Car risk 

Plastics are a health hazard. Most plastics used in cars emit toxic chemicals not only during their production but also later, potentially exposing users to unhealthy emissions inside their automobile. This is in spite of the fact that safer, less toxic plastics are readily available in the market, according to a recent report by a Michigan based non-profit organization, Ecology Centre, in collaboration with New York-based Clean Product Action.

            The report graded top-selling automakers in the US according to their commitment to use environment friendly plastics. The US automakers such as Ford and General Motors received “failing grades”. Japanese companies such as Toyota were better off. “Though Toyota has implemented many practices that US automakers can learn from, it received a C grade which means there is still a lot of room for improvement,” said Charles Griffith of the Ecology Center.

            Plastics make up about 7.5 per cent of a car’s weight. This represents almost 2 million tonnes of plastic waste generated per year in the US alone. Petrochemical-based plastics such as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, release toxic chemicals throughout their lifecycle: during production (dioxin, furans); during vehicle use (phthalates) and at the time of vehicle incineration (dioxin, hydrochloric acid).

            Perhaps today’s automakers should follow the example of Henry Ford who produced an entire car body from soyabean-based plastics in 1930!

April 30, 2005 Down to Earth

Too much Iron has heavy consequences

Too much iron may raise your risk of diabetes. Harvard researchers checked the records of more than 32,000 women from the long-running Nurses’ Health Study and found that those who developed diabetes had significantly higher levels of ferritin, a protein that stores iron in the body. The higher your ferritin levels, the more stored iron you have. The researchers found that women with the highest ferritin levels were more than twice as likely to develop diabetes as those women with lower levels.

It’s uncertain why iron may contribute to diabetes, but the researchers point out that the mineral is thought to increase the activity of free radicals, molecules that damage cells. The damage may decrease the body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin, leading to high blood sugar.

Don’t run out and ask your doctor to check your ferritin levels yet, though. More research is needed to clarify the relationship between iron and diabetes.

   2005, Reader’s Digest,

Medical Breakthroughs


Junk food can clog up your brain!

Scientists at the University Laboratory of Physiology in Oxford have found that eating high levels of so-called ‘bad fats’ present in junk food can clog up the brain and interfere with the way it sends messages.

Bad fats include man-made trans-fatty acids – the by-products of the process that allows manufacturers to extend the shelf life of foods by using cheap, solidified vegetable oils instead of expensive animal fats. Trans fats displace healthy fats in the brain that become incorporated into the brain’s structure and affect the functioning of signaling systems between cells.

“Every time children eat crisps, biscuits or cakes they are filling themselves with what are essentially toxic fats. There are no health benefits and many health costs to these hydrogenated fats, yet they are all that some children and adults are eating. They are replacing the essential fats that would make their brain and body work properly with ones that are clogging up the machinery.”

April 20, 2005 The Hitavada


African Potato

The corm of African potato contains sterols and sterolins. Researchers have also identified another constituent hypoxoside – which has an antibacterial and antifungal action.

Traditional African medicine uses the African potato for different purposes according to region: for example, in its native
South Africa it is used to treat urinary infections, and in Malawi it is given for enlargement of the prostate gland. Its use has even spread to the Caribbean, where it is prescribed for certain cancers. In fact, recent animal studies have shown that rooperol, a derivative of the hypoxoside found in the plant, can inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

Rooperol is also the key to the African potato’s ability to act as an antiviral agent and research has demonstrated its benefit in the treatment of viral infections, including AIDS. Other properties conferred by the lignins make the African potato a potent antibacterial and antifungal agent. Scientists have recently shown that extracts from the plant can help to boost the immune system, and that an aqueous extract is effective in reducing inflammation. The b-sitosterol and its glucoside are thought to be responsible for this anti-inflammatory action. The same research describes the effectiveness of African potato preparations in treating the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis

2004, Reader’s Digest,

Nature’s Medicines

Deadly Heart Attack Gene Discovered

If you could take a simple blood test that would let you know if you were at greatly increased risk for heart attack and stroke, would you do it? Scientists have found a gene mutation that nearly doubles the risk of both. The discovery was made by a team led by deCODE  Genetics, a developer of drugs and diagnostic tests, during a study of 296 families in Iceland.

The mutation is a change in the genetic code of a gene called ALOX5AP, which is involved in inflammation – now considered a leading cause of heart disease. The oddball gene is believed to increase the production of a chemical identified in the blood of people who have a history of heart attack. The researchers speculate that the chemical, leukotriene B4, is an indicator of inflammation in artery walls, which contributes to plaque formation.

A test to detect the chemical isn’t currently available, since developing such tests often takes two to three years. Meanwhile, the deCODE group has also begun clinical trials of a drug designed to inhibit the gene’s activity and dampen its damaging effects.

Other genes that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease have also been identified. If you learn through genetic testing that you have an increased risk of heart attack, it’s all the more important to be vigilant about maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle by exercising eating right, and managing stress.

2005, Reader’s Digest,

Medical Breakthroughs


Weak shield

Chickenpox vaccine fails to work in most children. Vaccination against chickenpox has been popular in the US for nearly a decade. But outbreaks of the illness among children already immunised have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccine. Researchers from the US based Yale Medical School report that the effectiveness of the vaccine fades substantially a year after its administration. The vaccine also appears to confer less immunity to children vaccinated before they are 15 months old. During the study, the researchers analysed 339 vaccinated children who had chickenpox and compared them with 678 immunised children who did not suffer from the disease. A year after the vaccine was given, its effectiveness was found to wane among all the children, slipping from 97 per cent (when the kids were two years old) to 84 percent (when they were eight years old). For children who were given the shot when they were 15 months or more, the protection level was 99 per cent in the first year of being immunised. But in children who were vaccinated before 15 months of age, the immunity level during the first year was only 73 per cent.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, highlight an acute problem, assert some experts. An ideal solution, they opine, is to combine the chickenpox vaccine with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, which is known as MMR. This would enable children to receive a second, or booster, dose of the chickenpox vaccine, because MMR is administered twice.

April 15, 2004 Down To Earth



The fruit and the stem of pineapple contain an enzyme called bromelain. Bromelain is the key to pineapple medicinal uses. This enzyme breaks down proteins and also has anti inflammatory and healing properties. It is prescribed for the treatment of swelling following injury or surgery. Research published in 1986 suggests that bromelain works by inhibiting the synthesis of inflammatory mediators as well as inhibiting platelet aggregation. Separate research performed in Germany in 1999 validates this antiplatelet activity, indicating its use in the treatment of thrombosis.

The unripe fruit stimulates the appetite and is an effective treatment for indigestion. The ripe fruit reduces stomach acidity and flatulence. The fibre content stimulates bowel movements, while the leaves are believed to be beneficial in the treatment of late or absent periods and period pain.

2004, Reader’s Digest,

Nature’s Medicines

Wonder herb

Harde to combat cell damage induced by nuclear radiation. Terminalia chebula a commonly used Indian herb, which belongs to the family Combretaceae, is likely to receive international attention following the discovery that its fruit can protect people from the damage caused by nuclear radiation. The discovery has been reported by GH Naik, KI Priyadarsini and H Mohan of the radiation-chemistry division of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai. The researchers say their studies have shown that an extract of the fruit of T chebula-locally known as harde - is a potent antioxidant that protects cells from radiation induced damage. Naik and his colleagues carried out their studies on microsomes and mitochondria - components of a cell-isolated from rat liver. When microsomes containing the fruit extract were exposed to a dose of 100 to 600 gray (GY) of gamma radiation, there was much less lipid peroxidation than normal, the scientists report. Peroxidation of lipids is a measure of damage to the cell membrane caused by the ‘reactive oxygen species’ generated by radiation.

The fruit extracts inhibited the peroxidation of lipids in microsomes by 50 per cent at a concentration of 15 microgrammes per milliliter. Similar results were obtained when mitochondria from rat liver containing the extract were exposed to a radiation dose of 240 GY.

The researchers found that in the presence of the T chebula extract, the level of an antioxidant enzyme called superoxide dismutase (SOD) remained almost normal in mitochondria. But in the absence of the extract, the activity of SOD decreased by 45 per cent - this is because the radiation generated the damaging reactive oxygen species.

Summarising their work, Naik and his colleagues say that the fruit extract “was found to be an extremely ‘efficient’ inhibitor of radiation-induced lipid peroxidation” and can be used in future to develop drug molecules.

Oct 31, 2004 Down to Earth


Caffeine, the main active constituent in coffee, causes people to feel more alert. Caffeine dose smaller than that found in a cup of coffee increases hearing and visual performance.

An Australian clinical study in 1996 demonstrated that coffee lessens the fall in blood pressure that normally occurs after eating. The researchers concluded that this stimulant action on the cardiovascular system was particularly beneficial for elderly individuals.

Because caffeine increases the metabolic rate, it maximises the painkilling effect of analgesics like aspirin or paracetamol, and is often added to them in ‘ultra’ versions. Caffeine can alleviate nausea and vomiting, and treat headaches and migraines. As a stimulant, it is vital in preventing coma following collapse through narcotic poisoning. Other constituents of coffee also play a role. Trigonelline, for example, may relieve migraine, while theophylline has stimulant, diuretic and cardiovascular properties.

Externally, caffeine-containing creams can stimulate lipolysis–the destruction of body fats–and are a useful part of a slimming regime.

2004, Reader’s Digest,

Nature’s Medicines

Cherished loss

Through yogurt. Increasing dietary calcium (Ca) and dairy protein may help people lose weight, according to a US study. Conducted by researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Children’s Hospital, Knoxville and the Bell institute for Health and Nutrition, General Mills Inc., Minnesota, USA, the study appeared in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

The group put 18 obese people on a yogurt diet containing 1,100 milligramme (mg) Ca per day for 12 weeks. The control group (on a normal diet) had an intake of only 500 mg of Ca per day. The results showed the yogurt group on an average lost 14 more pounds (about 6.5 kilogramme) and 66 per cent more fat than the control group. Significantly, 81 per cent of this weight loss was from the stomach area.

April 30, 2005  Down to Earth

Hard water may be soft on your heart.

Hard water is a hassle when it leaves stains on your sink and tub, but the benefits it may offer to your heart could be a consolation.

A finished study found that increased water hardness – the concentration of minerals such as calcium and magnesium – was linked to reduced risk of heart attack. Rates of heart attack vary widely in Finland, which has relatively soft water. Researchers looked at data on nearly 19,000 men ranging in age from 35 to 74 and compared it with data on water hardness throughout the country. They found that for each increased unit of water hardness, risk of heart attack fell by 1 percent.

The magnesium in hard water may be responsible for the beneficial effect. Earlier research linked higher magnesium intake or higher blood levels of the mineral with reduced risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

2005, Reader’s Digest,

Medical Breakthroughs

Sorting Out Disease Genes

Many disease-spurring genes are hard to finger because their impact is subtle or they conspire with other genes. The new Genetic Association Database from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) compiles evidence for and against more than 1700 genes with mutations, or polymorphisms, thought to be involved in common diseases. The handcurated site links to PubMed abstracts of more than 5600 studies that have gauged the genes’ effects on various disorders, from colon polyps to hay fever. The entries also connect to a host of gene databases and other information sources. For instance, some listings allow you to scan an NIA biochemistry database to find out which metabolic pathways the gene participates in. You can also limit your search to studies with positive findings.

Oct 8, 2005 Science, Vol 306

Curcumin shield

Why India has the world’s lowest rate of Alzheimer’s disease? CURCUMIN, commonly known as haldi in India, helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that results in memory loss, personality changes and a decline in the thinking ability. These adverse impacts, scientists believe, are related to the death of brain cells and a breakdown of connections between the surviving ones.

As per a study conducted by scientists from the University of California, curcumin inhibits the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids - inert substances responsible for Alzheimer’s - in the brain. The study, involving genetically altered mice, suggests curcumin is far more effective in inhibiting formation of the amyloids than drugs currently being tested to treat the disease.

Furthermore, curcumin is a powerful anti-oxidant and possesses anti-inflammatory properties, which help fight the disease symptoms. The researchers found the low molecular weight and polar structure of the spice allow it to penetrate the blood-brain barrier more effectively.

They assert the extensive use of curcumin is possibly why India has the lowest rate of the disease in the world-about 4.4 times less among adults aged 70-79 than the rate in the US.

April 15, 2005 Down to Earth

Don’t blame the pill for extra pounds

For more than 40 years, some women taking oral contraceptives have blamed the pills for weight gain. In fact, about one out of five women either quits taking birth control pills or avoids them altogether because of concerns about weight gain. One study even found that women who stopped taking oral contraceptives were more likely to report they’d gained weight while on the Pill, even when they hadn’t.

Now women will have to find another scapegoat for their widening waistlines. Researchers from Family Health International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands reviewed 42 different studies of women birth control patches or pills. The Pill, the researchers reported in the February 2004 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, doesn’t appear to cause much, if any, weight gain.

2005, Reader’s Digest,

Medical Breakthroughs

Cultivating the third eye

The zoology laboratory of Dungar College in the Indian state of Rajasthan has some strange inmates: more than 50 three-eyed frogs. The amphibians have confirmed a long held suspicion of developmental biologists that pineal glands retain the ability to respond to light and even to form into eyes.

Zoologist Om Prakash Jangir and his colleagues earlier found that if they removed tadpoles’ eyes and raised the animals in a medium enriched with vitamin A, a new eye developed within 10 days over the site of the pineal gland. The researchers then transplanted tadpole pineal glands between the eyes of month-old frogs. With the help of some vitamin A, most of the amphibians developed third eyes within 15 days. 

“In lower vertebrates, the pineal organ had a visual role which got lost during evolution. Our experiments show that this vestigial organ can be activated in vertebrates,” says Jangir. Both the eyes and the pineal organ depend on similar developmental signals in the embryo and express the same homeobox gene, he says. Ramesh Ramachandra Bhonde of the National Centre for Cell Science in Pune calls the achievement “an important milestone” that contributes to the value of the pineal gland as a model in studies of both evolution and development.

May 13, 2005  Science Vol. 308


Is age reversal possible?

World over women have always craved for ways to erase those annoying lines around eyes and neck that come with age. If a new study on age reversal is to be believed, it might just be a dream come true for millions of the fairer sex.

Researchers studying a childhood syndrome have shown that some features of premature aging like wrinkles may be reversed in the lab.

In the study, published in the issue of Nature Medicine, researchers saw that premature aging was linked to genetic mutations of a protein found in cells.

They then found that by changing the protein-synthesis machinery of the cells, the genetic mutations linked to the premature aging process are not formed.

A medical website which has published this research says while these are preliminary findings, the results clearly establish a ‘proof of principle’ for the reversal of the premature aging process in this syndrome and potentially in normal, healthy people.

 “A great deal of research and effort is going on to study whether it is possible to reverse the aging process. But it cannot be said for sure that aging can be reversed. However, a number of cosmetic treatments are available today which to some extent slow the process and help clear wrinkles and blemishes,” says Dr. Anil Kumar Malik, a cosmetic and laser surgeon.

“Oxidation damage is considered an important cause of skin aging. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation or certain chemicals cause the collagen fibres to get oxidised and thus weak, leading to wrinkling and sagging of the skin,” says beauty expert Shahnaz Hussain.

Some aging starts as early as the third decade of life, says Dr. Malik adding anti-aging treatments have suddenly become popular, even among those in the thirties - some common ones being treatment for blemishes, wrinkles, skin marks etc. Researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam are testing some specific skin creams on mice, to study their anti-aging effect.

April 5, 2005 The Hitavada


Stem cells offer hope for infertility

Japanese researchers have transplanted frozen sperm stem cells into infertile male mice, which then went on to father live baby mice. Stem cells, you recall, are the “genesis” cells from which all other cells grow. Although researchers have known since 1996 that infertile mice that received sperm stem cell transplants could make their own sperm containing their own DNA, the male mice were never able to get female mice pregnant. By implanting the cells into very young mice, before they reached their “adolescence,” researchers at Kyoto University enabled four out of eight infertile mice to father normal babies after normal sex. Those figures dropped to one out of nine when adult mice were used.

One out of 12 adult mice that received cancer drugs to destroy their sperm cells also fathered live babies after transplants. In this case, however, the sperm was injected directly into the egg in a mouse version of in vitro fertilization.

2005, Reader’s Digest,

Medical Breakthroughs



The main active component of Garlic is the sulphur compound allicin. The bulb also contains phenols-antiseptic and anti-inflammatory when taken internally- and flavonoids, known to have anticancer properties.

Garlic has been used since Biblical times for treating parasitic worms, and respiratory and digestive problems. It was vitally important as an antiseptic during the First World War, and was in constant demand.

Garlic can be used to prevent or treat infection: in 1999 Japanese scientists demonstrated its antibacterial action against E. coli, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella infections.

Garlic has an antiseptic effect on the digestive and respiratory systems. It is also an immune stimulant. It makes the breath smell because its sulphur compounds evaporate rapidly.

By reducing fatty deposits on blood vessel walls, garlic can help to prevent hardening of the arteries. It tones the circulation and reduces the formation of blood clots, helping to prevent heart attacks. Garlic may also dilate coronary blood vessels, helping to prevent angina.

2004, Reader’s Digest,

Nature’s Medicines

Edited by Dr. A. M. Mehendale