Tag Archives: health

Do you have an “Appetite for Life?”

The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) hosts regular events as a part of a program they call “Appetite for Life.” It’s an initiative to “unlock the promise of personalized nutrition for proactive health management.” In other words, their mission is to show people how to eat for their health, specific to individual genetics and environmental experiences.

zeisel-afl

The speaker at the event on September 13 is Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, and Director of the NRI. Zeisel is world-renowned, a pioneer in the field of personalized nutrition. A nutrient you’ve probably heard of, called choline, is essential for human health, especially concerning pregnant women, and Zeisel is the scientist credited with this discovery.

“I’m not going to tell you what to eat today,” Zeisel says as he begins his talk. Tonight’s event is called “Genetics and Health: Your nutrition needs are as unique as you are,” and the venue, local eatery Restaurant 46, is packed with members of the local community and employees from the neighboring North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), a 350-acre research center located in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Zeisel goes on to describe the true meaning of personalized, or precision, medicine and the past, current, and future studies the NRI has in place to make personalized medicine a reality for everyday people concerned with their health.

“Diet can be changed to bypass nutrient deficiencies depicted by the genetic code,” Zeisel goes on. He starts by breaking down the specifics of nutrition science, starting with genetics. He describes single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), common genetic variation that occurs uniquely in all humans, as “spelling errors” in the DNA. Considering that a majority of the audience have a limited understanding of current genetics, Zeisel presents his description of SNPs in an accurate yet simplified manner. After all, what’s the point of talking about bringing personalized medicine to the public if the lay people can’t understand what you’re talking about?

img_0500

Zeisel and his colleagues at the NRI are preparing for the future of genetic testing, a technology they predict as being able to sequence an individual’s genetic code to provide a complete record of specific “spelling errors” in the DNA that might make the individual at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Being aware of nutrient deficiencies would then allow the individual to change their diet to eat more or less of a certain type of food.

There are companies that exist now, like 23andMe, that can provide genetic information from a DNA sample. However, the product a 23andMe customer gets in return for their money and a cheek swab is just pages and pages of combinations of “AGTC” that’s essentially meaningless unless the customer also happens to be an expert in nutrigenetics with a lot of free time.

Zeisel goes on to talk about choline, folate, and other studies from the NRI and other institutions concerned about health and nutrition. He leaves plenty of time for community members to ask their own questions, many about their health and the health of their loved ones.

The NRI’s story is far from over, but after a while questions subside. For now, people head home with a new perspective on individualized nutrition. The next Appetite for Life event is now something to look forward to, a talk by NRI scientist Stephen Hursting on October 18.

img_0496

Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker

What You Haven’t Heard About the “Brain-Eating” Amoeba

A recent report of a death from a specific type of organism that causes brain disease has millions of people concerned about going swimming. The loss of life from this disease is devastating, but there’s actually almost no reason why people should stop going to the U.S. National White Water Center (WWC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where officials are still not positive the female from Ohio was exposed to the disease-causing organism.

home_page_image_naegleria-vjf5-a
Naegleria fowleri | Credit: CDC

Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba species that causes an extremely rare infection of the brain called primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Less than ten cases per year have been reported in the United States for the past 50 years, with just 37 infections reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during 2006 and 2015. However rare the disease may be, infections do occur as seen in the unfortunate report of an Ohio female visiting the WWC with a church youth group.

It’s difficult to resist feeling a little bit afraid after hearing this story on the news, especially since the media refers to the amoeba as “brain-eating.” The reality is that N. fowleri breaks down brain tissue, causing death from brain swelling. Meningitis, or the infection of the brain and/or spinal cord, is not unique to N. fowleri. Meningitis occurs much more often as a result of a viral infection than from an amoeba or other parasite.

Additionally, it is important to note that you are only at risk for primary amebic meningoencephalitis if N. fowleri goes up your nose. If you swallow contaminated water, you’re fine. If you’re swimming in the ocean, you’re safe (N. fowleri doesn’t like salty water). The amoeba is only dangerous if it goes up your nose, which contributes to the rarity of this disease.

“The number of yearly cases of death resulting from this rare amoebic infection is so low that there is absolutely no reason to think that the White Water Center is any more dangerous than a lake or any other fresh water body of water,” said molecular biologist Christy Esmahan, PhD. “The media likes to sensationalize rare infections, but the truth is that you are far more likely to die of drowning in a pool than of contracting this infection at the WWC or anywhere else.”

Many Facebook users and Twitter scrollers are probably more likely to click “share” or “retweet” than they are to actually read any of the dozens of news stories covering this incident. Let’s look at some of the lead titles:

“Teen dies from brain-eating amoeba infection after visit to Whitewater Center”

“Brain-Eating Amoeba Eyed in Death of Ohio Teen”

“Ohio woman dies from infection caused by ‘brain-eating amoeba’”

Am I hooked after reading these titles? Yes. Is my mom canceling her trip to the WWC this weekend? Most likely. Does this title really describe the situation? Not entirely.

Let’s go over some of the key points:

  1. Meningitis from this particular amoeba is extremely rare. You’re no more likely to contract this disease from the WWC in Charlotte than you are at any lake, river, or other non-saline body of water in the world.
  2. Officials are not even sure if it was actually the WWC where the amoeba was contracted. The WWC is still running under regular operation, and scientists are testing the water for amoeba right now.
  3. You are not at danger from contracting meningitis from this amoeba by drinking contaminated water. It has to go up your nose to be dangerous.

Know the facts, stay informed, and don’t be afraid!

https://twitter.com/ScienceKara 

Whitewater-2000x800_c
Credit: U.S. National White Water Center

What’s the deal with probiotics?

When I googled “probiotics,” the first couple of sites that showed up (after two paid ad links for probiotic supplements) were WebMd, MedicineNet, LabDoor, MayoClinic, and Wikipedia. I’m not necessarily saying that these sites are illegitimate and shouldn’t be trusted. I am however saying that the link that showed up after these results, a link to the National Insitutes of Health, is by far more trustworthy than those other sources. I’ll continue about probiotics next, but the first lession here is this: What you read and what media you trust as “the truth” will make a huge difference in what you believe and the educated choices you make. Some people/institutions just want to make money. Make sure you are trusting the sources whose contributors desire to educate the public, not make a profit.

Let’s continue with some facts.

What exactly are probiotics?

The NIH Center for Complementary and Integrative Health lists probiotics as live, beneficial bacteria that have a positive impact on human health. You may have seen the words “contains probiotics!” on your favorite brand of yogurt or on dietary supplements. Although it is possible to ingest products with probiotics in them, most people with normal immune systems already have probiotic bacteria already residing in their bodies.

This popuation of naturally-occuring, beneficial bacteria in our bodies is referred to as “gut bacteria,” “the human microbiome,” “our microflora,” and more. Essentially, you should know that there’s millions of bacteria living in you, helping you with digestion and metabolism, contributing to overall homeostasis, and boosting your immune system when harmful pathogens invade the body. These colonies of diverse bacteria are handed down to us during childbirth from our mothers.

Consuming extra probiotics via supplements, yogurt, or other dairy products has the potential to enhance the diversity of bacterial growth within our bodies. However, probiotic foods and supplements need a certain population size to achieve the desired effects of boosting the immune sytem, enhancing digestion, etc. A lot the high-priced supplements you see on the market may not have a high enough concentration of probiotic cultures to make a difference in your health. Some probiotic cultures in these supplements may not even be alive anymore. Even more, according to the NIH, these dietary supplement claiming to provide probiotics “do not require FDA approval before they are marketed.” 

What should I believe?

Studies on probiotics continue to this day. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies recently published a probiotic study in the Journal of Nutritional Health and Food Engineering in July. These scientists showed that two polysaccharides, xanthan and carrageenan, could enhance the resiliency of probiotic cultures in food products and dietary supplements. Xanthan and carrageenan are commonly used as food thickening agents in products like gum. Their chemical composition enable them to be energy sources to bacterial metabolic activity.

If you’re not a science person, the previous paragraph might have gone over your head. What you should know (and this is true in a lot of realms of biomedicine) is that nothing is certain I.E. dietary supplements and dairy products claiming to have beneficial amounts of probiotics. Is yogurt dangerous? No! But don’t pay extra for products claiming to have health benefits that aren’t completely scientifically proven. Even the NIH adds that “there are certain uncertainties about the safety of probiotics…there isn’t enough information right now.”

The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, North Carolina investigates the functionality of probiotics. The NCA&T Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies recently published a study showing how additive ingredients make probiotic cultures more viable. Check out the article here.

That’s all on probiotics for now. If you have any questions, feel free to send me a tweet @ScienceKara, or an email – kmarker2@gmail.com.

#ScienceKara #GoScience

#ScienceKara is Back

After a 2-month hiatus, I have returned to my beloved science blog devoted to debunking scientific myths in public discourse.

Although I regret that I had to take a hiatus, I am glad that I used the time to get settled in a new location: Charlotte, North Carolina! After an acceptance into a graduate program for Technical and Professional Writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I quickly relocated to the area and looked for a job.

Full-time writing jobs for biology majors are not so common in this area, though (maybe if I was into business or banking it’d be a different story). I did manage to put together a series of gigs to pay the bills and give me some great insight into the potential of my impending career.

First, in June I started writing for LabRoots.com, the leading scientific social networking website and producer of educational virutal events and webinars. I love what I do for this company and truly appreciate their mission of connecting both scientific and non-scientific communities.

Next, in August I started working for SkinnyMs.com, a delightful health and fitness website providing “busy women with easy access to healthy living tools including clean eating recipes, menu planning and effective workouts and fitness programs.” I do social media management and article writing for Skinny Ms., and I love every second of it. I get to learn so much every day.

For a few weeks, I’ll be an after-school program instructor for Mad Science, a national franchise that brings science education to millions of children each year. I get to perform fun scientific experiments 2 afternoons a week to elementary aged children.

Lastly, I am a marketing intern for the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, NC (just a half hour north of Charlotte). This campus, created by David H. Murdock (owner of Dole Foods), miraculously combines public and private institutions based on one mutual goal: enhancing human health, nutrition and agriculture through innovate research and development. As marketing intern, I’ll be writing articles and doing whatever I can to help get the word out to the scientific community and to the public about the aims of this campus.

My passion for telling the truth about science and nutrition only grows stronger each day as I work in these 4 different roles – communicating, writing, and thinking. With your help, we can build a more educated public. Let’s get started. Next post in 30 minutes.

#GoScience  #ScienceKara

FDA Alert On Cilantro From Puebla, Mexico

The recent report of a cyclosporiasis outbreak from cilantro plants is not the first to be issued. Outbreaks also occurred in 2012, 2013, and 2014, all pointing to cilantro from the Mexican state of Puebla.

Cyclospora cayetanensis is a protozoan pathogen that specifically infects humans (cyclosporiasis). Protozoan infections are generally more difficult to treat than bacterial or viral infections since protozoa are eukaryotes, just like us. Fewer anti-protozoa treatments exist since there are more similarities between humans and protozoa (and thus less unique targets for drugs) than there are between humans and bacteria (bacteria are prokaryotes – because there are so many differences between human cells and bacteria cells we have a lot of targets for antibacterials).

Cyclosporiasis infections cause diarrhea (like other food-poisoning-related illnesses). In addition to being infected directly from eating contaminated cilantro, people can also become ill through contamination from feces of someone already infected.

Since 2013, the FDA has investigated “11 farms and packing houses that produce cilantro in the state of Puebla” and found 8 farms to either be carrying C. cayetanensis or to be exhibiting dangerous conditions capable of harboring the parasite. The FDA report said these suspect farms contained “human feces and toilet paper found in growing fields and around facilities.”

Because of these findings, the FDA concluded that cilantro products from Puebla are “subject to refusal of admission,” meaning companies receiving cilantro from Puebla can refuse shipments without examination. It is important to note that this FDA report does not include “multi-ingredient processed foods” containing cilantro (only fresh cilantro, intact or cut/chopped).

For the next couple of months if you are buying fresh cilantro, make sure to check the origin of its cultivation. Until the FDA lifts the alert on cilantro from Puebla, it’s not safe to eat. However if you do develop food-poisoning symptoms after eating cilantro, you will be okay. Refuel your body with electrolytes and water – and maintain strict hygiene! You want to flush the parasite out of your system without infecting anyone else.

 

#ScienceKara #GoGuacamole

For more on this issue, check out the following resources:

LabRoots Coverage

Direct access to FDA report

The Truth About Antioxidants

Continuing with my series devoted to uncovering the truth in health trends, today I am going to discuss a common feature of food advertisements. Antioxidants are compounds that delay some types of cell damage, which is why they are portrayed as healthy in certain food ads. Foods with antioxidants are also marketed to prevent disease, like in this Fitness Magazine article about healthy eating:

http://http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/recipes/healthy-eating/tips/top-antioxidant-healthy-foods/

Although this sounds good when making a smoothie purchase, knowing the facts about antioxidants is imperative to truly understanding what benefits you are reaping when potentially paying extra for food containing antioxidants. Does a diet high in antioxidants truly prevent disease? Read more to find out.

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Don’t worry. Everything you thought you knew about antioxidants is not a lie. Vegetables and fruits are major sources of these substances. Research done at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has shown that people maintaining a regular diet high in antioxidants are generally the healthiest population. However, the same research cannot conclude that it is the action of the antioxidants that is preventing disease in the lives of these people. Other factors under consideration are “other components of these foods, other factors in people’s diets, or other lifestyle choices.”

In addition, similar studies showed that antioxidants did not help in the prevention of chronic disease like cancer and heart problems. In fact, high doses of supplements like beta-carotene were actually shown to increase lung cancer risk in smokers, and high doses of vitamin E supplements increased risk of prostate cancer. That being said, it seems the antioxidant consumption follows the theme of “healthy in moderation.” In addition, consuming your daily dose of antioxidants will always be better through eating an apple or some broccoli, as opposed to an artificial supplement.

My next question to explore is this: How exactly do antioxidants prevent cell damage?

An "Antioxidant Recipe" (image source: Viosan Health)
An “Antioxidant Recipe” (image source: Viosan Health)

When you metabolize food into energy your body can use or when you exercise, unstable molecules called “free radicals” are formed. Free radicals are also present in the environment from sunlight and from air pollution. Free radicals are dangerous because they trigger oxidative stress, which can then cause cell damage. The danger surrounding oxidative stress revolves around a chemical imbalance in the body and a failure to detoxify the effects of free radicals (News Medical). Still confused? Check out this creatively organized video by Active Beat that explains the connection between free radicals, oxidative stress, and the action of antioxidants:

Essentially, antioxidants help counter the harmful effect of oxidative stress due to high free radical levels in the body (hence the name anti-oxidant). Without the counteractive impact of antioxidants, oxidative stress is shown to increase risk of chronic diseases (cancer, heart problems) and age-related diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Macular Degeneration).

Not sure what macular degeneration is? Check out this article here:

http://labroots.com/trending/id/1410/inhibiting-mast-cell-degranulation-a-new-therapy-for-macular-degeneration/health-and-medicine

Take-away messages from this blog post:

  1. Antioxidants are not bad. Just get as many from fruit as you can, and don’t overdo it with your vitamin supplements.
  2. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be true – scientists aren’t actually sure if it’s specifically antioxidants in “healthy” foods that prevent disease. It could very well be that people who keep high amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diet are much more likely to also exercise regularly, drink less alcohol, and participate in other destructive habits like smoking.
  3. When you’re at the grocery store and are convinced to purchase something because of a label promising healthy antioxidants (or any other current health trend for that matter), know what you are spending your money on. Shop smart, know your food!
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS isn't so bad.
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS actually isn’t so bad.

For a complete analysis of antioxidants, check out this NIH page where I got most of my information for this post:

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm

#ScienceKara

The Truth About Sunscreen and SPF

The CDC lists increasing exposure to UV light as “the most preventable cause” of skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States. This includes natural sunlight or artificial sunlight from tanning beds. Since we can’t wear full-body protective suits every day to prevent unwanted sun exposure, we use sunscreen to protect our skin from harmful rays of sun. I have studied a series of videos produced by Huffington Post where Dr. Neal Schultz discusses various elements of sun protection. He debunks several sunscreen misconceptions of which you should be informed! Luckily for you, I have compiled the most important information here. Read on!

Image Source: ClipartPanda
Image Source: ClipartPanda
“SPF,” the acronym you see on all sunscreen products, means Sunburn Protection Factor. It’s a relative measurement that describes how much sun is required to cause a burn considering the current amount of sun protection on your skin, compared to the amount of sun required to cause a burn on skin without any protection at all (FDA).

The important thing to realize about SPF is that it’s directly related to the amount of sun you are exposed to, not the time you are in the sun (FDA). Time and amount are not always interchangeable; the sun is more powerful at noon than it is at 10AM. For example, you can ingest the same amount of alcohol by taking a shot of liquor that you can by drinking one whole beer. SPF is relative in the same way. The FDA lists other factors affecting the relationship between SPF and the power of the sun including skin type, the amount of sunscreen applied, frequency of reapplication, and the fact that “greater solar intensity occurs at lower altitudes.” All of these things must be taken in to consideration when using sunscreen.

Another important question we ask when picking out a sunscreen to use is this: what SPF should I use? It’s vital to understand how protective each SPF number is, and first you must understand that SPF values are not linear. Get this: a sunscreen labeled 15 SPF gives you 88% protection from the sun. Moving up to 30 SPF, you increase your sun protection to 95%. However, when you move up to 60 SPF, you are only getting four more percent protection from the sun.

“Part of this numbers game is drive by consumer demand,” Dr. Schultz points out.

Our advice: save some money and use 15 or 30 SPF sunscreen, and reapply often to account for sweating and rubbing off in the water when swimming. You are wasting your money on sunscreens labeled 60, 70, and 100 SPF. Plus, when using such high value SPF sunscreen, people may incorrectly assume that applying enough sunscreen and reapplying later are less important. If you don’t use enough sunscreen, the SPF value greatly decreases, and you leave yourself very vulnerable to harmful rays of sun.

Another issue I looked into was that of spray vs. lotion. I am personally guilty of taking the easy way out, choosing a spray sunscreen over lotion to cut down on time spent applying sunscreen and to prevent my hands from getting sticky/sandy/etc. FutureDerm.com tested it and concluded that spray sunscreen is less effective than lotion. This result is derived from the fact that SPF is only as powerful as the amount of sunscreen that you use on your skin. What I mean by that is this: FutureDerm discovered that when people apply spray sunscreen, they end up using much less than if they applied using a lotion. Like I discussed earlier, not using enough sunscreen drastically decreases the value of SPF protection. So, if you’re going to try and save some time by using spray sunscreen, make sure to spray a generous amount on your skin, or you’ll be making up the time saved by rubbing aloe on your burnt skin 8 hours later.

Lastly, keep in mind that UV-A rays, the dangerous rays of sun that cause skin cancer and premature aging, don’t diminish in the winter. It’s always important to wear sunscreen on a daily basis. Also, sunscreen SPF is not additive. If you wear moisturizer that provides 15 SPF protection and foundation makeup that also has 15 SPF protection, you don’t get a combined protection of 30 SPF. You get the SPF protection of the first thing that you put on your skin. If you can, make sure that the first layer is sunscreen, not foundation.

My hope from doing this research and from writing this blog post is that you’ll change your habits based on learning the facts. Take care of your skin!

Check out Dr. Schultz’s videos for yourself here:

http://videos.huffingtonpost.com/tech/how-to-choose-the-right-sunscreen-266799626