Archive | December, 2011

Truth Behind Acupuncture

31 Dec

Acupuncture…hoax or healing?


What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a type of alternative medicine with its roots in Chinese medicine.  It originated about  2,000 years ago and was first written about in  Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Internal Medicine) (source).

Acupuncture treats via the insertion and manipulation of needles in the body.

What conditions is it used for?

Acupuncture has been utilized for numerous medical conditions including pain, infertility, nausea and disease prevention.

A 2002 National Center for Health Statistics survey estimated that 8.2 million adults had tried acupuncture (source)

How is acupuncture supposed to work?

Although it hasn’t been proved exactly how acupuncture works, the traditional and Western beliefs on how acupuncture works are quite different.

Chinese have identified more than 2000 acupuncture points in the body.  These points are connected by pathways which must be accessable for overall health and well-being.  If these paths are blocked, illnesses and medical conditions result.  Acupuncture is a way of  making holes in these pathways to let blood out or in to restore normal flow (source).

Recent research has demonstrated that acupuncture affects numerous biological processes such as the release of hormones and antiinflammaroty mediators.

It is believed that the healing seen with acupuncture is due to these  effects or through the release of endorphins (source).


Is there any science behind it?

There is evidence both supporting and refuting acupuncture’s effectiveness.  The reason for such conflicting data mainly lies in the fact that few randomized controlled studies have been done on acupuncture.  However, small, often preliminary studies, have found the following:

  • Acupuncture was not found to help autism spectrum disorder (source)
  • Evidence to support the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain in endometriosis is limited (source)
  • Acupuncture and acupressure may have a role with reducing pain in labor but there is a need for further research (source)
  • Acupuncture appears ineffective for depression  (source)
  • Positive effect of acupuncture in infertility has been found (source)
  • Acupuncture plus vitamin B6  is a quite useful method against emesis (throwing up) in patients undergoing chemotherapy (source)
  • A potential role for acupuncture was found for the following cancer symptoms: pain, nausea, vomiting, xerostomia (dry mouth), hot flashes, fatigue, anxiety, depression and insomnia (source)
  • Acupuncture may be a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (source)
  • Acupuncture is effective in restoring learning and memory that result from chronic mild stress (source)

This is just a small sampling of the studies both supporting and refuting acupuncture’s claims.

Risks of acupuncture

The risks of acupuncture are low if administered by a certified acupuncture practitioner. Possible side effects include:

  • Needle site soreness, bleeding or bruising
  • Internal injury if the needles are in too deep
  • Resused needles can result in various infectious disease, such as hepatitis (source)


Have you ever had acupuncture?  Why do you think it works?


Toxic Thursdays-Mercury in Fish

29 Dec

Poison in our Seafood?


If this is the first Toxic Thursday post you have read, check out the posts on shampoo, lotions. and body wash.  Each Thursday, I highlight a potential source of toxins in our everyday lives, explain what health risks the potential toxins have been linked to and suggest healthier, safer alternatives.  Today we are going to talk about mercury levels in fish.

What is Mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring chemical element.  Most of the mercury that ends up in the water is from coal-burning power plants and chlorine production plants (source).  The largest source of mercury contamination in the US is from coal-fueled power plants (source).

The dangerous form of mercury is methylmercury.

Methylmercury is formed when mercury is acted upon by anaerobic organisms that live in aquatic areas such as lakes, rivers and the ocean (source).

Why is Methylmercury in Our Fish?

Mercury and methylmercury are present in very small concentrations in water sources.  Methylmercury is absorbed by algae which is at the bottom of the food chain.   This algae is eaten by small fish which are then eaten by larger fish.  Fish absorb the methylmercury but do not excrete it well (source).  Thus, it accumulates in the organs and muscles of fish which are then eaten by larger fish and humans  (source).


What are Methylmercury’s Health Risks?

Mercury cannot be eliminated by cooking (source).  When we eat methylmercury in our food, more than 95% of it is absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.  It is  transported to the blood and is distributed to all organs. It takes 30–40 hours for methylmercury  to be completely distributed throughout the body.  It then can cross the blood-brain barrier and builds up in the brain.  In the brain, it  can damage the central nervous system (source).  Methylmercury has a half-life in human blood of about 50 days which means it lasts for a very long time in our body (source).

Methylmercury has been linked to:

  • Increased risk of heart attacks (source) (source) (source) and increased risk of death from heart disease.  This is likely due to the promotion of lipid peroxidation by mercury which encourages atherosclerosis(source)
  • Increasing systemic inflammation (source)
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure (source)
  • Negatively impacting the immune system (source)

It is still undecided if the high mercury content in fish diminishes the cardioprotective effect of fish (source) (source)

Who is Especially at Risk?

Although we should all avoid mercury exposure, pregnant women and children need to be most careful.  Methylmercuy can easily cross the placenta and levels in umbilical cord blood can be 1.7 times higher than the mother’s blood levels (source).

Babies who were exposed to mercury in the womb have shown to experience a loss of IQ and demonstrate decreased performance on tests examining memory, attention, language, and spatial cognition. (source)

How Can We Limit Exposure to Mercury?

The best way to limit your exposure to mercury is to choose fish that are low on the food chain.


Here is a great link listing the mercury levels in different fish and shellfish.


Did you know all the different health risks of mercury?  How do you limit your mercury exposure?

Antioxidant Tuesdays-Prunes

27 Dec



For the next installment of antioxidant Tuesdays, I am going to talk about prunes.    If you haven’t read an Antioxidant Tuesday post before, it is a series highlighting the 10 foods with the highest amount of antioxidants amongst 100 common foods examined in this study.  So far, we have talked about kidney beanspinto beansblueberriescranberriesartichokes and blackberries.

Health Benefits of Prunes

Prunes have a reputation as being a food for elderly people to help with constipation.  However, it is a superfood from which we all could benefit from

As you can see from the nutrition facts, prunes are high in fiber, potassium and Vitamin A.  However, as they are dried fruit, they are high in carbohydrates, sugar and calories, so be mindful of serving sizes.  Despite their sugar content, they don’t cause a spike in blood sugar due to their high fiber, fructose, and sorbitol content (source)

Also, as you add any food with a lot of fiber to your diet, do it slowly.


Studies about Prunes

Prunes have been studied mainly for their abilities to reduce bone loss and reduce total cholesterol

  • Dried plums protect (source) and can even reverses bone loss in models of osteopenia (bone loss) (source) and (source)
  • Dried plums given to post-menopausal women not on hormone replacement therapy increased IGF-1 and BSAP, two markers of increased bone formation(source).  And these women only had to eat about 5 prunes/day!
  • Prunes given to mice prevented the decrease in bone mineral density  of the spine after the mice had their ovaries removed (source)
  • Prunes were able to reduce blood pressure  (source)
  • Mice with high cholesterol given prunes had a decrease in cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol) (source)
  • Prune extract can kill colon cancer cells in vitro (outside of the body) (source)

How Can I Eat Them?

Of course, prunes are delicious and sweet just eaten out of the package.  However, you can also add them to recipes.

Stewed Prunes and Rice Pudding from Supper in Stereo

Sewed Prunes with Citrus and Cinnamon from GirlChef

Roasted Turkey with Prunes and Apples from Healthy Chef Recipes

Chocolate Prune Bars from Elana’s Pantry

Gorgonzola and Prune Stuffed Chicken from Eating Well


Do you like prunes?  Did you know they had more health benefits than just for constipation?

Healthy sources of pre- and pro-biotics

24 Dec

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are in our foods.  They have numerous health benefits which you can read about in this post. Probiotics are defined as:

“Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” (source).

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that stimulate the growth and/or activity of our healthy gut bacteria. They were first identified in 1995(source) and defined in the 2007 Journal of Nutrition as:

“A prebiotic is a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-being and health” (source).

Food with ample prebiotics include:

Food Prebiotic Fiber Content by Weight
Raw Chicory Root 64.6%
Raw Jerusalem Artichoke 31.5%
Raw Dandelion Greens 24.3%
Raw Garlic 17.5%
Raw Leek 11.7%
Raw Onion 8.6%
Cooked Onion 5%
Raw Asparagus 5%
Raw Wheat bran 5%
Whole Wheat flour, Cooked 4.8%
Raw Banana 1%


We’ve already talked about the health benefits of artichokes which you can read about here.

Why are probiotics good and why do we need them?

In this post, I discussed all the health benefits of probiotics and why we should introduce these healthy bacteria into our diet.

Healthy sources of probiotics

You can buy probiotic pills at your local health food store or healthy grocery store.  They are often in the refrigerated foods section but can also be dried.  We can also get these healthy bacteria from the food we eat.  A huge source of priobtiocs can be found in fermented foods.

Foods become fermented when yeasts and bacteria are added to them.  These yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide.  Fermentation also results in: the enrichment of food with protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins, the elimination of antinutrients (compounds that interfere with the absorption of healthy nutrients) and a decrease in cooking time (source).

Here are some examples of fermented foods and other healthy sources of probiotics:



Kombucha is a tea-based beverage that is fermented with yeast and bacteria.  It has gained in popularity in recent years and can now be purchased at most health food stores and healthy grocery stores.  It was initially suggested that Kombucha could improve resistance against cancer, prevent cardiovascular diseases, promote digestive functions, stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammatory problems, and can have many other benefits (source).  However, recent evidence fails to support these claims and actually suggests that the undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha. These authors went on to say that Kombucha can not be recommended for therapeutic use (source).

Water kefir

You can read all about the health benefits of water kefir and learn how to make your own in this post.



Kimchi is a traditional fermented Korean dish made of vegetables with varied seasonings (source) and is often used as a condiment.


Kimchi is rich in vitamin A, B1, B2, calcium, and iron and contains a number of lactic acid bacteria (source).

Nutritional composition of typical kimchi
Nutrients per 100 g * Nutrients per 100 g
Food energy 32 kcal Moisture 88.4 g
Crude protein 2.0 g Crude Lipid 0.6 g
Total sugar 1.3 g Crude fiber 1.2 g
Crude ash 0.5 g Calcium 45 mg
Phosphorus 28 mg Vitamin A 492 IU
Vitamin B1 0.03 mg Vitamin B2 0.06 mg
Niacin 2.1 mg Vitamin C 21 mg

(Korean Food Research Institute)




Miso is produced by fermenting soybean, barley, brown rice, or other grains with fungus (source).  It is a source of  Lactobacillus acidophilus(source), a healthy probiotic.

Miso is used to make miso soup.  You can find a recipe to make miso soup here.



Sauerkraut is a shredded cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria(source).  Besides providing healthy probiotics, it also contains isothiocyanate and sulphoraphane (source).  These compounds have shown in animal models to be cancer-fighting compounds (source).



Yogurt is a great sources of  calcium, phosphorus, B2, iodine, B12,  B5, zinc, potassium and protein (source).  If you buy yogurt, look to see that it contains live and active cultures on its ingredient list.



Tempeh is made from soybeans and is fermented by the fungus rhizopus oligosporus.  This fungus actually produces an antibiotic against harmful bacteria such a Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria which can cause pneumonia and sepsis (source).

Special considerations for fermented foods and probiotics

Probiotics are very sensitive to heat since they are living organisms.  If they are cooked, they lose most of their healthy effects (source).  Thus, you should aim to buy unpasteurized (source) products and eat the foods raw (unless you are pregnant).  If you are interested, you can learn how to ferment your food here.


Do you eat fermented food?  Do you take a probiotic pill?

Toxic Thursdays-Body Wash

22 Dec

Toxins in Body Wash???


Welcome to the next installment of Toxic Thursdays!

If this is the first Toxic Thursday post you have read, check out the posts on shampoo and lotions.  Each Thursday, I am highlighting a potential source of toxins in our everyday lives, explain what health risks the potential toxins have been linked to and suggest healthier, safer alternatives.  Today we are going to talk about body wash.

What toxins are in body wash?

Some of the most common toxins in body wash are:

1. EXT DC VIOLET 2 Banned for use in cosmetics.
2. FDC YELLOW 6 Possible human carcinogen.
Possible human carcinogen.
4. FDC YELLOW 6 Possible human carcinogen.
Reproductive system toxicity.
6. SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE Gastrointestinal toxicity.
Immune toxicant.
8. TOCOPHERYL ACETATE Immune toxicant.
Immune toxicant.
10. DISODIUM EDTA Penetration enhancer.


What are these toxins and what have they been linked to?

1.  Violet 2-a synthetic dye produced from petroleum or coal-tar sources. There is very little evidence it causes any immune toxicity.

2.  Yellow 6- a synthetic dye made from petroleum.  There is very little evidence it causes any immune toxicity.

3.  Triethanolamine-strongly alkaline substance used as  pH adjusting chemical. It can cause irritation in some individuals (source)

4.  Parabens-see this post

5.  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate-see this post

6.  Propylene Glycol-see this post

8.  Tocopheryl acetate-see this post

9.  Fragrance-has shown to induce acute toxicity in mice (source).  It has also be linked to asthma, allergies and migraine headaches. Fragrance can accumulate in adipose (fat) tissue such as the breast and fragrance can actually be present in breast milk (source).

10.  Disodium EDTA-see this post

What alternatives are there?

As I mentioned in my shampoo post, I use Dr. Bronner’s castile soap for my body wash.  You can buy this at stores such as Target or on Amazon.

You can also make your own body wash.  Some recipes are found here.

If you are interested in more of body scrub and exfoliator, this is very simple to make with ingredients you likely have at your home.

This website has some great recipes for bath scrubs.

Depending on how rough you want your scrub to be, you can use either salt or sugar.

Use salt as the base if you want a rough, exfoliating scrub.  This which would be great for removing dead, flaky skin.

Use sugar as the base of the scrub for a smoother formula.  You can add oatmeal to the sugar scrub to make it even gentler on your skin.

You can also add your favorite essential oils to scent the scrub and add additional health benefits.

Healthful Pursuit, one of my favorite blogs, made a pumpkin spice foot scrub.  How great does that sound?


Do you use body wash?  Have you ever looked at the ingredients in your body wash?

Antioxidant Tuesdays-Blackberries!

20 Dec



For the next installment of antioxidant Tuesdays, I am going to talk about blackberries.    If you haven’t read an Antioxidant Tuesday post before, it is a series highlighting the 10 foods with the highest amount of antioxidants amongst 100 common foods examined in this study.  So far, we have talked about kidney beanspinto beansblueberriescranberries and artichokes.

Health Benefits


Blackberries are a superfruit!  For a very low number of calories, they have tons of fiber, Vitamin C and Vitamin A.

They are high in micronutrients such as anthocyanins and ellagitannins which give them their antioxidant power (source)

Anthocyanins are also associated with anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiproliferant, and anticarcinogenic effects (source)


Blackberries and berry-derived products have been evaluate in cells and in animals and in human studies.  Just a few studies are highlighted below:

  • Seed flour from blackberries have shown to inhibit the multiplication of human colon cancer cells (source)
  • Compounds from berries such as blackberries have shown to inhibit the oxidation of LDL (the bad cholesterol) which prevents the development of atheroscleoris (hardening of arteries) (source)
  • These compounds also prevent oxidative stress in cells in vitro (outide the body) (source)
  • The role of these compounds to reduce cancer risk has been shown in in vitro, animal, and clinical studies (source)
  • Phytochemicals in blueberries may modulate initiation, promotion, and progression of cancer. (source)
  • Blackberry extracts from eight varieties (Arapaho, Choctaw, Hull, Chicksaw, Triple Crown, Kiowa, Navajo, and Chester) suppressed cancer development at various levels (source)
  • Blackberry extracts play a protective role against DNA damage in cell cultures (source)

How to eat them

Fresh Blackberry Sauce from Delish

Blackberry Pork Tenderloin from Gourmet Recipe

Blackberry Strawberry Crisp from Natural Noshing

Cedar Plank Salmon with Blueberry Sauce from Taste of Home

Blackberry Pecan Muffins from Crazy Englishwoman Cooks


Do you like blackberries?  What is your favorite way to eat them?

Chia, chia, chia!

18 Dec

Chia seeds

When I first read about chia seeds on health blogs, I was reminded of the chia pets from the 80s.

When I found out what chia seeds were and the more I read about them, the more convinced I became of their health benefits.  Now I eat them almost everyday in my oatmeal.

What are chia seeds?

Chia’s scientific name is Salvia hispanica.  It is  is a flowering plant of the mint family which is native to Mexico (source).

Chia has an interesting past as it was banned after the Spanish conquered Mexico as chia was used in Aztec religion (Source).  Today, the crop is gaining in populatiry as it is being grown to harvest its seeds, chia seeds, due to their health promoting functions. 

Are chia seeds really as healthy as they claim to be?

When a product, such as chia seeds, becomes popular very quickly, I am often skeptical about the product’s health claims.  Chia seeds have been touted as a superfood with health benefits ranging from keeping one hydrated to providing more Omega-3s than salmon.  The problem is that the supposed health benefits of foods, such as chia seeds, are often listed on websites which are selling the product, thus introducing a bias.  As a scientist, I like to trace back the claims to the original studies.  What is fact and what is fiction?

Let’s find out!

What are the health benefits of chia seeds?

  • Chia seed oil is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), such as linoleic and α-linolenic acid (source), which have been linked to numerous health benefits from decreasing cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality (source) to  decreasing cancer development (source)
  • The seeds have protein and fiber contents that range from 17% to 24% and from 18% to 22%, respectively (source) (source)
  • The seeds have a number of compounds with potent antioxidant activities: myricetin, quercetin, kaemperol, and caffeic acid (source)
  • The seeds are a complete protein (great for vegetarians!)
  • The seeds are high in fiber
  • The seeds contain numerous micronutrients (see below)

Chia seeds are low in saturated fats, have no cholesterol (since they are a plant product) and are higher in Omega-3s than fish and flax seeds.


Chia seeds are also loaded with healthy micro- and macro-onutrients which are important for the normal workings of our bodies


Studies on Chia

  • Chia seed oil can be used as an moisturizing agent for pruritic (itchy) skin (source)
  • Chia seeds were able to reduce visceral adiposity (around organs-the dangerous fat) present in rats fed a high sucrose diet (source)
  • Rats fed chia had a decrease in their serum triacylglycerol and an increase in their serum HDL cholesterol (healthy cholesterol) (source)
  • A Florida-based company, Valensa International, is promoting a new chia-cranberry blend which they claim can ease digestion problems among those who eat a lot of fast food (source)
  • Rats fed a diet supplemented with chia seeds had improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, reduced visceral adiposity and reduced heart and liver inflammation (source)
  • Athletes given chia seeds before events lasting more than 90 minutes did not require as much sugar to maintain their performance (source)
  • Salba (the plant from which the chia seeds are harvested) mildly suppressed appetite and regulated the spike in blood sugar often seen post-eating (source)

How can I eat them?

Chia seeds have very little taste but absorb tons of water.  This ability to absorb water is why they are good for runners as it helps runners’ bodies store water and reduce dehydration.  The simplest way to eat chia seeds is to create a chia gel.  This gel is made of a 6:1 ratio (water to seed).  However, this is bland and boring.  Why not try one of the recipes below?

Chia gel

“Chia eggs” are great for vegans as chia eggs can replace eggs for most baked products.  You can replace 1 egg in a recipe by mixing 3 Tbsp Water with 1 Tbsp Chia Seed and letting it solidify for about 10 min.

Chia egg (source)

I like to add about a tablespoon of chia to my overnight oats to bump up their volume and fiber content.

One of my favorite blogs, Oh She Glows uses chia seed in her oatmeal too!

Banana Bread with Chia and Whey

Chia Cashew Coconut Cream Parfait from RAW Living and Learning

Chia Flour Brownies

Lime, Poppy Seed and Chia Muffins


Have you tried chia seeds before?  How do you determine if a health claim of a food is real or not?