In the news

As if you needed another reason to get the flu shot.

            Influenza is a nasty disease that kills, on average, about 40,000 Americans each year and it’s no respecter of age. It kills the young as well as the old and pregnant women are especially vulnerable. As noted in previous blogs, obese persons, who now account for approximately 40 percent of our population, have double the risk of dying from influenza.

            The flu season for 2020-2021 seems to be off to a slow start, possibly because of the mandated as well as the self-imposed restrictions on person-to-person contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Don’t let that make you complacent; there is no way to predict how serious this year’s strains of influenza are likely to be.

            Considering the mild side effects of the current influenza vaccines – usually little more than a sore arm for a couple of days – it’s important to recognize what the benefits of this vaccine really are. They go far beyond simply making the disease milder; even the best vaccines prevent the disease entirely only about half the time – in a good year! Most people are not aware that vaccinated persons are much less likely to require hospitalization and thus avoid the risk of becoming infected with one of those antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are becoming more prevalent and more deadly.   

            Persons with an underlying heart problem have another benefit from the vaccine. Following influenza there is a marked increase in their risk of a heart attack, congestive heart failure or stroke. The opposite happens in vaccine recipients: there is a reduction in cardiac events in the months following vaccination, ranging from 19 to 50 percent in published studies, as well as a 48-50 percent decrease in all-cause death.

            Finally, following a bout of influenza there is a decrease in cognitive function. For many of us, that’s the one that really matters!


Intermittent fasting. Is the bloom off the rose?

            A couple of years ago various regimens for fasting in order to lose weight were flooding medical journals. Today, not so much.

            Fad diets are aptly named – they are fads that cannot be sustained over a lifetime. So when intermittent fasting came along – after all, its proponents maintain, ancient humans were forced by their environment to go for days, even weeks, with very little food so it must be normal — the bandwagon became overloaded with so-so results and most enthusiasts fell off.

            A major problem is that there is no agreed-upon standard for “intermittent fasting.” A day, two days, every other day? They all get old eventually and there’s no way everyone in a family will always follow the rules. Emerging from all this is a report from researchers at UCSD that might show a way that works:  the 14-hour fast.

            They report on a small – very small – group of overweight women (no men) who were placed on a schedule in which they fasted for 14 hours every day. They didn’t change their diet but they only ate during a ten-hour window from the start of breakfast to the end of dinner.  Over the three months of the study they averaged a weight loss of a whopping two pounds a month – not very impressive at first blush. But if one can maintain that weight loss over about two years that’s about 50 pounds. Now we’re talking!

            When translated into what the average person can do to get similar results, it means not eating anything from about 7:00 in the evening to about 9:00 the next morning. That doesn’t quite work out for folks with a job or with kids that have to get to school (whenever that might eventually be!). Suppose we aimed for a 12-hour fast? I’m willing to bet that it would be almost as effective, and going from 7:00 in the evening to 7:00 in the morning without even a snack is no big deal.

            But there’s more to the story. The study participants reported that they slept better, no big surprise since we have always known that eating before bedtime makes for poor sleep. They also found that this regimen was easier than counting calories or exercising more, so much so that about one-quarter of the group decided to continue that 14-hour fast lifestyle and another third said that they would follow it at least part of the time.

            But wait – there’s more! Even though the experiment lasted only 12 weeks, there were significant, i.e., more than 10 percent, reductions in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, as well as smaller but significant decreases in blood pressure.

            This is but one of several studies on 12-14-hour fasts. On the December 1st blog I’ll explain why it pulls together much of what we already know about this type of fasting.

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