Just as with our last health and wellness news wrap-up, it feels a bit odd to be covering news that’s not related to COVID-19 or the fight for racial equality that’s activated our nation in the past weeks. Still, we firmly believe that no matter what’s dominating the headlines, it’s essential to stay on top of all aspects of news that could impact your well-being — which is why we’re covering topics totally unrelated to the major headlines, as well as a few COVID-related items. After all, keeping yourself healthy, with a strong immune system and without any pre-existing conditions, is one of your best defenses against this virus.
So with that said, we present the 7 most important health and wellness news stories from April and May 2020 (click to skip to one):
1. Factors Impacting Coronavirus Severity: Vitamin D, Air Pollution, and Certain Pre-existing Conditions
What: One of the scary things about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is that it seems to vary drastically in severity depending on who gets it: some people are asymptomatic, while others die from it. Three new studies shed some light on factors that might determine the impact the virus has on a person: vitamin D deficiency, air pollution, and pre-existing conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic lung disease.
The Details: In the vitamin D study, researchers from Northwestern University conducted a statistical analysis of data from hospitals across 10 countries, trying to get to the root of unexplained differences in COVID-19 mortality rates among the different nations. After isolating all other factors, they found a significant correlation between mortality and vitamin D deficiency. In countries like Italy, Spain, and the UK, where people have relatively low levels of vitamin D, mortality rates were much higher than in countries like the U.S. or Switzerland, where vitamin D levels are higher (though still lower than they should be).
They believe this is because vitamin D helps prevent what’s called a “cytokine storm,” which is a hyperinflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system and what kills most patients who die of COVID-19. While Vitamin D helps keep our immune system strong, it also prevents overactivity, which is why lower levels make a person more prone to a cytokine storm, and, thus, death.
The air pollution study, which came out of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, analyzed air pollution and COVID-19 deaths in 3,000 U.S. counties. They found that even a tiny increase in particulate matter — just one microgram per cubic meter — was associated with a 15% increase in death rate. It was already known that an increase in exposure to particle pollution increases the risk of death from all causes, but this study shows that the increased risk of death is 20 times higher (that’s a lot!) for COVID-19, and the researchers call the results “statistically significant and robust.”
The mechanism behind this increase is the fact that air pollution damages the cilia in our upper airways, which is the first line of defense for the respiratory tracts. This damage, in turn, makes you more likely to develop chronic respiratory conditions or be hit hard by an infective agent.
There is already an awareness that certain pre-existing conditions make you more susceptible to COVID-19, but new data from the CDC confirms this understanding and clarifies which pre-existing conditions are the most concerning. The report looked at 7,162 U.S. cases and found that 71% of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 had pre-existing conditions, with the number even higher — 78% — for those admitted to the ICU. The most common pre-existing conditions in these cases were diabetes, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease. This matches data from China, where the aforementioned conditions were associated with a significantly higher death rate.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: As we mentioned, one of our best defenses against this pandemic — besides practicing social distancing and following all the guidelines issued by the CDC — is to keep our bodies healthy. Not only will that protect us during the pandemic, but it will also make us less vulnerable to other health issues down the road.
Given this research, we’re definitely going to make sure we have high enough vitamin D levels (this is one of the lab tests that Dr. Carrie Jones highly recommends everyone get!), and if we don’t, start taking a regular supplement from a trusted brand. We’ll also be protecting ourselves from air pollution by making sure we have a HEPA air filter and/or air purifier in our home, and taking precautions when we’re outside (for those of us who live in an area with high levels of air pollution).
In terms of pre-existing conditions, that just comes back to making daily lifestyle choices that help prevent chronic conditions, such as eating organic foods and trusted clean food brands, exercising regularly, and limiting exposure to toxins as much as possible.
What: After a New York City woman contracted a serious case of COVID-19, her med school student son was able to completely resolve all her symptoms by giving her a supplement containing glutathione, an antioxidant produced by the liver.
The Details: Josephine Bruzzese, who was otherwise healthy, contracted the virus and became so short of breath that she couldn’t speak and could barely breathe, her son James, who is in his second year of medical school at CUNY School of Medicine, stepped in. She’d already been given the antibiotic azithromycin and the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, but was still struggling to breathe.
James called a doctor in the Hudson Valley for whom he’d interned — and who had treated James’s sister, a Lyme disease survivor — who suggested that he give his mother glutathione, which the family had on-hand. After taking the supplement, Josephine’s breathing improved within an hour. She took the supplement for five days and experienced no relapse.
The upstate doctor, with whom James authored a case study in the journal Respiratory Medicine Case Reports, explains that the supplement likely works by tamping down excessive inflammation — aka the “cytokine storm” we described above, which vitamin D also helps with.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We’re counting this as a win for those of us who are interested in natural medicine! If the other potential treatments for COVID-19 are an antibiotic and a highly potent drug with a ton of side effects, we’re hopeful about this natural, side-effect-free option. In the meantime, we’re going to be doing what we can to keep down our inflammation levels through our daily choices.
3. Regulation Roundup: Rollbacks of Standards for Coal Plants, Fuel Efficiency, and Water Quality and Healthy Lunches Remain
What: It’s a bit depressing to report on the Trump administration’s environmental and health rollbacks month after month, but it’s too important to skip. This time, the rollbacks include reduced fuel efficiency standards, the weakening of a rule requiring coal plants to cut mercury emissions, and the reversal of regulation around perchlorate in drinking water. This can all be a lot to keep track of, so thankfully The New York Times has a full list of Trump administration EPA rollbacks, which they update regularly. But on a positive note, a court has thrown out the administration’s rollback of nutrition guidelines for school lunches.
The Details: In late March, the EPA and Transportation Department handed down a new rule that weakened one of the country’s most aggressive policies aimed at combating climate change. The ruling drastically reversed Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which is a big win for oil and gas companies.
The original rule required that automakers increase fuel efficiency by 5% each year, with a goal of achieving a 54 mpg average by 2025; under the new rule, the fuel efficiency increase drops to 1.5% each year, and the mpg goal drops to 40, with an extended deadline of 2026. Experts estimate that this change will result in 900 million more tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Environmental groups and the state of California are planning on challenging the ruling in court.
Regarding the mercury regulation, no rule or policy has actually changed yet, but the legal justification behind the current rule has been withdrawn, paving the way for it to be repealed and for other similar policies to be prevented. The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule required coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions under the justification that doing so would save more money in consumer healthcare than it would cost the coal plants to comply.
This cost-benefit analysis was based on reducing mercury along with other particulate matter, and the Trump administration challenged this method of calculation, arguing that only mercury should have been weighed. The Obama justification was officially withdrawn, in a move that upset environmental activists and electric utility companies who had already heavily invested in complying but was applauded by coal companies.
The EPA has opted not to regulate the content of perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel, in our drinking water. The agency had been court-ordered to establish a safe drinking-water standard for perchlorate by the end of June but has chosen instead to not regulate it at all. While perchlorate can occur naturally, high concentrations have been found in 26 states, especially near military outposts where it is used to make propellants more efficient.
Because the chemical interferes with thyroid iodine uptake, it has been shown to stunt the production of hormones essential to development in fetuses, infants, and children. However, the Defense Department and military contractors have aggressively fought any regulation of the substance, and their lobbying appears to have worked. The Trump administration has declared that it is “not in the public interest” to regulate perchlorate, and has revoked a 2011 EPA finding that the chemical poses serious health risks to between 5 and 16 million Americans.
All of the above is pretty bleak, but there was also a win last month! In 2018, the Trump administration had rolled back Michelle Obama’s nutritional guidelines for schools, which had required schools to transition entirely to whole-grain options and reduce sodium levels. The Trump rollback loosened the regulations to require only half of the options to be whole-grain, with no sodium limit, and so schools could again serve refined grains like white bread.
This reversal was challenged in court by two advocacy groups in Maryland, and last month a U.S. district court ruled that the Trump administration didn’t give adequate public notice for the change, and reversed the rollback.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: To try to understand all of the Trump administration’s rollbacks, it helps to think about President Trump’s thought process. It’s clear from the administration’s decisions that their primary goal is to help industry and the economy. But while this goal may be accomplished in the short-term, we’re seeing that the repercussions for public health come back to us — big time — in the long-term. For example, a new study showed that autism rates are higher in low-income areas, which researchers attribute largely to higher toxins in the environment in those areas.
In terms of the regulations changes outlined above, experts predict that looser fuel economy is likely to lead to thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks, while high mercury content can harm pregnant women and put infants and kids at risk for developmental problems, and high levels of perchlorate in drinking water have been linked to lower IQs in children. We’re happy that whole grains in school lunches will stay for now, but we are pretty concerned that short term wins for industry may have deadly, expensive, and long-lasting repercussions for our health if the proposed rollbacks are implemented.
4. Rethinking Common Prescriptions: Zantac Pulled from Shelves, Aspirin Not As Beneficial As We Thought
What: The FDA requested that all prescription and OTC Zantac be pulled from the market due to its cancer risk, while new research shows that taking a daily aspirin does not reduce your risk of dementia, as was previously thought.
The Details: You may remember that in a wrap-up last fall, we noted that drug manufacturers had voluntarily recalled Zantac because several batches of the common heartburn drug were contaminated with a human carcinogen. Now, the FDA has confirmed that Zantac is indeed carcinogenic, and is ordering all name brand and generic versions to be taken off shelves immediately.
In terms of aspirin, the news is less scary, just a bit of a reality check. A daily aspirin has long been advised as a preventative measure against heart disease and stroke, and it was also thought that it might help reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In a new, large study however, researchers looked at 19,114 men and women over 70 and found no evidence that this is the case. In the study, half of the participants were assigned to take a 100-milligram aspirin every day, while the other half took a placebo. Over an average follow-up period of five years, researchers saw no difference between the two groups when it came to cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We’re always skeptical of the “pill for an ill” mentality, and these two pieces of news remind us why. Prescription and OTC meds are so common in our society that it’s become normalized, and nobody thinks twice about popping multiple pills, often multiple times a day. But because drugs always have the potential for side effects, it’s important to realize these pills aren’t so innocent and can seriously harm our health.
P.S. If you suffer from heartburn and were thinking that you could just switch from Zantac to a different med, note that studies have shown an increased risk of death in people who take PPS like Prilosec and Nexium. Rather, try following the advice of Dr. Jonathan Aviv and adjusting your diet to relieve heartburn and acid reflux in a more natural and longer-lasting way!
5. Pregnancy Health Roundup: C-Section and Pre-eclampsia Linked to Health Issues in Babies, and Breastfeeding Reduces Ovarian Cancer Risk
What: A new study shows that being born via Cesarean section is associated with diabetes and obesity later in life, while another links pre-eclampsia during pregnancy with developmental issues in children. A third study found that breastfeeding lowers the risk of ovarian cancer.
The Details: Research has shown that babies who are born through a C-section lack some key microbes in their guts (this is because babies get certain vital microbes from their mothers as they pass through the vaginal canal). So since gut health is linked to all aspects of our health, it shouldn’t be too surprising that C-section birth can lead to issues like diabetes and obesity later in life. In this new study, researchers looked at 33,226 women who were born between 1946 and 1964 and followed up with them through 2015. As compared to women born vaginally, the adult women who were born by C-section were 11% more likely to be obese and 46% more likely (wow, that’s a lot!) to develop type 2 diabetes.
Pre-eclampsia, a condition during pregnancy associated with various symptoms including high blood pressure, is known to be dangerous to the pregnant mother. However, a large new study published in JAMA Psychiatry also found that it can be damaging to children. In the study, researchers analyzed data from 980,560 children, 28,058 of whom were born to mothers who had pre-eclampsia. After following up with the children in the years afterward — anywhere from five to 14 years — they found that pre-eclampsia was associated with a 50% increased risk for both epilepsy and intellectual disability, a 21% increased risk for vision or hearing loss, and smaller increased risk for cerebral palsy, ADD, and autism.
On the good news front, a study out of JAMA Oncology found that women who breastfeed have a significantly reduced risk of developing ovarian cancer. In the study, researchers pooled data from 13 case-controlled studies, which included 9,973 women with ovarian cancer and 13,843 women without ovarian cancer. Their findings showed that breastfeeding was associated with a 24% reduced risk of invasive ovarian cancer, and that the longer a woman breastfed and the less time since her last breastfeeding session decreased the risk even further. We already know that breastfeeding has tons of benefits for both mama and baby, including reducing the risk of early menopause, but this finding is new.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: There is a lot about pregnancy and birth that women can’t control — sometimes a C-section is necessary, some babies don’t take to breastfeeding, and often pre-eclampsia is unavoidable. However, all three of these studies arm expectant mothers with a bit more information so that they can make the best possible choices in the areas where they do have control. That means making every effort possible to have a vaginal birth, breastfeeding for as long as you can if your body and baby allow it, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle that lowers the chances you will develop pre-eclampsia.
6. The Power of Exercise: Aerobic Exercise Makes You Happier and Taking 4,000 Extra Steps Increases Longevity
What: One study shows that regular aerobic exercise reduces depression and hostility in otherwise healthy adults, while another shows that taking 4,000 more steps each day drastically reduces risk of death from any cause.
The Details: Research has previously shown that exercising reduces your genetic risk of depression, and regular exercise is associated with better mental health, but no studies so far have been able to actually tie exercise to improved happiness levels in otherwise healthy, happy people. In this new study, published in Health Psychology, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center recruited 119 healthy but inactive adults ranging in age from 20s to 40s. After the subjects completed mood questionnaires, half of them were assigned to continue their lives as normal, while the other half began an exercise regime of completing aerobic exercise for 35 minutes four times a week. After four months, they all returned to the lab, retook the questionnaire, and the exercise group was told to stop working out. One month later, they all returned again and filled out the questionnaire a final time. The results showed that the adults who had exercised had lowered their already low depression numbers by 35%, and seen their levels of hostility plummet. Those who didn’t exercise didn’t see any changes.
So working out is definitely good for you — but if that seems too challenging at the moment, what about just moving more throughout the day? This second study shows that this matters a lot too. In the study, published in JAMA, researchers from the National Institute of Health and the CDC looked at data from around 5,000 men and women, middle-aged or older, who had worn activity monitors. They examined their activity data, looking at both the total number of steps and the intensity of their exercise, and compared that with death records. After controlling for other factors, they found that taking more steps — regardless of the intensity of the movement — was associated with a lower mortality rate. They found that for every additional 4,000 steps someone takes in a day, their risk from dying of heart disease, cancer, or any other cause drops by 50% or more. More specifically, people who took an average of 8,000 steps per day had half the risk of death of those who took 4,000 steps a day, and people who took 12,000 steps a day were 65% less likely to have died (wow!) than those in the 4,000-step group.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: It’s a stressful time, and many of us are stuck inside, making us move less. But given these two new studies, we need to make every effort we can to stay active — not only will it help us live longer, but it’ll also make the aforementioned stress way more manageable! We know that, especially for those of us who live in small apartments in densely populated areas, it can be tough to stay moving right now. But given the huge mental and physical benefits of exercise, we’re going to do everything we can to break a sweat and take more steps as much as possible, even if it means a yoga session on the kitchen floor and half an hour of pacing around the house!
What: A large study out of Japan found that regularly taking baths was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
The Details: In the study, published in the journal Heart, Japanese researchers followed 30,076 men and women over 19 years, from 1990 to 2009. The subjects were split into three groups: those who took a bath daily, those who bathed three or four times a week, and those who bathed two or fewer times a week. After controlling for many other factors that might impact cardiovascular risk, the researchers found that those who took a bath three or four times a week had a 25% reduction in their risk of coronary heart disease and a 13% lower risk of stroke as compared to those who bathed two or fewer times a week. Those who took a bath every day had reduced their risk of coronary heart disease by 35% and stroke by 23%, as compared to the least frequent bathers.
Though the researchers aren’t sure what the mechanism is that causes this protective effect, they suggested that it might be because baths lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel function.
Why This Matters for Your Health & Our Takeaway: We’re all for anything that lowers our risk of heart disease, and added bonus if it’s also a relaxing, healthy form of self-care! While more research is still needed on this topic, and it’s unclear whether the results would hold true in populations outside of Japan, we’re definitely not going to wait around for another study before we start indulging in regular baths!
Other News Worth Noting:
Chinese Study Shows Acupuncture May Ease Migraines (New York Times)