Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trouble Down Below 1

Cramping, bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea – these are some of the delightful symptoms of the condition commonly known as irritable bowel syndrome.  The use of the word “syndrome” means that medical science doesn’t really understand what this is and probably it is lots of things, including food allergies and sensitivities, genetically and organically determined malabsorption problems, deformities of the digestive organs, any or all worsened by stress.  The condition may be discussed in an annual physical but usually nothing gets done about it, for several reasons.  Because there are so many potential contributing factors, it can be difficult or impossible to sort out what is really going on.  The condition, while detrimental to quality of life, is not life-threatening.  Finally, some of the most widely used remedies are not among the regularly prescribed medications produced by the pharmaceuticals industry but from the unregulated, and to some doctors shady, world of supplements.

The problem with not treating digestive problems is that they can have subtle and far-reaching effects on the body.  If your system is not processing food adequately, you are not getting the nutrients your body requires.  If this goes on over decades of your life the result is long-term malnutrition.  The bodies of younger people can be remarkably resilient when it comes to malnutrition.  We have all heard stories of individuals who were lost in wilderness areas or spent years in prison camps and recovered to live long and healthy lives.  In old age, however, the results of lifelong poor diet may begin to emerge in the form of illness or overall poor quality of life.

My own checkered nutritional history probably started with food allergies inherited from both of my parents.  For my father, eating the wrong food could cost a night’s sleep.  At home, my mother avoided problem foods when preparing meals but restaurant menus were a minefield of potential hazards.  On my mother’s side, when she had a (rare) glass of wine, her cheeks would sometimes flush, probably a mild allergic reaction.  Later she developed pernicious anemia, for which she had to take vitamin B12 shots.

The human body, including the digestive system, relies on a whole universe of microbes to keep all of its processes moving along smoothly.  “Your Own Personal Ecosystem,” an article in the 10/2011 issue of Wired, featured a startling and informative graphic “The Wired Atlas of the Human Ecosystem.”  Here we learn that the gut has 200 prevalent species and 1000 less common ones.  A separate box, “Antibiotics=Microbiome Killer,” illustrates the reduction in diversity in gut bacteria that results from taking these medications.  In the example cited, diversity was still reduced even two years after taking the antibiotic.

During my thirties I had a series of infections for which I was given multiple courses of antibiotics.  When I was 32 I had a complete hysterectomy and the surgeon removed my appendix as well.  Some researchers now believe that the appendix provides storage for beneficial gut bacteria, though this theory is not universally accepted.  

Given my background, it is not surprising that I wound up in my late thirties and forties with a troublesome and temperamental digestive system.  In recent years I have been able to sort out some of the tangle of problems and find solutions for them.  I will talk about that in the next post.

Monday, March 26, 2012

More on Biotin

The biotin I have been taking is definitely helping my nails; the peeling, chipping parts have mostly grown out and the new nails are much stronger.  My hair is also getting thicker, as my hairdresser noticed.  What pleases me most, though, is that a couple of unpleasant little skin conditions seem to have gone away.  
For several years I’ve had small bumpy areas which doctors have identified as seborrheic keratoses; just old age, they said, nothing to be done about it.  Around my elbows I’ve also had bumpy, slightly painful patches (the beginnings of psoriasis?).  Over the course of several weeks both of these have cleared up.  I can’t be sure that the biotin did this and it’s always possible that the placebo effect is operating but whatever the reason, I’m grateful.  If it was in fact the biotin then my question is: were the skin conditions caused by (untreatable) old age or by a treatable nutritional deficiency? 

Update:  Some of the keratoses are still there after all, but smaller than before.  The painful, crusty patches on my elbows are definitely gone.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Get Older, Stay Strong: Exciting New Research

Sarcopenia, a medical term based on Greek words meaning “poverty of flesh,” is applied to the loss of lean muscle mass often observed in old people.  Traditionally, this deterioration has been seen as a natural part of the aging process:  old people were thought to be incapable of maintaining their strength and building new muscle as well as young people.  Recent research is calling this view into question.  

In a video clip Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, describes one study in which young and old people were each given 4-ounce portions of lean beef.  Researchers were able to use a stable isotope form of one amino acid to track the process by which the food was transformed into muscle in the human body.  In both young and old subjects eating the beef stimulated the ability to build muscle by about 50% for about three hours.  The conclusion:  “Aging per se doesn’t really impair our ability to take food and turn it into muscle.”  Dr. Paddon-Jones, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, studies mechanisms contributing to skeletal muscle protein synthesis and breakdown and identification of interventions to counteract muscle loss in healthy and clinical populations.” 

So what do we need to do in order to maintain muscle mass as we get older?  Recent research suggests that instead of consuming the bulk of the day’s protein at dinner, as most Americans do, we should spread it out over three meals, consuming 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal for a daily maximum of 90 grams.  Eating larger amounts of protein, 12 ounces of beef rather than 4 ounces, does not produce additional gains in muscle mass, according to Paddon-Jones.  Meals of less than 20 grams actually reduce protein synthesis in older adults.   The research also emphasizes the importance of exercise, including resistance work, in preventing sarcopenia.

Based on these recommendations I am going to start adding roasted soybeans to some of my meals.  A third of a cup has 13 grams of protein and 163 calories, better than many protein bars.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Good Food Made Easier: Oatmeal

Recently my husband and I spent a few days in New York.  We ate breakfast at 3 Guys Restaurant on Madison near 76th.  A big bowl of oatmeal with lots of strawberries and blueberries was $9 and kept me from being hungry through a long morning of museuming.  I thought this was a great deal, especially for New York, and it reminded me of how much I like oatmeal.

At home I have oatmeal for breakfast several days a week.  I especially like oatmeal made from steel-cut oats because it has a more substantial, chewy texture than rolled or instant.  When you buy it in bulk at the health food store, it is also cheap.  Unfortunately, it takes 30 minutes to cook, much too long in the morning.  So I’ve devised a system for speeding up the process.  About once a month, while I am fixing breakfast, I put a large pot on the stove and put in an even number of cups of water, filling it about 2/3 of the way.  I bring it to a boil, turn off the heat, and stir in half the number of cups of steel-cut oats.  Then I cover the pot and let it sit while I eat breakfast.

After an hour or so, the oatmeal has absorbed all the water.  I get out a bunch of square, plastic, storage containers, a roll of waxed or parchment paper, and a pair of scissors.  Using a measuring cup, I scoop out equal portions of cereal and put them in the containers, separated by squares of parchment paper so they look a bit like hamburgers.  I then store them in the refrigerator or freeze them for later use.  To use the oatmeal “patties” I put one in a sauce pan with a little water – usually I add some of the water I have just boiled to make my tea.  I heat up patty, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon and in a few minutes it turns back into oatmeal again.

Making Oatmeal

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


  • When I’m looking around at the Y I usually see lithe, ballerina-like young ladies doing stretching, never strength training; big, paunchy guys are always working shoulders, pecs, and arms, never abs.
  •  According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (part of NIH), large waist size (more than 35” for women, 40” for men) is a predictor of heart disease and type 2 diabetes but the only doctor I’ve ever heard of who measures people’s waists is Dr. Oz. 
  • In a small Japanese study, older women treated with menatetrenone (a form of vitamin K2), vitamin D2, and calcium were 87% less likely to sustain a fracture. The Japanese Ministry of Health has approved menatetrenone for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis since 1995 (source Wikipedia).  This form of vitamin K2 is readily available, inexpensive, and safe but patients in the US are usually given bisphosphonates, which are costly and associated with a slight increase in the risk of atypical femur fracture. In rare cases, usually in cancer patients, these medications have also been implicated in osteonecrosis of the jaw (death of the jaw bone).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Biotin - for Better Hair?

Yesterday I went to the hairdresser. I only go once every ten weeks so when there are changes he really notices them. He said that my hair is growing faster and getting thicker. My eyebrows seem to be bulking up too, a good thing because I pretty much plucked them to death in my teens. We were trying to figure out what could be causing these differences and I finally decided it was the biotin I had been taking for a month or two for my fingernails. 

 As a child I had terrible-looking nails; they would constantly break or peel off in layers. For a while I took Knox gelatin, which helped some, but I got bored and gave it up. A few years back, when I increased my protein intake, my nails got a lot better but more recently they'd been getting worse again, snagging on sweaters and breaking off for no reason. I read in a couple of places that biotin might help so I bought some from Target. The pills were 1000mg each, which seemed like a lot since I’m already taking a B-complex supplement, so I’ve been taking half a pill each day. It’s too early to tell about the nails--they take about three months to grow out--but the hair seems to be benefitting from this regimen. 

Biotin is a B-complex vitamin (vitamin B7) that is involved in various metabolic processes and may help to stabilize blood sugar. Deficiency is rare but there are a number of conditions (including being elderly and being an athlete) that can increase a person’s need for biotin. This nutrient is water soluble so the body just excretes what it doesn’t need. I haven’t had hair loss, dermatitis, or any of the other unpleasant symptoms of a serious biotin deficiency. On the other hand, it looks as though my body is making good use of the extra I’ve been giving it recently so maybe my level was a little bit low.