Controlling cholesterol: why statins may not be the answer.

Statins, also known as HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, work by preventing the pathway to cholesterol production and are generally prescribed for individuals who are at high risk of heart attack or stroke. It seems that, even in healthy people, these drugs can cut the risk of heart attack by around 30%. Good news, you’d think, considering more than six million adults in the UK currently use them to help control cholesterol levels.

However, it would appear that the story is not quite so black and white; it wasn’t too long ago that I commented on a Daily Mail story highlighting the worrying side effects associated with the use of statins for reducing cholesterol. Not only do statins come with side effects that include muscle pain and damage to the liver and kidneys, it is becoming apparent that they may also cause memory loss and depression.

Strange, then, that these drugs are so commonly prescribed when there are natural ways of keeping cholesterol levels in check. Given the overwhelming evidence for the protective role that long-chain omega-3s play in cardiovascular health, it amazes me that this information is not passed on more readily by GPs to their patients. With the huge costs to the NHS for treating cardiovascular disease in secondary care, wouldn’t it be more cost efficient to educate people on preventative methods?

Omega-3 fatty acids not only reduce cholesterol, but can lower triglyceride levels, blood pressure, improve blood flow and reduce the risk of arrhythmia (the abnormal heartbeat that can increase risk of heart failure). Whilst eating oily fish is a good way of increasing omega-3 levels for heart health, supplementation with purified oils is a convenient way of achieving the therapeutic doses needed (which are often as much as 2-4g) to treat specific conditions such as hypercholesterolaemia (very high cholesterol) or hypertriglyceridaemia (very high trigycerides).

The type of fat in our diets needs to be addressed. Dietary fat plays a huge role in the development of cardiovascular disease. Our increased intake of junk food and heavily processed foods means that we consume amounts of saturated and trans fats that are detrimental to our health and these limited food choices are becoming normal for the next generation, as parents are making fewer food choices for their children. Making relatively simple dietary changes can have profound effects on our health and the habits we adopt now will be reflected in those we pass to our children. Choosing fat wisely, moderating saturated fat intake and increasing polyunsaturated fat at an early age may well help our own and our children’s passage to good health long-term, without the risk of side effects from prescribed drugs.

Nutrition and the Toxic Patient

cropped-IMG_7188-1.jpgThe general population is increasingly being exposed to a variety of “toxic” substances and, as a result, our environmentally polluted world is causing a myriad of health problems.   Whilst we generally understand the concept of toxins that come from external sources- for example, car fumes, tobacco smoke, drugs, dental fillings, environmental pollution, etc., we are less aware of the endogenous toxins that we encounter daily.  These toxins include those generated from viral and bacterial sources within the body, or toxins that are created by the body itself due to its own metabolism.

Long-term exposure to toxins, a decreased ability to metabolise toxins and therefore neutralise them within the liver, or simply an inability to clear toxins from the body can result in toxic overload that can contribute to the many symptoms associated with ME/CFS/fibromyalgia.

The symptoms of toxic overload, such as fatigue, dizziness and nausea, headaches, brain fog, and so on, are frequently misdiagnosed and pharmaceuticals prescribed, which may exacerbate symptoms and the patient enters a vicious cycle of treatment that has little or no benefit in alleviating symptoms.

So what does the toxic patient do?  It is not possible to remove ourselves from all exposures to toxins, but what we can do is to provide the best possible protection from the effect these toxins have on our health.  We have a complex internal system, involving multiple enzyme families that act, within the liver, to modify and detoxify agents from external sources, as well as those created internally – as a product of digestion, for example.

These enzymes depend on many dietary nutrients including essential vitamins, essential minerals, proteins and essential fats.   Deficiencies of any of these nutrients can contribute not only to the disruption of this important detoxification system, but to all physiological and biochemical pathways that contribute to normal functioning of the cells, tissues and organs that make up the human body.  It is no wonder that diet is so important to our overall health.

By modifying our diet we can therefore protect the organs and systems involved in detoxifying and eliminating toxins and manipulate the endogenous systems that protect the body from the effects of toxins.

Broadly, the ME/CFS/fibromyalgia diet should comprise simple, healthy and unadulterated foods that nourish the body and provide the raw nutrients needed to ensure detoxification pathways are provided with the key co-factors to perform optimally.  ‘Junk’ foods, and foods that are processed and highly refined (such as white sugar and flour) should all be eliminated, as they offer little nutritional value and are most likely to trigger symptoms, as well as being high in artificial additives and chemicals.  Eating a good variety of foods that incorporate organic products will help to eliminate pesticides and other toxins, whilst increasing essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and important fats such as omega-3s.  It is also important to eat small portions at regular intervals to ensure that the body’s nutritional requirements are continuously met.

A very important element of the diet relates to the types of fat that we eat, which can have a significant effect on how we feel. Saturated fats and trans fats, found in animal products and processed foods, have a negative effect on our health. In contrast, polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 and omega-3) have a major positive effect on our health because they are converted in the body to powerful hormone-like substances called ‘eicosanoids’. It is these eicosanoids that regulate physiological functions, with major roles in cardiovascular health, inflammation, immunity and mood.

Consuming a diet that is balanced in these types of fat can help to ensure that our bodies work most efficiently, right down to the cellular level. Consuming too much omega-6 fatty acids, however, can have negative effects. Omega-6s are found in plant oils such as vegetable oil and corn oil, or non-organic meat (these animals are fed on grains rich in omega-6), and while omega-6 fats are essential for good health, too much can result in the over-production of eicosanoids, triggering pain-processing pathways and increasing production of inflammatory products, as well as over-stimulating the immune system.

In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids (specifically those found in oily fish) have the opposite effect.  Generally, Western diets are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3.  Increasing omega-3 fatty acids, especially one known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and found in oily fish, can help reduce the production of specific proteins which trigger pain and inflammation, at the same time stimulating the production of neurotransmitters – brain chemicals involved in electrical signalling, mood and sleep.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as merely increasing fish intake. The polluted state of our oceans means that the benefits of consuming fish, as a rich source of omega-3, may be offset by the presence of contaminants, such as methylmercury (MeHg), dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and should be limited to twice weekly.   Highly purified omega-3 oils such as Vegepa – a product of choice for many practitioners – offer a safe and convenient method of increasing EPA levels without the risk of consuming hazardous contaminants – a consequence which can be associated with eating too much fish.

Incorporating organic fruit and vegetable produce into the diet, where possible, will also help to ensure that contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are avoided.  Organic produce is also much higher in important vitamins and minerals – micronutrients that are essential in every biochemical pathway in the body.  Organic meat is also lower in omega-6, higher in omega-3 and, importantly, is free of the steroids and hormones associated with intensive farming methods.

Sugar is also an important element in the ME/CFS/fibromyalgia diet, since the brain and body need energy supplied at an even rate in order to function optimally. Sudden peaks, followed by troughs, in blood sugar can result in low energy and fatigue. The glycaemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels and is a good guide to informing us which foods to include as part of a healthy diet, and indeed which foods to limit. White sugar and other refined (simple) carbohydrates have a high GI value, and can be found in processed white bread and white pasta, white rice and most convenience foods. Avoiding these simple carbohydrates and consuming foods with a low GI value, will help to keep blood sugar levels even, and help to stabilise mood too. Good low GI foods include high fibre cereals, whole grain products, beans, pulses, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, fruit and vegetables. Not only are these foods far better for stabilising our blood sugar levels, but these foods also tend to be high in fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals which are needed for good immune function and maintaining energy levels.

Choice of protein is also key when considering the FM diet, since it is needed by the body for growth and repair, and our requirements increase when our body is in a hypercatabolic state (such as fighting infection, during illness, inflammation etc). Ensuring that we get the right amount and type of protein is extremely important for people with M.E./CFS/fibromyalgia.  Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are essential for our health; animal produce is actually the best source of protein as it contains all eight essential amino acids. But we shouldn’t forget that organic meat far outweighs non-organic for nutritional value.  It’s sensible to avoid eating too much red meat, and fish is an excellent source of protein, as well as omega-3 good fats. Fish is low in saturated fat and particularly rich in arginine and glutamine – amino acids known to have a regulatory role in both cardiovascular health and immunity. Remember, though – due to contamination issues, fish should be limited to twice weekly, and smaller, short-lived species tend to be safer to eat than larger, long-lived fish such as tuna.  Vegetarians, on the other hand, need to eat a good combination of cereals and pulses to ensure that all the essential amino acids are included in the diet.  A great plant source of all 8 essential amino acids is quinoa, which can be sprouted or treated in the same way as couscous or rice.

To summarise, these simple guidelines will help people with M.E./CFS/ fibromyalgia to gradually modify their diet towards greater well-being, and a body that is stronger and more resilient to the obstacles it faces with M.E./CFS/fibromyalgia:

Eat small meals and try to eat regularly throughout the day

Include:

  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grain/wholemeal)
  • Organic ‘5-a day’
  • Fibre
  • Healthy plant fats – replace vegetable oil/corn oil with olive oil
  • Fish up to twice weekly – a good source of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Omega-3 EPA purified Vegepa capsules
  • Lean animal protein and vegetable protein
  • 8 glasses of purified water/day

Avoid

  • Junk food and fast food
  • Trans fats
  • Too much saturated fat
  • Processed and refined food (white sugar, white flour, white pasta, white rice)
  • Too much alcohol and caffeine
  • Artificial ingredients, additives, and chemicals

As well as the above plan for eating well, avoiding stress is also important in managing symptoms.  Try to take regular exercise, outdoor walks, perhaps join a support group and spend time with close friends or family – sharing experiences and advice can all help.

Why breast really is best

Breastfeeding is both natural and safe, giving your baby the best possible start in life. When born, infants have no gut faecal flora (healthy gut bacteria), microbes that play an important role in immune defence. The initial milk produced when breastfeeding is known as colostrum, and is high in a specific antibody (IgA) that plays a vital role in mucosal immunity. By coating the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, IgA helps to protect the newborn until its own gut flora is established, and its own immune system is functioning optimally. Breastfeeding also allows mother and baby to form a unique bond, both physically and emotionally. Ideally, women should breastfeed in order to allow their child to obtain the benefits that colostrum offer, one that is not provided by formula milk. In fact, the Department of Health actually recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and this can continue to benefit the baby along with solid foods for many months after.
However, choosing to bottle feed rather than breast feed is not always simply for reasons of convenience. Indeed, not all mothers are able to breast feed. Such examples are: babies born prematurely, or women who are HIV positive or who are undergoing chemotherapy. Furthermore, women taking specific medications, either prescription or over-the-counter, are often advised against breastfeeding. It is important therefore that formula milk offers the best possible benefits for the newborn. The preferred food for premature infants is fortified human milk, either from the infant’s own mother or from milk ‘banks’. However, the number of surviving children born prematurely has increased substantially over the last two decades and this increase in survival rates is, in part due, to the progess that has developed in enteral nutrition and the development of formulas specifically designed for premature infants. The goal in supplying to these infants is to achieve growth that is similar to foetal growth but that is coupled with satisfactory functional development. Currently the maximum concentration of AA in preterm infant formulas is 0.6% of total fatty acids, DHA is 0.35% of total fatty acids, and the maximum concentration of EPA is no more than 30% of the concentration of DHA.

For many years, baby formula manufacturers have been fortifying and reformulating their products in an effort to produce variations that are ‘equal’ to that of natural breast milk. Formula milk now comes in 3 forms: ready-made, concentrate and powder. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and these generally condense down to convenience and cost. Baby formulas are derived from either cow’s milk or soybean, and are fortified with iron and Vitamin D (which can be lacking in breast milk) and contain a form of sugar called lactose (although lactose free varieties are available). Different brands will generally contain different levels of sugar and protein and some will be fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), long chain omega fatty acids that are vital for normal growth and development.

The ongoing debate associated with the benefits of breastfeeding over that of bottle feeding centres, in part, on observational findings that link breast milk to higher scores on cognitive tests. These scores are related to head size; it has therefore been hypothesised that breast milk mediates cognitive effects by promoting brain development, particularly that of white matter growth. The two most abundant long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain are DHA and AA, where they have a functional and structural role in infant development. DHA is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area important for association and short-term memory, and in some retinal cells. Concentrations of these fatty acids in human breast milk are relatively consistent during the first year of life, and studies have shown that breast-fed infants have a greater mean weight percentage of DHA and a greater proportion of DHA in their red blood cells and brain cortex than formula-fed infants. Furthermore, cortex DHA in breast-fed infants increases with age, probably due to the length of feeding.

However, human milk is also rich in EPA, another long chain omega-3 that, whilst present in white and gray matter at relatively low levels when compared with DHA, actually plays an important and significant role in myelination and brain function. EPA also plays an important immunomodulatory role by expressing potent virucidal activity, thereby reducing the risk of mother-to-child transmission of infections.

Given the importance that EPA plays in the structure and stabilisation of nerves and brain function as well as its predominant role in the immune system, it is surprising to me that formula milk development has not progressed to include this fatty acid. The rational for this is that EPA competes with AA and that this may cause displacement of AA within membranes. However the research behind individual physiological roles of each fatty acid has developed immensely in the last few years alone and given the presence of EPA within breast milk would suggest to me that there is a role in the development and welfare of the infant. The importance of DHA and AA for brain development is certainly acknowledged by milk formulation companies who have begun in the last few years to add these important fats to their milk products. The Expert Panel recommended that the maximum concentration of AA be 0.6% of total fatty acids, that the maximum concentration of DHA in preterm infant formulas be 0.35% of total fatty acids, and that the maximum concentration of EPA be 30% of the concentration of DHA.

However, commonly available formulas such as Cow & Gate and SMA only include AA and DHA and therefore the only source of EPA for the newborn baby is via its mother’s breast milk, so fully supporting the concept that breast really is best.

Le Huërou-Luron I, Blat S, Boudry G. (2010) Breast- v. formula-feeding: impacts on the digestive tract and immediate and long-term health effects. Nutr Res Rev. 23:23-36.

Puri BK, Stannard JP. (2006). The essentiality of eicosapentaenoic acid in breast milk during human lactation: implications to formula milk manufacturers. AGRO FOOD IND HI TEC. 17:7-8.

Why must man play God in the food chain?

There was a time when the phrase ‘cloning’ only really existed in science fiction novels and the minds of small boys. However, our ability to progress scientifically blossomed in 1996 in the form of Dolly the cloned sheep; hitting the headlines, she caused quite a stir, highlighting the endless possibilities of such a feat as well as many ethical dilemmas. Dolly was cloned from a single mammary cell (and therefore very aptly named after the singer Dolly Parton) by a process called ‘nuclear transfusion’ in which the nucleus of one cell is injected into the empty shell of another, creating a ‘new cell’ with the ability to divide like a normal developing embryo. Dolly lived for 6 years and produced 6 lambs of her own, remaining the most famous sheep in the world. Whilst cloning of animals can be viewed as a viable tool for preventing the extinction of species, and even possibly for reviving extinct species, it seems that such a procedure is being vastly misused. I awoke this morning to the news that milk from the offspring of cloned cows has made its way into UK supermarkets. As a result the Food Standards Agency, the authority responsible for accepting novel food applications, is currently investigating such claims, as the sale of milk from such cows is currently illegal under UK food regulations. It both amazes and concerns me that we don’t seem to have enough dairy cattle in the first place, and that as consumers, we have no say in such processes, and no ways of identifying such products on our shelves as, apparently, the milk in question is neither labelled nor identified in any way.

There are huge ethical concerns over the long-term health consequences that arise from such procedures as cloning, and consequences that we should really have learn from past errors in playing God in the food chain. Take transfats for example. The hydrogenation process by which trans fats are formed was first discovered around the turn of the 20th century, and so with it was born the first man-made fat to join the food supply. American kitchens were the first to introduce partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in 1911 with a product called Crisco®. The incorporation of transfats in to many food products soon became popular with consumers and food manufacturers because they acted as a preservative, giving foods a longer shelf life but also giving foods a more appealing taste and texture. The devastating effects of these fats are now abundantly clear, with links to cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, and consequently we are now desperate to deplete these fats completely from our diets. So it seems we have learnt very little from past mistakes.

Cloning is one form of genetic manipulation to suit a dietary ‘need’; another is the genetic modification of plants to produce genetically modified (GM) end products. This process isolates and modifies genes, usually so that they function better, before inserting into a new species. The end result is to develop an organism that expresses a novel trait that is not normally associated with that species. GM foods first hit the market in the early 1990s and were restricted to transgenic plant products such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil. The objections that are raised against GM foods include possible safety issues, ecological and economic concerns – all of which are still prominent and, consequently, use of GM in the food chain is still of great concern.

Another such potential use of a GM plant species is to genetically modify plants to produce essential omega-3 fatty acids that are usually only associated with fish and fish oils. The drive behind such a process is an attempt to increase omega-3 in human diets without adding pressure to fish stocks. If successful, the resulting plants are aimed at feed for farm animals, and for incorporation into the food chain through direct inclusion in food products as an indirect way of increasing our omega-3 levels. Consequently, the consumer may be completely unaware of such processes, and that GM products are even being incorporated into every day food products. Whilst GM omega-3 may not be the next trans fat, and that it is hoped that the heath positive benefits outweigh any heath negative attributes, we do not know at this point the long term heath consequences of such actions.

I would like to have the choice to make up my mind and not have to actively seek out foods that are free from GM. Would you?

Why being depressed can make your brain shrink!

For many sufferers, depression brings on many kinds of emotions and feelings including anxiety, guilt and shame, so it’s not surprising that many people fail to seek help. Often, many of the feelings that are associated with depression are, in part, caused by a general lack of understanding of the condition, not only by the sufferer, but by family members, friends, employers and colleagues. And yet the majority of people will experience some psychological problems during their lives. In fact very few people will go through life without experiencing some form of mental trauma of some description. But what is it that goes on in your head when you are feeling depressed?

There is increasing scientific focus on the mechanisms that occur within the body and brain of depressed patients. Indeed, it is becoming much clearer that inflammation significantly contributes to the cause and progress of depression, and that this triggers a myriad of processes that all contribute to the symptoms associated with the condition. It is difficult to comprehend that inflammation can trigger depression, because it is generally thought of as a response to injury or irritation that is characterised by physical processes such as pain and swelling.

However, inflammation need not be physical or obvious, and inflammatory processes and brain-immune interactions are now known to be involved in the development of major depression. Inflammation is certainly suggested to contribute to the dysfunction of biological systems involved in the production of important neurotransmitters (brain hormones) such as serotonin and noradrenalin. Indeed, increased levels of inflammatory products called cytokines (produced by immune cells, and involved in relaying messages between cells) have consistently been reported in patients with depression. Pro-inflammatory cytokines have many physiological functions but, significantly, have been reported to modulate central nervous system functions including a process called neurogenesis, which is simply the method by which nerve cells are generated. Excessive inflammation, and the production of cytokines amongst other things, causes a series of processes that ultimately damage neurones leading to their death. When cells within the brain die, this causes atrophy, or shrinking, by which there is loss of brain gray matter. Structural brain changes detected by a process called MRI scanning in depressed patients have been reported in several brain regions.

However, there appears to be hope offered through supplementing with fish oil. EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid known to help the symptoms of depression and reduce levels of inflammatory cytokines, whilst producing beneficial anti-inflammatory products. There is increasing scientific interest in the ability of EPA to prevent neuronal cell death and therefore reduce or prevent gray matter loss. Much of the pioneering work has focused on the role of EPA in Huntington’s disease with extremely promising results. Given the evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for conditions in which there is reduced gray matter atrophy, such as Huntington’s disease, supplementing with ethyl-EPA may have further positive benefits on gray matter volume in individuals with depression, and further studies to support this hypothesis are certainly warranted.

Puri BK, Bydder GM, Manku MS, Clarke A, Waldman AD, Beckmann CF. (2008)
Reduction in cerebral atrophy associated with ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid treatment in patients with Huntington’s disease. J Int Med Res. 36: 896-905.

Song C, Wang H. Cytokines mediated inflammation and decreased neurogenesis in animal models of depression.Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2010 [Epub ahead of print]

Omega 3 and depression

IMG_0650There is growing evidence for the role of omega3 fish oil, not only in the etiology of major depression, but also as a treatment method. Given the numerous and undesirable side effects associated with conventional pharmaceutical treatments it is no wonder that many individuals actively seek natural alternatives, and the pure EPA fish oil (eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA) may just be what the doctor ordered.

Indeed, several studies have highlighted that abnormal cell membrane fatty acid composition is related to risk and incidence of major depression, and that supplementation with omega-3, and specifically with EPA, appears to normalize fatty acid levels and reduce the symptoms associated with this condition. However different studies can report different findings, and whilst several studies may appear to give varied and often conflicting results, performing a meta-analysis gives an indication of general findings by ‘pooling’ the data from several studies to give an overall picture and therefore adding clarity to a concept.

A recent meta-analysis of 14 studies comparing the levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids between depressive patients and control subjects found that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels were significantly lower in those individuals suffering from depression (Lin et al, 2010). Because the primary sources of these long-chain omega-3 fats are fish and shellfish, it is not surprising that those individuals with the highest consumption are the least likely to suffer from depression (Suominen-Taipale et al, 2010). Treating people who suffer with depression using fish oils is therefore a viable method for alleviating symptoms whilst restoring omega-3 levels. Given that low levels of omega-3 are also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as several other chronic disorders and conditions, the overall health benefits of raising omega-3 levels reach out much further as a nutritional approach to improving health.

Encouragingly, improvements in depressive symptoms can be seen as quickly as 8 weeks after commencing treatment. Indeed, a group of Montreal researchers have recently confirmed that taking omega 3 fish oil supplements, at doses higher than that normally consumed in an average diet, is superior to placebo in treating symptoms and that results can be observed within a two month time period (Lespérance et al, 2010). The results of this particular study also confirm EPA to be the predominant active ingredient responsible for the benefits of omega-3.

A meta-analysis of 28 trials investigating as to whether either EPA or docosahexanoeic acid (DHA) or both are responsible for the reported benefits showed that those trials in which EPA was the predominant or only fatty acid used, gave the most significant findings. Furthermore, it was suggested that the effects of 1g daily of EPA could be enhanced and prolonged by the addition of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid found in evening primrose oil (Martins 2009). Given that 1 in 4 individuals will suffer from depression at some point in their life, it is encouraging to know that there is a safe and natural way not only to treat depression but also as a method that could reduce the possibility of developing the condition in the first place.

 

Lespérance F, Frasure-Smith N, St-André E, Turecki G, Lespérance P, Wisniewski SR. The Efficacy of Omega-3 Supplementation for Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Psychiatry 10.4088/JCP.10m05966blu

Lin PY, Huang SY, Su KP. A Meta-Analytic Review of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Compositions in Patients with Depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 May 7. [Epub ahead of print]

Martins JG EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 28:525-42.

Suominen-Taipale AL, Partonen T, Turunen AW, Männistö S, Jula A, Verkasalo PK.Fish consumption and omega-3 polyunsaturated Fatty acids in relation to depressive episodes: a cross-sectional analysis. PLoS One. 2010 May 7;5:e10530.

EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease risk

I have recently written an article on EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease, as there are currently around 700,000 people in the UK with dementia (it is believed that these figures are set to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population) and new research adds to the weight of evidence that suggests that people who regularly include fish as part of their diet have a lower risk of developing dementia and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease.

The human brain is a complex organ that controls our senses, our movements, receives information, analyses information, and stores this information as memories. Dementia, simply put, means ‘deprived of the mind’ and, contrary to what many of us consider an acceptable part of growing old, memory loss and dementia are not a natural part of the ageing process. Scientists are now suggesting that the omega-3 EPA, found in fish oil, can help. Like any organ, the brain needs nurturing, and if we provide our brain with the correct nutrients then we can help to ensure the function of our brain remains at its most efficient.

For those of you interested in finding out more about how EPA helps preventing memory loss, offering help for Alzheimer’s sufferers, the full article is available here: EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease risk

Use of anti-psychotics in dementia patients leads to premature death

Currently there are around 700,000 people in the UK with dementia and it is believed that these figures are set to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance is that people with dementia should only be offered antipsychotic drugs if they are severely distressed or there is an immediate risk of harm to the person or others. However the use of sedatives in dementia has repeatedly been condemned due to the increasing evidence that the use of such drugs in dementia patients significantly increases their risk of death. One such study published earlier this year followed 165 patients with Alzheimer’s disease living in care homes in Oxfordshire, Tyneside, London and Edinburgh. Patients who were already taking anti-psychotics either continued on their treatment, or given a dummy pill for a year and then followed up over a period of three years. After two years, 46% of patients who had been treated with anti-psychotics were alive compared with 71% on the placebo. Three years after the start of the study, fewer than a third of people on anti-psychotics were alive compared to nearly two-thirds taking the placebo (Ballard et al, 2009). A recent review ordered by the Department of Health outlines the over prescription of antipsychotic drugs to treat aggression and agitation in people with dementia and contrary to NICE guidance. The review authored by Professor S. Banerjee goes as far as suggesting that up to two thirds of those individuals with dementia receiving anti-psychotic drugs are prescribed them unnecessarily.

So why is it that pharmaceutical drugs, with such well documented findings in terms of their negative health effects, continue to be prescribed? It certainly appears that they are offered as a ‘quick fix’ regardless of the long term consequences. Originally discovered in the 1950s, anti-psychotics were found to block receptors in the dopamine pathway and used quite successfully in the treatment of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder before being introduced as treatment for dementia where their actions serve as nothing other than “chemical restraints”. It seems shameful that pharmaceutical companies can benefit in such situations whilst nutraceutical companies struggle to get clearance for health claims from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This government agency is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe, and consistently rejects claims for many well-known safe and commonly used nutritional products.

The benefits of fish oil and the role of long-chain fatty acids in brain chemistry and in dementia are generally accepted but not endorsed. Ironically the side effects of consuming fish oils include only relatively minor complications (gastrointestinal upset, nausea, headaches) when compared with the potentially very serious sides effects of some pharmaceutical products. Given that long-chain fatty acids are involved in the dopamine pathway influencing dopamine concentration, number of vesicles and D2 receptors, and have been beneficial in studies where the dopamine pathway is known to be involved such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), would it not be prudent to suggest a role of fatty acids as a regular or add-on treatment in individuals with dementia? The recent positive findings of the role of eicosapentaenoic acid EPA in reducing cerebral atrophy in Huntington’s disease is certainly indicative that non-pharmaceutical products need to be investigated and that their role in dementia, not only in the treatment but in the prevention of the condition, is sadly underrated at the expense of the patient.


Ballard C, Hanney ML, Theodoulou M, Douglas S, McShane R, Kossakowski K, Gill R, Juszczak E, Yu LM, Jacoby R; DART-AD investigators. (2009) The dementia antipsychotic withdrawal trial (DART-AD): long-term follow-up of a randomised placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Neurol. 2009 8:151-7.

Puri BK, Bydder GM, Manku MS, Clarke A, Waldman AD, Beckmann CF. (2008) Reduction in cerebral atrophy associated with ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid treatment in patients with Huntington’s disease. J Int Med Res. 36:896-905

The mood food connection

Each year on 10th October, the Mental Health Foundation marks the day by raising awareness about mental health and well-being. Whilst we would probably all consider ourselves as reasonably tolerant and open minded, there is still quite a significant stigma about depression. If we haven’t experienced depression directly, it’s highly probable that we know someone, perhaps a friend, relative or workmate, who suffers. Mental Health Statistics report that 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year and 1 in 6 of us experiences this at any given time. In 2001 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that approximately 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem, of which 154 million are affected by depression.One of the major side effects of depression is that the way we think about food changes and this can influence how we eat – both the types of food and how often. Because food can directly influence our mood, our diet is even more fundamental when we’re feeling low.

The Glycemic Index

The brain needs energy supplied at an even rate in order to function optimally. Sudden peaks in blood sugar will adversely affect behaviour, anxiety, depression, and fatigue, so it is particularly important for people with depression to keep their blood glucose levels even. Although commonly known for its diabetes and weight loss benefits, the glycemic index (most commonly referred to as GI index), which ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels, is a good guide to informing us which foods to include as part of a healthy diet, and indeed which foods to limit.

While all carbohydrate foods are eventually broken down into glucose, quick-release simple carbohydrates (such as high sugar foods, glucose and fructose) are broken down more quickly into glucose than complex carbohydrates (such as wholemeal grains), releasing glucose rapidly into the bloodstream. Repeated ‘spikes’ of glucose can decrease insulin sensitivity, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as promoting oxidative stress in the veins and arteries – a cause of coronary heart disease. After the highs come the energy-sapping blood sugar lows and, frequently, strong urges to reach for another sugary carbohydrate snack to perk us up. Indeed individuals who suffer from atypical depression (a subtype of depression) often overeat and report an almost irresistible craving for carbohydrates.

White sugar and other refined carbohydrates, such as those found in processed white bread and white pasta, white rice and most convenience foods, supply few nutrients to the body but use up important B vitamins, which are essential for our nervous and immune systems, as well as healthy digestion. Avoiding refined foods and sugar, as well as consuming foods with a low GI value, will help to keep blood sugar levels even. Perhaps a more accurate reference guide to prevent blood sugar spikes is the Glycemic Load(GL) ranking system, which is based on a food’s GI value and average portion size. For example, whilst an apple is not low GI, it has a low GL and will barely influence blood sugar levels.

Micronutrient deficiencies

It is extemely common for depression sufferers to have low levels of B vitamins and essential minerals such as zinc, selenium and magnesium. These water-soluble vitamins and minerals must be consumed daily to avoid depletion. Deficiency can, in turn, hinder the body’s ability to utilise specific omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to lift our mood by elevating serotonin and regulating levels of this important neurotransmitter.

EPA, a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, not only influences serotonin and dopamine in the brain, but is also converted to powerful anti-inlammatories via a series of enzyme-mediated steps. It is these enzymes that rely on the presence of B vitamins and essential minerals in order to function, without which the body’s production of natural anti-inflammatories is minimal, and can even result in the production of inflammatory substances. Combining a good nutritional vitamin and mineral supplement with 1 gram EPA daily (or 4 capsules Vegepa) can help to balance serotonin levels and alleviate the symptoms of depression.

Carbohydrate cravings are also linked with low levels of chromium, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce cravings. This is because for blood sugar to provide energy, it must be escorted into each of our cells where the energy conversion takes place. Insulin then ‘unlocks’ the cell, allowing glucose to pass in. But there is a missing link. Insulin doesn’t work properly unless biologically active chromium is present as a cofactor (much like a catalyst).

With many modern food processing methods, up to 80% of chromium is lost – particularly with whole wheat and raw sugar when they are processed to white flour and refined sugar. If we regularly opt for these refined foods over their healthy wholegrain relatives, chromium levels within the body can easily become depleted.

Whilst it is likely a low priority during episodes of low mood to concentrate on our eating habits, following a few general guidelines can help to restore healthy brain chemistry and minimise sugar-induced mood swings.

– Avoid processed foods.

– Keep red meat to a minimum or eat organic (red meat is high in inflammatory omega-6 unless animals are fed on natural grass).

– Drink plenty of water, as the brain needs to be hydrated to function at its best.

– Don’t forget your ‘five a day’. Make sure you get plenty of vitamins and minerals by eating a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. If you eat them raw they’ll supply even more nutrients.

– Eat two portions of oily fish weekly to top up on omega-3, containing the natural antidepressant EPA, or take 2 capsules of Vegepa morning and night.

If you found this article interesting, you might like to read more about anti depression foods.

DHA, Fish and Alzheimer’s: Press Misinformation

The general public are reliant on the media for their most recent update on “what to eat and what not to eat” and so it’s terribly important that studies are reported objectively and fairly – and, of course, that we are given the whole picture. It is not a very new concept that eating fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel may offer an element of protection against developing dementia and indeed the media has reported on a number of studies showing that people who consume a significant amount of oily fish or fish oil are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This week’s headline, “Fish may not be Alzheimer’s answer” suggests, however, that Alzheimer’s patients may not benefit from eating fish, despite this “brain food” reputation.

Our understanding of the significant health benefits associated with fish oil supplementation has come a long, long way since scientists’ original discovery, back in the 1950s, that cod liver oil was a rich source of fatty acids. Researchers have since then progressed far beyond the basic understanding that fish oil is a promoter of general good health, and moved onto the next phase of innovation – investigating which particular elements within this oil are biologically active and whether a physical deficiency in this bioactive element results in some degree of physical deterioration. Indeed, fish oil contains two major fatty acids EPA and DHA and it is only really in recent years that these important fatty acids have been investigated individually rather than dumping them in the same boat with the generic label of omega-3.

DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes, present in all organs and most abundant in the brain and retina. In contrast, EPA is present in minute quantities. It could be easily assumed that DHA is the more dominant of the two fatty acids and put all of our focus here. However whilst DHA has a primarily structural role, EPA plays an important functional role. In actual fact whist EPA and DHA are both considered to be important regulators of immunity, platelet aggregation and inflammation, their influencing bi-products arise from very different pathways and it is therefore not surprising that their mechanism of action will differ.

So what is my problem with the latest headline? Well what’s very misleading with this is the loose use of the word “fish”. The study didn’t even have a vague whiff of fish about it but was conducted using a DHA supplement and a dummy placebo. The importance of this is that the information put forward to eager ears gives the impression that all that mackerel eating is a waste of time. But hear me out. This study took but one of the major fatty acids associated with fish oil, showed no benefit, but happily used the word fish to summarise the findings. If we recall, fish oil contains two important fatty acids, DHA and EPA. It is becoming increasingly clear that the marked differences between the effects of EPA and DHA mean that we can no longer generalise the effects of ‘fish oil’ as a reservoir of omega-3. EPA not only plays a major role in cell signalling but also contributes to the compaction and stabilisation of neurones. Indeed previous studies have shown that high plasma EPA concentration may decrease the risk of dementia and that EPA can actually reduce the atrophy associated with the shrinking brain. I’m not objecting to their findings that DHA is not the fatty acid which plays a role in dementia, rather it’s the fact that the message implies that it we should now question or even rule out the protective role of fish altogether. But when we dig deeper and unravel the scientific evidence and put that on our plates to eat, we see that things are a little more convoluted than we initially thought – well, if you read the recent headlines, that is. Just because the bigwigs are now telling us that DHA won’t save our brains (this week at least) it doesn’t mean that we should now disregard our efforts to include fish as part of our diets in our bid to prevent age-related mental decline. I, for one, shall be continuing to get my twice weekly portions in and I hope you will too. Do remember that once again, it’s not black or white, to fish or not to fish.

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