On prebiotics and probiotics – what labels won’t tell you

Dear Dr. Mo: I would like to know more about prebiotics and probiotics, especially in treating specific conditions – I found it difficult to find information on their applications and effects different strains of probiotics may have.

Probiotics can be found in yogurts

Probiotics can be found in yogurts

Dear reader: In response to your interesting question about use and effectiveness of probiotics, I’ve been browsing the dairy sections (containing yogurts, kefirs and alike) of some popular supermarkets here in Vancouver, BC to actually see what are the health claims the manufacturers (are allowed to) put on their probiotic-containing products.

To my surprise I was unable to find any concrete or revealing claim, which would help a person (patient or clinician for that matter) decide which product to choose and whether or not this particular probiotic product is a right choice for a potential medical condition. Most claimed to support or improve a body function but not to treat a condition/disease. Continue reading

Each day is Valentine’s day

Dear readers, on February 14th, St. Valentine’s day, many are exchanging gifts and greeting cards with their partners and you can almost feel the festive-like atmosphere, mostly in shops, malls and restaurants.

Valentine's or not..

Valentine’s or not..

It’s an engineered occasion, designed and advertised solely for commercial purposes  (what’s called a  ‘hallmark holiday’) – to make us feel we actually want to celebrate this strange day and to make us, above all, collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on greeting cards and associated gifts.

St. Valentine’s day is by no means a new date in the calendar – indeed it goes back hundreds of years as a romantic occasion – what’s been a vexing recent development is this global commercialization of the holiday, intended to have us buy outrageously expensive cards with stock photos and cheesy messages someone else thought of so we wouldn’t have to. Continue reading

The importance of eating breakfast

Dear Dr. Mo: How important is breakfast for my health? Should I skip it if I want to lose some weight? I see some of my friends do this.

Dear reader: To answer simply – breakfast is the most important meal of the day and you should never skip it.

That said; let me quickly give a few important reasons for this.

Make it a healthy choice

Make it a healthy choice

Fist and foremost, if you want to lose some weight or just maintain the one you have (especially if it is a healthy one and feels good to you) eating breakfast every morning is the way to go.

I’ve spoken to people whose strategy was to skip breakfast thinking they would reduce their daily amount of calories – you are guessing already – they have failed at that. The reason such a strategy doesn’t work is because without a proper breakfast, you become very hungry by lunch time and not only that but you drive your body into energy conservation mode in which calories are being conserved and stored rather than spent and where your metabolism slows down – all of which is bad news for weight loss. Continue reading

Chocolate & health

Dear Dr. Mo: Are there any health benefits I could possibly get by eating chocolate? I just love it so much.

Dear reader: What a sweet question (and I mean literally).
The answer is YES but let me make one clarification right from the start: when we talk about potential health benefits of chocolate, we always refer to dark chocolate, which has a high cocoa content.

Dark chocolate has health benefits

It is the Flavanols in cocoa beans that have antioxidant effects responsible for most of the benefits that come from dark chocolate consumption. Flavanols reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease and also help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. In addition, some research has linked chocolate consumption to reduced risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack. Eating a moderate amount of dark chocolate was associated with a lower risk of being hospitalized for heart failure.

Flavanols are thought to also reduce the levels of stress hormone Cortisol and its metabolic effects and they are being researched for their sun protecting abilities, doubling the time before which skin turns red in the sun, marking the beginning of a sun burn. Continue reading

Drink water to stay healthy

Dear Dr. Mo: How much water do I really need to stay hydrated and healthy?

Dear reader: This is the time of year where common colds are indeed common and when you will often hear that advice to drink lots of fluid, usually herbal teas or water. Of course, water is essential to your health but the needs for water vary from person to person and many factors may influence that, like for example your health condition, your daily activities, where you live, your age, metabolic rate etc.

Water means health!

Water is our main constituent – it makes up about 60% of our body mass. We need water to maintain normal functions: we throw out waste matter dissolved in water, water participates in digestion of food, it carries nutrients to cells, we use water to show emotions when we cry etc.

Water also helps to regulate body temperature through perspiration (sweating).

When water is insufficient we dehydrate. Dehydration is a state in which our cells don’t have enough water to function normally. Even a mild dehydration could cause fatigue because when tissues lose water, enzymes are slowing down their functions and energy production drops.

A simple way to see the link between health and water is to observe what happens when we age. As we age, the water content of our bodies is decreasing steadily and while a newborn is 80% water, in an adult this ratio is at 60% and it keeps on decreasing as years go by. Continue reading

Sleep, health and weight loss

Dear Dr. Mo: I am looking into some weight loss programs and I am trying to work out my strategy to come back to my healthy weight. My work sometimes requires giving up on sleep and I tend to be too tired too often. Should I also consider better sleep as part of my weight loss strategy?

Dear reader: What an insightful question! Many of the dieting programs focus heavily on dietary habits and the types of foods we eat, when we eat them and how much. This is rightly so because to attain and maintain a healthy weight, we require a careful selection of healthful foods and a balanced way to eat them. We should also be mindful of our calorie total– don’t go below 1200 calories a day to avoid driving your body into starvation mode.

Sleep is a big part of your healthy weight

Dieting programs also focus on exercise, again rightly so because you need a way to burn through a few hundred calories a day in order to lose about 500 grams a week – which is the pace I’d recommend.  If you cut out 500 calories a day, every day, you’ll be losing about 500 grams of weight a week.

What most dieting programs don’t talk about, and I think they should, is a major component of our health – sleep.

If we don’t sleep well and don’t get enough of it, our health suffers and it becomes increasingly difficult to curb the appetite and control our weight. Being overweight deteriorates our health in both the short and the long run.

Disrupted sleep patterns disrupt the circadian rhythm and increase sleep deprivation, which in turn increases the hunger hormone ghrelin.
There are two of these hormones that regulate our appetite and feelings of hunger and fullness – leptin and ghrelin – and both are directly affected by how much sleep time we give ourselves. Continue reading

Multivitamins – yes or no?

Dear Dr. Mo: How useful are multivitamin supplements and when should you take them? I tend to take them during the winter when I think I might be more likely to catch a cold from my students…

Dear reader:First of all, try to eat a healthy diet – this goes without saying. A multivitamin daily dose does provide some help against nutritional deficiencies but cannot and should not replace the natural way we take in vitamins – through a healthy and balanced diet. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils, nuts and low in red meat and unhealthy fats.  For those people who manage to eat a healthy diet like that, a multivitamin may have little or no benefit.

Healthy diet removes the need for multivitamins

I realize however that many people don’t manage to eat such balanced and healthy diets for a variety of different reasons, some economic, some behavioral, some social etc.  In such cases, as well as in cases like yours (prophylactic), a simple message is this: a daily multivitamin is a good insurance policy for your nutrition!

Taking a daily multivitamin and perhaps some extra vitamin D is an inexpensive way for you to fill in some of the nutritional gaps and make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy.

There are even added health benefits to such habits – Folic acid found in most multivitamins helps prevent neural tube deficits in newborns if women take it before they become pregnant and during pregnancy; this acid also lowers risk for breast and colon cancer and heart disease. Continue reading

Herbal infusions during pregnancy – are they safe?

Dear Dr. Mo: What is the deal with other teas – not relating to caffeine? I’ve heard pregnant women shouldn’t drink chamomile tea…? I thought ‘herbs’ were generally healthy and a desirable component.

Dear reader: During pregnancy, many women choose herbal infusions instead of caffeinated drinks. Most of these choices are perfectly fine.
I would always advise to stay away from herbs and supplements of any sort during the first trimester, while the fetus is particularly vulnerable; but even during this sensitive period, one or two cups of herbal teas now and then (even daily) are so moderate an amount that any harm is virtually impossible.

Herbal infusions are generally safe during pregnancy

I would generally stay away from herbal infusions, which contain some additional supplements (such as Ginseng) as these are of unknown action on the fetus and are not undergoing sanction and approval by regulatory bodies. Choose pure herbal teas with nothing added.

The talk about herbs that may concern you is that some may help induce a certain level of uterine contraction so I’d stay away from herbs such as black or blue cohosh. Also avoid herbal infusions with known pharmacological actions that are intense and aggressive on your body and generally unhealthy like Sena leaves.

Chamomile infusion is fine and safe to drink in moderation – stay within a few cups a day but not liters of it. Continue reading

Eating healthy while traveling – is it possible?

Dear readers, recently I was traveling to Kazakhstan and had to take connecting flights totaling in almost 15 hours of travel time (including some 6 hours of waiting in Frankfurt for my connection to Almaty).

During this travel, I was trying to really see what would it take to maintain a healthy diet and if such a thing is at all possible.

Airports may lure you into breaking your healthy diet promise

One thing that happens is that the longer we travel, the more tired and sleep deprived we become and the more tired we are the less likely we are to make a healthy choice when it comes to food and drinks. Parts of our brain in charge of rational decisions and planning (pre-frontal cortex) become fatigued and emotional parts (like amygdala) take over, indulging to cravings for sweets, junk food and sodas. Also, fatigue changes our hormonal balance and potentially disrupts hormonal release sequence and that too can lead to altered decision making towards food and could modify our bodies’ fat-conversion processes. One thing to remember is that tired people who don’t get enough of sleep eat on average 500 extra calories a day.

Also, if you are on a weight loss diet, you have probably been consciously avoiding certain foods and drinks, willing yourself to opt for healthier options. Your will power gets depleted after repeated situations in which you have to say ‘no’ to a tasty sandwich, a salad dressing, an ice cream or a soda.

In airports, you may suffer total will depletion or what Dan Ariely in his latest book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty” calls Ego Depletion where you finally succumb to temptation and buy a sandwich, breaking your dietary habit “just this once”.

So why do I say that airports are so perilous for a healthy diet?
Continue reading

Tired legs in the morning – why is this and what to do?

Dear Dr. Mo: My legs feel tired when I wake up. What could be wrong and what to do?

Dear reader: A feeling of tiredness and heaviness in legs is a symptom, which can accompany many health-related disorders, ranging from those as mild as insufficient sleep and rest to more severe ones like Fibromyalgia or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

For most of people, tired and achy legs is an experience, which occasionally comes and goes without any medical intervention.  This is usually from standing or sitting for longer periods of time and the problem goes away once the legs are rested or moved to a more comfortable position – crossing your legs often for instance or wearing uncomfortable shoes may contribute to discomfort.

Elevating your legs may help relieve some discomfort

In your case, however, waking up to a discomforting feeling of tired and heavy legs may not be caused by the lack of rest alone and it could be due to insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality.
If you generally feel tired in the morning, it may mean that your brain and other parts of your body (including legs) aren’t getting enough oxygen during sleep – this could be due to breathing problems like snoring or deviations in your nasal cavity (narrow or bent passageways in your nose), inflammation of sinuses, seasonal or other types of allergies which congest the nose, viral or bacterial infections of your upper respiratory system (nose and throat) and a more serious condition in which a person stops breathing all together for several seconds during sleep – this is called sleep apnea.

Feeling of tiredness can also come from the vitamin D deficiency and this has become a relatively recent discovery that a vitamin D deficiency is not only bad for bones and heart, it affects the rest of our body as well and you may feel fatigued and tired as a consequence.

Most of the time, the cause of this uncomfortable feeling is too much strain on your legs during day (either by walking/running or sitting for too long) and not enough of good quality sleep in a well aired room during night.
Also, don’t forget your head – stress, agitation and anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns and add to the feeling of tiredness in the morning.  Continue reading

Coping with Hypertension

Dear Dr. Mo: How to cope with high blood pressure, walking or resting?

Dear reader: First of all, you have a high blood pressure or Hypertension, if you have a sustained elevation of resting systolic reading of at least 140 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury) or a diastolic reading of at least 90 mm Hg, or both.

Swimming could help to reduce high blood pressure

The top number in your blood pressure reading is the systolic pressure. It reflects the amount of pressure in your arteries when your heart pumps – it is generated by the heart as a pump and the larger its output, the higher the systolic pressure.

The bottom number is the diastolic pressure. It is the measure of the pressure in the arterial tree in between heartbeats, when the heart is relaxing and it depends on the total peripheral resistance to the blood going out of the arteries into the veins and back to the heart.

High blood pressure is a common condition in which the force the blood exerts against your artery walls is high enough to eventually cause health problems, such as heart disease. Heart has to work harder and harder as blood pressure rises above normal limits and over time, this weakens the heart. It also injures the arteries, which then become susceptible to plaque formation and atherosclerosis in them. At times, high blood pressure may rupture the artery leading to bleeding and strokes.

Blood pressure measurement is one of the most important measurements for any doctor to take in order to determine your health status. Many people have elevated blood pressure, which increases as we age or develop certain health conditions. The trouble is, that if left unchecked, our bodies quickly adapt to elevated values as we go about our daily lives unaware of a serious health problem slowly evolving inside of us – until a big symptom occurs – a heart attack, a stroke, a kidney failure, eye sight problem or internal bleeding.Undiagnosed and untreated elevated blood pressure is among the biggest and most serious threats to our health, both short and long term. Continue reading

Ordinary foods that keep you healthy

Dear Dr. Mo: Which foods should I always include in my diet to improve my health and why?

Dear reader: It goes without saying that good dietary habits are good for our health – but what is not often emphasized enough is just how good that is.
It has been widely recognized by medical community that by simply increasing your daily consumption of fruits and vegetables you are lowering your risk of heart disease and diabetes – and when I say lowering I mean really lowering it by 50 to even 70%!

Bananas are a nutrient powerhouse

There are of course other benefits too: an antioxidant called Lycopene in tomatoes, watermelon and red grapefruit is linked to protection against breast and prostate cancers, chances of developing kidney cancer are greatly diminished by frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables and fiber rich foods keep your intestines work properly preventing constipation, intestinal illness and help control your weight by keeping you fuller for longer.
We all have different appetites, habits and tastes but vegetables and fruits should be an integral part of our daily diet and many adults need roughly two cups of fruit and three cups of vegetables per day.

Here is my selection of some ordinary foods, which I consider rich in all the nutrients you need to turn your daily diet into a health promoting and health protecting habit. Continue reading

The All-Mighty Green Tea

 

Dear readers: Green tea has become one of the most widely consumed beverages on the planet, second only to water and its medicinal and health-protective properties have been known to its consumers for many centuries both externally in a paste form to treat rheumatism and internally as a ‘purifying’ soup.

One of my tea sets

I prefer Japanese teas, which are milder and more delicate than Chinese – the one in the photo is Ryokucha Midori

The Emperor Shen Nung, father of Chinese medicine and farming, wrote in his Medical Book that “tea relieves tiredness, strengthens the will, delights the soul and enlivens the sight.

Shen’s remarks had not been unfounded and modern science proves green tea’s potent medical properties.
Green tea as well as all other teas: black, white, red or dark come from a single Tea plant – Camelia Sinensis, a cultivated bush with evergreen leaves, which grows in hot and humid climates of Asia, Africa and South America. Camelia Sinensis itself originates from China, probably around the border of North Vietnam. Continue reading