in flavonols was associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. They had the subjects, who were all free of dementia at the start of the study, fill out detailed, well-validated food questionnaires, and then followed up over a six-year period.
After controlling for factors like age, sex, physical activity, and genetic predisposition, researchers found that, compared to those in the lowest one-fifth for flavonol intake, those in the highest one-fifth had a 48% reduced risk (that’s a lot!) for Alzheimer’s disease.
In a separate study, Korean researchers looked at 414 men and women around the age of 70, all of whom were free of dementia or alcohol-related disorders. All of the subjects were given brain scans, physical exams, and tests of mental sharpness, and were then carefully interviewed about their drinking habits.
They found that, compared with those who abstained from drinking (meaning non-drinkers), those who drank anywhere from one to 13 drinks per week had a 66% lower rate of beta amyloid deposits in their brain. This is a big deal for brain health, since beta amyloid is the protein that forms the brain plaques of Alzheimer’s disease.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: All of these studies show how interconnected our bodies are! Our mental health, neurological health, and physical health all affect one another, and each of these studies offers a clue into how. For the depression study, it’s important to note that there’s no causation proved here, just a correlation. But it leads us to believe the same things that increase your depression risk (poor diet, lack of movement, sleep issues, and other factors) increase your dementia risk.
We were already big fans of flavonols, which are known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, but now we’re going to make an extra effort to incorporate them into our diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as dark chocolate, are great sources.
And as far as the alcohol study goes, that’s great news for those of us who like to enjoy the occasional glass of wine! Just remember that the reduced risk didn’t apply to those who drank more than 13 drinks per week, so be sure to keep things moderate. However, it also didn’t apply to those who had only recently started drinking, which we assume is related to the fact that new drinkers haven’t consumed enough flavanols to have a positive impact. We know there are a lot of conflicting studies on alcohol and chronic disease risk so we’ll continue to share and monitor new studies on the topic.
3. Pharma Roundup: Fentanyl Maker Sent to Prison, Pharmaceutical Lobbying Tops List Yet Again in 2019
What: There’s some encouraging news from the pharmaceutical industry: the founder of the company that makes the deadly opioid fentanyl was sent to prison, while Washington shows signs that the pharmaceutical industry is losing a bit of its power, despite once again topping all industries in the US in lobbying spending numbers — a whopping 53% more than the second highest spending industry, electronics manufacturing.
The Details: In the first successful prosecution of a top pharmaceutical industry executive in relation to the opioid epidemic, John N. Kapoor, founder of Insys Therapeutics, was sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison. He was convicted of bribing doctors and defrauding health insurers in order to boost sales of Subsys, the company’s fentanyl drug. Widespread use of fentanyl, an incredibly powerful opioid, was one of the biggest contributors to the opioid epidemic, leading to countless fatal overdoses and debilitating addictions.
At the height of the opioid crisis, Insys Therapeutics had a value of $3.2 billion — but today, in the face of multiple civil lawsuits brought by local and state governments, it has lost 99.9% of its value and is in the process of winding down operations.
In another instance of the once-powerful being brought down, it seems that the pharma industry may be losing a bit of its power to shape regulations. Big Pharma has historically wielded a strong influence in Washington, with an ability to block any bill that threatened their bottom line. But a number of factors seem to be contributing to a weakening of their stronghold on the government.
From anger over absurd drug prices, to a backlash over the aforementioned opioid crisis, to a rising populist movement, to a growing rift between Republicans and drug industry allies, there are a number of reasons for this weakening, and some signs of hope that things might actually change.
Most notably, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree that Big Pharma needs to be reined in, and have actually come together to write several bills, including one that would regulate prescription drug prices, and another that would block drug companies from using patent laws to delay lower-priced drugs coming to market. Still, it’s important to note that neither of these bills have passed yet, and that pharma still topped the list of industry lobbyist spending last year, with a whopping $295.2 million tab.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It can seem like there’s nothing but bad, scary news these days, so we’re grateful for these two tidbits of hope. The opioid conviction was a landmark case that will hopefully serve as a deterrent to other pharmaceutical companies, and shows that people have the power to bring about consequences for even the mightiest forces. Though, of course, this conviction doesn’t bring back the many hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the opioid epidemic.
As far as pharma lobbying goes, we also see signs of hope here, and are grateful for a bipartisan understanding that things need to change. Still, we’re quite aware that lobbying money still has a major ability to block regulations and uphold the status quo, and that most Republicans (who control the Senate in 2020) still side with the pharmaceutical industry, so we’re going to keep bringing awareness to voters and taxpayers like yourself that this industry has a grip on power in the U.S. that will be tough to ever reverse.
4. Smartphone Addiction Changes Our Brain
What: New research suggests that addiction to smart devices shrinks key areas of the brain in the same way that drug addiction does.
The Details: The study compared the MRI scans of 22 young people (aged 18 to 30) who met the criteria for smartphone addiction with the scans of 26 people who were not addicted to their devices. In the scans, they looked at the size and activity of certain brain regions, and found that the smartphone addicts had fewer brain cells in several key areas. Specifically, they had less gray matter volume in the anterior insula, which is associated with substance addictions, and in the cingulate cortex, which is associated with a lack of empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: While we already know that being too attached to our phones can have consequences, like wasted time, the feeling of FOMO, and worse sleep, this study is the first to suggest that phone addiction actually physically alters our brain. This echoes the insights of Dr. David Perlmutter, who recently shared with us the ways in which modern society and technology rewires our brains and makes it more difficult to make good choices.
Though the study here was relatively small, and more research is needed, it adds to a growing understanding that our devices are harming our brains. Given that, we’re going to make a concerted effort to set boundaries with our phone use, like having phone-free days, designating phone-free rooms, and putting the phone away at least an hour before bed.
5. There’s a Scientific Link Between Stress and Gray Hair
What: We’ve all heard parents say “You’re giving me gray hair!” when their child does something that causes them stress. But turns out, those parents were onto something: according to new research, there’s an actual scientific link between stress and hair graying.
The Details: In the study, researchers found that stressful events turned the hair of mice gray. They discovered that the mechanism behind this has to do with our sympathetic nervous system, aka the network of nerves that trigger our fight-or-flight response when we’re in stressful or dangerous situations.
The way it works is that stress causes the sympathetic nerve cells to release a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, which is then taken up by nearby melanocyte stem cells, which are the cells that determine the color of each hair follicle. After taking up the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, the melanocyte stem cells rapidly turned into specialized pigment-producing cells, which then abandoned their original location at the base of hair follicles.
With the pigment-producing cell absent, the hair follicles had no source of color, and so became transparent, aka gray. Petri dish research on human melanocyte stem cells saw the same result, suggesting the same thing happens in people.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We’ve seen time and again the ways in which stress can negatively impact our overall health (hello, inflammation!). And while this new finding is a bit more cosmetic than damaging to your actual well-being, it’s still a major wake-up call about the effects of living in a constant state of fight or flight. So, basically, for the sake of your hair if not for your health, let’s all make an effort to chill the bleep out, whether that’s through meditation, spending time outdoors, exercise, or whatever else helps you feel calm.
6. Pesticide Damages Baby Bees’ Brains, Ominous for Humans
What: New research found that pesticides damage the brains and learning abilities of baby bees.
The Details: In the study, scientists spiked nectar (bee food) with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, and introduced it to a bee colony in a lab. Adult bees consumed the nectar, then brought it back to the colony. When the baby bees inside the colony eventually emerged as adults, the researchers tested their learning ability and did micro-CT scans on their brains, then compared both of these results to young bees from colonies that were not exposed to pesticides. Kind of amazing that they could do that right?!
The researchers found that the baby bees who had been exposed to pesticides had significantly impaired learning abilities, as well as a smaller volume of an important part of the insect brain called the mushroom body. The researchers explained that a bee colony operates as a superorganism, so you should think of it like a human womb: if a toxin is introduced to that environment, it will have an outsized effect on the developing life inside.
The study indicates that the damage done by pesticides is permanent and irreversible, and that this impaired learning ability could make it harder for worker bees to navigate and forage. This, in turn, imperils the bee colony at large, suggesting that pesticides may play a larger role in the decline of the global bee population than previously thought.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Bees have a direct and significant impact on our health. Not only are they essential for continued biodiversity on the planet, they also play a major role in our food supply. Bees are responsible for pollinating all sorts of fruits and vegetables that we eat (think squash, blueberries, melons, and so much more), and a decline in their population might make these foods more scarce.
Though of course this study is about baby bees, it has ominous implications for both human baby brains and our food supply. If pesticides are able to cause learning disabilities in bees, it strengthens the theory that pesticides are a cause of the rise in learning disabilities in humans. This study drives home for us how important it is to go organic whenever possible.
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3. Kim JW, Byun MS, Yi D, Lee JH, Ko K, Jeon SY, et al. (2020) Association of moderate alcohol intake with in vivo amyloid-beta deposition in human brain: A cross-sectional study. PLoS Med 17(2): e1003022.