Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why Owning a Pet Is Good for You

Photo of furry voyeur

I walked into my bathroom one morning and was surprised to find a voyeur peering through the window. I grabbed my cell phone and took a photo of the furry culprit. Of course, the peeping-tomcat was more than welcome to stay, and I did my best not to scare it away.

Stray cats often wander into our garden—which is quite a treat for my family. (We don’t touch them, because we have no idea where they’ve been. We just snap their photos.)

We love animals! We have two dogs and three aquariums in our house, and I encourage everyone to experience the pleasure of having pets. Besides the simple joy of relaxing in a home brimming with life, pets offer their owners a lot of mental and physical health benefits.

Less Allergies - The old belief was that kids growing up in homes with furry pets would be more likely to get allergies and that if their parents were allergy-prone, all the more they should avoid pets. But a growing number of studies is starting to prove otherwise. Research shows that kids growing up with furry friends have less risk of developing allergies, asthma and eczema. Of course, it’s a different case when it comes to adults already suffering with these conditions. The assumption is that the children growing up with these animals in their environment end up with more robust immune systems, primarily because they are allowed to grow up exposed to them.

Lessens Anxiety
– Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression.  Playing with a pet elevates levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters which help calm and relax. Even hardened criminals demonstrate a change in behavior after they experience the warm companionship of a pet. The animal need not be furry either. Even just watching fish in an aquarium can help soothe the nerves, reduce muscle tension and lower the pulse rate.

Decreases the Risk of Heart Attack - People with high blood pressure who adopt pets end up with lower blood pressure during stressful situations.  Studies have shown that heart attack patients with a dog or a cat have better recovery rates and ultimately survive longer than those without a pet. This is most likely due to the benefit stated above of it being able to lessen overall stress levels.

Our territorial Shih Tzu
They’re All-around Lifesavers – I grew up with dogs. And my spirit is alight with fond memories of what my pets have done with me and for me to show their devotion. The most moving of which is when my two dogs, who usually come into my study just to peer out my window, came in one morning and started nudging my legs from underneath my desk. I thought they were just rough-housing, so I ignored them. But they kept on bumping against me–something they never do–and I realized they were urging me to get up. Since my mother was the only other person in the house at the time, I went to check on her. And true enough, as soon as I walked in her room, I could tell from her wheezing that she was having a hard time breathing. I called her doctor and an ambulance and, to make a long story short, got her to the hospital in time to save her life—thanks to our two dogs!

Our friendly Labrador Retriever

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Health Benefits of Peanuts

One of peanuts’ little known virtues is its high amount of reservatrol,  the same phenolic antioxidant found in red wine that’s been proven to provide anti-ageing benefits by speeding up the cell's energy production centers.If you like your peanuts roasted, here’s good news for you. Roasting actually boosts antioxidant content by up to 22%!

Peanuts are also a good source of fiber. Its high fat content (monounsaturated) is proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease without making you gain weight. Vegetarians can also turn to peanuts as replacement for red meat because of its high protein content. It also has significant amounts of Vitamin D, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

A word of caution though. If you only shop for peanuts at the supermarket, be careful about those hidden trans fats. Take a look at this package found at my neighborhood store. 

On the front panel, the peanut pack proudly proclaims “trans fat FREE”. But just flip the pack over, and you’ll see that its second ingredient is hydrogenated oil. Tsk-tsk!   

The best peanuts for your health are the raw or dry roasted kind. And keep them unsalted or lightly salted. Steer clear of flavored or processed varieties because all those additives and flavorings can mean a lot of MSG, extra sodium, carbs and calories.

As for those dealing with gout, peanuts are often listed as one of the foods to avoid. That’s because despite their name, peanuts aren’t really “nuts”—they’re legumes.  They’re the edible seeds of a plant belonging to a large family which includes peas and beans. One thing that sets peanuts apart is that their pods grow under the soil instead of a vine. Another thing that differentiates peanuts from other legumes is that their purine content is low (less than 50 mg per 100 grams). Health professionals say that it may even be beneficial to those with gout because it contains fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties. Which is perhaps why I know of several gout sufferers who happily gorge on unshelled peanuts in our parties. They're simply nuts about peanuts!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Raw vs. Processed Honey

Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, raw honey has approximately 20 vitamins, 18 amino acids, 16 minerals, and lots of antioxidants, phytonutrients and flavonoids.

Raw honey is remarkably long-lived. When archaeologist T.M. Davies opened an Egyptian tomb, he discovered a 3,300-year-old jar of honey still with its full aroma and very much edible. 

What’s the secret to honey’s incredibly long shelf life -- so much so that ancient Egyptians expected it to last their entire afterlife? It may not sound appetizing, but technically speaking, honey is a product of the bees’ chemical digestive process involving enzymes which endow it with antibacterial, antiseptic and antifungal properties. It is also acidic with a pH of about 3.5 with very low free water content, thus making it very difficult for micro-organisms to survive in it.

All these properties are found in raw, unadulterated honey, and it upsets me that most of the bottled honey we find in commercial establishments are processed. Unknown to most people, common supermarket honey has been strained, filtered, heated and pasteurized--stripping it of much of the enzymes, flavonoids, enzymes, fragrant volatiles, and particles of pollen and propolis that make raw honey the natural wonder that it is. It’s been said that pasteurization reduces honey to something no better than ordinary refined sugar. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration of the U.S. states that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and contains no pollen is no longer considered honey.

Should the FDA allow processed honey to claim
"healthful natural sweetness" and "best natural quality"?

Why do manufacturers process honey if it removes much of its health-giving advantages? It’s because over time, honey grows cloudy as the sugar crystallizes, but this doesn’t spoil the honey, and the sugar can be melted again over gentle heat. Unfortunately, most people don’t know this and think crystallization is a sign that the honey has “expired” or is no longer fit for consumption. Ultra-high heat treatment extends the “shelf life” of honey by keeping it from granulating. Meanwhile, the filtration process also makes it look prettier (raw honey won’t ever look as clear and smooth), whereas pasteurization removes any yeast cells and thus prevents fermentation when exposed to high moisture or warm temperatures.

If you want to get the full benefits of honey as nature had masterfully designed it, then make sure you put your money in the right kind of honey. Look for the raw kind, usually found in weekend organic markets. Properly stored, raw honey can keep indefinitely. Simply keep it in a cool location away from direct sunlight in a tightly-covered container. There’s no need to refrigerate. It’ll be easier to pour onto your oatmeal, fruits, or buttered toast if you keep it at room temperature.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Food Labels and Trans Fat

     I decided to declare a personal war against Hydrogenated Oils (a.k.a. Trans Fat) years ago. I’ve done my best to ban it from my home—but I must say, it’s a tough battle.
     First, a quick definition. Trans fatty acid is a man-made saturated fat wherein hydrogen atoms have been forcibly bonded to vegetable oil. It’s used in food as an inexpensive way to give it better taste and texture, and it definitely extends the shelf life. This explains why lots of processed food can stay in your pantry cabinet for months or even years without spoiling. But as far as I’m concerned, unless we’re talking honey, food that doesn’t spoil simply isn’t natural.
     According to Brian Olshansky, M.D., a cardiologist and University of Iowa Health Care professor of internal medicine, the making of trans fat "involves putting hydrogen atoms in the wrong place. It's like making a plastic."
     Because of the process of hydrogenation, the fatty acid chains end up deformed. This makes it difficult for the enzymes in our bodies to bond with these fats in order to break them down. In other words, trans fats end up stuck inside our bodies because our system doesn’t know how to deal with them. Our body is simply unable to break them down and use them correctly. "Normal fats are very supple and pliable, but the trans fatty acid is a stiff fat that can build up in the body and create havoc,” Olshansky said. It’s easy to find statistics on how this could lead to degenerative diseases.
     Now, here’s the thing that upsets me the most. Ever since 2006, food manufacturers have been mandated to declare the trans fat content on their labels. But there’s a deceptive loophole many of them take advantage of: For as long as the food item contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the food company could label it as having 0 grams of trans fat.
     How deceptive can that get? Just take a look at the sample food label above. If you’ll look at the entries under TOTAL FAT, it says there’s a total of 5 grams per serving, and 0 grams of trans fat. But look at the fine print near the top of the label. It says there are eight servings in each pack. And in the ingredients list below, you’ll see it there in black and white: Partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil. What does that mean? If you consume only 1/8 of the pack, you’ll be ingesting less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. But from the label alone, there’s no way of knowing how much trans fat you’ll have in your system if you consume the whole pack in one sitting or in the span of a few days.
     So how do I make sure my family isn’t duped by the Nutrition “Facts” on these labels? I add up the Total Fat content and read the list of ingredients.  (Do note, however, that manufacturers are only required to list the saturated fat and trans fat. Other fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, so when those aren’t listed, the numbers won’t add up.)
       Now, for some good news! There are snacks to be found out there that honestly don’t contain these sneaky trans fatty acids. Every now and then, I’ll share any that I find with you for your snacking pleasure. 

     For starters, here’s a bag of potato chips that my kids and I plan to devour tonight! I've taken a photo of the nutrition information at the back so you can see that it has no hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients and all the fats add up to the TOTAL FAT with trans fat at zero.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Tawa-tawa and Dengue Fever

Tawa-tawa photo by Nasty

My son was diagnosed with Dengue fever a couple of weeks ago. With normal results for platelet count being 140,000 - 400,000 per microliter (mcL), his was at 131,000 on the second day of his fever.

Before panic could rise, I got reassuring advice from friends and kasambahays to try out this herb known as tawa-tawa. They said that tea made from this common plant had been featured in the news as a promising cure for dengue.

When we went home to pack for my son’s confinement in the hospital, I snuck in a quick internet search. From the website of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), I learned that in 2012, students of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) – Faculty of Pharmacy had conducted a study entitled “Investigation of the anti-thrombocytopenic property of euphorbia hirta linn (Tawa-Tawa) decoction in rat models.”  In layman’s terms, they used a cocktail of chemicals to duplicate dengue hemorrhagic fever in rats. It was to test widespread anecdotal evidence of tawa-tawa’s ability to heal people with dengue, thus turning into it the Philippines’ most popular folkloric treatment against this life-threatening disease.

In a nutshell, the study proved that tawa-tawa can increase platelet count, reduce bleeding time and decrease blood clotting time. The UST students’ conclusion: Tawa-tawa can, indeed, help improve the healing mechanism. At least, among rodents.

On the other hand, GMA News Online reported in a post dated Sept. 2010 that Dr. Eric Tayag of the National Epidemiology Center of The Department of Health (DOH)  had cautioned that drinking tawa-tawa could “potentially aggravate” the condition by inducing peeing which could lead to further dehydration.

But a year later, in Aug. 2011, Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that, according to Health Secretary Enrique Ona, “very preliminary” results from initial research work show that tawa-tawa “appears” to have “some effects” on rehydration. But he made it clear that the DOH was not making any official recommendations and stressed the importance of immediately seeing a doctor.  “Don’t depend on tawa-tawa,” Ona had said.

I Googled further and found an even more recent post, also from GMA News Online dated Feb 2013, saying DOH had stated that although the tawa-tawa herb has not been proven to cure dengue, it may be taken along with effective medication and had been evaluated free of toxic substances, so it was deemed safe. In addition, Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy, DOH manager for the Dengue Control and Prevention Program had explained that drinking steeped tawa-tawa is “fluid replacement, which is basically the thrust for dengue [medication].” In another article on the PCHRD website, Ona said that the DOH does not endorse tawa-tawa “but at the same time we are not prohibiting it”.

All right, so with a gap of three years, the herb had gone from “potentially aggravating dehydration” to “fluid replacement”. And the DOH was neither endorsing nor prohibiting.

I sighed and looked up from my computer and realized it was time to leave for the hospital. As I rushed towards the door, concerned kasambahays stood by, thermos in hand. At their own initiative, they had gathered tawa-tawa from our backyard and made my son enough infusion for a day. My husband and I took the thermos gratefully.

At the hospital, I asked a resident about the use of tawa-tawa and the response was pretty much seated on the fence right next to DOH. They see no harm in us having our son drink it, if it will make us feel better. On-going studies, she said, had deemed it to be safe. (But not exactly helpful, I believe, was her unspoken last sentence.)

Before my son’s first drink of tawa-tawa could take effect, medical personnel took another CBC. His platelet count had gone down to 101,000. For the rest of the day, my son finished the contents of his thermos. The next day, his platelet count went down to 100,000, a drop of only 1,000! We continued with the tawa-tawa, and on the next day, his platelet count even went up to 110,000. I was convinced the tawa-tawa was working. But later, I realized, I was looking at the wrong factor.

Keeping a “platelet count watch” is not the point of dengue treatment. What matters is his hematocrit count, which, in essence gives the doctors a reading of the patient’s dehydration level. Dengue is a disease of dehydration. Metaphorically, it’s “diarrhea of the blood vessels”.Fluids are not lost visibly, as with vomiting or LBM, but rather through insensible plasma leakage. And based on the blood tests, my son’s hematocrit level was not looking good. His blood was getting too thick.

For the first three days, I had my son drink the herbal infusion several times a day. But this was done only as additional fluid replacement, on top of the IV, oral rehydration solution, and lots of water. On the fourth day, his platelet count went down again and, despite massive intake of fluid, his hematocrit level didn’t improve.
On the fourth day, his nose bled. By the fifth day, when we were all expecting the fever to break, I stopped the tawa-tawa and let his body take over. But the fever didn’t break, and his CBC showed that things were not improving. He was moved to ICU. By the eve of the seventh day, his fever finally ended. But by then, it had affected his heart.

The official diagnosis: Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, Grade 2, with myocarditis. Thankfully, there would be no lifelong after-effects of the disease. His heart will fully recover.

What is my personal, unscientifically-backed conclusion from this experience? I believe the tawa-tawa was working wonders in preventing platelet destruction. But like I said, that should not have been the point. These days, doctors don’t consider blood transfusions for dengue anymore, even if the platelet count plummets to 10,000, provided there is no excessive bleeding. I think that even though the tawa-tawa tea was somehow assisting with fluid replacement, it was also masking the greater damage being wrought. For all I know, it might have actually been stimulating increased urination, as Dr. Tayag had suspected back in 2010. My son may have been more dehydrated than was suspected and the “good results” being generated by the tawa-tawa might have made the doctors less aggressive in managing his dehydration in the first few days.