The WellBe Health Research & Wellness News Wrap-Up: January to March 2021

The WellBe Health Research & Wellness News Wrap-Up: January to March 2021

Welcome to the first health research and wellness news wrap-up of 2021! After a full year of Covid-dominated coverage, we seem to finally be nearing the end of the pandemic. That means that for this wrap-up, we’re happy to be able to cover a wide range of different topics (with a bit of Covid coverage, of course). 

So without further ado, we present the 10 most important health and wellness news stories from January, February, and March 2021 (click to skip to one):

1. Corruption Roundup: New USDA Guidelines Reject Science, Monsanto Pushes Back Against Glyphosate Ban in Mexico, and Evidence That Money Influences Medical Journals

What: The USDA has released its newest dietary guidelines, which omit recommendations from an independent scientific advisory board, and leaked emails show that Monsanto executives and U.S. government officials pressured the Mexican government not to pass a proposed glyphosate ban. Meanwhile, a new report outlines the financial relationships between industry and neurologists conducting research. 

The Details: To put together the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which won’t be revised again until 2025, the USDA enlisted the health of an independent committee, which provided them with a scientific report outlining their recommendations. While the USDA heeded some of these recommendations, they notably rejected two: first, that they reduce added sugar intake from less than 10% to less than 6%, and second, that the recommended maximum number of alcohol drinks per day be reduced from two to one. While the USDA’s statement explained that it rejected these recommendations because there wasn’t enough supporting evidence, the department has long been criticized for bending to industry influence.

Over in another agency, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, industry is also shaping policy. Leaked internal emails show that U.S. officials have been working with executives at Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto, to pressure Mexico to abandon its proposed ban on the pesticide glyphosate — and all of this was happening while Monsanto was paying out $11 BILLION in a settlement with Americans who claim they developed cancer because of the chemical! Thankfully, the pressure doesn’t seem to be working, as the Mexican government has been going ahead with its plan to phase out use of the pesticide by 2024.

Unfortunately, the reach of corruption extends beyond the walls of government agencies and big industry. In a new report, published in the academic journal Neurology, researchers looked at how money from industry was influencing the papers published by physicians in major neurology journals. They found that 10% of authors had received payments from various industry players, some of them netting upwards of $1 million. They also found that these payments weren’t always disclosed, or were disclosed incompletely.

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It would be nice if we could trust the authorities out there to have our best interests at heart. And while many government officials and clinical researchers genuinely do prioritize public health above all, the sad truth is that much of science and health policy is actually dictated by corrupt industry influences. What this means for us is that we should always do our own research, seek out truly trusted and transparent sources of information (and several different kinds!), and always remember that YOU are the one who gets to make the choices about how to treat, feed, and protect your body and health.

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2. Worse Covid-19 Outcomes Associated with Obesity — And We’re Gaining Weight

What: Research shows that being obese can not only make cases of Covid-19 more severe, but also decrease the efficacy of vaccines and make it more likely that a person spreads the virus. Plus, a recently released report asserts that hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 deaths could have been avoided if fewer people were obese, and the CDC added being overweight as a risk factor for Covid-19, while at the same time a global study shows that we’re gaining weight during the pandemic

The Details: A new study looked at data from 908,849 Covid-related hospitalizations in the U.S., and found that the majority of them were caused by one of four cardiometabolic conditions: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart failure. Obesity held sole responsibility for the most cases, at 30%, but it’s worth noting that the three other conditions listed are often caused by or associated with being overweight or obese as well. 

Obesity not only heightens the obese person’s risk from Covid, but may also increase the risk of the people around them, according to another study. In this one, researchers examined the respiratory particles of both obese and non-obese subjects, and found that the obese people exhaled more respiratory droplets. Because the virus is airborne, this has a big impact on transmission risk — more droplets being exhaled by an infected person means it’s more likely for a person near them to contract the virus. 

Unfortunately, even a vaccine may not solve both of the problems listed above, because it seems that being obese may make vaccines less effective. In a recent study, researchers looked at the immune response of 248 healthcare workers who had been vaccinated, taking into account age, sex, and BMI. Their results showed that all of these factors had an impact on the immune response of an individual, but that being older or obese had the biggest impact. The reduced immune response of obese people could even make it likely that this cohort would need to get an additional dose of the vaccine in order to get comparable protection. 

Given all of the above, it’s perhaps not surprising that an analysis from the World Obesity Federation found that of the 2.5 million people who have died from Covid-19, almost 90% were in countries where more than half of the population is overweight. In countries with a low obesity rate, the likelihood of death from the virus is less than 10% of the likelihood in countries with a high obesity rate. Based on these numbers, they estimate that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented if people were not obese. Meanwhile, the CDC added being overweight as a high-risk factor for Covid-19, suggesting that even if you don’t technically classify as obese, you could still be at risk for more severe cases of the virus. 

All of that makes it particularly sobering to learn that the pandemic has caused people worldwide to turn to junk food and gain weight, according to a global survey. The survey gathered information from 8,000 adults across the globe, spanning 50 different countries and every state in the U.S. The researchers found that, across the board, people had become more sedentary, either stopping exercise altogether or exercising less intensely, and had increased their consumption of sugary and processed foods. These changes in behavior have had an impact, with 27% of people surveyed reporting weight gain in the past year — and the effect has been the strongest for those classified as obese, with 33% of this group gaining weight as compared to 24.7% of average weight people.

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We can’t control whether or not a historic virus sweeps the globe and shuts down the world for more than a year. In fact, we can’t really control viruses in general. But we can control how our body will react if we come in contact with that virus, and everything we’ve learned tells us that getting rid of any chronic conditions is the best way to support your immune system and fight off disease effectively. All of this research is a reminder that obesity isn’t just a weight classification, it’s a chronic condition with a huge list of negative health effects. Maintaining a healthy weight isn’t about fitting into a certain size; it’s about keeping your body functioning properly and protecting yourself from disease. 

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3. New Nutrition Research: Fried, Sugary Foods Hurt Your Heart and Plant-Based Eating Improves Health Markers & Longevity 

What: There’s been a slew of recent research on which types of food hurt your health, and which improve it: both fried foods and foods with a high glycemic index (aka foods that raise your blood sugar quickly) are tied to cardiovascular issues and death; a healthy, Mediterranean diet low in red meat and alcohol is linked with lower risk of colorectal cancer as well as a healthier body weight and lower risk of heart issues; and eating a certain amount of fruits and vegetables each day lowers risk of mortality

The Details: To understand the impact of fried food on health, researchers conducted a meta analysis of 19 studies that included more than 1.2 million adults from around the world (that’s a lot!). They looked at the subjects’ consumption of fried foods — things like French fries, fried fish, and other fried snacks — and compared eating habits to cardiovascular health. They found that there was a significantly increased risk of heart issues among those who ate the most fried food compared to those who ate the least: people who ate a lot of fried food had a 22% increased risk of coronary heart disease, a 37% increased risk of stroke, a 2% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 3% increased risk of death from any cause.  

While this first study looked at how fatty foods impact cardiovascular risk, another looked at the impact of sugar. Specifically, researchers wanted to understand how heart health is impacted by foods with a high glycemic index, meaning they raise your blood sugar quickly (think things like refined sugar, sweet snacks, white bread). The study included 137,851 participants around the world, and compared their eating habits with their health outcomes. They found that, compared to those with a low glycemic index diet, those who ate foods with the highest glycemic index had an increased risk of a major cardiovascular event and of dying from cardiovascular causes. 

Moving on from what not to eat, a number of new studies shed light on the types of diet that can improve your health and prevent disease. In one study, researchers set out to see the effect of following a Mediterranean or vegan diet on body weight and risk of heart conditions. They randomly assigned 62 overweight adults to follow either a Mediterranean or vegan diet for 16 weeks, and took various measurements both before and after. Their results showed that following a vegan diet improved body weight and insulin sensitivity and slightly decreased blood pressure, while the Mediterranean diet decreased blood pressure the most.

Next up, a review of several studies analyzed how diet affects risk of colorectal cancer, and found a strong link between the two. Specifically, they found that eating a semi-vegetarian diet that is low in red meat and alcohol is associated with a significantly lower risk. They also found that certain types of foods were particularly helpful in reducing risk, including fiber, yogurt, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables (all of which are foods that support your gut health, so it makes perfect sense that they’d protect against colorectal cancer!).

So fruits and vegetables are good for your health (groundbreaking, we know!), but how many servings do you need to eat to get the benefits? Two studies that included more than 100,000 participants total found that eating five servings per day — two of fruit, and three of vegetables — lowered mortality risk the most. Eating less than this meant a less reduced risk, while eating more than five servings didn’t have any additional benefit. 

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: As we always say, your healthcare is the 100 little choices you make each day, and food should be your first (and hopefully only) medicine. What you put into your body matters, a LOT, for your health outcomes, both in the short- and long-term, and these studies just reinforce that fact. We’re going to continue to focus on eating a diet that’s mostly plant-based and full of gut-supporting foods, while avoiding processed and inflammatory foods as much as possible.

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4. Overprescription of Antibiotics for UTIs and Covid-19

What: A new study shows that a majority of women with UTIs were overprescribed antibiotics, while another found that doctors were unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics to Covid-19 patients during the early months of the pandemic. Meanwhile, several recent studies show that gut health is a factor in determining the severity of a person’s Covid-19 symptoms.  

The Details: A review of almost 700,000 cases of women with uncomplicated UTIs found that most of them were overprescribed antibiotics. Almost half of them — 46.7% — received prescriptions for inappropriate antibiotics, while 76.1% were put on antibiotics for an overly long amount of time. 

Doctors were also overprescribing antibiotics during the early days of the pandemic, another report shows. The study found that from February through July 2020, when there were still many unknowns about the novel coronavirus and treatment options were limited, doctors were frequently prescribing antibiotics to patients hospitalized with Covid-19, even if they hadn’t found a bacterial infection. It looked at 5,838 hospital admissions, and found that 52% of them resulted in at least one antibiotic being prescribed, and in 98% of these cases, patients received their first antibiotic within 48 hours of being admitted. 

Overuse of antibiotics has been a concerning issue for many years, but these two findings are rendered particularly worrisome given the fact that gut health appears to play a significant role in determining the severity of Covid-19 symptoms. Two new studies looked at the microbiome composition of people with the virus, and found that people with poor gut health were more likely to develop severe symptoms. They found that patients struck with particularly bad cases of the virus had depleted levels of certain types of bacteria that are involved in a healthy immune response, and concluded that the health of the gut microbiome plays an important role in determining how a person responds to the virus if they’re infected.

 Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: In certain very specific cases, antibiotics can be truly miraculous and life-saving. But they also have immense side effects, and should only be used where appropriate and necessary. Not only can overuse of antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance and potentially lead to “superbugs” that we can’t fight off, they also have a lasting negative effect on your gut health. And given how crucial gut health is to your immune system, and specifically your ability to fend off Covid-19, this is something we should all be concerned about. We’re going to continue to support our gut health through our diet and lifestyle choices, and make sure that we only take antibiotics if we truly need them. 

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5. Esophageal Cancer Rising Among Young People, But Diet Could Curb Risk 

What: A large study shows that the rate of esophageal cancer among people under 50 has been rapidly rising, potentially caused by more widespread GERD, while another study shows that making certain lifestyle adjustments can treat GERD symptoms more effectively than acid reflux medication.

The Details: Researchers looked at cases of esophageal cancer in the U.S. from 1975 to 2015, and found that the number of people under 50 diagnosed with the disease has been steadily increasing. They found an average annual percentage increase of 2.9%, amounting to a 200% increase over the 40-year period. What’s more, young onset esophageal cancer tended to present at more advanced stages and have lower survival rates. The researchers aren’t sure what’s behind this trend, but suspect that it could be caused by rising obesity rates in younger people, which in turn can cause GERD, a risk factor for esophageal cancer. 

On the good news front, another study shows that adhering to certain diet and lifestyle guidelines can treat GERD symptoms better than acid suppressing medication. The study included data from 42,955 women, tracking data such as diet, activity level, BMI, medications, and medical history, along with symptoms of GERD. They then identified five anti-reflux variables: having a “normal” BMI (18.5-24.9); not smoking; getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day; limiting intake of coffee, tea, or soda to two cups daily; and eating a healthy diet that’s low in sugary foods, red meat, and processed foods. They found that when women adhered to all five of these factors, their GERD symptoms were reduced by 37%.

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: As we learned in our interview with Dr. Jonathan Aviv, GERD and acid reflux aren’t just unpleasant — they can have a lasting negative impact on your health, including an increased risk of cancer. We’ve also seen more and more stories coming out about the scary side effects of GERD medications (like increased risk of death!), and know that even without side effects, none of these medications treat the root cause. These two studies are reminders that our daily lifestyle choices can make or break our health.

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6. Tanning Could Raise Risk of Endometriosis 

What: A new study suggests that women who use tanning beds or go sunbathing have an increased risk of developing endometriosis, a painful chronic condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus. 

The Details: In the study, researchers used data from 116,429 female nurses aged 25 to 42 and compared the incidence of endometriosis to the women’s tanning behaviors. They found that those who used a tanning bed three or more times per year had a 30% higher risk of developing endometriosis than those who never used tanning beds, while getting five or more sunburns during adolescence increased risk by 10%. The data also suggested that regularly sunbathing during the summer was associated with a 10% increased risk. Interestingly, people who lived at high elevations or in sunnier places actually had a reduced risk of endometriosis, suggesting that getting regular, moderate exposure to the sun can be beneficial, while the concentrated UVB exposure required for tanning can be harmful. 

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It can often seem like the advice about sun exposure and sun protection is contradictory: getting too much sun exposure can cause cancer, but at the same time many people are vitamin D deficient and many sunscreens carry risks of their own. Finding the right balance can be tricky, but this study makes one thing clear: intentionally getting excessive exposure to UVB rays in an attempt to get a tan has serious consequences. We recommend getting moderate sun exposure to ensure you get enough vitamin D, and protecting your skin with clothing or mineral-based sunscreen if you’re going to be out in strong sunlight for a prolonged period of time (and this probably goes without saying, but don’t go to tanning salons!!).

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7. Pollution and Baby Health: Microplastics in the Placenta, Toxic Metals in Baby Food

What: Two new findings show the threat that pollution poses to babies’ health: microplastic particles were found in the placentas of unborn babies, and high levels of heavy metals were found in a number of widely popular baby food brands.

The Details: In a small but troubling study, researchers analyzed the placentas of six women, and found microplastic particles in four of them. A dozen different plastic particles were found, but since the study only looked at 4% of each placenta, it’s estimated that the actual number of microplastics was much higher. The plastics were detected on both the fetal and maternal side of the placenta as well as in the membrane where the fetus develops, and were small enough that they could have likely passed into the babies’ bloodstream. It’s likely that the microplastic particles came from items like packaging, cosmetics, or personal care products and were consumed or breathed in by the mothers. Two of the placentas had no microplastic particles, which could be a result of different physiology or different lifestyle and diet. 

Another troubling finding for infant health came out of a report by a congressional subcommittee that measured heavy metal content in popular baby food brands. They drew on data from four companies — Gerber, Happy Baby Organics, Beech Nut, and Earth’s Best Organic — and found levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and cadmium at levels that are far higher than levels allowed in other products, like bottled water. For example, the company that makes Happy Baby Organics found levels of inorganic arsenic that exceeded 100 parts per billion, the limit proposed by the FDA for infant cereal in 2016. Several baby food brands — including Parents’ Choice Organic, Sprout Organic, and Plum Organics — refused to provide data, raising concerns that they had even higher levels of these toxic metals. 

Heavy metals do naturally occur in some grains and vegetables, but manufacturers aren’t taking into account that these levels can increase when they interact with other ingredients that are added to the foods. This means that when they just measure the levels of individual ingredients — rather than the final product — they’re often greatly underestimating the heavy metal content. 

Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Not to state the obvious, but microplastics and heavy metals aren’t really supposed to be inside your body, and they can negatively affect your health when they make it there. These health risks become even more pronounced for babies, who are much more vulnerable than adults. For unborn babies, microplastics can impair growth as well as immune system development, and babies who are exposed to high levels of heavy metals are at a heightened risk for behavioral impairments, brain damage, and death. Both of these new findings show the alarming ways in which our polluted world puts our most susceptible populations at risk, and the lack of protection we have from federal regulations. Because there aren’t policies in place to keep toxins out of our bodies, we need to be extra diligent about keeping these toxins out of our lives and bodies, and the lives and bodies of any little humans we’re responsible for. 

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8. Common Blood Pressure Medication Could Raise Schizophrenia Risk

High blood pressure is common among people with psychological disorders like schizophrenia, and a new study sheds some light on that relationship. Researchers analyzed data from 40,675 patients with schizophrenia and 64,643 controls, and found that those who had significantly lower levels of the protein angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) had lower blood pressure — but also had an increased risk of schizophrenia. This is concerning because people with high blood pressure are often prescribed ACE-inhibiting drugs to lower their blood pressure, but this could also have the unwanted effect of heightening schizophrenia risk. 

The researchers noted that since hypertension medication is generally prescribed later in life, and schizophrenia generally sets in during adolescence or early adulthood, it’s unlikely that the medications actually cause schizophrenia. However, they believe that taking medications that lower levels of ACE could worsen symptoms or trigger a new episode. 

We always advocate for treating the root cause of your symptoms rather than masking them with prescriptions that come with unwanted side effects, and this research reaffirms why that’s so important. High blood pressure can be a serious problem, but it can almost always be addressed through lifestyle interventions like eating a healthy, whole foods-based diet, getting enough exercise, and reducing stress — which are all things that are great for your well-being anyway!

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9.  Getting Fewer than Five Hours of Sleep Raises Risk of Dementia and Reduces Longevity 

Researchers looked at data from 2,812 adults over the age of 65 to examine the relationship between sleep and both dementia and mortality. Their findings showed that getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night had a strong association with dementia, while difficulty maintaining alertness, napping, and poor sleep quality were associated with mortality. 

Alzheimer’s and dementia are huge issues, with 5.8 million American adults currently afflicted and the number expected to rise over the next few decades. What’s more, sleep disturbances are very common among older age groups who are most at risk for developing dementia, which makes these findings worrisome. However, the good news is that sleep is something we have control over, so we can all protect our brain health by prioritizing our rest. That means getting 7 to 9 hours a night, and practicing good sleep hygiene to ensure we’re getting high quality sleep

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10.  If You Want to Lose Weight with Exercise, You Need 300 Minutes Per Week

Exercise is really important for your health. It can make you happier, improve longevity, reduce inflammation, boost heart health, and on and on. But in the weight loss world, it’s usually the conventional wisdom that you have to focus on diet because you can’t lose weight through exercise alone. Well, a new study says that you can, but only if you get a certain amount. 

In the study, researchers had participants exercise so that they burned either 1,500 or 3,000 calories per week, then measured how many extra calories they consumed to offset the exercise. They found that, regardless of how much people exercised, they ended up eating about an extra 1,000 calories each week, which meant that those burning 1,500 exercise calories weren’t in enough of a deficit to lose weight, while those burning 3,000 were. Their takeaway? If you want to lose weight through exercise, you need to work out enough to burn 3,000 extra calories, which they calculated to be equivalent to about 300 minutes per week. 

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You’ve probably read all of this and are wondering, “But what about the vaccines??” You’re right, there has been a ton of health news about the various Covid-19 vaccines. But vaccines are a complex topic, and the research on the current batch of Covid vaccines is very, very new and changing every day. We do not feel there is enough data at this time to weigh in or take a stance. However, we will point you to some of the vaccine-related articles we’ve seen come out during the past few months. 

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