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DIM: A Nutritionally Bright Idea

DIM: A Nutritionally Bright Idea 0

Perhaps our mothers knew more than they were letting on when they told us to eat our Brussels sprouts. Cruciferous vegetables—which include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale—have long been favorites among doctors and nutritionists, and for good reason. Like other non-starchy vegetables, they are high in fiber and have a low glycemic load, meaning they have a minimal effect on blood sugar compared to starchier foods and grains. Cruciferous vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals (especially vitamin C, vitamin K and folate), and they contain sulfur, which is critical for supporting the liver during detoxification. Interestingly, this sulfur is also responsible for the unpleasant smell when these vegetables are overcooked.

But there’s something else that makes these foods one of the few categories all the different nutritional philosophies can agree on—including vegetarians, omnivores, low-carb followers, vegans and Paleo dieters. Cruciferous vegetables contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol, which our bodies metabolize upon digestion into diindolylmethane (DIM).

DIM is well-known for supporting healthy hormone levels in both men and women. In women, it favorably influences the ratios of estrogen metabolites while in men, it helps reduce the conversion of testosterone to estrogen, which can happen for a variety of reasons, including when excess body fat exists. (This can happen because our body fat produces an enzyme called aromatase, which can convert testosterone into estrogen.)

Because of the favorable effects DIM has on hormone levels that are associated with certain types of cancer, it has become a popular supplement in complementary and alternative medicine. Promising studies are showing that supplementation with this concentrated natural substance may also be helpful for supporting health when it comes to other issues not usually associated with imbalanced hormones.

When cells become damaged or reach the end of their lives, they are programmed to undergo a natural death, called apoptosis. Think of this like a self-destruct button for cells whose time has come. But sometimes, our cells lose their ability to undergo apoptosis, and instead, they continue to live, grow and reproduce. Supplementation with DIM has been shown to help “remind” damaged cells that they should engage in this self-destruct mode.

Remember the cell cycle from high school biology? In order for cells to reproduce and grow, they pass through a sequence of specific steps. New studies are showing that DIM may help inhibit unhealthy or damaged cells from completing the cell cycle.

While it is difficult to get enough DIM from consuming cruciferous vegetables alone, high-quality, effective DIM supplements are available and should be taken under the guidance of a qualified health care practitioner. However, the host of other benefits that come from foods like broccoli and kale mean that these vegetables should still make regular appearances on your dinner table. If all you remember about these are boiled, soggy, unappetizing foods your parents used to make you eat, think again. Cooked with a little creativity, these foods can make even the pickiest eaters go back for seconds. Here are some very tasty and very popular ways to make eating cruciferous vegetables delicious and enjoyable:

Roasted Broccoli with Garlic and Red Pepper

Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Baked Kale Chips

Roasted Curry Cauliflower

Braised Green Cabbage

Sources 

Oncol Rep. 2012 May;27(5):1669-73. doi: 10.3892/or.2012.1662. Epub 2012 Jan 27.

3,3'-Diindolylmethane suppresses growth of human esophageal squamous cancer cells by G1 cell cycle arrest

Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2013 Jan;13(1):57-68.Inhibition of STAT signalling in bladder cancer by diindolylmethane: relevance to cell adhesion, migration and proliferation.

Carcinogenesis. 2013 Aug;34(8):1815-21. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgt122. Epub 2013 Apr 8.

In vivo and in vitro study on the role of 3,3'-diindolylmethane in treatment and prevention of nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

J Nutr. 2001 Dec;131(12):3294-302. Indole-3-carbinol and diindolylmethane induce apoptosis of human cervical cancer cells and in murine HPV16-transgenic preneoplastic cervical epithelium.

Please Pass the Asparagus

Please Pass the Asparagus 0

Tender stalks of asparagus peeking their heads through the soil and emerging after a long winter is a welcome sign of spring. Eaten raw as part of a vegetable crudité platter, or grilled with lemon juice and olive oil, asparagus is a delicious snack or addition to a meal. But this vegetable brings more than nice flavor to the table; it’s also no slouch when it comes to health benefits. 

Like other green vegetables, asparagus is a good source of several nutrients, particularly folate and vitamin K1. It also contains significant amounts of iron, copper, and manganese, along with vitamin C and carotenes, the latter of which are the precursors to vitamin A. As a non-starchy vegetable, it’s low in carbohydrate and high in fiber, making it a good go-to for low-carb and vegetarian meals alike.

Aside from its impressive nutrient content, asparagus contains compounds that have been shown to have beneficial effects for a number of health concerns. Mouse models of different types of cancer suggest that extracts isolated from asparagus may help cancer cells undergo apoptosis—a kind of “self-destruct mode” that cancer cells usually evade in order to perpetually stay alive and reproduce. These compounds may also help existing chemotherapy drugs work better, by making cancer cells more sensitive to their effects.

Two other areas where asparagus compounds have shown promise is in kidney health and chronic stress. Asparagus contains a substance that naturally inhibits activity of angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), an enzyme involved in regulating blood pressure. (You have probably heard the term “ACE inhibitors” used to describe drugs that help lower blood pressure.) Hypertension is very harmful for the kidneys, so maintaining a healthy blood pressure is key for kidney health.

As for stress, one of the most common and detrimental sources of stress in modern life is insufficient sleep. Not getting enough sleep can lead to elevations in cortisol, one of the hormones responsible for the “fight or flight” mechanism that helps people deal with stressful situations. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain and imbalances in other hormones. Asparagus extracts have been shown to help reduce cortisol levels and markers of stress-induced cellular damage in animal models of stress caused by sleep deprivation. 

Of course, health benefits probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think about asparagus. More likely, you immediately think of the very unique odor asparagus imparts to your urine! Believe it or not, it’s a fairly contentious issue. It seems there are genetic factors involved in how much of the causative substances people produce, and in an even stranger turn of events, people differ in their ability to detect the odor—that is, some people who produce the odor can’t smell it!

If you’ve only ever seen the common green asparagus, you might be surprised to learn there are purple and white varieties, too. Purple asparagus owes its color to higher amounts of anthocyanins, phytochemicals that also lend color to blueberries, raspberries, and other similarly colored fruits and vegetables. Purple asparagus tends to be sweeter and have thicker stalks than the green. White asparagus retains its white color because the stalks are grown under a mound of soil, preventing the development of chlorophyll and the emergence of the green pigment. 

If you’re thinking that asparagus is one of the last things you’d want to eat more of, that’s probably because the only way you’ve ever had it is boiled until soggy and lifeless—or worse, from a can. Try your hand at preparing it in other ways to reacquaint yourself with this tasty and nutritious spring vegetable. Drizzle with olive oil and toss with salt and pepper, then roast at a high temperature to bring out the surprising sweetness of asparagus. You can also pop it on the grill—perfect for outdoor entertaining as the weather warms up. (An indoor grill pan works just as nicely.) 

Sources

  1. Ito T et al. Enzyme-treated asparagus extract promotes expression of heat shock protein and exerts antistress effects. J Food Sci. 2014 Mar;79(3):H413-9.
  2. Sanae M1, Yasuo A. Green asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) prevented hypertension by an inhibitory effect on angiotensin-converting enzyme activity in the kidney of spontaneously hypertensive rats. J Agric Food Chem. 2013 Jun 12;61(23):5520-5.
  3. Xiang J et al. Anticancer effects of deproteinized asparagus polysaccharide on hepatocellular carcinoma in vitro and in vivo. Tumour Biol. 2014 Apr;35(4):3517-24.
Hibiscus - Kidney Support and Beyond

Hibiscus - Kidney Support and Beyond 0

Hibiscus is an herbaceous plant well known for its showy, brightly colored blossoms that not only are beautiful, but also contain an array of health benefits. Gardeners may strategically use these flowers to attract birds, bees and other insects, while Hawaiian and Tahitian women are known to adorn their hair with hibiscus blossoms. If worn over the right ear the flower marks that the woman is single, but if worn over the left ear the flower declares that she is taken!

There are hundreds of varieties of the hibiscus flower native to temperate, subtropical and tropical areas of the world. Certain species have been chosen as the national flowers of Malaysia, South Korea and Haiti, and as the state flower of Hawaii. In India, the red hibiscus flower represents the Hindu goddess Kali, appearing intertwined with the image of the goddess herself.

Despite the colorful, cultural history of hibiscus flowers, the chemical compounds residing within their beautiful petals are far more attractive to those seeking health and wellness. Among all of the varieties, Hibiscus sabdariffa (otherwise known as Roselle) is the dominating species in the world of health. The compounds housed within the flowers consist of a hearty dose of healthy acids and protective antioxidants. These beneficial components are most often delivered in the form of tea. A quick look at the ingredient lists of many common herbal tea concoctions will prove the popularity of this herbaceous plant. Due to the presence of a chemical component known as anthocyanin, hibiscus will turn any beverage a colorful pink or red, making it a common choice for brightly colored iced tea during the summer.

In the world of health advocacy, anthocyanins and other naturally occurring compounds known as polyphenols, are of great interest because of their ability to act as antioxidants and support a healthy cardiovascular system. These antioxidants, housed within red hibiscus flowers, have been shown to protect healthy cholesterol from the damaging effects of free radicals.  LDL cholesterol is a target for free radicals; once it has been destroyed by the free radicals, it is able to more efficiently “stick” to vessel walls and contribute to plaque development.  As plaque builds up, blood pressure begins to soar. By protecting LDL cholesterol from the damaging free radicals, the antioxidants found in hibiscus may support healthy blood pressure and a healthy cardiovascular system.

The antioxidants found in hibiscus not only support a healthy heart, but also protect other important organs of the body. For instance, free radicals can be harmful to the kidneys; however, some studies found that the antioxidants in hibiscus were helpful in restoring and supporting damaged kidneys.

Speaking of kidneys, hibiscus appears to be a good friend to the entire urinary tract. Many individuals are plagued with various harmful organisms that like to make the urinary tract their home. Whether fungus or bacteria, these critters are responsible for urinary tract infections that cause burning, itching and painful symptoms. Interestingly, the compounds found in hibiscus create an environment in the urinary tract that is not so friendly toward invaders. Therefore, hibiscus can help protect the urinary tract from infection, and support this system when it is under attack by microorganisms. Unfriendly yeast presents a particularly challenging situation since few pharmaceutical drugs are available to treat it; however, hibiscus can assist the body in fighting these fungal infections in order to help restore a healthy urinary tract. The helpful compounds found in hibiscus are also found in cranberries, which are often touted as a helpful food for maintaining healthy urinary tracts.

So, the next time you find yourself reaching for a cup of tea, whether steaming hot or ice cold, consider relaxing with a cup of hibiscus. Not only will the extra dose of antioxidants help keep your cells strong and healthy, but your kidneys and urinary tract will also thank you for the health benefits this wonderful herb provides.

Chocolate: The Valentine Treat That Loves You Back

Chocolate: The Valentine Treat That Loves You Back 0

Here it comes again. We haven’t even recovered from the holiday candy feeding frenzy that started with Halloween and went straight through Christmas, and already we’re inundated with even more candy leading up to Valentine’s Day and Easter. Even the most iron-willed among us, who are navigating our way through our New Year’s resolutions to eat better, can hardly resist the sugar-crusted marshmallows, and milk chocolates coated in red and pink candy shells. It’s as if those heart-shaped boxes adorned with flowers and lace, and candy wrapped in eye-catching red foil, were designed to tempt us into submission. Aren’t there any treats lurking among this barrage of refined sugar that can give a sweet tooth a little satisfaction with fewer metabolic consequences?

Consider dark chocolate! It’s not exactly a superfood, but it does have a few things going for it. After all, chocolate’s botanical classification is Theobroma cacao, with “Theobroma” meaning “food of the gods.” So, there’s got to be something good about it!

Think of chocolate as belonging to the same category as red wine: a sensible indulgence that can actually be good for us—consumed in moderation, of course. Like red wine, cocoa contains polyphenols that may be beneficial for cardiovascular health and for supporting a healthy inflammatory response. In fact, cocoa contains some of the same catechins, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins present in antioxidant-rich, darkly colored berries, as well as in green tea and red apples.

The content of polyphenols in chocolate products depends on how much of the non-fat cocoa solids are in the product. Non-fat cocoa solids account for the polyphenol “storage area” of cocoa. Cocoa powder has the highest polyphenol content (72%-87%), followed by baking chocolate (45%-49%), dark chocolate (20%-30%), semi-sweet (15%-19%), and milk chocolate (5%-7%). Darker chocolates not only have higher amounts of beneficial polyphenols than semi-sweet and milk, but in general, they also have less sugar, because the higher the percentage of cocoa, the lower the sugar content as well.

When it comes to cocoa powder, recipes sometimes specify “natural” or “Dutched” cocoa. Dutching involves reducing the acidity and somewhat harsh flavors cocoa may have. (Natural cocoa is slightly acidic, while Dutched cocoa is closer to a neutral pH.) The success of the recipe depends on the type of cocoa used (mostly due to how the two cocoas interact with leaveners), but it’s important to note that the Dutching process reduces the polyphenol content of cocoa.

Regular consumption of natural cocoa has been linked to the support of healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Cocoa polyphenols may also exert protective effects upon the LDL particles that carry cholesterol throughout the bloodstream. The reduction in blood pressure may be due to cocoa’s influence on activating a compound called nitric oxide synthase, which creates nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps to relax blood vessels and this allows blood to flow through more easily. And let’s not forget—the enjoyment we get from an occasional square of good quality chocolate might help us relax, too!

Aside from the polyphenols and antioxidants cocoa provides, cocoa is also a rich source of fat. However, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the predominant fatty acid in cocoa butter—a saturated fat called stearic acid—has a neutral effect on blood lipids. (This means it does not adversely affect the ratio of HDL to LDL or total cholesterol.) And the second-most predominant fatty acid in cocoa butter is monounsaturated oleic acid—the same one believed to be responsible for olive oil’s heart-healthy status. So, compared to inexpensive chocolates loaded with the trans fats in partially-hydrogenated soy and cottonseed oils, good quality dark chocolate contains fats that may actually be good for us. 

For a luscious cold weather treat, and something great for curling up near a fireplace, consider a mug of homemade hot cocoa. Made with natural, unsweetened cocoa powder, whole milk, and stevia, xylitol or erythritol to sweeten, this is something sure to beat the winter blues without spiking blood sugar too much. (Those who are dairy intolerant can use almond or rice milk.) For a thicker and extra-luxurious texture—and an even bigger nutritional boost—use coconut milk. Opt for full-fat coconut milk, rather than “lite,” since the beneficial portion of coconut (aside from its high fiber content) is found in the fat. It’s true! Two of the fatty acids in coconut—lauric and capric acids—are known to be antimicrobial, and the medium-chain triglycerides that predominate in coconuts are metabolized into a special type of molecule called ketones, which are beneficial for memory and cognitive function, and for supporting overall neurological health.

For a spicy Mexican-style cocoa, add a pinch of cinnamon and cayenne pepper, both of which contribute health-promoting qualities of their own. Cinnamon may be beneficial for moderating blood sugar, while cayenne pepper is a natural pain reliever, it helps support a healthy inflammatory response, and its warming effect in the body may be beneficial in supporting proper weight management.

From a nutritional standpoint, dark chocolate may not be equivalent to a grass-fed steak and a pile of steamed broccoli, but the Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s leading medical centers agrees: it beats the pants off marshmallows and candy hearts!

This isn’t a license for us to eat endless amount of chocolate, so when we want to indulge, we should treat ourselves to the good stuff! Here are some recipe ideas for indulging a chocolate craving sensibly:

For more chocolate recipes—many of which are low-carb, gluten-free, and/or dairy free, visit the chocolate recipes on dessertstalker.com.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Hearing Loss

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Hearing Loss 0

The sense of hearing is certainly a wonderful gift, yet it is one that is widely taken for granted – that is, until noticeable changes start to occur.  For many, hearing loss is simply accepted as part of the aging process. However, age-related hearing loss leads to difficulties and frustrations with everyday communication and can greatly contribute to the loneliness and depression that is so pervasive among the elderly.

The inescapable reality exists that aging elicits some degree of hearing loss in most individuals. It is, quite simply (and unfortunately), part of getting older. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), “…18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing loss.”  While some of these cases can be attributed to long hours spent in a loud factory, listening to loud music or frequent exposure to high pitch sounds (all of which may produce irreparable hearing loss), it is also hopeful to note that there are dietary measures that can be taken to support auditory health and help preserve this important sensory tool, in spite of aging. 

An important and often lacking dietary fat, known as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), may play an important role in the ability to hear sounds adequately, especially as we age and normal auditory function starts to decline. This fat is found abundantly in fish and seafood – a category of protein that is not considered an American staple. An interest in the relationship between omega-3 PUFAs and auditory health was spawned by a recent study that discovered a correlation between fish intake and age-related hearing loss. In this study, individuals over 50 years of age who ate fish two or more times each week were less likely to develop age-related hearing loss compared to those who did not consume fish on a regular basis. Therefore, it was concluded that adequate intake of omega-3 PUFAs may protect the ear from age-related decline and subsequent hearing loss – a promising outcome indeed.

The ability of this amazing fat to protect hearing is not completely understood; however, omega-3 fats are known to accomplish many beneficial tasks in the body, which may indirectly influence auditory health. For example, omega-3s are known to support healthy blood flow and a healthy cardiovascular system. The most important part of the ear – the cochlea – contains many small, fine hairs that help us distinguish tones. The cochlea and these important hairs are fed by one main blood vessel that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the ear.  As we age, blood flow may slow down as a result of high cholesterol, plaque development, hardening of the arteries and other similar conditions. The cochlea is sensitive to changes in blood flow and may not be fed adequately, leading to degeneration. Therefore, by helping to support a healthy cardiovascular system and healthy blood flow, omega-3 PUFAs may support the overall wellness of the inner ear, helping to hinder age-related deterioration that may lead to hearing loss.

It is a wise idea, at virtually any age, to safeguard the delicate structures of our ears as best we can.  We should all be cognizant of limiting our exposure to a barrage of loud noises (i.e., firecrackers, power tools, high decibel concerts, even extended periods of time using personal listening devices that require earbuds).  Yet, it is encouraging to know that nutritional support from omega-3 fats, through adequate fish consumption and additional supplementation, can be beneficial in helping to protect the gift of hearing.

Women and Bone Health – What Basics Do You Need to Know?

Women and Bone Health – What Basics Do You Need to Know? 1

Women often start to pay attention to the health of their bones around the onset of menopause, when there is a relative decline in estrogen production.  But what does the hormone estrogen have to do with bones?  Estrogen is actually necessary in order for calcium to be absorbed into bone.  When the hormone is less available in the body, it impacts the rate at which calcium becomes incorporated into the bone structure. 

Bone is not inert. It is actually a living tissue made up of proteins, collagen and minerals. It is considered a “matrix,” whose elements are always in flux, responding to various nutritional and hormonal conditions within the body.  Calcium, for example, is constantly either being absorbed into bones or released into the blood as needed. The objective, then, is to aim for a calcium balance, meaning that calcium should be replenished in the bones at the rate it is lost.   

 

Studies show that the greater the density of bones before the onset of menopause, the stronger they remain thereafter.  It is, therefore, never too early (or too late!) to adopt dietary and lifestyle habits that help support strength, mobility and vitality throughout all stages of life.

Some important guidelines to follow: 

  • ExercisePhysical activity is one of the single best ways to build and maintain strong bones. One hour of moderate exercise three times a week can not only prevent bone loss, but can help increase bone density, even after menopause.
  • Avoid smokingThe toxins in cigarettes can upset the balance of hormones, such as estrogen. Nicotine and free radicals can also destroy valuable bone-making cells. 
  • DietWhen it comes to maintaining a calcium balance in the body, there are foods that should be avoided and foods that are particularly beneficial. 
  • What to avoid – There is no question that cola is detrimental to bones. Study after study has clearly shown that the high phosphate levels in cola “pull” calcium out of the bones, creating a negative calcium balance.  In addition, coffee, alcohol, salt and refined sugar all can contribute to a poor calcium balance and should be consumed in moderation or, even better, avoided altogether. 
  • What to eat: Dairy products are good sources of calcium, but are not the only foods that contribute to healthy bones. Foods high in a variety of bone-benefitting vitamins and minerals – such as vitamins K and D, magnesium and potassium (see below) – include green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli and spinach.  Almonds, salmon, green tea, and oats are also high in these nutrients.  Generally, a diet that includes several daily servings of fruits and vegetables (especially the dark, green leafy variety) is wonderful for supporting bone health. 
  • Vitamins and Minerals
  • Calcium is critical to bone health. Approximately 99% of calcium is found in bone and is an essential component in forming its structure.
  • Magnesium is involved in bone formation and also affects the concentrations of the active form of vitamin D – a major regulator of bone homeostasis.
  • Zinc helps to increase bone formation and mineralization.
  • Copper helps keep bones flexible and strong.
  • Manganese is necessary for forming the bone matrix into which calcium and other bone minerals are deposited.
  • Vitamin C is vital for maintaining the homeostasis (proper balance) necessary for healthy bone mass.
  • Vitamin D helps facilitate calcium absorption in the intestine and is instrumental in bone turnover. Vitamin D deficiency is on the rise due to avoidance of sun exposure, certain medications which bind fat (anticonvulsants, steroid drugs, laxatives), and women with low hormone levels. Vitamin D status also declines with age because of a reduced dietary intake, diminished absorption from food, and because aging skin has a reduced capacity for making vitamin D.
  • Vitamin K helps to increase bone deposition, reduce the amount of calcium lost and improve bone turnover profile.

My recommended supplement for bone health is FibroCal. Learn more about it here.