It’s been quite a while since our last wrap-up — and, wow, a lot has happened in these past four months! Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be the biggest topic in health and wellness news, but the world of medical research and health regulations hasn’t stopped spinning. In other words, there’s still a lot of stuff happening that matters for your health besides COVID. Lucky for you, we’ve rounded up the most vital pieces of health news since May and distilled it all down for you. You can also listen to an audio version of the wrap-up on The WellBe Podcast.
So without further ado, we present the 10 most important health and wellness news stories from June, July, August, and September 2020 (click to skip to one):
1. COVID & Corruption: Coronavirus Research and the Impact of Money in Medicine
What: Two top medical journals retracted papers on COVID-19 over data integrity concerns, while emerging side effects of other drugs (both chloroquine and PPIs) further highlight the influence and danger of industry in the medical landscape.
The Details: Back in June, both The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine retracted two high-profile papers on the coronavirus. Both papers relied on data from the healthcare analytics company Surgisphere, and were retracted when Surgisphere would not provide the underlying data for an independent audit. The Lancet paper that was retracted related to the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, while the paper from The New England Journal of Medicine claimed that certain blood pressure drugs did not increase COVID risk (spoiler alert, they do).
(While we’re on the topic of industry influencing medical research and practice, we should also mention the $678 million settlement the Justice Department reached with the pharmaceutical company Novartis in July. It was the result of a years-long whistleblower effort led by a Novartis employee that exposed cash bribes the company offered to doctors for prescribing their drugs.) If you think this sounds like a movie, it’s not, this is happening routinely in real life.
But now back to COVID-related corruption! It probably goes without saying that there is a lot of money on the line for whatever company comes up with a viable coronavirus treatment or vaccine. Because of that money, it’s inevitable that some companies will push drugs that aren’t completely safe. One such example is the anti-malarial drug chloroquine, which was promoted by President Trump: in a citation-studded letter to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers highlighted potential psychiatric side effects of the drug. The research showed that 12% of subjects who took chloroquine experienced adverse neuropsychiatric events, including depression, amnesia, delirium, and hallucinations. So get Covid and then tack on mental illness, two serious conditions for the price of one!
For another example of side effects being downplayed for profit, you need to only look to PPIs, a common type of heartburn, acid reflux and GERD medication, brands include Prilosec, Nexium, and others. PPIs have come up in previous roundups for various health risks (including increased risk of death and bone fracture risk), but this time they’re in the news because they appear to be associated with an increased risk of getting COVID. In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers analyzed survey data from 86,000 people and found that those who took PPIs had two to four times the risk of developing COVID as compared to those not taking the medications. As if heartburn wasn’t bad enough!
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We already know that we need to be wary of what companies tell us about their products, but it’s disheartening to realize that we also need to be wary of the results published in credible research journals. The takeaway here is that each of us has a responsibility to be our own watchdog. It’s important to always find out who is funding or conducting studies and think about what their incentives might be. It may be exhausting, but your, and a lot of other people’s health, is on the line.
2. Obesity Roundup: How Obesity Impacts Dementia & COVID Risk, Plus New Dietary Guidelines
What: Multiple studies link obesity to cognitive issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s, while obesity also appears to be a COVID risk factor for men under 60. Meanwhile, proposed changes to government dietary guidelines are being criticized by health advocates, largely because they have the potential to worsen our current obesity epidemic. You’d think updated guidelines would be trying to help the situation, not make it worse!
The Details: In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, British researchers looked at data from 6,582 adults over 50, and found a strong relationship between weight and dementia risk. Specifically, they found that those with a BMI in the “overweight” range (between 25 and 29.9) were 27% more likely to develop dementia, while those with an “obese” BMI (30 or higher) had a 31% increased risk. Women with a waist circumference greater than 34.6 inches (known as “central obesity”) were 39% more likely to develop dementia. That’s a lot!
Another recent study suggests that the reason for this correlation has to do with blood flow to the brain. In this study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers scanned the brains of 17,721 middle-aged men and women of varying weights. Their results showed that the higher a person’s BMI, the lower the blood flow to five regions of the brain that are particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. (Underscoring the connection between weight and dementia risk was yet another study, this one specifying the five lifestyle factors associated with a low risk of Alzheimer’s disease: exercising regularly, not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, a Mediterranean/DASH diet, and late-life cognitive activities).
So, it’s pretty clear that eating well and maintaining a healthy weight are essential to your brain health. That’s why this next piece of news is especially troubling: more than half of the panel meeting this year to decide on updates to the federal government’s dietary guidelines have ties to the food industry. Every five years, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services updates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and this year’s panel of 20 is chock-full of industry ties. What’s more, the scientists leading the subcommittee on lactation and children’s dietary guidelines have ties to the baby food industry.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Obesity puts you at risk for a whole host of health issues — including getting or dying from COVID — and this news about how much your Alzheimer’s and dementia risk goes up from obesity just adds to the list. We already prioritize nourishing our body with food that supports our health, and we hope that as the real health risks of obesity continue to be highlighted, more Americans will follow suit. The potential industry-led changes to dietary guidelines are upsetting but not exactly surprising (see: the section above on corruption and the power of industry in all of this!), and serves as yet another reminder that we need to do our own researching and vetting when it comes to health advice.
3. Black Health Outcome Disparities: Drinking Water Quality and Surgery Outcomes for Black Children
What: As the fight for racial justice continues across the United States, more and more of us are becoming aware of the myriad ways that systemic racism impacts Black Americans. Two recent studies highlight the racial disparities in health results for black children: one related to lead in drinking water, the other related to surgery outcomes.
The Details: In the first study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at water sources and health records of 60,000 children in North Carolina. They found that children whose homes relied on private wells for drinking water were 25% more likely to have high lead levels in their blood than those whose water came from regulated public water systems. The children who drank from private wells had lead levels that were 20% higher, on average, than their counterparts. This relates to racial inequality because, due to historic discriminatory public policies, poor and black children are far more likely to get their water from private wells (this is because discriminatory policies prioritize regulations and public services for higher-income areas).
The second study is perhaps even more tragic. The study, published in Pediatrics, looked at data from 172,549 children who had undergone surgery between 2012 and 2017, and found that black children were 3.4 times as likely to die within a month of surgery as white children, and 1.2 times as likely to develop postoperative complications.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Both of these realities are completely unacceptable. Firstly, the fact that poor and black children (and adults) are being exposed to lead, a carcinogen that’s highly toxic to the brain and nervous system, is shocking at best, evil at worst (and a good reminder of why it’s so important to use a high quality water filter!). And it’s not just a few, these unregulated private wells provide drinking water to 13% of the population! And the disparity in surgery outcomes shows just how deep and insidious systemic racism is — we’re pretty sure no doctor is consciously being careless with the life of a black child, but clearly something in the system is deeply broken if this kind of inequality exists. We will continue to do what we can to publicize racial injustice and fight for health equality.
4. Pregnancy Roundup: How Climate Change, Airports, and Caffeine Impact Birth Outcomes
What: Three new studies highlight the various factors that can impact birth outcomes for a pregnant woman, from climate change to how close you live to an airport to caffeine (it’s more dangerous than we thought!). Meanwhile, another study suggests that babies born even slightly preterm (38 weeks!) are at a higher risk for developmental delays.
The Details: As the historic hurricane season and fires ravaging the West Coast make clear, climate change will be an enormous presence in our lives for the decades to come. While this is, of course, concerning for the environment, wildlife, and, y’know, the future of humanity, it turns out it also poses major risks to pregnant women. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 57 studies conducted since 2007, and found that air pollution and heat exposure — two things worsened by climate change — were both associated with birth risks. Specifically, they found that the two factors correlate with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. Black mothers (racial disparities everywhere!) and those with asthma were particularly at risk.
Speaking of air pollution, another recent study found that air pollution from jet engines at airports was correlated with preterm birth risk. The researchers looked at records from the EPA to calculate the levels of ultrafine particles (little bits of soot as small as 0.1 micrometers, which easily enter the lungs and pass into the bloodstream) within 15 kilometers of LAX, and then compared this data with 174,186 birth records from the area. They found that, compared with those in the lowest one-quarter for exposure to ultrafine particulars, those in the highest one-quarter were 14% more likely to give birth prematurely.
These preterm birth risk factors become extra concerning in light of another new study, which suggests that the definition of “preterm” will be changing from 38 to 39 weeks due to its findings that babies born even a little early are at risk for developmental delays. It had been generally considered that once you get to 38 weeks, the baby is “fully baked” (even though a full term is technically 40 weeks), but new research is showing that every week the baby stays in the womb matters, and those born even a little early are at greater risk for short-term issues like jaundice, dehydration, and poor feeding, and long-term issues like learning disabilities and cognitive delays. Most discussion of preterm birth focuses on babies born quite early (Say, 32 weeks or earlier), but in fact, 70% of preterm births happen much later, and these new findings show that our definition of preterm was incorrect and will soon be updated.
Another review of studies, this one published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, found that caffeine consumption during pregnancy — even an amount that falls below the American College of Gynecology’s recommendation of 200 mg per day — was linked to a variety of poor birth outcomes. Specifically, through their examination of 37 studies (that’s a lot!), they saw a strong relationship between caffeine and miscarriage, still birth, low birth weight, childhood acute leukemia, and childhood obesity.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Pregnancy is already a fraught time for expectant mothers, as there’s advice coming in from every direction, a million things to worry about, and research that seems to contradict itself. But, given how essential that period of time is to the health of a future human being, it’s important to pay attention to what the science says. Fortunately, all of the guidelines that we try to adhere to anyway — like reducing our toxic burden as much as possible — also serve to lessen any risks associated with pregnancy. The caffeine thing may be a bit tough to swallow for coffee-loving ladies, but once you break the habit, it’s totally doable!
5. Gum Disease Linked to Both Colon Cancer and Alzheimer’s
What: Two new studies show that gum disease and poor oral health can lead to other serious health issues, including colon cancer and dementia. Hard to believe right?
The Details: A study published in Cancer Prevention Research examined survey data from 42,486 men and women, which included reporting on gingivitis and tooth loss as well as pathology reports from colonoscopies. They found that those who had gum disease had a 17% increased risk of having a serrated polyp and an 11% increased risk of having a conventional adenoma — both of which are intestinal lesions that are precursors to colon cancer. Researchers aren’t sure of the nature of the relationship between gum disease and colon health, but they speculate that it has something to do with the way that the oral microbiome and gut microbiome interact.
The second study, published in Neurology, looked at health data from 8,275 adults over the course of 18 years, during which time 19% of them developed Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. After controlling for other variables, the report found that people who had severe gingivitis or tooth loss had a 22% increased risk of developing dementia, and being toothless increased dementia risk by 26%. The connection between the two likely has to do with the fact that certain bad bacteria can travel along the nerve that connects the mucous membranes of the mouth to the brain, potentially causing brain damage. It’s fascinating how connected everything is, isn’t it?
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: As we learned in our interview with integrative dentist Dr. Reid Winick, oral health is deeply connected to overall health, and these two studies drive that point home further. We’ll continue to support our teeth, gums, and oral health by eating healthily, drinking plenty of water, prioritizing gut health, and (of course) flossing and brushing and oral irrigating regularly!
6. Trump News: Regulation Rollbacks and Research Rejections
What: Two notable health-related moves from the Trump administration include rollbacks of methane regulations and an ethics panel that’s pushing to reject funding of any research that uses fetal tissue (i.e. tissue from unborn fetuses).
The Details: In August, the head of the EPA formally weakened a major Obama-era climate change regulation, freeing oil and gas companies of the need to detect and repair methane leaks. Experts say that this move flies in the face of science, with new research showing that more methane is leaking into the atmosphere than previously known, accelerating our planet toward a climate crisis. The move will help oil and gas companies recoup some of the profits they lost due to the pandemic.
A new federal ethics advisory board, called the Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board, issued a report advising the Health Secretary on whether to approve funding for scientific research involving fetal tissue. In their report, they advised against funding for 13 out of 14 research proposals, effectively banning the work. This decision highlights the clash between conservative abortion opponents and (who make up the panel) and the scientific community, who say that the proposed research holds promise for a range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: People’s moral convictions are their moral convictions, and we’re not going to tread into that territory. But the fact of the matter is that science is science: excessive methane is negatively impacting our planet and our climate and studying fetuses is as important as studying humans who have been born for disease prevention. We stand with those who protect our planet from proven destructive practices, and those who help us know more about the human body and human health, not less.
7. How Exercise Changes Your Blood and Your Response to Vaccines, Plus How Your Sleep Habits Impact Your Exercise
What: Several new studies show the far-ranging effects of exercise, including changes to the molecules in our blood and to our vaccine response, while another shows that how much you move is impacted by whether you’re a morning person or a night owl.
The Details: In a small but eye-opening study out of Stanford, researchers recruited 36 volunteers between the ages of 40 and 75, who represented a wide range of fitness and metabolic health. They drew blood samples, then had the participants run on a treadmill until exhaustion, and then drew several more blood samples: immediately after exertion, 15 minutes later, 30 minutes later, and 60 minutes later. After measuring the levels of 17,662 different molecules in each person’s blood, they found that exercise had had a profound effect on more than half of them — 9,815. Some levels rose, some fell, and the degree of changes varied from person to person. For example, molecules likely to increase inflammation rose immediately after the exertion, then plummeted and were replaced by molecules that reduce inflammation. How cool is that?! More research is needed to further explore this effect, but this study underscores how consequential physical activity is for our health.
Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that two new studies found that exercise impacts a person’s vaccine response. Researchers in Saarland University in Germany recruited 45 fit, young, elite athletes (again a small study we concede) who were in the middle of their competitive seasons, and had them participate in two different studies. For the first study, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, they drew blood from the athletes as well as 25 healthy young people who were not athletes, then gave all the participants flu shots. Both groups returned for follow-up blood draws several times in the weeks and months that followed. The researchers found that the athletes had a more pronounced immune response to the vaccine, which presumably means stronger resistance to in this case, the flu, but theoretically any virus.
So it’s clear that whether or not you work out makes a big difference in your health. But did you know that your sleeping habits might make a big difference in whether or not you work out? Research has shown that each of us has our own internal clock, or chronotype, which determines when we wake up and go to bed, and when we have the best energy and focus — and a new study suggests that your chronotype impacts how much you move throughout the day. The study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science, looked at about 6,000 Finnish adults, who filled out a questionnaire designed to determine their chronotype and were then given an activity tracker to wear for two weeks. After the two weeks, they compared chronotypes to physical activity, and found that in both sexes, people who tend to wake early and go to bed earlier moved significantly more than those who tend to go to bed late and rise late. For men, the difference amounted to about 30 extra minutes of walking, and for women the difference was 20 minutes. As if there weren’t already so many reasons you wanted to be a morning person!
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: Exercise is one of those things that’s just unequivocally great for your health, and it seems like every month there’s new research on another reason that it’s so important. With the ongoing pandemic, staying healthy and keeping a robust immune system is even more essential than it normally is, so given this vaccine study, we’re definitely going to keep up with our workouts. And for those of you who are night owls, don’t worry too much about that last study — research shows that you can change your chronotype, and even if you don’t want to do that, you can just make a concerted effort to move more throughout the day!
8. Microbiome Research: How the Microbiome Affects Heart Disease Risk & How Showering Affects the Microbiome
What: Two new studies show the complex ways that our habits and diets impact our microbiomes: one related to how red meat changes the gut microbiome and, in turn, our arteries; and another related to how our showering habits change our skin microbiome.
The Details: It’s long been known that our arteries age and become damaged over time, and that this is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease in older adults. A new study suggests that the reason arteries deteriorate over time may have to do with what we eat, specifically animal proteins. Published in Hypertension, the journal of American Heart Association, the study measured the blood and arterial health of 101 older adults and 22 young adults, looking specifically for a compound called TMAO. TMAO (trimethylamine-N-Oxide) is a metabolic byproduct created by the liver when your gut bacteria break down red meat. They found that TMAO levels significantly rose with age, and that high TMAO levels were associated with worse artery function and tissue damage. Everyone produces TMAO naturally, but the study shows that the more meat you eat, the more you’re feeding the bacteria that produce TMAO, and thus the sooner your arteries will age. One more reason to cut down on our meat consumption!
The second study relates to a microbiome that gets less press: the skin microbiome. Trillions of microbes live on our skin, which is the largest organ in our bodies, and the balance and health of these microbes directly impact your skin health. An emerging body of research, highlighted in a far-ranging article in The Atlantic, suggests that we may be doing damage to our skin microbiome both in terms of how often we shower and the products we use when we do shower (this can help with that). It’s become standard for someone to shower every day (or even multiple times a day), but experts say that this can strip away the oils in the outer layers of the skin that help preserve moisture, leaving skin drier and thus more susceptible to irritants and allergens. This, in turn, can cause eczema to flare up, and eczema is often associated with other autoimmune conditions, like asthma or allergic rhinitis. Our skin microbiome can also be thrown off as a result of the preservatives and antimicrobial agents in common shower products, like shampoo and body wash. Specifically, parabens can destroy a wide range of bacteria and fungi, drastically altering the skin microbiome and leading to skin issues.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We talk a lot about gut health at WellBe, and these pieces of news remind us that every microbiome — gut, skin, mouth and beyond — is crucial to our body’s ability to function well. We’ll be extra careful about the products we use in the shower (the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists database is a great resource for this), avoid overshowering, and aim for a mostly plant-based diet.
What: A new study published in The American Journal of Cardiology suggests that a meditation practice may be linked to a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.
The Details: Looking at national survey data from the CDC, researchers identified all patients with high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, or coronary artery disease, and any who reported they meditated. In total, they looked at 61,267 people, 5,851 of whom meditated in some form or another. After controlling for other variables, they found that meditating was associated with a lower risk of all types of heart disease and associated conditions. Those who meditated had a 35% lower risk of high cholesterol, a 14% lower risk of high blood pressure, a 30% lower risk of diabetes, a 24% lower risk of stroke, and a 49% lower risk of coronary artery disease. If you don’t meditate and want to start, this WellBe interview can help.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It’s an understatement to say that we’re living in a stressful time right now. Besides being generally unpleasant, this stress can also take a serious toll on your health, and heart disease is one of the most clear-cut and deadly ways it can manifest. Though this study was observational, the results are striking and suggest that meditation’s stress-reducing effects can protect you from serious health issues in the future. So we’re committing to trying to meditate every day, even if it’s just for five minutes, and we hope you will, too!
What: In August, the EPA approved the use of the chemical nootkatone, an oil found in cedar trees and grapefruits, to repel and kill ticks and mosquitoes.
The Details: Nootkatone is considered non-toxic to humans and other animals, and is so safe to use that it’s commonly found in food and bath products. It can repel mosquitoes, ticks, bedbugs, and fleas (and, in very high concentrations, can also kill them) and may also be effective against other insects, such as lice, sandflies, and midges. It has a whole host of other potential benefits, including the fact that it’s not oily, has a pleasant grapefruit-like scent, and can kill bugs that are resistant to DDT and other common insecticides. It’s also long-lasting, unlike other natural insect repellents (like citronella or lemongrass oil), which lose their potency after an hour or so.
The EPA only approved the use of nootkatone as an active ingredient, so any formulations that use it in combination with other insecticides will need to be tested and registered separately.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: This is big news! Insect-borne diseases like Lyme can be extremely serious, and they’ve tripled in the United States over the past 15 years. This has left people faced with a lose-lose situation, having to choose between potential exposure to dangerous insects or using chemical-ridden synthetic repellents that carry their own health risks. The approval of this natural, long-lasting, effective chemical holds a lot of promise, and we’re going to keep an eye on nootkatone as it hits the market in the form of new products.
Other news worth noting: