Omega-3s during Pregnancy and Lactation

Maintaining optimal levels of omega-3’s is important for all of us, but one population that deserves special attention is women who are pregnant and nursing. The omega-3 fatty acids are critical for optimal brain health and function at all ages of life, but these essential fatty acids play a vital role during fetal development and infancy. Pregnant women have a higher requirement of omega-3s, in particular DHA, because of the rapid cell growth and development of new tissues and organ systems. Optimal development of the brain and central nervous system, the eyes, and the immune system – have all been associated with adequate intake of DHA. In fact, DHA is a major structural fat in the human brain and eyes, representing about 97% of all omega-3 fats in the brain and 93% of all omega-3 fats in the retina. During the last trimester, the fetus accumulates 50-70 mg DHA each day, nearly the same amount that most American’s consume from diet alone. Both the mother’s DHA intake and circulating DHA concentrations are important in determining fetal blood concentrations of DHA. Without supplementation, maternal levels of omega-3s will decrease during pregnancy and will be further decreased when breast-feeding, as the essential fatty acids are also components of breast milk. These nutrients continue to be vitally important for development of the brain during infancy and this is the reason DHA is now added to infant formulas. Babies continue to accrue DHA into the central nervous system until about 18 months of age.

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Fish Oil: It Conveys Much More Than Cardiovascular Health

woman jogging at sunrise
Numerous studies have evaluated the effects of the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, on cardiovascular health. Overwhelmingly, scientists and clinicians involved in such research believe that omega-3 fatty acids play various beneficial roles in preserving optimal vascular and cardiac health: Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Thrombotic, Anti-Arrhythmic, and TG-Lowering effects are considered to be the most relevant. Recently, Smith et al. published a fascinating and novel clinical trial looking at a non-cardiovascular yet widespread adverse aspect of aging: muscle mass decline. They published their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Fish oil–derived n–3 PUFA therapy increases muscle mass and function in healthy older adults. All parameters evaluated improved with the administration of 3,200 mg of daily DHA+EPA. Thigh muscle volume, handgrip strength, one-repetition maximum (1-RM) lower- and upper-body strength, and average power during isokinetic leg exercises all demonstrated statistically significant improvement. Improving muscle strength as we age can have far-reaching beneficial consequences that could reduce both morbidity and mortality. Thus, these findings need to be further studied in larger and even more consequential trials. But what additional meaning can we garner from their trial?

I believe that beyond their fascinating and clinically pertinent findings there actually lies a far more evocative message. It is simply that we should be extraordinarily cautious about abandoning the evaluation of therapies (even dietary) when they make biological and physiological sense. Fish oil consumption is woefully low in the US when compared to the far more healthy Japanese population. Our life expectancies are far shorter and various cancers occur more frequently in the US. It is scientifically quite plausible that our deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids plays a significant role in our relatively diminished health. But, after the publication of a few clinical trials failed to demonstrate the cardiovascular benefit of fish and fish oil in select patient populations, some physicians truly abandoned their prior admonitions for patients to augment fish consumption. They were derailed by the controversial results of just a few trials (that many exceptional researchers consider to be flawed in the first place). This type of knee jerk reaction has no place in medicine. It is dangerous and counterproductive. To protect our patients and maintain our scientific integrity, we must always practice with open and attentive minds. Once again I implore my scientific colleagues as well as the oftentimes superficially inquisitive media to follow the science, not the hype.

Learn more about preventive cardiology at www.preventivecardiologyinc.com.

For more information about the supplements and vitamins critical to your everyday health visit www.vitalremedymd.com.

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Homocysteine and Folic Acid Supplementation: Another Medical “About Face”

On March 15, 2015 JAMA published on line the results of a superbly designed and potentially practice changing trial. The China Stroke Primary Prevention Trial (CSPPT), tested whether or not the addition of folic acid to anti-hypertension medication could reduce the occurrence of a first stroke. As three quarters of all strokes are “first strokes” and as strokes are a leading cause of death and disability worldwide, the question posed by this trial had far reaching implications. The trial met its endpoint so quickly and incontrovertibly that for ethical reasons it was prematurely terminated. Folic acid can reduce the risk of stroke. Those of us who have open-mindedly interpreted prior studies expected this finding; many others found the results to be shocking.

Important homocysteine related trials like HOPE 2 and others had already demonstrated either statistically significant reductions in stroke with folic acid supplementation or at least signals toward such an outcome. Yet many of the most “vocal” researchers, physicians, and reporters proclaimed that since heart attacks were not reduced with folic acid, “the homocysteine hypothesis was dead.” This perspective always bothered me. We had observational and even interventional trial data supporting the use of folic acid in certain settings. And stroke, the disorder we could impact with a simple vitamin, is horrific. Strokes are terrifying, disabling, and deadly. They are also extraordinarily common. So why would these doctors, scientists, and media members snub data supporting a simple and safe vitamin treatment to potentially reduce such events? It would be helpful to know the reason, as the same phenomenon is currently occurring in relation to omega-3 fish oils.

Plenty of data support fish oil supplementation yet a few trials do not. And as with homocysteine, it seems that the media and many scientists/doctors have chosen to focus their attention on the limited neutral – and oftentimes overtly flawed – data rather than supportive experimental, biologic, physiologic, clinical trial, and common sense evidence. Interestingly, one of the vital lessons gleaned from CSPPT is that those individuals with either specific genetic mutations or very low levels of folic acid received the greatest benefit (reduction of stroke) from taking folic acid. In parallel fashion, one of the key trial limitations of fish oil studies has been the persistent failure to measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. It certainly stands to reason that those with lower levels of these critical fats will also gain the greatest advantage from their supplementation. So why not simply measure them? Well, in clinical practice, some of us do. And some of us even advise correcting abnormally low levels with simple and safe fish and fish oil pill consumption.

I am at once elated and disturbed by the CSPPT findings. They prove the efficacy of a simple therapy; yet, they broadcast the hubris of many in my field. Time and again we have had to make an about face in our opinions and recommendations. I see nothing inherently wrong in changing our position as more data emerge. What I struggle with is the egg on our face, the about face that occurs far too late, long after adequate data have told us what to do. Perhaps we will learn though. Maybe as more trials like CSPPT emerge, as more scientists and doctors with the conviction and devotion to finding a greater truth push tirelessly along their paths we will finally learn to be more open minded and accepting of ideas and findings even when they go against our grain.

For more information about the supplements and vitamins critical to your everyday health visit www.vitalremedymd.com.

Learn more about preventive cardiology at www.preventivecardiologyinc.com.

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Hot Off the Press

In medical school we learned about a life threatening form of polydipsia. A subset of patients with schizophrenia consume so much water their sodium can fall to levels unable to sustain life. Twenty liters per day often leads to not just severe illness, but death. How could this be? Water is life’s elixir, and therefore more must be better; correct? Well, simply put, the answer is no. Our kidneys can only handle a water intake of less than one liter per hour. When people exceed this limit, blood becomes diluted; sodium levels fall; and cells swell. As our brain is encased in bone, it has nowhere to go when it swells. Consequently swollen brain cells can lead to permanent damage and even death. It’s not just the unfortunate schizophrenic patients who succumb to such a fate; others do as well. One woman died after drinking six liters in just three hours during a “water drinking competition.” Others have died similarly during college hazing. The point is that a rapid, excessive and unnatural intake of our most vital ingredient for life can kill us in a matter of hours. More is definitely not always better. Aristotle was correct in his dictum of moderation. So where am I going with this you might ask. Let’s consider the most recent “negative” fish oil study by Dr. Voest that was published in a most reputable journal. (For my take on other similar articles please see prior blog posts).

Based upon the fact that some cancer cells can produce long chain fatty acids, Dr. Voest hypothesized that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish could blunt the effect of chemotherapy (such a thought process itself lacks strong scientific validity). Testing his hypothesis he administered 100 microliters of fish oil to 20 gm mice. He was right; fish oil did blunt the effects of chemotherapy. And so his findings were published in the prestigious JAMA Oncology. But let’s look at his study in proper perspective. Ignore the fact that mice are not the optimal animals to study here. Also, ignore the fact that tumor cells produce many substances that have nothing to do with their “desire” to counteract chemotherapy.  Simply examine the administered dose. One hundred microliters of fish oil for a 20 gm mouse is equivalent to 400 ml of fish oil for an 80 kg (175 pound) man. Can you imagine guzzling nearly a half-liter of fish oil? The very thought is life threatening! That’s also tantamount to swallowing around 400 fish oil capsules. Who in his right mind would do that? I’d guess no one. The study therefore has no clinical relevance. The author’s conclusion that patients should avoid fish the day prior to receiving chemotherapy has no basis in science. Yet, the study is on the news; patients are concerned that fish causes cancer; doctors who don’t fully understand this area of medicine will become as alarmed as the patients; doctors’ offices will once again be flooded with unnecessary and distracting queries born of inappropriate trial conclusions; and some people who desperately need to consume fish will place themselves in harm’s way by eschewing vital nutrients. The fallout is, and will continue to be, monumental.

Why such studies are done, and why they are published in top-notch journals eludes me. I understand why the media exploits them; they are fodder for ratings. Still, I will continue to proclaim that such studies must be quelled, and the media must become more cautious. It is fine to conjecture, study, and test hypotheses no matter how outlandish they may seem. What is not acceptable however is perpetuating false conclusions as though they are hardened facts. Such a practice – which is prevalent today – leads both doctors and patients astray and pulls us from important issues, those that can truly save lives and help humanity. Let’s get back on track and re-emphasize honesty in medicine as our prime agenda. Honesty should always trump a good story.

For more information about the supplements and vitamins critical to your everyday health visit www.vitalremedymd.com.

Learn more about preventive cardiology at www.preventivecardiologyinc.com.

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ConsumerLab Approval: A Brief Boast about VitalOils1000

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I make it my practice not to blog about VitalRemedyMD or any of its products, but this week demands a self-promoting shout-out. VitalRemedyMD is a company I started over ten years ago. It is now owned and operated by my wife (Laura Baum – also an MD). VitalOils1000 was created about six years back as the first and only enteric-coated fish oil pill to contain a full 1,000 mg of combined DHA and EPA. Thus, VitalOils1000 was the first omega-3 fish oil to meet the American Heart Association recommendation for individuals with cardiovascular disease in just one pill. This fact holds true even when considering prescription fish oil.

Yesterday we made the grade again. On April 6th ConsumerLab.com, the preeminent watchdog of the nutritional supplement world, released their every-other-year study of omega-3 fish oil products. Once again VitalOils1000 was “approved.” This year, in addition to “proving” our purification, concentration, and quality of enteric coating, we were also tested for PCBs and Dioxins. We were one of only two products tested in this comprehensive fashion, and we “passed” this important criterion as well. Our purification process of supercritical fluid technology enables us to achieve these exceptionally high standards for safety and purity.  There is so much confusion about omega-3 products that I felt compelled to write about our continued success with VitalOils1000. Needless to say, I am very proud. Thank you for permitting me a moment to boast.

Learn more about preventive cardiology at www.preventivecardiologyinc.com.

For more information more about essential vitamins and supplements visit www.vitalremedymd.com.

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Two Recent Supplement Studies Merit Mentioning – Vitamin D and Glucosamine Sulfate

Two recent trials addressing commonly used supplements are worth noting as they exemplify pertinent and prevalent issues facing physicians and patients every day. One deals with vitamin D, the other with Glucosamine Sulfate.

The vitamin D study, published out of the University of California San Diego in Anticancer Research, is entitled “Meta-analysis of Vitamin D Sufficiency for Improving Survival of Patients with Breast Cancer.” In the trial, patients with the highest vitamin D levels had the best outcomes. This group had an average 25, OH-Vitamin D level of 30 ng/ml. The initiated should instantly recognize that this number lies on the lowest edge of a normal range for vitamin D. Yet, the press reported the following, “High vitamin D levels may increase breast cancer survival.” So what might an uninformed reader assume? Take large quantities of vitamin D to shield you from breast cancer, of course. This clearly is not at all what the study concluded. A more appropriate title for the press might have been, “Very low vitamin D levels associated with worse breast cancer outcomes.” Our takeaway message is probably to avoid very low levels of D. But, we should in no way infer that very high D levels protect us from cancer (or anything else for that matter). Some trials even suggest that very high D levels might be dangerous. Once again the ideal reaction to this single piece of evidence is simply to speak with your doctor. Have your vitamin D tested. If your level is very low, supplementation is likely in order. If your level is normal, probably no further action need be taken. The key though is not to act alone. This type of discussion is another opportunity to engage your physician and help develop your own brand of personalized medicine.

The second trial evaluated what was described by the press as a “new form of Glucosamine” – Glucosamine Sulfate. First, please understand that Glucosamine Sulfate has been available for decades. Being more costly than its counterpart, Glucosamine HCL, it is typically found in only superior products. For me the interesting aspect of this trial (published in The Annals of Rheumatologic Disease) is that in a double blind placebo controlled fashion (the purported king of clinical trials) Glucosamine Sulfate was shown to statistically significantly decrease joint space narrowing over a two-year follow-up period. Older studies had similar findings, and consequently for the past ten years I’ve recommended a Glucosamine Sulfate-containing joint product that I formulated for VitalRemedyMD called JointFormula (catchy name I know). I’ve received nearly universal patient reports of improvement in joint discomfort. Anecdotally, results have been most dramatic in the hands and knees. Many of those who take JointFormula have written notes of gratitude, thanking us for helping them avoid knee replacement surgery. Yet, some trials other than the above-mentioned have “proved” the worthlessness of Glucosamine. How do we explain this to our grateful patients? Placebo effect is surely a possibility. It is also possible that what works in one person might fail in another. And, we must always acknowledge that clinical trials are not the final word. We see enough discordance of conclusions among the trials; so by this observation alone we should know that trials are hardly ever truly “conclusive.” The lesson from this study is that there will always be conflicting results among clinical trials. The ultimate decisions regarding patient care always reside between patient and doctor. Trial results help guide doctors; they should not shackle them. And, patients should not be made to feel foolish for their beliefs, nor should doctors be made to feel unscientific for theirs. Instead, doctors need to continue “practicing” medicine as best as they can, and patients must remain their own most potent advocates for health and wellness.

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Beware the Pervasive Reach of Bias – Fish Oil Study Questioned

“Striking a Nerve: Bad Odor to This Fish Oil Study” was the catchy and misleading title for a MedPage headline last week. The “fishy study” to which the cynic refers was published in The American Academy of Neurology. Not exactly a shabby journal. The authors – William Harris, PhD and James Pottala, PhD – erudite and prolific contributors to omega-3 fatty acid research examined the brains of aging women from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study and noted a statistically significant association between hippocampal size and omega-3 RBC (Red Blood Cell) levels. In other words, women with low levels of the omega-3s DHA and EPA had more hippocampal atrophy than those with high levels. The importance here is that dementia is frighteningly prevalent (affecting 20% of women) and the hippocampus is likely playing a causal role in its development. Therefore, if we can identify factors – whatever they may be – that prevent hippocampal atrophy, we must pay close attention and examine them further. This is precisely what the authors stated; their findings were encouraging and hypothesis generating. In fact, their final statement, “This study thus adds to the growing literature suggesting that higher omega-3 FA tissue levels, which can be achieved by dietary changes, may hold promise for delaying cognitive aging and/or dementia” does not declare certainty, simply solid hope.

Why then would this study be unfairly condemned? This is a somewhat rhetorical question as I don’t have a clear answer. What I can say with certainty though is that no one should read or listen to an opinion and accept it as fact without first going to the primary source. Everyone would agree this to be true in politics. We must now sadly acknowledge its validity in the world of science as well.

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When Passions Collide – Omega-3s Are Essential So Why Would We Remove Them From Our Diets?

Last week the Cleveland HeartLab held its fourth annual Clinical Symposium. Excellent speakers addressed the group of some four hundred physicians and nurse practitioners from across the country. One in particular spoke with passion and unswerving conviction about his brand of a “no heart disease” diet. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn vociferously and vehemently admonished the audience not to include any oils in their diets. “No oils” he repeatedly shouted pounding his fists in the air. No one can deny he walks his talk; he is extraordinarily svelte, clearly carrying no superfluous fat on his own body. My talk was about the essential role omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play in health and disease. And I too have my convictions and passions. And so we collided.

I steadfastly adhere to a worldview incorporating moderation, scientifically rigorous reflection on every aspect of human beings (from our evolutionary roots to the most reductionist biologic understanding), and acknowledgement that we do not and likely will never know everything. My position does not make room for Dr. Esselstyn’s view. His is simply too extreme. It also fails to consider the fact that human beings cannot adequately produce some vital fats such as EPA and DHA; those afforded us by our friends, the fish. EPA and DHA are indisputably essential contributors to the entire gamut of health considerations. From skin to eyes to brains and hearts, our organs need these fats to thrive. In fact, every cell in the human body requires DHA for optimal function. And even more compelling is the fact that we cannot adequately manufacture this fat. We need to eat it. So why eschew it? That is the problem with his thesis. Even if his handful of subjects adhering to this diet fails to develop cardiovascular events, it does not prove that the lack of fat plays any role. There are just too many other variables left unconsidered. Additionally, what diseases might be borne of such an unnaturally restricted diet? Too many questions remain for us to make a global experiment of Dr. Esselystyn’s hypothesis. We’ve done this before with dietary advice and hormone replacement recommendations and sadly we’ve been wrong every time.

In sum, I genuinely applaud Dr. Esselstyn for his dedication to extinguishing heart disease. His passion is real and his motivation pure. Still, that does not mean I must agree with him.

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CoQ10 Levels – Another Example that Knowledge is Power

I have always believed it is better to know than not to know. In Medicine such a philosophy often translates into performing tests in order to acquire data. Novel blood tests represent a safe and effective way to better understand subtle perturbations in our patients. About eight months ago the Cleveland Heart Lab added CoQ10 levels to its offerings and since then I have monitored them in my patients. The results have been eye opening. Ironically, although a long-time advocate of appropriate supplementation (in 2002 I founded an ultra-conservative nutritional supplement company www.vitalremedymd.com) I have grossly under-appreciated the prevalence of low CoQ10. Yes, statins can lower these levels, but my contention had been that the absence of statin-related symptoms assured the adequacy of body stores of this nutrient. Quantifying my patients’ CoQ10 levels disproved my prior conviction as I have witnessed a surprisingly high number of asymptomatic people harboring low CoQ10 levels. And, understanding that low CoQ10 might be associated with larger heart attacks and lower levels of HDL, I now feel compelled to correct this problem through supplementation.

Although many years back I had formulated StatinGuard® to maintain normal CoQ10 levels, I had never recommended it to asymptomatic individuals, my aim being to always minimize the ingestion of anything superfluous (supplement or medicine). Since the revelation produced by utilizing the CoQ10 blood test, I’ve recommended StatinGuard far more frequently. A CoQ10 measurement is just one of many innovative windows now available for physicians to peer through in order to inspect the metabolism of individual patients. Each test holds its own distinctive place in the practice of patient-centric medicine. The lesson once again: it is always better to know than not to know.

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Differentiating Fish Oils Part 3 – DHA and EPA: The Dynamic Duo of Omega-3 Fish Oils

Reading a fish oil supplement label can be a daunting task. Understanding the difference between DHA and EPA, the active ingredients in fish oil, is even more complex. The reason for this complexity resides in the fact that our understanding of these two fatty acids is in its infancy. Still, let’s try to make some sense of what we’ve learned over the past decade or so.

Fatty acids are comprised of just three different atoms, carbon (the long backbone or skeleton of the fatty acid), hydrogen, and oxygen.  That’s it. The difference among the various fats lies in the length of the backbone (how many carbon atoms there are) and the number of “double bonds” between carbon atoms. Other than these two distinctions, the fatty acids are really the same. So, then why are there such great differences among the fats if they’re so similar, you might ask? It turns out that longer chains tend to be more biologically active, and more double bonds results in more twisted and misshapen molecules which can then take on characteristics akin to complex locks or keys. As signaling and communication between cells often occurs through a lock and key mechanism, the fatty acids with many double bonds turn out to be great candidates for this task.

EPA is shorter than DHA (perhaps a bit less biologically active) and has fewer double bonds (less effective as a lock or key). EPA tends therefore to serve more as a precursor for other molecules that can diminish inflammation, clotting, oxidation, and cell death. DHA is also a precursor for some wonderful molecules that cause reversal of inflammation and tremendous protection of nerve tissue. Additionally, DHA is actively incorporated in our cell membranes where it can help cells communicate with other cells.

Other attributes shared by these two omega-3s include: Lowering triglycerides; raising HDL: and lowering the risk of lethal heart rhythms during and following heart attacks. Our bodies contain far more DHA than EPA, and DHA lasts longer in our bodies than does EPA, but both of these fatty acids have very important roles to play, and should be emphasized in our diets.

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