Welcome to the first health research and wellness news wrap-up of 2023! In it, we cover all the most important pieces of health research and wellness news since our 2022 year-end wrap-up, which means we’re looking back on everything that happened from January through March 2023.
In this wrap-up, we’re featuring five big, juicy health topics with WellBe analysis, plus five more “quick hits” that you can choose to learn more about at the links included.
So without further ado, we present the 10 most important health and wellness news stories to know about in April 2023 (click to skip to one):
- Covid Vaccine Research Update: Is Natural Immunity Best? + Stroke Risk
- New Study Reveals How Psychedelics Affect Your Neurons
- The Fallout from the Ohio Train Derailment & Chemical Spill
- U.S. Maternal Death Rate Hits Highest Level in over 50 Years (But Not for the Reason You Think)
- Avoiding the Hospital: CDC announces Deadly Fungal Infection + Is Prostate Surgery Sometimes Unnecessary?
- Papers Show Nutrition Authorities in Bed with the Food Giants + Lunchables now in School Cafeterias
- FDA Isn’t Testing Food for Chemicals that Cause Obesity or Disrupt our Metabolism
- The Artificial Sweetener Erythritol May Increase Risk of Heart Attack, Stroke & Blood Clots
- Single-Hormone Birth Control Raises Breast Cancer Risk as Much as Combo Drugs
- Costco, Trader Joe’s Frozen Organic Fruit Recalled Due to Risk of Hepatitis A Contamination
MAJOR HEALTH HEADLINES
1. Covid Research Vaccine Update: Is Natural Immunity Best? And is there a Stroke Risk?
What: A new, large study finds that natural immunity from contracting Covid provides as much protection as getting vaccinated, while another study found that getting a flu shot and the Pfizer Covid booster on the same day may raise your risk of stroke.
The Details: In a meta-analysis published in The Lancet, researchers found that immunity acquired from a Covid infection provides strong and lasting protection against the most severe outcomes of the illness. According to the study authors, the protection offered is at least as high, if not higher, than immunity generated from two doses of an mRNA vaccine. The study took data from 65 studies across 19 countries (that’s a lot!), comparing the risk of developing Covid again in people who had recovered from infections and people who hadn’t been infected. They found that infection-acquired immunity cut the risk of hospitalization and death from a Covid reinfection by a whopping 88% for at least 10 months.
In other vaccine news, a review by the FDA found evidence that getting Pfizer’s bivalent Covid booster shot and a flu shot on the same day may increase the risk of stroke. The study was small and only done on seniors (because the reason for the review was that the country’s vaccine surveillance system flagged a possible association between the bivalent booster and stroke in people over age 65), but the link was there. Investigators found that, among the 55,000 seniors in their database, 130 suffered strokes in the 21 days after receiving the Pfizer booster. Reviewers concluded that seniors who received the booster on the same day that they received a flu vaccine had a heightened risk.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: First off, it’s important to note that the authors of the Lancet study related to natural immunity are still advising that people get vaccinated rather than wait to get infected (their argument is that you never know if you’ll be one of the people who gets very sick or even dies from Covid), and that health officials still recommend that people get both the flu shot and the Covid booster, since both the flu and Covid also raise risk of stroke—but given this new information, not on the same day if you’re over 65.
Now for WellBe’s takeaway: we respect research findings and will take all of these recommendations into account, but both of these pieces of news drive home, once again, the fact that pharmaceuticals (like lab-made vaccines) come with side effects, and that newly developed drugs and vaccines have many unknowns, which reveal themselves over the first few years of testing them on humans. We advise doing your own research and being cautious with anything new since often we’re not aware of all the risks until they’ve been around for quite some time. As always, your best protection against adverse health issues, whether we’re talking about Covid or the flu or a stroke, is to keep your immune system strong and resilient, and do everything you can to avoid chronic disease. That means reducing your toxic burden, prioritizing your gut health, avoiding unnecessary medication, and focusing on the 100 little choices you make each day that truly are your healthcare.
2. New Study Reveals How Psychedelics Affect Your Neurons
What: For a while now, researchers have been exploring psychedelics as a way to treat mental health issues like chronic depression. Now, a study explains why psychedelics are able to do this while antidepressant drugs like SSRIs can’t.
The Details: The study, which was published in Science, is a landmark discovery with big implications for how we treat mental health issues — it’s fascinating, but it gets a little science-y, so bear with us.
Psychedelics can help promote the growth of neurons (the information messengers in our brains) and restore atrophied connections in the brain, which makes them promising potential treatments for stubborn mental illnesses like addiction and depression. Both serotonin (the “happiness” neurotransmitter and hormone) and psychedelic compounds like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) bind to the certain receptor that’s important for cellular signaling in the brain, known as the 5-HT2A receptor. The idea is that by binding to this receptor, the compounds will trigger neuroplasticity effects that rewire the brain and address the addiction/depression/etc. So why do psychedelics appear to “work” while research shows that SSRI medications (which make more serotonin available in the brain) don’t work?
Well here’s what the study found: unlike other similar receptors, the 5-HT2A receptor that serotonin and psychedelics bind to is inside neurons, rather than on their cellular surface, so in order to spark any change, compounds need to reach the receptor within. And while psychedelic compounds can easily penetrate cells, serotonin cannot.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Given how many people struggle with depression and addiction, how many people are on antidepressants (over 13% of Americans), and how many side effects antidepressants come with, this kind of research into psychedelics could be game-changing. And what’s more, for people who want the mental health benefits without experiencing a full-on “trip,” there are a growing number of companies working on designer psychedelics that help deliver the brain-changing neuroplasticity effects without all the pulsing colors and other hallucinations (so we hear).
More research is, of course, needed, but we’re hopeful that efforts like this will help move Americans away from their dependence on pharmaceutical drugs and offer a real solution to the growing epidemic of depression and other mental health conditions.
3. The Fallout from the Ohio Train Derailment & Chemical Spill
What: Months after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio—and officials burned the contents of the train cars to avoid an explosion—residents have hired independent researchers to test for levels of toxins in the area, as they don’t trust and feel dissatisfied with the EPA’s testing results.
The Details: For the first few months of the year, you couldn’t look at the news without seeing at least one headline about the horrible train derailment in Ohio and the burning of millions of toxic chemicals that followed. Now, though the headlines have faded, residents are still experiencing symptoms, such as headaches, difficulty breathing, rashes, and nosebleeds, despite EPA reports that everything is “fine” and chemical levels are low and safe.
The EPA as well as local, state, and federal agencies have been monitoring air and water quality in the area, but community members say that official reports are confusing, contradictory, and don’t match their own lived experience. Because of that, they hired independent investigators to test chemical levels. The researchers found levels of acrolein — a chemical irritant that affects the eyes, skin, and respiratory system — were three times higher than they should be, and also found higher concentrations of four more acrolein-like compounds as well as another compound of concern. The researchers, who came from Carnegie Mellon, also said that more comprehensive testing of many more chemicals was needed to identify any harmful substances that could have formed during the controlled burn.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Not to sound like conspiracy theorists, but it’s important to remember that big companies and big agencies — including agencies meant to protect us, like the EPA — don’t have your health at the top of their priority list. You need to be your own advocate, and do everything you can to protect your health and that of your loved ones. We feel deeply for the residents of East Palestine and applaud their efforts to get unbiased answers.
And no matter whether you live anywhere near East Palestine or not, this story is a reminder to do what you can to ensure the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the soil your food is grown in don’t contain harmful substances. This means, among other things, getting a high-quality water filter for the contaminants in your area and reducing indoor air pollution in your home.
4. U.S. Maternal Death Rate Hits Highest Level in 60 Years (But Not for the Reason You Think)
What: Maternal death rates in the United States have reached their highest levels since the 1960s, making this the most dangerous high-income country in which to give birth.
The Details: According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of women who died during pregnancy or shortly after rose 40% to 1,205 in 2021, compared to 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019. That works out to 33 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, which is the highest it’s been since 1965. Black mothers were the most affected, experiencing a death rate that’s 2.6 times higher than that of white women; 30% of maternal deaths were among Black women, despite them making up only 14% of the U.S. population.
While our broken healthcare system may certainly take some of the blame for this startling trend (shouldn’t maternal mortality be going down, not up?), there are a couple other factors that may be more to blame.
First off, Covid. Not only did the pandemic prevent people from getting the care they needed, but pregnant women are also at a higher risk of developing severe illness or dying from Covid, especially if they have no naturally-acquired or vaccine-acquired immunity, or have other Covid risk factors, which brings us to our next reason.
The biggest driver of this increase in maternal deaths is likely the fact that more mothers have underlying or chronic health conditions, which increase their risk of complications and death during labor. Chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension raise a mother’s risk of experiencing delivery complications like pulmonary embolisms, uncontrolled bleeding, blood clots, or cardiovascular problems, all of which could lead to death in worst-case-scenarios.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: The best way to protect yourself against serious illness, injury, or death is to avoid chronic health conditions by taking care of your health every day. That means a lot of things: eating a nourishing diet, getting regular movement, prioritizing sleep, keeping your stress levels low, and avoiding toxins, among other health-protecting efforts. It might seem like a lot, but it provides your body with more protection than any medication ever could, which is especially important during the vulnerable and formative period of pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
5. Avoiding the Hospital: CDC announces Deadly Fungal Infection + Is Prostate Surgery Sometimes Unnecessary?
What: The CDC recently warned of a rapidly spreading, treatment-resistant fungal infection in hospitals and other medical settings, and a separate new study shows that actively monitoring prostate cancer is as effective as invasive treatments like surgery or radiation.
The Details: The CDC has published a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine warning about a type of fungus called candida auris, or C. auris, which is spreading rapidly through U.S. healthcare facilities. Their report looked at data from 2016 through 2021, and found that the number of infections increased 59% from 2019 to 2020 and 95% from 2020 to 2021; the number of people carrying the fungus but not showing any symptoms increased by 21% in 2020 and by 209% in 2021. What’s more, an increasing number of samples were resistant to common treatments.
While the fungus doesn’t do any harm to healthy people, it can cause severe illness and even death in people with weakened immune systems. In those who do become sick from C. auris, about one-third die. The fungus has been detected in more than half of U.S. states, and while it’s only in healthcare facilities, it’s only a matter of time before it makes its way into the general population. Given that healthy people aren’t at risk for any adverse effects, the big concern here is people who are compromised becoming infected, especially those who have invasive medical devices like catheters.
Meanwhile, a 15-year study compared three different approaches to prostate cancer among 1,600 men. The men were randomly assigned to get surgery, undergo radiation, or get active monitoring of their cancer, and their cancer was tracked in the years that followed. Researchers found that there was no significant difference in prostate cancer death rates between the three groups, nor significant difference in the cancer’s spread. Given these results, and that monitoring techniques have only improved since the study began in 1999, the study authors believe men diagnosed with prostate cancer shouldn’t panic or rush to invasive and aggressive treatment approaches.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: While these two pieces of news might feel pretty different, they both underscore the importance of keeping yourself healthy to avoid hospital care and the invasive procedures done inside them. Though hospitals are places theoretically designed to help restore you to health, they are often swarming with diseases, and when you’re under the knife or hooked up to IVs, you’re more vulnerable than ever to infection. Keeping your body healthy and taking the least invasive treatment approach whenever possible is a smart way to stay out of the hospital, avoid going under the knife, and protect yourself from serious illness or death.
HEALTH QUICK HITS
6. Papers Show Nutrition Authorities in Bed with Food Giants + Lunchables are now in School Cafeterias
A recently published peer-reviewed study found that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an influential group that helps shape U.S. food policy and makes recommendations to consumers on nutritious products, has financial ties to some of the world’s largest processed food companies. The documents included in the study showed the the group has a record of owning stock in ultra-processed food companies, and has received millions in contributions from producers of processed foods (including Nestle, PepsiCo, Hershey, and Kellogg’s). In related news, a huge maker of processed foods, Kraft Heinz, has successfully lobbied to get its incredibly processed Lunchables product into school lunch programs. They reformulated the ingredients in Lunchables to meet standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which are set by the USDA. We haven’t seen the nutrition labels or reformulated ingredients in Lunchables, but let’s just say…they are not going to help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. In fact, it’s likely they will make it worse.
7. FDA Isn’t Testing Food for Chemicals that Cause Obesity or Disrupt our Metabolism
Speaking of big agencies not necessarily having our best health interests at heart, a new report shows that the FDA isn’t testing food, food additives, or food packaging for chemicals known to cause obesity and disrupt our metabolism. The report, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is based off of the idea of obesogen science, which proposes that certain chemicals, known as obesogens, stimulate the formation of fat cells, disrupt metabolism, and dysregulate appetite, all of which can result in obesity. Their analysis identified a ton of potential obesogens in the U.S. diet — including certain preservatives, MSG, certain artificial colors and flavors, and more — and noted that the FDA has no process in place to test for these chemicals. Given the raging obesity epidemic, and all the chronic health issues that go along with it, this explains a lot, and merits some serious concern.
8. The Artificial Sweetener Erythritol May Increase Risk of Heart Attack, Stroke & Blood Clots
A new, relatively large, study found that the common artificial sweetener erythritol is associated with an increased risk of serious cardiovascular problems. Specifically, researchers found that consuming the sweetener is correlated with an increased risk of experiencing a major cardiac event — which includes heart attack and stroke — within three years, as well as raising the risk of blood clots. We’ve written before about the health risks of artificial sweeteners (which include cancer, depression, and headaches, among many others), and this is yet another reason to steer clear of these overly sweet chemicals. Skip sugar altogether and flavor with spices, or reach for a healthier natural sweet alternative, like manuka honey or maple syrup.
9. Single-Hormone Control Raises Breast Cancer Risk as Much as Combo Drugs
For years now, research has shown that birth control pills containing the hormones estrogen and progesterone increase risk of breast cancer, however there hasn’t been much research on the effects of single-hormone contraception. A new large review of medical records shows that progesterone-only contraception—such as hormonal IUDs and the “mini-pill”— pose a similar risk. In the review, women taking any of these kinds of contraception, regardless of whether they contained one or two hormones, had a 20-30% increased risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer as compared to those not taking hormonal contraception. In the U.S., 14% of women ages 15-49 take oral birth control pills and 10% use long-acting contraception like hormonal IUDs, making this a serious problem. We’re always for reducing the amount of pharmaceuticals we put in our body — and this is especially true of hormones — so if you use any sort of hormonal contraception, we recommend you check out our guide to the best birth control options for your health.
10. Costco, Trader Joe’s Frozen Organic Fruit Recalled Due to Risk of Hepatitis A Contamination
The FDA recently announced the recall of various frozen fruit products from Scenic Fruit Company due to a potential hepatitis A contamination. The affected products include frozen organic strawberries sold under the Kirkland Signature brand at Costco, as well as Trader Joe’s “Organic Tropical Fruit Blend.” You can find the fill list of potentially contaminated products on the FDA website. There have been three confirmed and two suspected hepatitis A cases in people who reported eating the frozen strawberries. Hepatitis A is a highly contagious infection that can be spread by consuming food or drink handled by a person with an infection, and it can result in liver disease. This news is a reminder that just because something has an “organic” label it doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe. Whenever possible, thoroughly wash your own fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself from contaminants, and avoid raw fruits and vegetables when eating out.