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Intermission & coming attractions


coming attractions signJust a short note to let you know that it may be a while before I can finish the diabesity series. I was invited to join a holistic center here in Berkeley, CA and I’ll be starting my practice sooner than expected. I have a million things to do before I begin in October, and I don’t have much time to write. I may be able to slip an article in here and there in the next few weeks, but can’t make any promises.

Also, I may not be responsive to comments during this period. Please feel free to leave them, and I’ll try to get to them when I have a few moments.

Stay tuned for announcements on new services I’ll be making available, including private consultation and 4- and 8-week groups for those with particular health issues.

My passion is helping people that haven’t been able to find help anywhere else. I know what it’s like to live with a chronic, debilitating illness and to feel as if there’s nobody that really understands what’s going on. That’s why I chose medicine as a vocation: to become the kind of practitioner for others that I always wanted to find for myself.

Private consultations begin with an exhaustive case review, where I evaluate your current complaints, medical history and lab work for the past 5 years. They also include a comprehensive blood chemistry panel that gives me important information about your physiology, with thyroid, kidney, liver and metabolic markers, a complete blood count (CBC, fluids and electrolytes, cardiovascular risk factors, hemoglobin A1c and vitamin D (25D). Once we identify the underlying causes of the problem, we address them using diet, botanical medicine, supplements and lifestyle changes.

I’m particularly excited about offering groups. The first will be a detox program. The primary purpose is to reduce inflammation and decrease toxic load. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that inflammation and toxicity (from food and environmental chemicals) are primary drivers for nearly every modern disease – including obesity, diabetes, autoimmunity, heart disease, thyroid disorders, and digestive problems. Those who need to lose weight will, but that will merely be a consequence of optimizing function, and the program is also appropriate for normal weight people suffering from the problems above (as well as many others).

Group programs specifically for diabesity, thyroid disease and digestive problems are also in the works. They will include extensive education, dietary and lifestyle recommendations, nutritional supplements, exercise instruction and both one-on-one and group support. The goal is to give you all of the tools you need to successfully manage these conditions without unnecessary drugs or surgery.

The wonders of modern technology make private consultation and group programs available to not only people in the San Francisco Bay area where I’m located, but also anywhere in the US (and possibly Canada – I’m still working that out).

I’ll report back here with further details in a few weeks. In the meantime, if you’re interested in working with me privately you can contact me through the blog.

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welcome_matI just wanted to take a moment to welcome readers from Mark’s Daily Apple.

Let’s get logistics out of the way first: if you like what you see here, you can sign up for email updates, subscribe to my RSS feed, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I regularly post stuff on Facebook and Twitter that doesn’t make it to the blog, so that’s a good option if you’re a health information junkie.

If you came over for a look at my series on hypothyroidism, here’s a list of the articles I’ve written so far:

It’s a work in progress and I’ll be writing several more articles in the future on how to properly diagnose and treat thyroid disorders. Topics will include:

  • Why there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to thyroid medications
  • How to address the autoimmune component of thyroid disease
  • The connection between gluten intolerance and Hashimoto’s
  • The gut-thyroid connection
  • The best diet for thyroid health (hint: it’s primal!)

You might have seen Mark’s recent article on acupuncture. Although it’s commonly believed in the West that acupuncture is based on mysterious energy called qi flowing through invisible lines called meridians, it turns out that idea is based on blatant mistranslations of ancient Chinese medical texts. When these texts are correctly translated, it becomes clear that acupuncture is not a “woo-woo” energy healing technique, but a complete “flesh and bones” system of medicine based on the same anatomy and physiology as western medicine. You can read all about it here.

And here are a few other special reports to check out:

  • Heart disease & cholesterol: debunks the myth that cholesterol and saturated fat cause heart disease, and explains how to treat heart disease without drugs
  • Statins: exposes the ineffectiveness and dangers of statin drugs
  • GERD/heartburn: presents evidence that heartburn & GERD are caused by too little – not too much – stomach acid, and that GERD can be effectively treated with a low carb diet and a few affordable supplements
  • EFAs, fish & fish oil: cuts through the confusion and hype about essential fatty acids, fish and fish oil and offers clear guidelines to achieving a healthy fatty acid balance
  • Depression: challenges the theory that depression is exclusively caused by a biochemical imbalance, reveals evidence that antidepressants have serious risks and are no more effective than placebo in most cases, and outlines a clear plan for treating depression without drugs

If you’re the video watching type instead of the reading type, check out my videos on cholesterol and statins:

I hope the information here helps you and those you love live healthier and happier lives. Once again, welcome to The Healthy Skeptic!

hypothyroid patientAn estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent of these people are unaware of their condition. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Levothyroxine, a synthetic form of thyroid hormone, is the 4th highest selling drug in the U.S. 13 of the top 50 selling drugs are either directly or indirectly related to hypothyroidism. The number of people suffering from thyroid disorders continues to rise each year.

Hypothyroidism is one of the most common thyroid disorders. One recent analysis suggested up to 10% of women over 60 have clinical or subclinical hypothyroidism. It is characterized by mental slowing, depression, dementia, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, hair loss, cold intolerance, hoarse voice, irregular menstruation, infertility, muscle stiffness and pain, and a wide range of other not-so-fun symptoms.

Every cell in the body has receptors for thyroid hormone. These hormones are responsible for the most basic aspects of body function, impacting all major systems of the body.

Thyroid hormone directly acts on the brain, the G.I. tract, the cardiovascular system, bone metabolism, red blood cell metabolism, gall bladder and liver function, steroid hormone production, glucose metabolism, lipid and cholesterol metabolism, protein metabolism and body temperature regulation. For starters.

You can think of the thyroid as the central gear in a sophisticated engine. If that gear breaks, the entire engine goes down with it.

That’s why people with hypothyroidism experience everything from weight gain and depression to infertility, bone fractures and hair loss.

One of the biggest challenges facing those with hypothyroidism is that the standard of care for thyroid disorders in both conventional and alternative medicine is hopelessly inadequate.

The dream of patients with thyroid disorders and the practitioners who treat them is to find that single substance that will magically reverse the course of the disease. For doctors, this is either synthetic or bio-identical thyroid hormone. For the alternative types, this is iodine.

Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases neither approach is effective. Patients may get relief for a short period of time, but inevitably symptoms return or the disease progresses.

So what’s the problem? Why have replacement hormones and supplemental iodine been such dismal failures?

Because hypothyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disease.

Studies show that 90% of people with hypothyroidism are producing antibodies to thyroid tissue. This causes the immune system to attack and destroy the thyroid, which over time causes a decline in thyroid hormone levels.

This autoimmune form of hypothyroidism is called Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s is the most common autoimmune disorder in the U.S., affecting between 7-8% of the population. While not all people with Hashimoto’s have hypothyroid symptoms, thyroid antibodies have been found to be a marker for future thyroid disease.

Most doctors know hypothyroidism is an autoimmune disease. But most patients don’t. The reason doctors don’t tell their patients is simple: it doesn’t affect their treatment plan.

Conventional medicine doesn’t have effective treatments for autoimmune disease. They use steroids and other medications to suppress the immune system in certain conditions with more potentially damaging effects, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

But in the case of Hashimoto’s, the consequences – i.e. side effects and complications – of using immunosuppressive drugs are believed to outweigh the potential benefits. (Thanks to conventional medicine for a relative moment of sanity here.)

So the standard of care for a Hashimoto’s patient is to simply wait until the immune system has destroyed enough thyroid tissue to classify them as hypothyroid, and then give them thyroid hormone replacement. If they start to exhibit other symptoms commonly associated with their condition, like depression or insulin resistance, they’ll get additional drugs for those problems.

The obvious shortcoming of this approach is that it doesn’t address the underlying cause of the problem, which is the immune system attacking the thyroid gland. And if the underlying cause isn’t addressed, the treatment isn’t going to work very well – or for very long.

If you’re in a leaky rowboat, bailing water will only get you so far. If you want to stop the boat from sinking, you’ve got to plug the leaks.

Extending this metaphor to Hashimoto’s disease, thyroid hormones are like bailing water. They may be a necessary part of the treatment. But unless the immune dysregulation is addressed (plugging the leaks), whoever is in that boat will be fighting a losing battle to keep it from sinking.

What the vast majority of hypothyroidism patients need to understand is that they don’t have a problem with their thyroid, they have a problem with their immune system attacking the thyroid. This is crucial to understand, because when the immune system is out of control, it’s not only the thyroid that will be affected.

Hashimoto’s often manifests as a “polyendocrine autoimmune pattern”. This means that in addition to having antibodies to thyroid tissue, it’s not uncommon for Hashimoto’s patients to have antibodies to other tissues or enzymes as well. The most common are transglutaminase (Celiac disease), the cerebellum (neurological disorders), intrinsic factor (pernicious anemia), glutamic acid decarboxylase (anxiety/panic attacks and late onset type 1 diabetes).

In the next post we’ll look more closely at why Hashimoto’s can’t be treated successfully without addressing the autoimmune component, and why both the conventional and alternative approaches to treating hypothyroidism are destined to fail from the start.

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fish oil graphic

Summary

Sorry, folks. Another long one. It was unavoidable, though, because I really did want this to be a “definitive guide” that covers all (or at least most) of the relevant issues involved with choosing a fish oil. Here’s a summary for the time-challenged:

  • There are seven important factors to consider when choosing a fish oil: purity, freshness, potency, nutrients, bioavailability, sustainability, and cost.
  • Not all fish oils are created equal. It’s essential to do your homework and make an informed choice. Many fish oils are oxidized or made with poor quality ingredients, and may actually cause health problems instead of solving them.
  • The potency of various products depends not only upon the levels of EPA and DHA, but also upon the molecular structure of the fats in the oil, which in turn affects absorption.
  • Natural fish oils are better absorbed than purified fish oils. Preliminary evidence suggests that krill oil (KO) may be better absorbed than fish oil, and anecdotal reports indicate that KO may be more effective for some than fish oil for reducing inflammation in some people.
  • Many fish oils are made from fish that are endangered. Choose products made from fish that are certified by organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council.

Introduction

So far in this series we’ve looked at why fish is superior to plant-based sources of omega-3. We’ve examined the importance of reducing consumption of omega-6 fats. We’ve considered how much omega-3 is needed to support health and treat disease. We’ve revealed that concerns about the safety of fish consumption have been overblown, and that eating fish regularly is not only safe, but incredibly beneficial. And in the previous article we compared the benefits of eating fish to taking fish oil.

In this final article of the series we’re going to take a closer look at fish oil. Fish oil has become wildly popular these days. Most people who are at least relatively health conscious understand that they need omega-3 in their diet, and are probably not getting enough from food (unless they eat a lot of fish).

Health care practitioners have caught on, too. I constantly hear both conventional and alternative practitioners telling their patients to take fish oil. In fact, I was listening to a podcast last week by one popular health and fitness guru in the paleo/primal world, and he advises his clients to take up to 20 grams of fish oil a day. That made me cringe.

Why? Because what most people – including health care practitioners – don’t seem to understand is that not all fish oils are created alike. There’s a tremendous difference in the ingredients, purity, freshness and therapeutic benefit of the fish oils available today. The supplement industry is rife with false claims and unsavory companies that are far more interested in profiting on the fish oil craze than they are in your health and well-being.

Recommending that people take up to 20g/d of fish oil without conveying the importance of choosing a high quality fish oil, and teaching them how to do that, is irresponsible and possibly dangerous. Taking 20g/d of a poor quality, oxidized fish oil could dramatically increase oxidative damage and inflammation – which is of course exactly the opposite of the desired effect.

In this article, I’ll focus more on dispelling common misconceptions about fish oil and helping you to choose the best product for your needs.

Factors to consider when buying fish oil

There are seven primary variables to be aware of when shopping for a fish oil:

  1. Purity. The oil must meet international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants. Many do not – even when they claim they do.
  2. Freshness. Omega-3 oils are susceptible to oxidation, which makes them rancid. Rancid oils are pro-inflammatory and contribute to the diseases you’re trying to relieve or prevent by taking fish oil in the first place!
  3. Potency. In order to have the desired anti-inflammatory effect, fish oil must contain an adequate amount of the long-chain omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA. DHA is especially important.
  4. Nutrients. All fish oils contain some amount of EPA and DHA. However, fish liver oil (from cod, skate or shark) also contains naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamins that are difficult to obtain from foods.
  5. Bio-availability. The ability to absorb the beneficial components of fish oil is based on the molecular shape of the fatty acids. The more natural the structure the better.
  6. Sustainability: The fish should be harvested in a sustainable manner and species that are under threat should be avoided.
  7. Cost: the product must be relatively affordable to be practical for most people.

Purity

Many species of fish are known to concentrate toxic chemicals like heavy metals, PCBs, and dioxins which can cause serious disease, especially in children and developing fetuses. In a previous article I explained how these chemicals are typically not a concern when eating whole fish, because fish also contain selenium. Selenium binds to mercury and makes it unavailable to tissues, thus protecting against any damage it may cause.

And while fish constitute only 9% of our dietary intake of dioxins and PCBs, high doses of fish oils taken every day (as is often recommended) may raise this percentage significantly and expose us to undesirable levels of these toxins.

To address this, fish oil manufacturers use a process called molecular distillation to remove the toxins from the oil. When done correctly, molecular distillation is capable of reducing the toxins in fish oil to levels considered to be safe by the EPA and other agencies.

Although almost any fish oil manufacturer will tell you their product is free of these toxins, independent lab analyses tell a different story. Just last month (March, 2010), a lawsuit was filed in California court against the manufacturers of ten popular fish oils because they contained undisclosed and (possibly) unsafe levels of contaminants.

Unfortunately, this kind of deception is all too common in the supplement industry. That’s why it’s essential that you ask for something called a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from the manufacturer before you buy their product. A COA is an analysis performed by an independent lab to measure the ingredients of a product and confirm whether it lives up to the claims made by the manufacturer.

If the manufacturer won’t provide a COA, I start to get suspicious. This is standard practice in the industry and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be happy to show you theirs. Make sure that the independent lab they use is in fact independent and is preferably accredited, sponsored by a government agency, or has a solid reputation in the field.

This may seem like unnecessary paranoia, but when it comes to the possibility of ingesting powerful neurotoxins, it pays to do your homework.

In general, fish that are lower on the food chain like sardines and anchovies naturally have a lower concentration of contaminants. For this reason, it may be wise to look for a product made from these fish.

So what levels of these toxins are safe? As you might imagine, there is some disagreement on this question since there is no single governing body that determines acceptable levels. However, the standards that are most often followed by fish oil manufacturers are summarized in the table below.

fish oil toxin standards

* ppt = parts per trillion
* ppb = parts per billion

In a previous article we discussed selenium’s protective effect against mercury toxicity. If you are taking large doses of fish oil, and not eating any whole fish, it may be wise to ensure another regular source of selenium. Brazil nuts are by far the highest dietary source, with 1917mcg of selenium per 100g. (But they are also very high in n-6, so watch out!)

Freshness

I have written extensively about the dangers of oxidized, rancid oils. They promote oxidative damage and increase inflammation, both of which are risk factors for nearly every modern disease. The more unsaturated an fat is, the more vulnerable it is to oxidation. Long-chain, omega-3 fats found in fish oil are the most unsaturated of the fats, and thus the most susceptible to being damaged.

This is why it’s absolutely crucial to ensure that the fish oil you select is fresh and not rancid. Once it has gone rancid, it will have the exact opposite effect on your body than you want it to.

The first thing to do is to check something called the “peroxide value” on the COA. This is a measure of rancidity reactions in the oil that have occurred during storage. and should be less than 5 meq/kg.

If this checks out, and you decide to order that product, break open a capsule once you receive it. There should be no “fishy” odors. They should smell like the ocean, but not like a rotten fish. They should also not have a strong lemon or lime scent, which could be an indicator that the manufacturer is trying to mask the rancidity.

A common misconception is that you can determine the quality of a fish oil by freezing it. The theory goes that if you freeze the oil and it is cloudy, it’s rancid. That is not the case. All fish contain saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, albeit in small amounts. These fatty acids make the capsules appear cloudy when frozen in products that contain whole fish oil (i.e. Vital Choice’s Wild Salmon Oil).

Potency

This is another area surrounded by significant controversy. Some argue the levels of individual constituents in fish oil aren’t paramount. Scientists discovered the healthful effects of omega-3s by studying people with fish-heavy diets, before supplemental fish oil even existed. Clinical trials using supplemental fish oils over the past few decades have contained widely variable levels of both long-chain omega-3 derivatives (EPA and DHA), and not super-high concentrations of either or both.

However, due to poor conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, unless you are eating fish it is very likely you are deficient in long-chain omega-3s.

Following this line of reasoning, the DHA content in particular of fish and fish oils does seem important if we wish to obtain the best possible therapeutic effect. Many recent studies demonstrating the anti-inflammatory potential of fish oil used a daily dosage of DHA in the range of 1-3 grams. What’s more, foods like salmon roe that have been prized by traditional cultures for their nourishing and healing effects contain large amounts of DHA. A single 6 oz. serving of salmon roe contains 1 g of DHA. (In fact, this would be the best way by far of supplementing with DHA if money were no object. (Unfortunately, wild salmon roe goes for about $28/serving.)

The suggested DHA dose will of course depend upon the condition being treated. If you have a chronic inflammatory condition (heart disease, arthritis, Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, etc.) I would suggest taking between 1 and 2 grams per day. If you are taking it simply for health maintenance, 500 mg is probably sufficient.

Unfortunately, many fish oils do not have significant amounts of DHA. This means you’d have to take an impractically high number of capsules each day to obtain the therapeutic dose. This is not desirable, since all unsaturated oils (including fish oils) are subject to oxidative damage. We don’t want to take large quantities of them for this reason.

Remember to check the label and ensure that your product has approximately 200-300 mg of DHA per capsule. This will allow you to achieve the therapeutic dose by taking no more than 3 capsules twice a day.

Nutrients

All fish oils contain some amount of EPA and DHA, the long-chain omega-3 derivatives that provide the majority of the anti-inflammatory benefits seen in studies. However, fish liver oils (from cod, skate or shark) contain significant amounts of vitamins A and D in addition to EPA and DHA. Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble nutrients that are crucial to human health. Vitamin D, in particular, is difficult to obtain from commonly eaten foods – especially now that eating seafood carries a much higher risk of contamination with toxins.

Fermented cod liver oil is even more beneficial, because it contains vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 has been called “the missing nutrient” because it was only recently discovered, and many people are deficient in it.

It has been commonly believed that the benefits of vitamin K are limited to its role in blood clotting. Another popular misconception is that vitamins K1 and K2 are simply different forms of the same vitamin – with the same physiological functions.

New evidence, however, has confirmed that vitamin K2’s role in the body extends far beyond blood clotting to include protecting us from heart disease, ensuring healthy skin, forming strong bones, promoting brain function, supporting growth and development and helping to prevent cancer – to name a few.

Cod liver oil was traditionally processed by fermentation, which is likely to make it more absorbable and bio-available. Processing by fermentation also avoids the use of heat, which can damage the fragile fatty acids and cause fish oils to go rancid. Unfortunately, I am aware of only one company that sells fermented cod liver oil at this time (see below).

Bio-availability

The ability to absorb the beneficial components of fish oil is based on the molecular shape of the fatty acids. In short, the more natural the structure and the less it is chemically altered, the better.

This is true for any nutrient, of course, and it explains why I am always in favor of obtaining nutrients from food or food-based sources when possible. Each additional step in processing from the natural state of a food to extract or isolate nutrients introduces the potential of damaging the nutrient, or changing it’s chemical form so that it’s more difficult to absorb or affects the body in a different way.

When it comes to fish oils, there are three forms currently available on the market:

  1. Natural triglyercide oil. This is what you get when you “squeeze” the whole fish and extract the natural oil from it. It is the closest to eating fish oil in its natural form, and is highly bioavailable. The drawback of this form is that, because it’s not concentrated, it usually has low levels of EPA and DHA. And because it isn’t purified, it can have high levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, PCBs, and dioxins.
  2. Ethyl ester oil. Occurs when natural triglyceride oil is concentrated and molecularly distilled to remove impurities. The ester form is still in a semi-natural state because it is the result of a process that naturally occurs in the body. The advantage to this form is that it can double or triple the levels of EPA and DHA.
  3. Synthetic triglyceride oil. This form occurs when natural triglycerides are converted to ethyl esters for concentration (as above), but then re-converted into synthetic triglycerides. The original position of the triglyceride’s carbon bonds change and the molecule’s overall structure is altered, which impacts the bioavailability of the oil.

Studies on absorption of the various types of fish oil suggest that, unsurprisingly, the natural triglyceride form is absorbed better than the ethyl ester form, which in turn is absorbed better than the synthetic triglyceride form.

One study by Lawson & Hughes in 1988 showed that 1 gram of EPA and 0.67 grams of DHA as natural triglycerides were absorbed 3.4 and 2.7 fold as well as the ethyl ester triglycerides.

In the previous article we saw that fish oils were better absorbed when taken with a high-fat meal. In another study by Lawson & Hughes later the same year, they showed that the absorption of EPA & DHA from natural triglycerides improved from 69% with a low-fat meal (8g total fat) to 90% with a high-fat meal (44g total fat). Absorption of both EPA and DHA from ethyl ester oils was increased three-fold from 20% with a low-fat meal to 60% with a high fat meal.

What about krill oil?

In addition to the three types of fish oil listed above, there is another type of oil that provides EPA & DHA: krill oil. Krill oil (KO) is extracted from Anarctic krill, Euphausia superba, a zooplankton crustacean rich in phospholipids carrying EPA and DHA. Krill oil also contains various potent antioxidants, including vitamins A & E, astaxanthin, and a novel flavonoid whose properties are not yet fully understood.

Krill oil has a unique biomolecular profile that distinguishes it from other fish oils. While EPA and DHA in fish oils comes in the form of triglycerides, the EPA and DHA is already incorporated into phospholipids, which facilitates the passage of the fatty acids through the intestinal wall. This increases the bioavailability of the EPA and DHA and improves absorption and assimilation.

Werner et al demonstrated essential fatty acids in the form of phospholipids were superior to essential fatty acids as triglycerides in significantly increasing the phospholipid concentrations of EPA and DHA in mice.

In a human study, Bunea et al compared the effect of krill oil and fish oil on blood lipids, specifically total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL, and HDL. Krill oil was given at dosages of 1g/d, 1.5g/d, 2g/d or 3g/d, and fish oil was given at a single dose of 3g/d. The authors found the following:

  • KO at a daily dose of 1g, 1.5g, 2g or 3g achieved significant reductions of LDL of 32%, 36%, 37% and 39% respectively. Patients treated with 3g fish oil daily did not achieve a significant reduction in LDL.
  • HDL was significantly increased in all patients receiving KO. HDL increased 44% at 1g/d, 43% at 1.5g/d, 55% at 2g/d and 59% at 3g/d. Fish oil taken at 3g/d increased HDL by only 4%.
  • KO did not decrease triglycerides significantly at 1g and 1.5g. However, KO reduced triglycerides by 28% at 2g/d and 27% at 3g/d. Fish oil at 3g/d did not achieve a significant reduction of triglycerides.
  • Blood glucose levels were reduced by 6.3% in patients receiving 1g/d and 1.5g/d of KO, and 5.6% in patients receiving 2g/d and 3g/d of KO. A daily dose of 3g of fish oil reduced blood glucose by 3.3%.

Thus, in this study krill oil led to a significantly greater improvement in blood lipids compared to fish oil.

Note that the dosage of KO that obtained the best results, either 2g/d or 3g/d, is quite high. However, study participants received a maintenance dose of 0.5g/d for another 12 weeks after the therapeutic period of the study ended. These patients maintained the reductions in total cholesterol they attained in the study, and LDL, triglycerides and blood glucose were further reduced from baseline. There was a moderate decrease (of 3%) in HDL, but HDL was still significantly increased from baseline.

There is also unpublished research suggesting that 300 mg/d of KO reduces biochemical and subjective measures of inflammation and improves joint function and mobility in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

However, as this research is not published or peer-reviewed, and was sponsored by Neptune Technologies (the manufacturer of Neptune Krill Oil (NKO), I am cautious about interpreting its results.

So what does all of this information about bio-availability tell us?

  1. Taking fish oil capsules with a high-fat meal is essential to improve absorption of EPA and DH.
  2. Even when taken with a high-fat meal, ethyl ester oils are absorbed only 66% as well as natural triglyceride oils.
  3. Krill oil appears to significantly improve blood lipids when compared to fish oils, possibly because of its unique phospholipid structure.

Sustainability

The sustainability of fish oil production is difficult to gauge. Some oils are produced as a byproduct of fish harvesting, and manufacturers claim that they are simply making use of something that would normally be discarded. While this is certainly better than harvesting fish solely for their oil, it still supports harmful fishing practices.

The safest bet is to only use fish oil that is made from fish that are certified by MSF or a similar organization, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Vital Choice Wild Salmon Oil is one example, as is Jarrow Max DHA (which is made from anchovies and sardines, both of which are generally regarded as safe to eat from an environmental standpoint).

Cost

I cover cost in the recommendations section below.

Recommendations

Note: I have no affiliation with any of these companies. These are simply the products I recommend based on my research. It’s very likely that there are other good products that I missed in my search. This is not an exhaustive list.

Which product you might choose from this list depends in large part upon what your goals are.

I have provided product recommendations in two different categories: baseline, and supplemental. Those wishing to to maintain health and ensure adequate nutrient intake should choose a product from the “baseline” category. Those who are dealing with a chronic inflammatory condition should also choose a product from the baseline category, but should consider adding a product from the “supplemental” category.

However, keep in mind that the absorption of the natural triglyceride oils (like the Wild Salmon Oil and Fermented Cod Liver Oil below) will be 1.5 times greater than the ethyl ester oils in the supplemental section. As a rule of thumb, all purified and molecularly distilled oils are ethyl esters.

This means you have to take 1.5 times as much of the ethyl ester oils to get the same dose of DHA that you’d get from the natural triglyceride oils. For example, Vital Choice Wild Salmon Oil has 220 mg DHA per serving. To get the same amount of DHA from Jarrow Max DHA, which is an ethyl ester oil, you’d have to take a serving that provides 333 mg of DHA.

Baseline

Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil and Butter Oil Blend (GP FCLO)

Ingredients: about 270 mg omega-3 (about 139 mg EPA, 83 mg DHA), about 1,100 IU vitamin D, about 2,300 IU vitamin A. Values listed are approximate (see disadvantages).

Price: $47.00 for 120 capsules, 2 capsules per serving. $0.78/serving.

Advantages: a whole-food product in its natural form, rather than a supplement. Is relatively low in EPA & DHA compared to other products, but contains high levels of vitamin D, as well as vitamins A & K. The fat soluble vitamins A, D & K2 are important co-factors and likely improve the absorption and assimilation of EPA & DHA. Addition of grass-fed butter oil increases levels of K2. Cold-processed with fermentation, which means this is the least oxidized product available.

Disadvantages: levels of PCBs are posted on Green Pastures’ website here, but I’ve been unable to obtain information on heavy metals or dioxins. The EPA and DHA levels are what would be expected in a whole food product, but may not be high enough for a significant anti-inflammatory effect. Values for vitamins A, D, EPA and DHA are approximate and vary batch to batch due to fermentation processing method. Peroxide values are not provided, but because it is processed without heat they are likely to be very low.

Notes: because fermented cod liver oil contains vitamins A, D and K2 in addition to EPA and DHA, and because most people are deficient in some or all of these nutrients, this is currently the only product I recommend to everyone – patients, family and friends – regardless of their health status.

Vital Choice Wild Salmon Oil (VC WSO)

Ingredients: 600 mg of omega-3 (240 mg EPA, 220 mg DHA), 340 IU vitamin D, 2,060 IU vitamin A (per 3 1,000 mg softgels).

Price: $40 bottle, 180 capsules. 3 capsules/serving, $0.68/serving.

Advantages: processed without heat using micro-filtration, which retains naturally occurring vitamins A and D. Fatty acids are in their natural triglyceride form, which makes them more absorbable. Also contains astaxanthin, which protects the oil from oxidative damage and rancidity. Contains more EPA and DHA than GP FCLO. Nutrient levels are more consistent from batch to batch and certification is performed by independent, not-for-profit organization (NSF International).

Disadvantages: when compared to GP FCLO, does not have vitamin K2 and the dose of vitamin D is significantly lower. Otherwise no disadvantages.

Supplemental

Jarrow Max DHA

Ingredients: 600 mg of omega-3 (250 mg DHA, 36 mg EPA) per capsule; one capsule is one serving.

Price: $14.85 (at Vitacost) for 180 capsules. $0.08/serving.

Advantages: even after considering the differences in absorptions between Jarrow Max (an ethyl ester) and the two natural triglyceride oils listed above, Jarrow Max is significantly cheaper. It’s possible to get 1g/d of DHA for $0.32. Made with anchovies and sardines, both of which are naturally low in contaminants. Jarrow faxed me their certificate of analysis, which checked out fine. This is a good choice for those wishing a high-dose of DHA in addition to eating fish or taking one of the natural triglyceride oils above.

Disadvantages: has a 7:1 ratio of DHA to EPA. Although I believe DHA to be more beneficial than EPA, the research is mixed on this and some people report that they do better with EPA.

V-Pure Vegetarian DHA

Ingredients: 350 mg DHA, 50 mg EPA per serving, 2 capsules per serving.

Price: $21.95 for 60 capsules. $0.73 per serving.

Advantages: I received several emails from vegetarians asking me what I recommended they do to meet DHA needs. This is a DHA/EPA blend derived from marine algae, which is where oily fish get EPA & DHA in the first place. The algae in this product is organically grown and 100% free of toxins and contaminants. The capsules are quite small and can be easily swallowed.

Disadvantages: I haven’t seen much research on the marine-algae DHA/EPA blends. Although it’s plausible to assume their effects would be similar to fish oils, I’d like to see some studies backing that up. Likewise, I don’t know much about V-Pure as a company. Another potential issue is that the capsules have carrageenan in them, which has been shown to exacerbate intestinal inflammation in several studies. People with gut problems like IBS and IBD may want to avoid this product. Finally, at $0.73/serving this product is expensive. To get a therapeutic dose of 1g/d taking this alone, you’d have to take 9 capsules per day which be 4.5 bottles/month, or almost $100!

Tentatively Recommended

Neptune Krill Oil

Ingredients: 300 mg of omega-3 (90 mg DHA, 150 mg EPA) per serving, two capsules per serving.

Price: $16.86 for 60 capsules. $0.56/serving, 2 capsules per serving.

Advantages: KO has a unique phospholipid structure that appears to improve the absorption of EPA & DHA. At least one study suggests that KO is superior to fish oil in improving blood lipids. KO also contains vitamins E & A, as well as astaxanthin, an antioxidant claimed to be 10 times more potent than other carotenoids. KO capsules are much smaller than fish oil capsules, are easier to swallow, and many report they don’t cause the burping common with other fish oil capsules. Several anecdotal reports suggest that krill oil can be more effective than fish oil in reducing inflammation for some people.

Disadvantages: there are few studies demonstrating the effectiveness of KO, whereas fish oil has decades of research behind it. Most of the studies that do exist on KO were sponsored by Neptune, the largest manufacturer of KO. The dosages used in the study on KO and blood lipids were very high, and taking KO at those dosages would be expensive. (However, the therapeutic dose of 2-3g/d would only be necessary for 12 weeks, as the maintenance dose of 0.5g seemed to maintain the benefits attained during the therapeutic period.) The sustainability of krill harvesting is controversial.

The reason KO gets a tentative recommendation is that there’s still comparatively little research supporting its use, and because I am still uncertain about the environmental impact of harvesting the krill for the oil. If you have information to share on either of these questions, I’m all ears!

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I came across this video yesterday, and it cracked me up so much I had to share it.

Just to be clear, especially for those unfamiliar with The Onion, this is a spoof. A joke.

But like all good comedy, it contains more than a grain of truth. We’re not far from this today, in an age where any and every symptom is aggressively medicated with little regard for determining or addressing the underlying cause of the disease.

In any event, laughter is good medicine. So here’s your Monday morning dose!

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newspaperI thought I’d take a minute to share some news about my life as it relates to the blog. First, I graduated from Chinese medicine school a couple weeks ago. Hooray! While this certainly marks the completion of one chapter in my life, it also signals the beginning of a new one.

I’ll be taking the California acupuncture licensing exam in August. It’s a big, fat, crazy test that I’ll have to spend a lot more time than I’d like to preparing for. After I get my license, I plan to open a clinic here in the East Bay. And that will require quite a bit of preparation as well.

What this means is that, though I plan to continue with my research, I’ll probably have less time for writing in the months to come. So I’ve been thinking of other ways (aside from writing long articles, which is very time consuming) that I can continue to share what I’m learning with you. Keep reading to see what I have in mind.

The Healthy Skeptic gets all 21st Century with social media

You may have noticed that I’m now on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. You can stay connected with me through those services by clicking on their respective icons in the column to the right.

I post stuff to Twitter almost every day. Sometimes I share links to studies with a brief interpretation, sometimes links to other blog posts I like, sometimes little tidbits about nutrition and health. Most of this never makes it to the blog, so if you want more exposure to the topics and subjects you’ve read about here, following me on Twitter is the best way to do that.

The Healthy Skeptic has its own page on Facebook. I share a lot of the same stuff I post to Twitter there, but Facebook allows for more interactivity. Feel free to stop by and ask a question about something I’ve posted, or start a discussion with a question and I’ll be happy to answer it if I can.

I’m also on LinkedIn, but to be honest I don’t really know how to use it or what I should be doing there. Of three main social media services, it’s the one I understand least. For now I mostly just reproduce my tweets and blog posts there, so if you’re following me on Twitter or Facebook there’s probably no reason to join me there.

New ways of getting you the information you need

At first I felt sad that I wouldn’t have as much time to write, since it’s something I enjoy doing. But then I thought, hey, writing long articles is just one way of sharing information. Something I like to do is listen to podcasts while I’m cooking, or cleaning, or just kicking back. I also enjoy watching short videos on YouTube covering topics I’m interested in. I’ve been thinking of doing this on The Healthy Skeptic for a while now, and this seems like a good time to start.

The podcasts and videos will also take time to prepare, but my guess is they’ll be less time consuming than writing. Of course I don’t really know this since I haven’t done it before (maybe I’m kidding myself). So over the next few weeks I’m going to try to put out a few podcasts and video blogs and see how it goes.

Have a burning question? Send it to me and I’ll answer if I can.

Although I may do some topical podcasts and video blogs, I think a Q&A format works really well for these media. So if you’ve got a question about a health issue, nutrition, or any topic we cover here please send it to me using the contact form or leave a comment below. I’ll keep track of the questions I receive, and answer them in a podcast, video blog or future article.

Vote for the next Special Report

I’ve been doing a ton of research over the past few months. There are four subjects I’m considering for a future Special Report, similar to the ones I’ve already done on cholesterol/heart disease, heartburn/GERD, depression and acupuncture.

I thought I’d check with you to see if you have any preference for what comes next. Here are the choices:

  1. Fish, fish oil and essential fatty acids
  2. Thyroid health
  3. Diabetes
  4. Weight loss

As you might imagine, each of these subjects is clouded by misunderstanding, deception and bad science. As I’ve looked more deeply into each of them, I’ve learned some eye-opening things. Let me know which topic you’re most interested in!

My deepest gratitude for your generous donations

I want to thank those of you who have made a donation for your generosity and support. Here’s what I’ve purchased with your hard-earned money over the past few weeks:

  • Blood Sugar 101: What They Don’t Tell You About Diabetes, by Jenny Ruhl
  • Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide To Achieving Normal Blood Sugar, by Dr. Richard Bernstein
  • Mastering the Thyroid: A Clinical Manual, by Datis Kharazzian
  • Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal, by Datis Kharazzian
  • Graves’ Disease, by Elaine Moore
  • Copies of full-text research papers at the UC Berkeley Medical Library

This blog is a free service to all, and is supported entirely by your donations. If you’d like to make a donation, just click the “Donate” button to the right on the sidebar.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do

  1. Send me your burning health and nutrition questions to be answered in future podcasts or video blogs. I’ll use first names only, or keep them completely anonymous if you’d prefer that.
  2. Leave a comment here or use the contact form to vote on what topic you’d like me to cover in the next Special Report.

I look forward to hearing from you!

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woman in painNote: This is the fifth article in an ongoing series. If you haven’t read the first four, I recommend doing that before continuing:

In this article we’re going to take a closer look at one of the latest theories on how acupuncture relieves pain. I’m going to break it down in plain language for my readers who don’t have a scientific background, but I’ll also provide references at the end of the article for those of you that want the nitty-gritty detail.

Keep in mind that pain research is a constantly evolving topic, and more is being learned each year about the mechanisms of pain relief via acupuncture. (Although as an interesting side note, according to Professor Bruce Pomeranz of the University of Toronto, we know more about acupuncture analgesia than many chemical drugs in routine use. For example, we know little about the mechanisms of most anesthetic gases but still use them regularly. 1)

What I’m going to share with you here represents the latest information from the American Academy of Pain Management and papers published in major peer-reviewed journals.

The physiology of pain

Before I explain the mechanism, I have to give you a little background on the physiology and neurology involved.

There are two types of nerves involved in our perception of pain: sensory (nocioceptive) and position (proprioceptive) nerves. Both of these nerve types are firing at the same time in an area where we’re experiencing pain. These nerves travel to the spine and pass their information on to neurons in the spinothalamic tract. This tract travels up the lateral dorsal horn of the spinal cord to the mid-brain.

The sensory nerves register pain. The position nerves tell the brain where that pain is coming from. So the sensory nerves say “ouch!” and the position nerves say “my knee!”.

There are two different types of sensory nerves involved in the acupuncture response. There are A-Delta fibers, which transmit sharp, burning pain messages. And there are C-fibers, which transmit dull, throbbing pain messages. A-Delta fibers are responsible for acute pain, and the signals they send are short-lived. They fire for a while and then the signals die off. C-fibers are responsible for chronic pain, and fire over an extended period of time.

A-Delta fibers are surrounded by a fatty, myelin sheath and the signals they send travel at 60 ft/second (that’s fast!). C-fibers are unmyelinated and their signals travel at 20 ft/second.

The A-Delta fibers mediate what is known as the “gamma loop”. The gamma loop is what gets activated when you stick your hand in a fire and your hand jumps back. These nerve fibers respond so quickly that your hand is immediately pulled back out of the fire. Chronic pain is a C-fiber problem, so C-fiber signals don’t travel quite this quickly.

Now, if the signal strength of the position nerves (the ones that register the location of pain) is what it’s supposed to be, the brain will release powerful natural pain relieving substances called enkephalins when it starts to receive those C-fiber messages. The enkephalins then plug up pain receptor sites in the brain, spine and capillary beds where the pain is located. This stops the pain in its tracks.

When things go wrong

Unfortunately, this is not what happens in people with chronic pain. Why? The current explanation is that the position nerve signal going up to the brain is too weak. The mid-brain can’t figure out where the pain is coming from, so the enkephalins don’t get released. This is why people in chronic pain often have trouble identifying exactly were the pain is. The neural threshold of the position nerve pathway is too low, so these people aren’t getting a clear signal where the pain is emanating from.

Because the brain isn’t getting the message, the nerves keep firing. And keep firing. After a while the nerves become inflamed, which in turn further weakens the signal’s ability to jump the threshold and get the message to the brain.

So that’s the first problem. The nerve signals are too weak and aren’t stimulating the brain to release the natural painkillers.

The second problem involves a survival mechanism that the brain evolved a very long time ago. Let’s take a knee injury as an example. When we bang our knee into something, the brain immediately takes measures to protect it. The brain doesn’t know what happened to the knee, but it assumes a worst-case scenario. Maybe you were bitten by a poisonous snake, or perhaps you seriously cut your knee and are losing a lot of blood.

What the brain does in this situation is restrict the blood supply going into the knee and the blood return coming out of the knee. This is actually a very intelligent choice. If you were bitten by a venomous snake, reducing blood flow around the knee will lessen the chance that the poison will spread. And if you were cut badly, reducing the blood flow will lessen your chances of bleeding to death.

This phenomenon is known as “guarding”. One of the results of reducing blood flow to the knee is that it becomes stiff and weak (sound familiar?). The brain wants it to feel weak because it is attempting to protect the knee. The brain doesn’t want whatever happened to the knee to threaten your chances for survival. So the brain sacrifices the health of the knee in order to keep you alive.

This was a great strategy before the advent of western emergency medicine. Almost everyone would prefer to lose function in their knee to death. But this isn’t a choice most of us have to make anymore, because when we cut our knee or get bitten by a snake we can go to the hospital and they can save our lives. And the problem is that cutting off blood flow to the knee – while it may have saved our lives in times past – dramatically limits the knee’s ability to heal.

Why? Because everything we need to heal is in the blood. The blood contains analgesics (painkillers), anti-inflammatories, nutrients absorbed from food, oxygen, hormones and immune substances to fight infection. If the blood flow is restricted to a particular area, healing won’t occur. No blood flow, no healing.

Stop and think about this for a minute. It’s such an obvious fact that it’s often overlooked in medicine. It’s not taught in such a direct way in medical school, but when I’ve explained it to a couple of doctors they both said something to the effect of, “Huh. I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense.”

How acupuncture helps

Okay, now we’re finally coming to the part where I explain how acupuncture fits into this picture. Inserting needles into the skin at peripheral sites “jumps” the neural threshold on the position nerve pathway, so that the signal can reach the brain. Once the signal reaches the brain, the whole series of events I described in the paragraphs above kicks in. The brain recognizes there is pain and where it’s coming from and releases enkephalins (painkillers).

This initial response is very fast. It should be perceived as almost instantaneous by the patient. But after the needling therapy the patient goes home and the pain comes back. The old bad habit of the nerve chronically firing below the threshold re-establishes itself. The body, just like the mind, has a hard time breaking bad habits.

But if the patient returns in a couple of days to get another treatment, the neural threshold will be jumped again. And if you keep jumping the neural threshold, eventually the central and peripheral nervous system figure out that it’s better to operate in the non-pain state than in the pain state. The technical term for this is re-establishment of neurological homeostasis.

Once this happens, the brain is no longer receiving pain signals from the knee. It no longer thinks the knee is injured or threatening the survival of the body. Now, instead of restricting blood flow to the knee, the brain does the opposite. It immediately vasodilates the capillaries and venules around the knee, which increases blood flow and begins the healing process.

What I’ve described above is how acupuncture relieves pain via the peripheral and central nervous system. There’s another pain relief mechanism that involves activating the immune system. Acupuncture needles are seen as foreign invaders to our body. Inserting a needle into the skin creates a micro-trauma that in turn stimulates the activity of immune cells that control inflammation.

There are millions of immune cells called mast cells in the dermis of the skin. These cells are like water balloons full of fatty molecules called leukotrienes and prostaglandins A & B. When a needle is inserted into the skin, it pops the mast cells and releases the leukotrienes and prostaglandins. Prostaglandins cause the cutaneous nerve in the area to fire (which activates the process described in the previous paragraphs). Leukotrienes are the strongest anti-inflammatory substance the body can produce.

Leukotrienes cause local capillaries to vasodilate and become permeable. White blood cells called macrophages leak out through the capillaries and immediately begin to heal the damage caused by the needle stick.

However, the healing caused by the needle insertion isn’t limited to the damage caused by the needle. If there is other damage in the area from previous traumas or injuries, that will also be addressed by the immune chemicals released by the needle insertion.

What’s more, the micro-trauma caused by the needle starts a systemic immune response. This promotes healing of the soft tissue throughout the body – not just at the needling site. After the needles are removed, the needle-induced lesions continue to stimulate the body until the lesions heal. This means that the anti-inflammatory effect of acupuncture persists for 2-3 days (and sometimes as long as a week) after the needle is withdrawn.

Summary

Genetically the body is not designed to be in chronic pain. It will do everything it can to get us out of pain. Acupuncture “reminds” the body how it should be functioning, and helps its powerful inbuilt pain relieving mechanisms kick into gear. It’s a bit like jump starting a car. You’re not changing how the car works, or even adding anything to the engine. You’re just giving the battery a little jolt so the car can run how it’s supposed to.

It’s important to understand that this neurochemical mechanism not only provides pain relief, but also promotes homeostasis and tissue healing and regulates the immune, endocrine, cardiovascular and digestive systems. This explains why getting acupuncture treatment for your knee pain also addresses other problems you might have, such as asthma, irritable bowel, high blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia.

In the next and final article of this series, I’ll explain the advantages of Chinese medicine over western medicine for the prevention and treatment of most common health conditions.

Recommended resources for more information

  • Biomedical Acupuncture for Pain Management, by Yun-Tao Ma, Mila Ma & Zang Hee Cho
  • The Dao of Chinese Medicine, by Donald Kendall
  • The Biology of Acupuncture, by George Ulett & Songping Han
  • The Neuroimmune Basis of Anti-inflammatory Acupuncture, by Ben Kavoussi & Evan Ross
  • Acupuncture in Medicine Journal (part of British Medical Journal)
  1. Pomeranz B. Acupuncture analgesia – basic research. In Stux G, Hammerschlag R, editors: Clinical acupuncture scientific basis. Berlin 2001. Springer.

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gone fishin' signIf you’re a subscriber, you may have noticed that the frequency of posts has slowed down a lot over the past few months. I’m now entering my final year of class and clinical internship (grad school for acupuncture & integrative medicine), and I’m also preparing to start a clinic when I graduate.

Unfortunately, this leaves me little time to write anything for the blog. I’ve decided that I’m going to take the next year off from writing new posts. I will still respond to questions, so feel free to comment on what’s already up on the blog. And who knows, maybe I’ll get inspired occasionally and find some time to write an article.

Thanks for your interest and support over the last year.

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comment bubbleA reader emailed me this morning to let me know that many of his comments to the blog have not gotten through. That was a surprise to me, because I never saw them in my moderation queue.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a tech expert. I’ve done my best to set the blog up so that it’s both user and operator friendly. Earlier I had a problem with a spam plug-in that was blocking comments with links, so I switched to Bad Behavior which is supposed to be better in that regard. However, this reader’s comments had a number of links and I suspect that is why they were blocked.

Is anyone aware of an anti-spam plugin for WordPress that does a good job blocking spam but allows comments with links (or at least allows them to be moderated)?

Please do let me know if you have posted comments that haven’t made it through. I’d like to know about it so I can resolve the problem.

Thanks for your help.

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Technical difficulties!


computer crashI had some serious technical difficulties this morning with the blog. As a result, I had to re-insall all of my WordPress plugins.

I’m pretty sure things are back to normal, but if you notice anything out-of-whack please do let me know.

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