Health Research Wrap-Up: October to December 2020

Health Research Wrap-Up: October to December 2020
Well, it’s finally happening: this seemingly endless year is coming to an end at long last. If you’d told us in January everything this year was going to bring, there’s no way we would have believed you! And yet, here we are. Obviously, wellness news (and all news) this year has been dominated by the coronavirus, and so throughout 2020 we’ve done our best to share the most significant developments in these health research wrap-ups. But, as we’ve said before, your best defense against COVID or any other disease is maintaining good overall health, and many WellBe readers are still struggling with other chronic symptoms and conditions (that might make it harder to fight COVID-19). That’s why we think it’s as important as ever to highlight health news and research that’s not COVID-related. 
For our final wrap-up of the year, we’re covering over 20 different studies or news stories, divided into 8 different topic areas (one of which, obviously, is about the coronavirus). There’s some alarming news, some good news, some funny news — but all of it is news that you can use to better inform your daily choices to feel your best and prevent and reverse disease.
So without further ado, we present the 8 most important health and wellness news stories from October, November, and December 2020. Click to skip to a topic, read all the way through, or listen to Adrienne read the wrap-up on The WellBe Podcast:
Trying to stay on top of health- and wellness-related news and events can be overwhelming. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended). We saved you the trouble. Here’s what happened in February, WellBe-style.

1. COVID Roundup: New Risk Factors, Potential New Treatment & Disinfectant Downsides

What: Both PPIs and being overweight have both been linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes, and melatonin shows promise as a potential treatment option. Meanwhile, the powerful disinfectants used by airlines and elsewhere carry health risks that aren’t being addressed.
The Details: A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Internal Medicine looked at a total of five studies that included 37,372 patients to determine what connection there was, if any, between the use of PPIs (proton pump inhibitors, a common class of acid reflux medication) and COVID outcomes. Their findings showed a significantly increased likelihood for a severe or fatal case of COVID-19 among those who took PPIs vs those who didn’t, as well as significantly increased odds for a secondary infection for those on PPIs. The study authors believe that this association may be because PPIs excessively suppress gastric acid, which plays an important role in eliminating pathogens.
Another risk factor has also been identified: being overweight. While obesity has been associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes since the beginning of the pandemic, new research has led the CDC to issue a warning for people who are merely overweight. The warning states that those with a BMI between 25 and 29 (aka those in the “overweight” category between “healthy weight” and “obese”) are at an increased risk for severe or fatal cases of the disease. The warning comes from a small number of studies, since not many studies drew a clear distinction between obesity and merely being overweight, but the findings are strong enough to suggest that it’s excess fat itself — and not the condition of obesity — that worsens COVID-19 outcomes. In fact, one of the studies found that those who were overweight had a 40% increased risk of death from the virus, while that number was only 30% for those in the obese category. Researchers believe that this may be because adipose tissue (the fat accumulated in the body) can cause metabolic changes and abnormalities, putting the body in a constant state of low-grade inflammation. Another factor may be that abdominal fat can cause compression of the lungs and chest cavity, which makes it more difficult to clear respiratory infections like COVID-19.
In more positive news, a new study suggests that melatonin may be an effective preventative measure against the coronavirus. The study, published in PLOS Biology, analyzed patient data from Cleveland Clinic’s COVID-19 registry and found that those who took melatonin — the hormone most commonly associated with sleep — had a 30% reduced likelihood of testing positive for the virus. It’s a small study, and the researchers are quick to advise against people beginning to take melatonin because of it, but it’s promising in terms of natural prevention routes.
This is particularly important given that some of the less natural preventative measures can have serious health repercussions. For instance, the powerful disinfectants used on airplanes. The struggling airline industry, understandably, has been implementing new cleanliness measures to reassure passengers that flying is safe. One of these measures include spraying every surface in the plane with germ-killing chemicals that come with toxicity warnings and require gloves and eye protection to apply. The most concerning chemical is quaternary ammonium compound (QAC), which is used by the three biggest U.S. airlines and has been linked to lung damage and asthma. Another cleaner, Calla 1452, is rated in the EPAs second-highest hazardous category for health and can severely irritate and damage skin and eyes. While all chemicals used on the planes have been approved by the EPA, they’ve never been used with such frequency and volume in an enclosed space like an aircraft, prompting scientists to call for more research on their long-term effects in large doses.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: In terms of the new risk factors, both of these findings underscore our driving philosophy of treating root causes and living healthy, disease-free lives with as few pharmaceuticals as possible. PPIs have come up again and again in these wrap-ups for their significant health risks (like increased risk of bone fracture and, um, death), and this is just another reason to avoid them. We know that acid reflux is real, but fortunately, as Dr. Aviv explained in our interview, there are simple and effective lifestyle changes you can make to reverse acid reflux without any side effects.
The findings about being overweight are particularly concerning given that 71.6% of American adults age 20-over are overweight or obese — and that, because of the obesity epidemic, many of the overweight but not obese people likely don’t think they need to lose weight. It’s important to remember that obesity and being overweight are both chronic conditions associated with tons of negative health outcomes, so we’re committed to maintaining a healthy weight and supporting others in our life to do the same.
We’ve always been a bit wary of all those chemical-laden disinfectants (we only use cleaning and disinfecting products that have been fully vetted, like those in our Non-Toxic Product Database). The story about airline disinfectants serves as a reminder that just because something smells harsh and chemical-y doesn’t mean it’s better. A simple mixture of alcohol and water is just as effective at killing germs, without any of the risks!

2. Mental Health Roundup: How Psilocybin and Propecia Impact Depression + New Xanax Labeling

What: The common hair loss medication Propecia (generic name finasteride) has been associated with depression among men, while psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) has shown to be remarkably effective in treating depression. Meanwhile, the FDA is now requiring stronger warnings for benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes Xanax.
The Details: A new analysis looked at the World Health Organization’s global database of individual case safety reports to further explore the link between finasteride, better known as Propecia, and psychological issues, which had come up in a few earlier studies. They found 356 reports of suicidality, and 2,926 cases of adverse psychological events associated with the drug, with most of these outcomes present in younger men taking the drug for alopecia. The researchers aren’t sure what the mechanism is that’s causing this link, and are calling for more research into the topic.
Meanwhile, there’s promising news for those who suffer from depression. A new study published in JAMA found that psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” can rapidly improve symptoms of depression and lead to remission in as little as two sessions. The randomized trial included 24 individuals who underwent several preparatory sessions before being administered psilocybin in two separate sessions about a week and a half apart, along with 13 sessions of psychotherapy. Almost all of the participants experienced significant positive results from the psilocybin. Specifically, the psilocybin was associated with a greater than 50% reduction in depressive symptoms in 67% of study participants, and at a 4-week follow-up, 71% showed significant improvement. What’s more, over half of the participants had achieved remission at the 4-week follow-up, and none experienced adverse side effects.
In terms of more traditional pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues, the FDA has issued a statement saying that it would require a new warning label on a common class of psychiatric drug called benzodiazepines. Benzos are commonly used for anxiety and insomnia, and include common drugs like Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin, but they can have serious unwanted effects, and are involved in 30% of opioid overdoses. The new label would warn the public and health practitioners about the serious risks of abuse and addiction, emphasizing that it’s possible to become addicted in merely a matter of days.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: The news about Xanax and Propecia are both further reminders that pharmaceuticals can often do more harm than good. Of course, there are times when a pharmaceutical drug can be life-saving, but our population’s cavalier attitude toward pills completely glosses over serious, potentially fatal issues. If you do need to be on some sort of medication for a condition, it’s best to look for the most natural option with the least side effects — which is why this news about psilocybin is great for people struggling with depression! And if your mental health is struggling and you’d prefer not to take anything at all, why not try an “Awe Walk”? A new study showed that when people went on a walk while consciously looking for small wonders in the world around them saw a boost in their levels of happiness and well-being!

3. Research Confirms Connection Between Alzheimer’s and Gut Bacteria

What: New research from Switzerland and Italy has not only confirmed that gut bacteria is a primary factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but also potentially pinpointed inflammation in the blood as the way that the two relate.
The Details: In the study, researchers looked at 89 people between the ages of 65 and 85, some of whom had neurodegenerative diseases, some of whom didn’t. They measured the amount of various inflammatory markers and proteins in the blood caused by gut bacteria, as well as the levels of amyloid plaques in the brain, which are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Their findings showed what they call “indisputable” evidence that certain gut bacteria correlate with the amount of amyloid plaques in the brain.
The reason for this seems clear: basically, our gut health impacts our immune system. When our gut health is off, it causes inflammation. Inflammatory bacterias have proteins called lipopolysaccharides, which contribute to the buildup of amyloid plaques, which in turn can lead to Alzehimer’s. The study also found that certain proteins are correlated with less amyloid plaques, meaning that the makeup of your gut bacteria can both contribute to or help prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: At WellBe, we take gut health very seriously. We already knew that it impacts basically every aspect of your health, and this new direct connection to the development of Alzheimer’s shows just how serious of an impact it has. We’re going to continue supporting our gut health by eating a whole-foods-based diet, drinking plenty of water, taking pre- and probiotics, and all the other gut-supporting practices we outline in our free gut health guide.

4. Pregnancy Roundup: Baby Gut Health Begins in the Womb, What Impacts Future Allergies & New Warnings on NSAIDs

What: Speaking of gut health, a new study shows that gut health benefits begin in utero, while another found that fecal transfer from mother to infant can promote a healthier microbiome in babies born via C-section. Meanwhile, three different studies found maternal factors that may contribute to allergies later in a baby’s life: C-section, weight gain, and anxiety or depression. And finally, the FDA has issued a warning against the use of NSAIDs (Advil, Aleve, etc.) after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The Details: As we mentioned above, gut health is central to every aspect of your health. A new study out of Yale found that your gut health starts to develop before you’re even born. The researchers looked at 31 different intestinal samples across three different stages of development — the fetal stage, infancy, and later childhood — and found that bacterial byproducts were present in all of them, suggesting that the microbiome starts to develop prior to delivery. Though they’re not sure, researchers believe that this bacteria comes through the placenta from the mother.
Another essential part of building a newborn’s microbiome comes from the birth itself, when the baby picks up good bacteria while passing through the vaginal canal. Up until now, babies born via C-section did not get the benefit of this bacteria, leading to a less robust microbiome and potential gut health issues down the line. But new research shows that mixing small amounts of maternal fecal matter (yes, poop) with breast milk and feeding it to C-section babies results in gut microbiota that looks just like babies born vaginally!
Because C-sections rob infants of important microbiome development, it’s not surprising that they’re correlated with a number of health issues, including allergic conditions like asthma. A new study followed 700 children from birth, tracking both their gut microbial composition and any instance of asthma. They found that, compared to those born vaginally, children born via C-section had higher rates of asthma and an altered gut microbiome.
Another contributing factor to asthma came up in a different study: psychological distress. The study looked at 4,231 children and parents over a 10-year period, and found that mothers who experienced stress or depression while pregnant had children with a 46%-91% increased risk of asthma. Researchers believe this may be because stress and depression cause an increased production of stress hormones in the pregnant mother, which may impact the development of certain respiratory-related systems in the infant.
Another thing that can impact a child’s odds of developing asthma? The mother’s weight. Chinese researchers looked at over 15,000 mother-child pairs in Shanghai over an average of eight years, tracking the children’s health and how much weight the mother gained during pregnancy. They found that compared to those with mothers who gained the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy (between 22 to 33 pounds), children whose mothers gained more weight had a 13% increased risk of asthma, allergic rhinitis, and allergies to food or drugs, as well as a 9% increased risk of eczema.
Finally, the FDA issued a statement calling for NSAIDs (like Advil) to carry warning labels against taking them after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This new mandate is based on evidence showing that they can cause a rare but serious kidney complication in infants that can result in low levels of amniotic fluid and other pregnancy issues. The current labeling advises against NSAIDs after 30 weeks.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Being pregnant is taxing enough without having to keep track of all the constantly emerging (and sometimes contradictory) research about what you should and shouldn’t do to have a healthy baby. Thankfully, there are some general guidelines and takeaways that most women can abide by to ensure the healthiest possible outcome, and these guidelines don’t change according to new research: do your research and hire a doula to increase your chances that you can give birth vaginally; keep yourself as healthy as possible, both mentally and physically; and avoid taking any pharmaceuticals if you can throughout your pregnancy.

5. Leaked Emails Shows How the Government, Pesticide Industry, Big Pharma, and McKinsey Put Money Over Health

What: Four recent news stories underscore the outsize role that money plays when it comes to health-related policies and practices: leaked emails show how lobbyists from the pesticide industry shaped the U.S. government’s position in global health talks, while a reversal from the EPA shows the impact of the pesticide industry in our own country; a new analysis found that 85% of the biggest pharmaceutical companies have paid penalties for illegal practices over the years; and recently revealed court filings show that the esteemed consulting group McKinsey actively advised Purdue Pharma to push OxyContin during the opioid crisis.
The Details: Leaked emails from 2018 show how a top pesticide industry lobbyist shaped the U.S. position on proposed guidelines from a United Nations task force working to combat the rise of drug-resistant infections. The emails, sent to employees at the Department of Agriculture from a policy official at the lobbying group CropLife America, strongly urged United States officials to push back on any language that referenced “crops” or “fungicides.” The U.S. delegation followed these directions, insisting that neither of these words appear, despite the fact the overuse of these compounds are a threat to human health by contributing to drug resistance.
The long arm of the pesticide industry can also be seen in a recent reversal from the EPA, in which they went against their own findings to roll back restrictions on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that harms children’s brains. Numerous studies, including federal studies conducted by the EPA itself, have found that both prenatal and post-birth exposure to the chemical can cause serious harm to children, stunting brain development and leading to developmental disorders. The agency’s most recent assessment rejects those findings, allowing the pesticide — commonly used on tons of crops, including soybeans, almonds, and grapes — to join a long list of Trump administration regulatory rollbacks.
Another industry powerhouse, Big Pharma, was exposed in a recent analysis for just how much illegal lobbying they’ve been doing. In the study, published in JAMA, researchers collected data on financial penalties paid by pharmaceutical firms on the Fortune 1000 or Global 500 lists between 2003 and 2016. Their results found that 85% of the firms engaged in illegal activity and paid a combined total penalty of $33 billion. That’s billion, with a B. And while it’s good that they got penalized for things like bribes and illegal kickbacks, it’s clear that illegal practices are pervasive and standard in the industry, and that the penalties aren’t affecting their bottom line enough to change their practices.
In yet another example of how money drives shocking behavior, recently revealed court filings show the downright sinister actions of McKinsey & Company with regard to their consulting work for Purdue Pharma. The documents show that, even as the opioid crisis was exploding and claiming lives across the country, McKinsey laid out plans to “turbocharge” the sales of Oxycontin. Their plans even included the idea that Purdue would pay a rebate to pharmacies for every overdose their pills caused (so, literally incentivizing death). Once lawsuits against Purdue started pouring in, emails show that top-level McKinsey executives schemed to purge emails and other documents of incriminating information.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: While it would be wonderful to live in a world where all policy and regulation was designed to protect our health, the fact of the matter is that that’s just not our world. Money has always had a major influence on policy and business conduct in the United States. For our part, we’re going to continue to make our voice heard in pushing for regulatory change that actually protects our health — and in the meantime, stay educated so that we can make choices that support and protect our health in the areas that we can control (like diet, movement, sleep, meditation, and the products we bring inside our home).

6. Beauty & Health: The FDA Knew About the Risks of Formaldehyde in Hair Products For Years & California is First State to Ban These 24 Harmful Chemicals

What: Newly revealed emails show that the FDA knew since 2016 that certain hair straighteners contained formaldehyde but failed to implement a ban, while California became the first state to ban 24 harmful ingredients from beauty products.
The Details: Brazilian blowouts have been associated with migraines and other health issues since they first became trendy. Initially, government inspectors believed that the culprit was formaldehyde, yet the products used in the treatment were all labeled as formaldehyde-free. The issue, it turned out, was that they contained a solution called methylene glycol, which converts into formaldehyde when it comes in contact with the air. What’s more, the FDA has known this for four years.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) obtained internal emails showing that FDA scientists deemed these hair straighteners to be unsafe back in 2016, and the agency then began the process of drafting up a ban. But after a couple months, that process abruptly stalled for mysterious reasons. The FDA has not responded to direct questions about why the ban never came about, but if the corruption news outlined above is any indication, we’re guessing money was involved.
In a bit of good news — and another reason to thank the EWG — California’s governor recently signed the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act, which institutes a state-level ban of 24 ingredients from beauty and personal care products. The EWG initiated and supported the bill, which takes effect in 2025 and prohibits the use of any of the named ingredients, many of which are already banned or restricted in Europe. The list includes ingredients like the aforementioned formaldehyde and methylene glycol, as well as others that have been linked to health issues like allergies, cancer, and hormone disruption.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: The California ban is a big win, so we’re celebrating that! But the FDA formaldehyde news reminds us that the federal government often doesn’t have our best interests at heart, and we should continue to push for more oversight at the highest levels of government. In the meantime, we’re going to continue to be careful about the products we put on our body, avoiding ingredients that we know to be harmful — or, ideally, only buying products with a short list of ingredients that we recognize and know to be safe (or, even better, only buying products in the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Database!)

7. Blood Pressure: The Impact of Social Isolation On It & New Thoughts on What’s “Normal” For High/Low

What: A new study found that social isolation can contribute to high blood pressure in women, while another suggests that blood pressure levels currently considered normal contribute to heart disease.
The Details: In the social isolation study, researchers analyzed data from 28,238 men and women between the ages of 45 and 85. They found that compared to married women, single women had a 28% increased risk of high blood pressure, while the increase was 21% for divorced women and 33% for widowed women. What’s more, those women with the smallest social networks (fewer than 85 people) had a 15% increased risk of hypertension as compared to women with the largest social networks (between 220 and 573 people). The researchers found no corresponding relationship with the men in the study.
These findings become more concerning given another study finding that blood pressure doesn’t need to be very high for it to do a lot of damage to your health. In the study, researchers followed a group of 1,457 middle-aged men and women for 14.5 years, tracking their various heart disease risk factors over time. Focusing on systolic blood pressure (the bigger number in your blood pressure reading, which refers to the pressure within arteries as the heart pumps, vs when the heart is relaxed), they found that for every 10 mm increase in blood pressure, the risk of calcium deposits in arteries and cardiovascular events also rose. For instance, compared to those with a systolic blood pressure between 90 and 99, those with a number between 120 and 129 were 4.56 times more likely to have experienced a cardiovascular event.
These findings call into question the current blood pressure guidelines, issued by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, which consider a systolic blood pressure of up to 120 mm to be normal. It also calls into question the prevailing belief that blood pressure simply rises as one ages, a belief that was reinforced in medical school until not very long ago: in the 1960’s, doctors were taught that blood pressure should increase with age, to ensure adequate blood supply to the brain. While this has been debunked, many doctors trained during that era are still practicing, and — perhaps because of the widespread nature of hypertension among older adults — many people accept higher blood pressure as an inevitable part of life. This new study shows that, regardless of age, letting systolic blood pressure rise above 100 can lead to heart disease and death.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It’s common to associate high blood pressure with older men, and many of us don’t think about or pay attention to it that much. But given these two studies, and the fact that cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, we’re going to start paying much closer attention. People in non-industrialized countries tend to live their entire lives with systolic blood pressure that remains in the 90’s, further reinforcing the notion that it’s the Western diet — with its processed foods, enormous portions, and sky-high sodium levels — that cause this “inevitable” hypertension. Just another reason to focus on a whole foods-based diet, and to maintain (safe, virtual or socially distanced!) connections with friends and family.

8. Ireland Rules That Subway’s Sandwich Bread Isn’t Legally Bread

What: The Irish Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring that the bread used in Subway sandwiches cannot be legally defined as bread because of its high sugar content.
The Details: The ruling came about because of a lawsuit filed by a Subway franchise, which claimed that their bread should not be subject to tax because it qualified as a “staple food.” The case centered around the Value-Added Tax Act of 1972, which exempted staple foods like bread from being taxed, but also stated that the sugar content in bread products cannot exceed 2% of the total weight of flour in the dough. All of Subway’s bread types contain about 10% sugar.
The purpose of this definition in the Value Added Tax Act was to ensure that anything qualifying as a staple food would actually be good for people. A food containing more sugar — like Subway’s bread — isn’t healthy or necessary, and is thus classified as a “confectionary or fancy baked good.”
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Not gonna lie, it’s not like we were eating Subway on the regular, so this won’t really be affecting our day-to-day life. But it is an important reminder that added sugar is hidden everywhere. Processed foods are almost always filled with way more sugar than you’d realize, even items that you don’t think of as “sweet.” So we’ll continue to try to eat mostly whole, single-ingredient foods, and be mindful of ingredient lists when we eat anything that’s been processed.
Other news worth noting:
  • Coronavirus Kills Far More Hispanic and Black Children than White Youth (Washington Post)
  • Turmeric May Ease Arthritis in Knees (New York Times)
  • Drinking Coffee Tied to Better Outcomes in Colon Cancer Patients (New York Times)
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  1. your newsletter has been a Godsend during this dreadful year. i have followed your advice and that of your experts and you are spot on. the sleep whisperer changed my life.

    thank you, thank you a thousand times for all your information.

    very best,

    eleanora kennedy

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